After a recent trip to Japan, I am deeply inclined to pull roots and relocate the studio to Tokyo. Seriously. I was so taken with Japan that I left with a deep sense of regret for all the times that I have flown through Narita, but never taken the opportunity to explore the country. Well, that will never happen again. In fact, I am looking for any opportunity to get back there.
After years and years of thinking about how great it would be to work there, I made the trip to engage the opportunity head on. I had always assumed that it would be a great fit. My work is about nature, technology, minimalism, and architecture. And Japanese culture is deeply reverential when it comes to nature and they make the Germans look like sophomores when it comes to detail and execution. And their approach to the design process is startlingly holistic which plays right into my inclination to integrate sculpture into built spaces. Short story: nearly all my half-baked and altruistic imaginings were ratified on this trip
I was extremely lucky to have met with some incredibly accomplished architects and some of the largest developers in the country. It was humbling. The last person I met was the CEO of a major construction company that was founded in 1610. Yes, 1610. After a pleasant chat about my work, he was really excited to show me a recent exhibition that he had helped to curate in the lobby of the headquarters. They do about eight art shows a year and this one drew heavily from their in-house museum of Japanese woodworking tools. They have their own museum! And it simply was one of several.
It was an overview of how traditional temples are built using only joinery. Needless to say, it was incredibly cool. And all the exhibition’s display walls were made of clear acrylic and filled with wood shavings from planing huge timbers by hand. They were sheer enough to be nearly transparent and made for beautiful scrims to separate different parts of the show. Perhaps the most cogent example of how heavily the Japanese crush and how they played to my weaknesses was a brief description of how traditional carpentry guilds are organized.
After apprenticing for ten years doing all the low-level tasks, a carpenter begins to lead a small team. When building a temple, he is charged not only with overseeing the work but designing the temple. He drafts the plans and then heads out to the forest to select the timbers that will comprise the elemental components of the building. And because he has an intimate knowledge of the design, especially because he is the one who drew it up, he chooses trees whose natural bends and arcs will help to oppose the forces that pull at the structure of the building.
This is deep. It utterly explodes American banter about design-build firms. Granted that this is traditional lore and that not everything in the Japanese construction industry works like this, but it does seam to suffuse the industry. Said differently, all my friends who are architects in the States are desperate to have their work photographed before the clients and interiors firms can ruin it with unrelated furniture choices and obscene paint palettes. Familiar with this fundamentally adversarial relationship that governs many of the projects on which I participate, the Japanese design culture was a welcome tonic.
Even in my brief conversations with many different people, there was a clear interest in a considered and holistic approach. Without encouragement, they would suggest that my work would need to be considered during the very first schematic phases of the project. Typically, I’m lucky to get a call about a project before the ceiling gets closed on most installations let alone participate in any structural conversations in advance. It was a an invigorating trip and I can’t wait for the chance to work there. And I can’t even begin to write about the ramen joints I sussed out. Unbelievable.