Phantom Surface: A Night in Tokyo
27 June 2017
One ear to a headpiece, we sat down with a group of formally dressed students with oversized ribbons pinned to our chests. It took a while for the translator to settle. But once it came online, the Japanese conversation was suddenly dubbed with an English voiceover.
Jury President: Prof. Takayuki Kishii
; Jury Panel: Prof. Ryue Nishizawa, Prof. Shunsaku Miyagi, Prof. Shunya Yoshimi, Mr. Tadao Kamei
So much of the mystery of Japan has been conjured up by our limited understanding of the Japanese language. It was almost surreal that sitting in Tokyo, the overlay of this British voice transported us to the all-too-familiar AA jury. Never having presented outside of our Georgian home in Bedford Square, we were challenged to present our work to a community that we admire but one that is also deeply-rooted in their traditions.
"It's a good project, but I think it's too different for the Japanese,” whispered one of the contestants sitting next to us.
* * *
We found out about this competition from a poster stuck outside the new intermediate studios, where the Soft Room used to be. Although it was mostly in Japanese, we were immediately attracted by the idea that it was a student competition that invites finalists for a jury in Tokyo. We thought this was a perfect opportunity as students in our final year to take part. It's interesting how we always talk about the AA as a protected bubble. Having completed our entire architectural education at the AA since First Year, this opportunity to present a project done at the AA was a fulcrum for our soul-searching.
Jury presentation and discussion in Tokyo
The competition brief asked us to propose a new urban public space, with no restriction on site, scale or country. All they required was for us to submit an A1 panel. Coming from an East Asian context ourselves, (I am from Hong Kong and NA is from South Korea), over the past two years we have witnessed how the notion of public space (or the lack of it) has toppled regimes.
What was conventionally a violent process, recent social movements have generated a new definition in Hong Kong and Seoul. On the one hand, this was the most banal project brief, but on the other, this was the most relevant and challenging one to tackle in a student competition.
Every Matsuri Festival
So perhaps deliberately misreading the brief, our response was to propose an infrastructural surface as an urban typology - a continuation of our investigation in the architecture of the territory from our year together in Dip 14. The surface is simply a distribution of services: every 5 metres - a power socket; every 6 meters - floor lighting; 7m - drainage pipe; 14m - air-conditioning; ... the artificial surface continues.
This is a not a romance with tabula rasa, nor a utopian dream.
This is a conceptual X-ray of the metropolis –
architecture that is reduced to a ‘non-figurative’ grid of services.
This is an erasure of architecture - pure programme, without form.
Every 5 metres
We stood in front of the jury, reading out the five points of our "Public Space Manifesto". Not surprisingly, the idea that we didn't actually propose a conventional piece of architecture in the city wasn't very appealing to a majority of the jurors. We were also very aware that our project was flirting with the idea of minimalism and all the frustration that comes with it. For us, the frustration was the most thought-provoking part, as well as the most productive process in the project. All our drawings were deliberately channelling that. But of course, we were no longer in the studio of Dip 14, nor were we in Rear Second Presentation Space. We literally didn't even speak the same language. We were left to fend for ourselves through a headpiece, hoping that our words would not be lost in translation.
"I know what you're doing, but I want to see it," said Ryue Nishizawa from SANAA.
And there he said it. One of our all-time favourite abstract, non-figurative designers and dots-on-a-plan architects didn't like our project. We tried to defend the idea that we were designing an urban system, not a form. To put it in simpler terms, the project is a re-thinking of streets, squares, piazzas and parks in cities. The panel was interested at most, but was hardly impressed. Like most other juries, we went back to our seats, trying our best to focus on the rest of the finalists through our headpiece.
However, after a few presentations, an interesting thing started to happen.
"But isn't this the project from the AA guys?" said one of the jurors.
"Why don't we put the AA student project in your project?” They continued when addressing one of the finalist groups.
Our project became a point of reference for the others. The idea of possibilities over empty space in the city lingered over the course of the discussion. There were bus-stops on boulevards, left-over spaces in train-crossings and the interstitial spaces in the back of streets, and so on. To an extent, we would like to think that our project became a way to read the rest of the entries.
To be able to see how easy it was to lose ourselves in our own world, but also the possibility that it could be found and then communicated through well-articulated projects was truly fascinating.
We send our sincere thanks to our tutors, colleagues and friends who've supported us along the way. We were truly grateful to have this opportunity to rethink our projects in a different light. As we have now completed our final weeks left in school, we would like to encourage everyone who still has time left at the AA to try something similar with your friends. You will be surprised how much you can learn from each other. We are not asking everyone to have a reality-check. Instead, use competitions to explore the part of your projects that has a place beyond our Georgian walls.
Oh and by the way! Nishizawa doesn't wear white. He wears a floral crewneck like a rock star with sparkling converse.
For more information:
James Mak and NA Jongwon both graduated from the AA in 2017. They were both in Diploma Unit 14 for their 4th year in 2015-16 where NA continued for his 5th Year, while James went to Diploma Unit 1.
Their project was published in the May issue of A+U magazine.
The Public Space Competition was organised by: Nikken Sekkei Ltd., Shinkenchiku-sha Co., Ltd.
James Mak's Website
NA Jongwon's Website