Alan Barnes Travel Scholarship recipient visits Japan


The Alan Barnes Travel Scholarship is open to any 3rd year student educated through the post-primary education system in Northern Ireland who studies at a recognised School of Architecture in Britain or Ireland.

Connor Curley was awarded the Alan Barnes Travel Scholarship in 2021, this is his report from his time in Japan.

There exists in Japan the consideration of architectural drawing, photography and modelling as a single concept of “representation”. A representation is itself a living thing, occupying a space between the idea and the physical ,one that while is principally working towards the built form, also works to solidify the idea. On the shelf beside me “Drawing to find out” is scrawled on the front of 5 years of sketchbooks, slightly cheesily expressing a long held fascination with the tool of architectural representation. This same fascination is what drove my application to the Alan Barnes Travel Scholarship, which brought me to Japan in the summer of 2023 (following a pandemic and its consequences) to explore the built form and the ideas of Japanese architecture, and crucially the representations that birthed them.

Teronobu Fujimori introduced the concept in 1990 of broadly separating japanese architects into a “Red” and a “White” school; red being invested in the ‘soul’ of material, monument and ground, and white being related to the abstracted and refined experience, with many shades of pink in between.

What I find interesting about this categorisation is that it still defines quite clearly the extreme dichotomy of modern architecture in Japan, but this dichotomy does not extend so neatly to the realm of architectural representation. I think therefore it is more apt to assess the architectural drawings and their respective buildings that I explored on a scale too, one between Ethnographic and essential representation.

I found the work of Fujimori in his hometown of Chino, in the mountains of Nagano: a strange collection of humorous teahouses in the air, a squat, grounded museum and an elemental community centre. A famous scholar of architectural history in japan, Fujimori’s buildings draw on his breadth of knowledge in a purposeful reconfiguring of modern and vernacular techniques and traditions. This mastery over reference and over material qualities are expressed clearly in his drawings, a rigorous ethnographic approach of showing all finishings, reflecting one of his cardinal rules: natural materials and plants should be used on all visible parts of his buildings, so as to harmonise with nature. His only other rule is that his structures should not resemble any style since the bronze age. A humour with a needle sharp point is evident. His drawings show that his work functions in part as parody and a critique, a carefully considered retort to the modern building culture of Japan.

When speaking of ethnographic approaches, Atelier Bow-Wow are at the forefront of conversation. Their graphic anatomy books are a constant source of joy, and having studied the drawing within so closely, seeing how their spaces are based on interaction and ritual, it is an exceedingly strange feeling to see their work up close.

[Image left: Takasugi-an (translation: too high) Teahouse by Terunobu Fujimori, Chino, Nagano prefecture]

While walking through the narrow residential streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo, you first meet the office of Atelier Bow-Wow through its golden-gravel facade and an unruly tuft of greenery on the top. Facing an alleyway, I can see directly into their office, and suddenly I’m looking at the building from the same angle as the famous section. Their building is calm, ordered, set back from the road yet I feel as though I can peel back the skin perfectly in my mind, which is, I believe, a testament to the strength of the representation.

a  reproduction of an okoshi-ezu teahouse model, created by the window research institute

Both Bow-wow and Fujimori’s drawings derive somewhat from the traditional ethnographic representation technique okoshi-ezu, or “folding drawing” models made for teahouses since the Momoyama period (1574-1600). These pop-up washi paper models are a goldmine of information, detailing dimensions, notes, materials and precise placements of elements. They are a delight to see, and when you visit a teahouse of this sort you see the obsessive detail, the refinement in openings, materials and levels that are individually designed by tea masters, the need for these models is clear – that like with the work of the aforementioned architects,the buildings must be perfectly suited to the contained ritual. 

Essential representations can be found clearly in the work of Tadao Ando. A care for the falling of light, for the texture of concrete and the geometry of the spaces take centre stage in his buildings, as in his drawings. I was fortunate to visit his works in Tokyo, Kobe, and on Naoshima island, where the Ando Museum and many built works are located. Ando is prolific, and his exhibited drawings are a curious mix, some which are exploratory and some completed retrospectively to sum-up the essence of a project. Comparing the built work to the drawings, the impression of Ando is as master of the “simple idea executed well”, which is of course the intention. The buildings are stripped back, the architecture distilled to a pure idea, and these after-the-fact drawings are the marketing used to reinforce this.

GOOD JOB! Centre by Onishimaki+hyakudayuki (o+h), Kashiba ,Nara prefecture.

As with any attempt at categorisation, there are practices who fall into both camps. One of these is onishimaki+hyakudayuki , or o+h, formed of architects Maki Onishi, the curator of the Japan pavilion at the current Venice Biennale, and Yuki Hyakuda. This young practice creates incredible socially-engaging architecture, and I was lucky enough to visit two of their buildings, the double helix house in Tokyo and the GOOD JOB! Centre in Nara. They reflect the influence of SANAA and Toyo Ito in their colourful representations full of small cutout people, but their style changes project to project. Less concerned, maybe, than older generations with developing a distinct style of representation, they adapt to the project. From the flattened playful snaking of ethnographic drawings used in their double helix house, to colourful models of child sized houses for their “homes for all” project in 2013, to then hiring an illustrator to re-draw the plans for The GOOD JOB! Centre. The representation is more tailored, but the joyful thread running through all their work stays the same. It has been noted that the word ‘kawaii’ – which can be translated as “lovable” or “cute”, has started to be used in Japanese architectural dialogue. There are stories of Junya Ishigami asking in design reviews “which one is kawaii?”, and I think looking at what o+h are trying to create – an accessible architecture, “a place to be loved” as the venice biennale exhibition is aptly named – their representational focus is not on ethnography or on essence, it’s actually on kawaii.

Thank you again to the RSUA and the judging panel of the Alan Barnes Scholarship, without whom this trip would not have been possible.

Connor Curley

This year’s Alan Barnes Travel Scholarship is open for applications until 9 February 2024, for more information click here