(Roma, Edil Stampa, 2007,159p.) en Anglais pp.38-46, en Italien pp.7-36
“Essentially, design begins by selecting a single line. It is not a matter of choosing any line, this one or that one or any other one. Design is a matter of choosing a specific line, the only possible one.” [i]
What line of thought can properly distinguish the architecture of Makoto Sei Watanabe? Architectural monographs tend to conform to a predictable format while architecture, on the other hand, seeks and embodies change, evolution, adaptation, and occasionally true experimentation.
To introduce the work of Watanabe, using his own principles of design, one is tempted to follow a textual approach, by deploying concepts such as genetic process, programming, complexity science, computers as extensions of the brain, artificial life, genetic algorithms and neural network programs. Such a monograph would offer a parallel discourse to the projects and works which, more than describing, explaining, and interpreting them, would construct frames of thought in symbiosis with the architect’s practice. In this context, judgmental criticism, whether laudatory or hostile, would not be the objective.
A virtual navigational/browsing tool might better describe the suggested approach. The printed page remains an obstacle to the ideal – even if attempts are regularly made to overcome the limitations of print. An essay nonetheless encapsulates in one reproducible object thoughtful and ineffaceable data which document a specific point in time. Whereas digitized material tends to blur its moment of creation, the “book,” to use a generic term, bears a time-stamp.
Watanabe’s architecture is a physical reality. Beyond experiencing it – as do thousands of passengers in his Iidabashi subway station every day –an introduction to his work must propose a set of multiple, and if necessary contradictory views. Then, contrary to design as “a matter of choosing a specific line, the only possible one”, a monograph on his work becomes a task of crafting not merely certain lines selected from the many possible, but rather a set of simultaneous multiple lines, continuously intertwining, diverging and again coalescing.
Following this sort of parallel-thinking methodology, akin to “parallel computer processing,” we could harness Watanabe’s own theoretical production, designed and completed work. For example, we can elaborate on the “genetic” concept at the heart of Watanabe’s work. If automatic writing was originally explored by the Surrealists, then formally theorized and implemented by the Oulipo team (Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, among others), and later deployed in literature by William Burrough’s “cut-up” techniques well in advance of sampling techniques in music, the idea of producing some sort of “genetic writing” about architecture remains an ideal thus far unrealized. If “designing without the hand,” as Watanabe puts it, is becoming possible, then, symmetrically the challenge would be “writing without the brain,” or would this really be the equivalent ? To “things not designed” we might try to answer with “texts not written”: all available data on Watanabe’s work compiled, and then processed and resynthesized by a specific software organizing images, designs, concepts, in one comprehensive discourse.But such software does not exist as yet. And even if it existed, the written format abstract would be merely a pale shadow of the digital original. But when Watanabe insists on “designing without hand”, he of course means “designing with the brain.” And here it cannot be confused with the automatic and autonomous trials and methods used by the Surrealists writers and artists and their followers in the XXth century, even if those “psycho-technics” were also using the brain of the artist or poet.
Again, concerning Watanabe’s “genetics,” one must first discern the broad evolution of Japanese contemporary architecture since the sixties. The longstanding interest of Japanese architects in biological analogy formed an important part of the Metabolist movement which at least influenced, and more likely directly endowed, Watanabe’s genetic thought. On the other hand, the Japanese context is one where, unlike in the Western architectural world, architects of particular, idiosyncratic and unique attitudes appear on the architectural scene and establish a body of work owing little to local “schools” or “movements” in architecture. After the climax of the Metabolist movement, what remains, apart from a handful of masters playing the orthodox international game, is a fragmented landscape where such names as Toyo Ito, Sanaa, Shigeru Ban, Shuhei Endo, Hitoshi Abe, Kengo Kuma, each seem to go their own way, unmolested by affiliations (“genetic concerns”) or schools of thought. Makoto Sei Watanabe belongs to such a dispersed field and stands as an architect resisting any easy classification. Those architects are, of course, at the same time, worthy subjects of monographs, for, even if their works can be and are often scattered around various media (international architecture press, anthologies of contemporary architecture, museum collections and catalogues such as those from the Archilab/Frac Centre), the appropriate vehicle to fully explore their achievements remains the monograph.
THE MECHANICS OF JELLY FISHES
A closer understanding of the work now becomes essential. The point is not to “explain” the work as a whole and/or each work separately for those who will not have a chance to visit the architectures, nor to comment upon the work and the photographs included here, but rather to reawaken contemporary architectural thought. Such a task of starting again and again, of reformulating the discipline of architecture anew, is one that only few architects explicitly undertake, and even few critics would acknowledge. With Watanabe, it is not idle rhetoric to submit that something close to that reformulation of architecture takes place. The means employed by Watanabe are those of experimentation in figure and language. Two apparently contradictory figures play a crucial role in his work : that of mechanics and that of organic systems. This conjunction between a biomorphic universe and man-made technological artifacts might be illustrated by the juxtaposition of a jellyfish with a motor engine. Watanabe is committed to dual thinking as he will probe for the mechanics at work in a jellyfish and, at the same time, for the biological paradigms increasingly embedded in contemporary computer software. To shift constantly between these models is the challenge facing the architect in pursuit of today’s extremely mobile conceptual frameworks at work in all fields of research and practice. How can architecture learn from biology and from mechanics, from nature and from culture, from what is given beforehand and from what is transformed, invented, created by civilizations ?
The work of Makoto Sei Watanabe can be divided into three main programmatic categories: single architectural programs, infrastructural programs, and research on city growth and design. In the first instance, Watanabe’s completed projects, such as the Aoyama Technical College, or designs such as the Jelly Fish House series (extending from 1990 to 1997) have attained a powerful, iconic status. The architect has developed his thought in the infrastructural domain through four railway stations, now all completed — Kyusyu Shinkansen and Minamata Stations, and two Tsukuba Express stations: Kashiwanoha-Campus and Kashiwa-Tanaka — and the overall design of a new large subway station in Tokyo, Iidabashi Station. Lastly, Watanabe’s research practice has been well published in Japan and abroad under the generic title of “Induction Design”.
The question immediately arises as to what extent the different architectonic domains cross-breed within the office, in effect exchanging genes within the corpus of concepts and design processes. More specifically, what are the principles and the “engine” of such a multi-faceted architectural practice ?
Behind each of those works constituting the backbone of his practice, stands a unifying theoretical quest and principle. Watanabe has indeed pursued and developed a single general theme continuously since 1990 under the name of “Induction Design”. During this lapse of time, in support of the same overall goal, he has exploited the rapid evolution of software and adapted it to his ongoing projects. Thus, the Shin-Minamata Mon (2004-05) in the Kumamoto prefecture is also referred to as “Induction Design V”. The pivotal point of this project was to set load-bearing parameters on variably calculated values, so that the computer program would vary the widths of the structural members to equalize the stresses acting on each member’s cross-section. The process can be seen as twofold :
- Form generating: basing the web pattern on structural demands — the length of the web, angles of branches, and loads that it must bear ;
- Structure optimizing: solving for the minimum number of members while ensuring a sound structure.
Following the principles of Induction Design, the Shin-Minamata Mon design was generated by the program for the two basic elements defining any architecture: structure and spatial forms. The result unmistakably displays the qualities of plants, trees or other natural organisms, for the simple reason that the structures and forms reflect a design process resembling that of nature, thanks to the power of computer simulation. Whereas architects today indulge as much as ever in literal metaphor, here the conceptual meets and fuses with the metaphorical.
Watanabe insists: To use chaos theory and fractals is not to create forms resembling Lorenz attractors, or jagged outlines. Instead of forms, it is the process which contributes to design.”[ii] While in the 60’s the Japanese Metabolists’ fascination with nature led them often to explore the metaphorical side without sufficient critical sense, Watanabe, thanks to software unavailable to the pioneering generation of organically-focused architects, is firmly committed to going far beyond the metaphorical use of nature. The architect directs a process, sets the general framework, chooses the parameters, guides the whole design and retains the “final cut”; only he is entitled to stop the artificial growth process when the result meets his own criteria. The Shin-Minamata Mon – in Japanese Mon means gate - stands in front of the railway station, designed also by Watanabe, for the city tragically known for the disease produced by industrial excesses. Its steel members reach toward the sky, in opposition to the railway station which keeps the focus on horizontal motion.
This project is a successor of the “Web Frame” designed for the Iidabashi Subway Station. Therefore, Shin Minamata Mon looks like a tree, but it is not a copy of the form of a tree, to quote its architect. Indeed, the object produced is an artifact embedding the essence of natural evolution and genetically-coded systems such as those guiding the growth of every tree, but it is an abstract equivalent – or cousin? - of natural phenomena. Numbers, figures and mathematical operations executed by the software used by the architect have replaced the usual drafting tools. An urban gate, stripped of any monumental, historical or political symbols becomes here just a gate to pass through; it is more than the idea of a gate, for it appears in its physical and visual reality, but it shuns any literal narrative other than its conceptual and visible links with natural forms. Interestingly enough, it does not easily relate to contemporary art or sculpture. Even conceptual sculpture is irrelevant to this piece. However, there exists a subtle subterranean connection between the Shin Minamata gate and certain works of Isamu Noguchi. In his career, the Japanese-American sculptor developed an interpretation of nature which brought him in the vicinity of such formal research.
One inescapable reading of such works as the K.Museum and the Aoyama College is a sustained fascination with the mechanical world. The college presents both a mechanical formal appearance and an obvious zoomorphic image. Contrary to the later Shin Minamata Mon project, the College neither clings to an abstract level nor shies away from the omnipresent figurative or pictorial potential of architecture. Tokyo’s urban landscape is renowned for being a never-ending cornucopia of signs of all sorts. The cinematic quality of the metropolis has been widely remarked and exploited in numerous works.
A good example of the machine meeting the zoomorph and/or the anthropomorph is the famous “transformer” toys produced in Japan in recent decades. Although Watanabe does not elaborate in his writings about that source of architectural ideas, its presence can not be denied. The upper part of the College seems to throw insect-like rods into the urban void and looks as if it were ready to jump and start a frantic ride into the Tokyo landscape. A “run for your life” and urge to leave earth’s grounds are evident in many of Watanabe’s buildings.
For example, the cantilevered compact steel block of the K.Museum looks like a piece of artificial structure trying to fly away from earth. The exterior grounds are reworked in another artificial/natural chunk of landscape where his favorite steel masts raking the wind have displaced mundane plants and trees. This obvious mimicry of life forms sets the tone of a disillusioned world. The Museum’s focus was the underground network of energy and water distribution, as well as garbage vacuumed collecting for the entire city. It is located on the new development area gained on the waters of the Tokyo bay.
Ironically the Museum has been closed to the public for security reasons, and it seems almost as if Watanabe’s architecture had anticipated this fate by conveying much dramatic and graphic power through the shapes used in the building. Its scale, for instance, is difficult to grasp from outside, and it hesitates between a large impenetrable sculpture and a small building. In a totally opposite setting, another cantilevered configuration is adopted to extend the presence of a program in its environment : the Mura-No Terrace reaches out in the landscape, stretching out a dramatic cantilever as if it was trying to fly over the wooded hills surrounding it.
AOYAMA COLLEGE AND BEYOND
Watanabe stands certainly as a singular architect in contemporary Japanese architecture. He remains a free-rider, impossible to pigeonhole into any one school and even less into one style. To be sure, biographical facts as always can offer some clues. One does not work for five years at A.Isosaki’s firm without revealing some traces. One does not live and work in Japan without its culture and landscape influencing your evolution as an architect. Even if Watanabe volunteers no link with Shin Takamatsu’s early work, it is difficult, when visiting the Aoyama College, not to discern parallels with the Kyoto architect. Both make exuberant gestures with large, shiny industrial elements that could be borrowed from a garage shop or an ocean liner’s boiler room. However, Watanabe’s asymmetric works, in contrast to the symmetrical compositions of Takamatsu’s architecture, clearly differentiate the two architects. Moreover Watanabe, by simulating through computing the naturals laws of growth, ignores the compositional paradigm – an obsolete straitjacket which still confines architecture today.
The substantial efforts toward liberation by the Deconstructivist architects in the 90’s have made progress, aided by new software which enables any designer to escape the burden of architectural doctrines from Antiquity to the XX°century Modern dogmas. In a way, it is tempting to consider that the Aoyama Technological College plays for Watanabe the role that the Vienna office extension did for CoopHimme(l)blau: an architectural manifesto asserting that architecture is the central element in the urban fabric of large cities. A comment from CoopHimme(l)blau’s monograph applies also here: The analogy with animal forms shapes the basis of some projects of the group. (…) it formulates a form of credibility and a new force. [iii] Tokyo is not Vienna but this manifesto-building stands as an stiff punch in the face of the urban condition. Despite the banalisation of R.Venturi’s ideas into academic conventions and their wide dissemination into disparate branches of post-modernist architecture, it remains hazardous for an architect to attempt a literal manipulation of pop culture icons and symbols. The manga and B-movie “genes” visible in the College were and are still hard to digest for the architectural scene, whereas, paradoxically, the Japanese Pavilion for the 9th Venice Architectural Biennale was totally devoted to manga/otaku culture. Years after Watanabe’s gesture in Shibuya it is easier for Japanese architecture to institutionalize the manga world in the protected and ephemeral premises of the Giardini in Venice than to accept it as an architect’s signature in the Tokyo landscape. In parallel with such a work rooted firmly in the first part of his career, one sees Watanabe conducting a long and steady quest which is always free of any pedantic or arrogant side. This is characteristic also of his writings.
TEXTS ON A PRACTICE
Returning to the written and theoretical corpus of Watanabe, one observes something which remains rare today : a capacity to express in a clear and simple language complex notions and topics. This is most evident in Induction Design where the text about genetics, algorithmic computation, chance and necessity in design process is supported by unambiguous diagrams and lucid language. Unadorned by heavy intellectual references and quotations, his theoretical writing can be seen as almost doctrinal with an authoritative tone. In sum, Watanabe seems to endow his ideas with the same clarity as his designs. No decoration – which is not equivalent to “no ornament” – and no frills obscure his line of thought or his projects. He takes care to prevent misunderstandings and conceptual confusions that might otherwise arise from a superficial approach to his methods and principles : One misunderstanding to be avoided: the method here does not consist of using a computer to generate endless numbers of plans from which the best can then be selected. The Induction Cities program is designed to generate » good plans » automatically.
Well aware of his precedents on the path toward a scientific architecture, or at least toward an architecture based on the extensive use of reason, the architect of the engineering College in Shibuya recalls at some points the task started by Christopher Alexander with his pattern language. But Alexander lacked not only the computation tools required by his ideas but also the conceptual framework to incorporate the role of numbers and computation. Watanabe writes: “ We have at our disposal a new weapon.”
In defining sets of parameters in parallel with sets of values, Watanabe constructs a rationalist method which reserves nonetheless a place for emotion and beauty. Here, and perhaps only here, he owes much to the Modernist position. Born and educated in the XXth century and building for the XXIst century, Watanabe embraces two worlds. The Jelly Fish houses projects are impossible to imagine without the history of Mies’s glass houses and at the same time could in no way be designed before the last decade of the previous century. Indeed, these projects push to their limits the quest for a simultaneous autonomy of form, of tectonics and of function. The box and the blob are juxtaposed to produce a confrontation of antagonist systems.
In the Tsukuba express Railway Station, the dryness of the interior, which partially but not entirely reflects budget constraints, shows his determination to make very direct and strong choices during the design process. The façade expresses a moving, liquid effect appropriate for a station, otherwise lost in a nondescript environment. It creates an unmistakable identity within the monotonous blur of suburban Tokyo’s linear railway network. An experiment in “induction design,” this station marks at the same time a stop and a sign. A stop because here it is about trains that do stop between two other stations, a sign because each station must be recognized as such and identified as different from every other station on the line. In the cityscape, it stands out as an authentic “land-mark” for it gives direction, sense, content and even scale to a landscape which is otherwise quite ordinary.,
When seen on a misty cold and humid winter day, the « milk-like » concrete flows in the landscape like a phantom hidden under a bedsheet – if we permit ourselves an occasional metaphor, those metaphors which architects either fearfully avoid, or indulgently overuse — architectural discourse frequently dumbfounded by the irrepressible interplay between concepts and metaphors, this station is open to many interpretations. The smoothly undulating surface is sliced with very narrow horizontal slits acting as windows, giving a sort of Luciano Fontana’s canvas turned 90°. The end and beginning of the façade are just clear-cut sections, actually nothing finds nor defines an end or a beginning to this wall. Viewed from afar, trains just slip behind a sort of magical curtain standing alone in the fields and disappear; a torn curtain actually. How can a railway station, by its nature static, embody the notion of speed, without falling into mimicry ? Watanabe has an answer. The “concrete curtain” solution is remarkable for it conveys such a sense of speed. If fluidity has been a motto of contemporary architecture, here is the place where a cristalization of fluid has taken place. One is immediately drawn to touch the cream-white wall to verify its tactile character, its strength, heaviness, sound, tactile qualities.
The hard concrete sensation suddenly enters in a stunning contradiction with what the eyes have perceived. Not all sculpture, not all piece of art, and for that matter not all architecture, have that power to ask for a tactile intercourse. It could be just the right place to post a “Please touch” sign. A jelly condition is at work again in this work of Watanabe, years after he named several of his house projects Jelly Fish. In retrospect, Watanabe’s interest in fluidity through the model of the jellyfish proves to have been highly prescient. No wonder one of the critics writing on “Metamorphosis “ in the catalogue of the 9th Venice Biennale in 2004 marked some interest in the jellyfish : “(…)the communion of medusae, artist and scientist strikes at conventional aesthetics, especially sculptural. (…) jellyfish embody contingency and interdependence, announcing the reciprocity of our relations as living creatures with the stuff in which we survive. (…) All the lightness makes them a sculptor’s paradox: sculpture here has done with the column and the skeleton, the scaffold and the rock.”([iv])
Exploring contemporary Japanese culture, some trails emerge leading to the “jelly.” We can also borrow from contemporary writing in the cyber science fiction domain. The hero of one of Bruce Sterling’s best short stories is a technoscientific nerd who develops weird artificial jellyfishes in his own house : “Imitating nature to the core, Tug found a way to evolve and improve his vortex sheet models via genetic programming. Tug’s artificial jellyfish algorithms competed, mutated, reproduced, and died inside the virtual reality of his workstation’s sea-green screen. The recent, crowning step of Tug’s investigations was his manufacturing breakthrough. His theoretical equations had become actual piezoplastic constructions – soft, watery, gelatinous robot jellies of real plastic in the real world.” [v] The atmosphere depicted by the American novelist is strangely very close to the mood produced by Watanabe’s most experimental works. It is as if both artists, the architect and the techno buff novelist are swimming in the same waters, immersed in the same contemporary digital osmotic field of thought. Both register the numerical zeitgeist which every day impinges more and more tightly on us. In any case, the fusion of computation and reality will become increasingly central in architecture’s destiny. The day is steadily nearing when the digital design can immediately produce the specified physical output. In the process, the architect will regain much of the control he/she had lost in the construction process.
By giving a symbolic “Jellyfish” space to part of a house, Watanabe acknowledges the paradoxical condition in which any house project is trapped. The simultaneous play between the mechanics-artifact and the nature-jellyfish paradigms is that of a dialectic which can be found in every work by Watanabe. The Jelly Fish houses express with utmost force the opposite qualities of softness (the jelly bubbles) and hardness of transparency and opacity of orthogonal geometry and curved topological geometry. Against the countless contemporary projects propagandizing the “jelly” qualities which computer graphics enable less gifted architects to pretend to master, Watanabe’s deep command of computer tools in the realization of his creative vision offers a compelling contrast. Two opposing attitudes towards the fold/blob model are recognizable now that we have roughly a decade of distance: one which follows a rigorous architectural trajectory paralleling the evolution of engineering and materials science, and another which seems primarily enslaved by whims of opportunistic style-zapping. In Tokyo, Watanabe is able to transcends both categories.
This is really at work in his Tokyo House where fluid and wavelike textures and patterns are introduced on precise components of the three spaces layered house. The thematic of water finds its way here and there with a glossy shine, sometimes deep black, other times all white, everytime reminiscent of hydrodynamics.
Another longstanding avenue of exploration for Watanabe is in the potential of thin, linear and tall structures assembled in dense groupings. Either those structures are meant to stay static, or they can float and move depending on wind conditions. An example of the first model, the Shin Minamata Mon gate (2003-04) was an outdoor experiment based on the principles of the indoor and underground artificial branching system (Web Frame) used for the Iidabashi Station. Outside the K-Museum, his field of fibers initiated a series of experiments with the second model.
These models will undoubtedly be refined from project to project. With multiple and changing configurations, the problem of surfaces and envelopes, on which the best contemporary architecture has been focusing, is displaced and reinterpreted. Forests of vertical steel strings floating and swinging in the wind materialize an enclosure as in the Fiber Tower (2004), or can be walked through as in the Fiber Wave II installation. The CoCoon project (2005), explicitly develops branching and tree-like growth through computational processes. Here, it is as if the wind turned into a tempest. The tower is a large-scale arrangement of irregular fibers creating a complex nest condition. At the summit, real trees will grow high in the sky. Thus artificial branches will protect natural branches from any unwanted wind. This scheme redefines what an urban tower can become. It is noteworthy that as early as 1995 Watanabe had integrated the wind as a project parameter, when he designed the “Wind-God City” project, designing an optimal city for wind using the Generated City Blocks computer program.
It is striking to see how, in Shanghai, on a different scale, but still in an urban environment, Watanabe finds a convincing way to condense the spatial qualities he is aiming at. The Shanghai House (2004) deploys the entire range of eerie floating and levitating atmospheres that infuse all his work.
[i] Watanabe (Makoto Sei).-Induction Design A Method for Evolutionary Design (Basel,Boston,Berlin, Birkhaüser,2002)
[iii] Daro (Mattia), Zamponi (Beatrice).- Coop Himme(l)blau (Roma, Edil Stampa, 2004)
[iv] Warner (Marina).- Metamorphosis, in Metamorph 9th Venice Biennal of Architecture (2004) pp.15-29, p.27
[v] Rudy Rucker & Bruce Sterling .-« Big Jelly », first published in Asimov’s, November 1994. Published in Sterling (B.) A Good Old-Fashioned Future (London, Gollancz,2001) pp.22-23