It happened on a Wednesday…
06 February 2014
Any person who lives until at least eighty will spend around 30,000 days on earth. Many of these days won’t be remembered, either by choice or as a result of games played by the mind. Even out of the ones that will be remembered, only a fraction will be considered “worthy days”; these are the ones we constantly run after, optimistically believing that they are just around the corner…
I recently approached such a corner on Wednesday 29 January 2014 in Tokyo.
8.30am, Shibuya, Tokyo.
My Japanese teacher hands me a sheet on which I discover all the Hiragana alphabet, he then asks me to trace over the first 10 of them.
“a”, “i”, “u”, “e”, “o” (line one)
“ka”, “ki”, “ku”, “ke”, “ko” (line two)
Astonishing. What a joy. These odd shapes are beautifully complex in appearance yet highly logical in practise. My incapacity to yet read them as letters allows me to still see them as glyphs, and the swamp of my mind revives Warburg’s missing links, Noe’s movies and Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts. That’s the beauty of undertaking the exercise of a five-year-old with the brain of a twenty-seven-year-old. How paradoxical!
Tracing the Hiragana characters
Floating letters or glyphs?
2.45pm, Tama, Tokyo.
A few hours later, a colleague, Suguru-san, proposes that we go visit the University he studied at. Not only am I happy to discover a new city but I’m mostly thrilled to finally get a chance to enter a great building, the Tama University Library by Toyo Ito. Tama is slightly outside of Tokyo, and after a 30 minute train journey we reach the small town. There we find a university campus like so many others in the world; it could have been in my hometown in Belgium as much as it could have been within the UCL campus in London or the Sorbonne in Paris. Suguru-san agrees, it’s dry, dead and predictably made of concrete. But this is before it appeared; before we saw what could be done with concrete; before we were reminded that good architecture is never predictable and before the realisation that beyond dryness there was fluidity. I knew that the prowess of the building lay in its sloped ground floor and its arch(ish) structure. I also knew both were great as architectural statements; but it is only on site that I felt how magnificent they are as actual spaces. By simply pouring concrete on the existing ground, without modifying it’s slope, the building escapes the trap into which insecurity has pushed all of it’s neighbours. Ito doesn’t lift the building as Le Corbusier would have, nor does he blend it in as Eisenman does; Ito simply places it. And we enter. Nothing more, nothing less.
11.00pm, Kagayama, Tokyo
Back at home that night, with my head split between Japanese characters and Ito’s dancing walls, I watched the keynote lecture Jeff Kipnis gave last week at the Architectural Association. That’s when I turned the corner, realising that today might be one of those “worthy days”. That’s when the loop closed in on itself. In the lecture, Kipnis argues in favour of profoundly flawed architectural figures and against what he calls machist (macho) buildings. As always with Kipnis, his critiques and commentary are amazingly entertaining and motivating, yet it is not in the work he showed that night that I saw these “problematic figures” that he mentioned, but in my Japanese course and in Ito’s library from earlier that day. The difference is that both Ito and the Hiragana alphabet don’t want to be, to follow Kipnis’ nomenclature, the wasted guy, but instead they are the very-soon-to-be-wasted guy. Kipnis says it himself, he believes in the Jungle (a mess hiding a normal ground = wasted), Ito and the glyphs belong to the Swamp (a fundamentally flawed ground = almost wasted). That very-soon-to-be state is to be found in both Ito’s library and in the Hiragana characters. As much as the half-fake concrete arches appear to graze failure, the Japanese signs always present an odd extra stroke. That curvature (for Ito) and that stroke (for Hiragana) are exactly what Kipnis looks for: figures that are so full of incongruities that the more you scrutinise them, the more you think you will decipher their secret, the more you hope you will see them in their totality, the more they will actually look like the very-soon-to-be-wasted guy, the more they will look just like you. And like Kipnis…
That’s the story of my 9,855th day on earth.
It was a worthy one.
For more information:
Antoine Vaxelaire’s website
Antoine Vaxelaire AA Honours 2012-13
Antoine Vaxelaire reviews Bernard Tshumi: Red is not a colour?
Antoine Vaxelaire discusses Text Space: The role of writing in Diploma 9
Lecture Video: Jeffrey Kipnis; In Praise of Sloth, Indolence and all Other Forms of Torpor