31 May 2010

The Nagasaki bay area has served as a site for Japanese industries for a long time, not that one could guess this looking at the lush green hills surrounding the coast. If of course you could just crop out the giant metallic obscenities sticking out. In an ironic twist, as some of these docks and factories have turned towards decline, a new business of showing off these capitalistic constructions through boat tours has proliferated.

So we board this ferry armed with simplified maps of the big sites we would hit along the way to the main act, Hashima Island, better known as Battleship Island (Gunkanshima). When at the end of the 19th century a large supply of coal was found in the land under the island, it fast became a massive mining complex owned by Mitsubishi Corporation. As the island expanded, rock wall constructions around the natural shoreline destroyed the islands natural appearance, morphing it into more of a ship-like appearance rather than an island, thus the name.

As the postwar economy expanded, the island’s population peaked to over 5,000 residents, resulting in an explosion of construction on the island. In 1959 the population density was the highest ever recorded worldwide. As petroleum replaced coal in Japan in the sixties, Hashima’s mines suffered, until in 1974 Mitsubishi officially announced the closing of the mine in 1974. Having been evacuated and abandoned in a hurry, the island has since suffered the wrath of many a typhoon and storm, resulting in the current dilapidated state of affairs on it. After more than 20 years of closure, tours began operating in 1999 as the profit potential of the site became apparent.

The actual site of the ghost island did not fail to impress, with its foreboding appearance as we approached it, turning into a more eery attraction the closer we got to it. The solid walls of the island stood in contrasting to the crumbling concrete, with metal structures exposed and corroding. There was an ephemeral, yet timeless feel to it. As if it would always stand in place, yet changing constantly. Trees had begun to stake their claim on the buildings, in the wind you could almost imagine people walking with them. The buildings have their own presence as if they exist simply by their own will, uninhabited, unused.

Leaving the island, it seems to have a magnetic affect on everyone on the boat, they lean over almost tipping off the ferry catching the last glimpse, capturing the last image. No one cares about the 100 million dock port as we move on, with fresh paint and clean lines, it just lacks character.

28 May 2010

Naoshima Island

Arriving by ferry to Naoshima Island, known as the "Art Island" of Japan, anticipation ran high. Naoshima did not disappoint.

The first night was spent settling into our tiny, traditional Japanese style guesthouse and taking a walk across the island to see a SANAA project, a simple yet impressive ferry terminal. Exquisite detailing, white, light-weight structure, impressively thin roof section; it was the quintisential SANAA project yet unique in both its setting and almost extreme simplicity.

The following day we took on Naoshima in full. The morning was spent wondering the narrow streets of the town we were staying in to visit six "art houses." A foundation purchased these spaces to then commission an artist to insert an installation in each of the houses. The highlights were the installations by Hiroshi Sugimoto the James Turrell (working with Tadao Ando), both providing memorable spatial experiences.

Leaving the small town and walking accross the island through the hills, we arrived at the Chichu Museum of Art. This is where attempting to transcribe the experience is difficult. The museum, designed by Tadao Ando, is sited uniquely in a hill above the sea and features work by three artists: Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter de Maria. The sequence of bunker-like spaces finished with Ando's signature concrete is a highly choreographed experience of light, darkness, sky, earth, and materiallity. In particular, the space for the Monet paintings feels almost unreal. The white space is bathed in diffuse natural light, providing an excellent presentation of the paintings. The floor is composed of thousands of minature cubed tiles, which gives the space a texture under bare feet (no shoes allowed of course). I could continue to attempt to communicate my experience of the museum, but this is one of thoes places that must be experienced in person. Also, no photos are allowed.

The day continued with at another Ando museum, though not nearly as impressive as the Chichu Museum, it contained a nice collection. The museum was similar in concept and siting as the Chichu Museum, but he clearly learned a lot from this project to then go on to produce Chichu. Descending from the museums in the hills, we arrived back at the sea. Public scuplture installations dotted the landscape. One in particular provided an ideal stage for a place to cool off with a savory....

The day ended with some pancakes at a seaside restuarant. Pork, cabbage, scallion, and udon pancakes to be exact.

24 May 2010


We traveled to the mountains, and the purpose is to admire the traditional elegance.

Nikko means sunlight, but it rained all the way from Tokyo to the temples. Open the umbrella, close the umbrella, we walked for hundred of years in between. Water may have washed away the conversation, since only spirit and light were talking in the space.

The noise was on hold for the carnival at night. I can’t really remember what time it was, but the face of the crowd changed to a look of anxiousness. And it all started with the white horse(the saint horse) as it broke out the gate, then the bottomless carriers push through the crowd with the golden carriage on their shoulders. The drum was loud and heavy, people sang the traditional Japanese song along with it and danced around the bunk-fire. Things got a little blurry after that, but I know Tarlton kept saying geishushits. Kurt couldn’t pick up the fat noodles from the shabushabu. Amna had a bag of sweet beans on steroid. Catie was the judge of the late night running game. Michelle asked for a personal guard to take a shower. Adam stepped on my toes. Katy got lost, again. Emily failed to swap her cup with Tarlton’s. Katie wore a yellow Michigan shirt. Alex puked. Sophia speaks Chinese. I left an ice-cream shaped hole in the paper door. 


We all enjoyed Nikko.

21 May 2010

The long awaited trip to Yokohama. Just about the perfect timing - lost JR pass, retracted; readings and assignments, read and well taken notes on. It is my chance to lead a discussion, and I am determined to shine. The weather must have sensed my ambition, and decided to take away my thunder and land it on me.

The sight of Yokohama Terminal excited many. To wear off our over joy, we were given 30 minutes before we should put on our serious face. Decision-making should not be laid upon an anxious individual. Longing for more of FOA, curating on deck under drizzles seemed like a good idea for a moment. It only took 10 seconds before the controller couldn't tolerate my talking. The broadcasting was calm, but in the primitive alien sounds, I sensed hostility. Trying to overshadow the broadcasting in my heightened voice, the rain had to intervene. Pouring down like animals, people ran to get sheltered. Us architects, of course, sat back to watch the show. Laughed as if we are detached from the scene, despite our drenched shivering bodies.

It is no longer funny when water raced people down the narrow unbarred ramps. People started to slip on wooden panels held in too perfectly. A school girl lost her balance, failed to seize the strangly angled railing, only to find herself slammed onto the glass divider that refused to open any more than a conventional door. The railing additions clearly provided nothing more in functionality, as it did in aesthetics. Light tubes on the railing jerkily turned on. The whole scene felt like a decrepit christmas.

The waves rose as high as us. Our assignment were smudged, but the discussion went on. Like the ensemble in Titanic, performing till the end, giving their life to music. We, too, had to stand by design, even if it set us apart and put us in trouble. Finally the broadcast gave up pretending. Revealing her true identity as a fellow anxiety patient, her voice sped up. In a somewhat familiar language, she specifically yelled at us to leave. The discussion was forgotten, but the day ended with a happy group purchase of "I <3 Yokohama" sweat shirts.

17 May 2010

past impression

Today we were going to the 1964 Olympic park, in the greater Yoyogi park. It was full of people doing park activities, running, practicing sports, martial arts, hanging out. Getting off at the Harajuku station which full of girls dressed up like farmhouse dolls, we got to the Yoyogi National Gymnasium entry gates. The entire space was deserted. This "public" building was inaccessible, all the doors were locked and no security guards were stationed. The building looked like it hadn't been used in a very, very long time. Rust stains flowed down the wall sheathing, the windows were caked in dirt. Only by navigating through the underground labyrinth of tunnels to talk to the property manager were we allowed access to the gymnasium.

The interior of the main gym space was a reflection of the exterior shape, with the large cables suspended between two large columns on either end of the gym floor. The roof structure was draped from the cables to the perimeter walls. The space was impressive, and as we talked to each other and to our reluctant security guard the echoes sounded small in the massive space. Windows lined the top of the walls, above the rows and rows of stadium seating. All the curtains were drawn, and the only light provided was from the few remaining overhead lights over the wooden gym floor.

We cautiously spread out taking photos. I wandered away from the main floor in an effort to get a glimpse of the seating structure from below. I followed a corridor running parallel to the long edge of the main floor, the old florescent lights reflecting dimly on the painted concrete floor. I moved with the structure for about 5 minutes, then realize that I had gotten myself back into the underground corridor system. Everything was unfamiliar, I could not hear the voices of the rest of the group and I didn't know the way back to the main floor. I continued onward, hoping to find a window or any exit signs to get my barrings back. The halls were lit only with emergency lights, all the windows were blocked and doors shut. Restrooms I passed clearly hadn't been used in some time, with rust and lime stains in the sinks and toilets. From what I remembered of the building plan, I knew that these corridors must connect in some way with the swimming pool and administration offices. But in the dim light I couldn't see what was at the end of the halls, and the signs were all in Kanji. Trying to keep my calm, I just kept walking past the rhythm of doorways and water fountains until finally reaching a glass door that was unlocked. I stepped out into the brightest sun, only to realize that I was in a courtyard, surrounded by azalea bushes. I had no idea where the rest of the group was but could see a footbridge running along one edge of the bushes. I pushed, fought my way through up to the stone path. I couldn't figure out which end of the building we had entered in originally, the structural system looked identical on either end. I just decided to keep walking, over and over again what looked like the same path. Finally, I see Catie waving to me from the other side of the building. I was saved.

14 May 2010

air; water; FIRE

Today, we studied the history of fire damage in Edo Tokyo. The head researcher of the Tokyo University of Science gave us a condensed summary of the fire facts. Interestingly, we discovered that the fire that spread through and leveled Edo Tokyo was caused by a woman named Oshichi, a woman who fell madly in love with a man she met during a tragic fire. In her desperation to meet him again, she deliberately caused the Edo Tokyo fire, for which she was put to death.

After the power-point lecture, Professor Researcher took us on a tour of the places he briefly introduced in the lecture slides. Among these was the Daienji Temple. This was supposedly the location of where Oshichi started her fire. To demonstrate how quickly fire can spread through the dense, wood-constructed buildings of Tokyo’s neighborhoods, Professor Researcher set up a series of wooden bundles to show a controlled fire damage simulation. Unfortunately, the controlled simulation became a out-of-control situation and we leveled all of Tokyo…so we are relaying our fugitive situation via the back alley behind an Internet café right now.

…OK, so I’m a terrible liar; I can’t stand this dishonesty, even if it’s just a story. We didn’t really re-level Tokyo, but we did witness some arson in action today. It happened at Enijiyouji Temple, one of our stops on our tour route with Professor Researcher. The temple was famous because it is the setting for Ihara Saikaku’s popular novel, Koshoku-gonin-onna, and also because it contained the tomb of Oshichi there. As we started to take some photos, a small group of people wearing traditional mourning attire and painted face masks slowly approached. To respect their wishes to pay their respects, we retreated a short distance from the site so Professor Researcher could tell us more about Oshichi’s tomb while we waited for our turn.

Unfortunately, we never got our turn. We heard a small explosion from where the "funerary mourners" had been and all turned toward the source to see the arsonists running away and flames quickly licking up the wooden frame of the temple. The professor and his assistant starting yelling rapidly in Japanese, which none of us understood. As our class tried to figure out how to dial for the fire department on Catie’s cell phone, many Japanese people from surrounding apartments and houses in the area began running and gathering at the fire site, which was still accelerating into a small inferno. One of the neighbors had a small gardening hose; it couldn’t reach far enough to put out the fire, but it was enough to prevent the fire from spreading further from the temple. When the firemen did arrive (no thanks to us, by the way: another Japanese neighbor successfully made the phone call while we fumbled in our Japanese-English dictionaries), they were able to successfully put out the fire, but the temple was already in charred ruins.

At this point, the professor apologetically told us that he would have to discontinue our tour; the police would be arriving soon to discuss the cause of this fire and not only did he not want us to get unnecessarily involved, but our inability to speak fluent Japanese would render us useless anyway. Regrettably, we realized that this was true, although we did want to help (and find out more about the situation), and decided to walk and talk instead. Even though the loss of such a culturally-important temple is saddening, at least it didn’t become a tragedy like the Edo Tokyo fire. Besides, the city of Tokyo is founded on a constant cycle of periodic re-leveling and reconstruction…and it does seem ironically fitting that the tomb of Oshichi the arsonist would become a victim of arson itself. It also makes for an interesting story to accompany the next-built Enijiyouji Temple.

13 May 2010

Out of Water

After a few hours of sleep and a five in the morning departure, we find ourselves in the center of Tokyo's fish market.

As we are told that everything here is "fresh" and we need not worry about getting ill, my eyes wander about the market and fixate on a Japanese man chain smoking five inches above a four foot long slab of raw tuna lying on the bloody concrete floor- half his cigarette is ash, waiting to fall but does not.

Small motorized carts, essentially comprised of what looks like a vertical keg for a steering wheel and a six foot long flat bed in back, roar past us from any given direction and at any given speed. There are no lights, no signs. They seem to be going back and forth between delivery and packaging, from the market to the trucks respectively. Each one appears to be on its own personal collision course, destined to to be totaled, and yet neither a fender is scraped, nor a frustrated remark shouted; this is not a job for a NYC cab driver. At times a cart hurries by and it is carrying very little on its bed and I understand that much of this work is simply keeping things moving.

Streets and alleys start to form as a result of the traffic caused by both carts and pedestrians. They form around fish vendors in the market place and a haphazard grid forms throughout the market; this is a walking street, this is a delivery street. Every morning this system is a phoenix rising from the ashes, a burning man on acid. The tall dark awning covering the vendors, people dodging high speed carts, blood red octopus tentacles overflowing cardboard boxes, a barrel of slowly suffocating eels squirming, live fish being tossed from tank to tank waiting to hear their final sentence, a crab already breaded but crawling around before it is packaged alive, all of these images scream death and yet this place is unmistakeably very much alive.

Chefs carry large bamboo baskets and rush past me in the narrow alleys between vendors, hurrying to "their guy" in an attempt to get a good deal. Large decapitated fish heads conglomerate in the middle of the streets, while their human sized bodies are descaled and hacked up using an archaic form of what appears to be a table saw. I think it is odd that their are no birds around picking up the scraps. Where are they? Where am I?

Unlike the birds, my curiosity got the better of me. I did not stay away. I decided that I'd better try something while I'm here. I swallowed the blood coated squid, feeling it feeling the inside of my mouth and throat. I should have been a bird, I should have stayed on my plane and up in the air. I vomited immediately, before the squid reached my stomach, and watched helplessly as the mess landed in the carton of squid from which it had originated. "I'll take the whole thing, please."

It was late in the morning and the trucks started to disappear, the vendors pack up. Soon nothing would be left of this city; only a bitter taste in my mouth and a bag full of squid. I think I'll feed the birds.

12 May 2010

fly over

What starts as a morning in Detroit, ends as a late night in Tokyo. Seems like a simple enough task for those used to a skewed definition of a single day through the hours of an architecture school. However, this excursion adds the jump in time zones and the chasing of the sun.

Most all of us were in separate capsules, doing are best to race across to the other side of the world. Confined to tiny spaces we had nothing to do but over analyze are space and get to know our neighbors as activators of this limited zone. Truly limited in our own movements and frustrated that the sun never went down, what was lost in space was cut through all the time in the world. Somehow the 2 do not align.

Down below we were drawing huge lines on the earth. Connected from one point to the next. Our touches on the ground were light. Occasionally we'd cast a shadow, and then we'd run off to a new day.

For architecture this means a space like none other. It means a time that never finds itself, and a sun that never sets. It means we went somewhere for 19hours, but the clock says it was 32. We're researching this hoax.

Where to now?