This talk was part of the University of Auckland’s Communiqué 2012 series and travelling the country with the very appropriate support of NZ Wood.
In Nishizawa’s introduction he was described as being a Japanese architect of a very special generation that had not ridden the wave of the late 80’s early 90’s boom and had thus learned a style of lean architecture where the cost has been important. As a contemporary of Atelier Bow-Wow and Klein Dytham Architects there are a few commonalities of influence and appreciation of a simpler way, departing from the excess of those boom years.
Nishizawa began his story showing his Tomochi Forestry Hall, Kumamoto (2004). Describing the cost of this building as ‘cheap as a toilet block’, is typical of his recognition that he had a budget to work his magic with. Built to symbolise one of Japan’s many disappearing villages, the form was like a display case. The simple glass box containing a beautiful organic ‘bush’ shape, suspended from the roof where the main structure and its organic substructure ran at 45 degrees to the simple square form and its lightweight steel cage. Designed to be used and viewed at night (when the villagers had returned from the forest) the internal timber form is best seen at this time. The centre’s walls are largely glass except for the lowest couple of metres. Nishizawa describes the use of the building with a degree of fun and animation. It is a volleyball centre and thus it has the quirky appearance from the outside during games, of a white ball bouncing up in to the ‘bush’ without the confusion of the teams below… Most excellent!
Next came one of his recent and unpublished projects, still in gestation and maybe unlikely to see the light of day. Based on the ‘comfortable’ conditions found under a tree in an urban park, this building takes the form of a large tree inhabited as offices, shops and café’s. With a generous floor to floor of around 9 or 10m each level was held up by large timber trussed spaceframes. The entire building is then enclosed in a screen of ivy, mediating the outer environment in exactly the same way as a tree might…
In his Ustunomiya House for Tokyogas, Nishizawa has developed a very subtle idea of “life in the light”. This is a sublimely beautiful black box with a carefully arranged combination of transparent and translucent (with integrated insulation) roof at 3.5m. In this building Nishizawa seeks to control the rhythm of daily life but in a very subtle and “comfortable” way. By controlling which parts of the building a lit and when, he seeks to tune people and nature: as the sun travels it activates useable space. In Nishizawa’s words, “Today, the only natural thing in a house is a human body so the act of giving light is natural activation. Japanese people are lost in how to live, as a modern house is so convenient. This house designed to teach how to live by reconstructing the biological clock.”
Building on the dark walls of the Ustunomiya House Nishizawa develops his theme of “Realistic but magical” in his unadorned, gabled House Suwa. This is a very small, second house for a client who’s only requirement was to feel seasons as they changed. The theme for this house was its furniture. Modern furniture that imitated European design of 100 years ago was stained very dark even though no other dark stain is found in Japanese furniture. Nishizawa takes the finish on the few selected pieces of his client’s furniture and sets the entire ambience of this moody and emotion forming space. The dark brown carried throughout building and lighting is largely indirect through views of a ceiling in adjacent space. The effect is to tinge everything with brown.
Nishizawa’s distillation of the two common faiths in Japan was that Christianity is light and Buddhism dark. This is largely based on the creation of light as being one of the key first acts in the bible. In his Sunpu Church he pits two pure forms against each other. A rough-hewn cedar box and a finely finished gable form. Materiality is immensely important to Nishizawa and here it relates to the longevity of religious experience. The well-known properties of Canadian cedar is used to avoid painting on the rough face of the 9m high cube chapel. A very simple unpainted metal Cross on corner above the symbolic ivy gate are played against the rough walls of the box in strong but subtle ways that belie the lightness and delicacy within.
Inside light streams through a diagonal slatted pine ceiling. Walls transform from 90mm solid planks with 1 mm gaps at the base transforming slowly to 89 with 2mm gaps all the way to to small, 13mm slats at the ceiling. The feeling of solidity at the base to fine filigree above shows the elegant trussed structure of the 750 thick trussed wall and 1355 thick trussed roof. Again, to Nishizawa, comfort of the occupants is all important. At low level this arrangement gives good acoustic reflection/strengthening while providing the necessary counter of good absorption at high level, resulting in comfortable light and sound.
Nishzawa’s next theme was: not only numbers but varieties.
The typical urban Tokyo streetscape is filled with cars of many different kinds - compared with East Berlin in the 1990's where all cars where same. Similarly buildings are covered with many billboards each with different fonts etc. Using this theme he has developed an exhibition space in Milan for a company that supplied some 4,000 different types of different door handles. Space was limited so the exhibition only used 800 laid out in genus and families etc
From here, as time was running tight, Nishizawa zoomed us through some recent work for the Shenzhen & Hong Kong combined biennales: Both exhibits were variations of a theme where the visitor could climb to the top, in a crowded space in a crowded city and get a sense of what it is like to be in your own space, high above and looking down on the melee below. The Hong Kong observatory tower was a 30m high pyramid made of scaffold tubes, mounted with a nice sofa to sit alone and survey the city below. In the Shenzhen pavilion Nishizawa used a spherical shape of steel and bamboo scaffold with same general programme.
The short (one and a half hour) lecture was captivating and had the small crowd anticipating more. The work of Nishizawa expressed that simple and very refined beauty that we come to expect of so many Japanese architects. Working with cheaper materials has not meant any loss in the soulful use of materials and the blending of space and light to form Architecture that is often lost in our western designs.
Judging by the number of students watching, we may look forward to some dark and moody spaces with diagonally opposed grid structures and well detailed use of wood. I look forward to that being an outcome of this talk…