TOKYO 2002

ross mcleod - wayne moskwa - yuji fukuii


In September 2002 Architecture and Interior Design students from RMIT University Melbourne and Architecture students from GEDAI University Tokyo engaged in a joint studio/ workshop at the Universities Toride Campus. In preparation for this project RMIT students engaged in a series of projects to prepare them for the Japan visit.



In the first part of the semester the RMIT students explored the inherent values of Japanese craft and sense of the spirit of objects as a counterpoint to modern Westernised popular culture. Through a series of exercises we hoped to expose a core sensibility that links traditional Japanese culture with the aims and actions of contemporary Japan. The art of Japanese packaging served as an ideal starting exercise in spatial containment to explore the two poles of traditional values and modern consumerism. The package had to become a 'ritual purification of the contents'1 which celebrates the qualities of the produce. These packages were also to express a dichotomy of values between traditional 'produce' and modern 'product' and exercise an ironic play on the issues of the precious and the disposable.

The 'package' assignment asked students to identify objects and their relationship to a containment device. The gallery exhibition of the packages extended the space of these containers to their relationship between each other and the space of the gallery and its 'formless' aspects. These exercises led onto the investigation of objects and space and the idea of ritual. Chris Fawcett in The New Japanese House critiques the modernist reading of traditional Japanese vernacular and argues that a correct reading of Modern Japanese Architecture must be derived from 'a path that connects archaic and ritualistic notions of dwelling with the razor sharp wedge that constitutes the new techniques of ecstasy'.2

In the face of these considerations students were asked to consider a small ritual of everyday life. Eating, sleeping, bathing, grooming, watching TV, etc. and examine the objects and details involved in these simple daily pleasures or tasks. With this in mind they were asked to carefully orchestrate an installation which refines this ordinary ritual to the level of deep aesthetic beauty.

The students were asked to present an installation that sought to instill a feeling of 'the presence of abscence' imbuing the sensation that someone has just been there or that an act has been caught in progress. The installation had to consider the objects used in the chosen ritual and the careful placement of them in relationship to each other. In this exercise we were seeking to push a 'zen' aesthetic to its extreme. Through the ritualistic iteration of the minutiae of an everyday act we hoped to touch on the absurdist potentials that arise when traditional values intersect modern life.

The next project asked students to research a particular Contemporary Japanese Architect or Designer and begin an in depth exploration of their work. Exposing the understanding of materiality and craft in the chosen designers work and how these sensitivities have been translated into the use of new material and technological innovation. The research sought to uncover a particular approach to design and the links to traditional Japanese values in the designers work and in doing so question how this recontextualises itself in reference to Western thinking and global culture.

The studies of ritual, craft, architecture, design and popular culture culminated in a project titled 'cultural baggage', an object/ space derived from each student's individual research, response and preconceptions of Japanese culture, values and design. Armed with a fragmentary knowledge of the culture and attitudes of Japan the students were asked to produce a project as a 'gift' to show the Japanese students. The gift took the form of a small packaged model pavilion that expressed a dichotomy in its nature. The objects were designed to be brought to Japan by the students and exhibited and discussed at the beginning of the Toride workshop.



On arrival in Japan we engaged in a week long study tour of the ancient capital Kyoto and other significant architectural sites in the Kansai region before travelling to Gedai Universities Toride campus for a 10 day workshop.

The workshop involved the two groups of students (Architecture and Interior Design students from RMIT University Melbourne and Architecture students from Gedai University of Fine Art and Music Tokyo) coming together to engage in a series of design projects. These projects represented an act of negotiation which attempted to cross cultural and language barriers. The meeting of ideas, research and cultures woven together and synthesised through the act of design.

The workshop involved a number of stages and briefs.

  • The Gifts/ Cultural Baggage project asked students from each group to express each individual's interpretation of the nature of Japanese culture. They were conceived as a form of design communication between the Australian and Japanese students.
  • The Bridging project teamed Australian and Japanese students together to make a conceptual and physical link between their separate gift projects.
  • The Box was intended as a device to contain records and actions of the Bridging exercise. It assembled the ideas, evidence, tools and exchanges that took place.
  • The Marquette exercise gave the students one hour to express ideas on the theme of 'temple'. Students used the maquettes to identify similarities in each others work and form teams for the full scale temple.
  • The Temple project teamed groups of RMIT and Gedai students together to design and make an architectural structure at one to one scale. The temples represented the complex negotiation involved in the conception of an Architectural space which transcends cultural boundaries by embodying universal themes.
  • The Miniature Temples were representations of each individual's thoughts during the workshop. The personal transformation of cultural preconceptions to developed understandings and a design outcome.

The results from the workshop were exhibited at the Gedai Universities Ueno campus and at the Australian Embassy Tokyo in conjunction with the Hybrid Objects Exhibition of Australian Design as part of the Tokyo Designers Block program of events.



After the workshop the RMIT University students stayed in Tokyo and explored all that the metropolis had to offer, gathering information on the intricacies of the city and forming design directions for the final project that was completed on their return to Melbourne.

At the beginning of the semester we outlined the idea for the last project for the studio as being 'a space where global acts are encountered and where cultural meaning and value are challenged'. By the end of the trip this statement was readdressed to take into account the array of cultural conditions, interpretations and misunderstandings we had experienced.

Tokyo is a city that strains to hold the forces of its urban morphology in place. Freeways, Roads, Buildings, people and design trends visibly squeeze and stretch and tear the fabric of the city. Buildings are being constructed and torn down continuously, some before they are even inhabited. Sleepy commuters are crushed into peak hour trains. Global popular culture references are pinched and squeezed and remade into size 4 outfits for Japanese teenagers to parade on the streets of Shibuya and Harajuku.

In light of these urban conditions the students were asked to develop a piece of Architecture or Design as a concentrated spatial act that matches the intensity of the cities dynamic. It was important that the initial gestures of this project occurred while we were in Tokyo, as we recognised that once we were back in Melbourne the immediate understanding of the conditions of Tokyo would quickly fade.

The task for the students in the last week of the trip was to explore Tokyo in search of a site and record as much physical and cultural information about the site as they could. From this point they were asked to build a conceptual site model/ collage that expressed the forces of the city on their particular site. This model was to be a patchwork of intersecting forms, structures, signage and information that collided and compressed personal inspirations, reference and observations. The site in this model was, for the moment, left as a void, a space to be filled with program, form, space, media and significance.

We returned to Melbourne for the final four weeks of the studio. During this time students reviewed their semesters work and their experiences in Tokyo. From this base they developed a project that would bring together the studies they had done, the site they had recorded and their personal reading of the miasma of Tokyo and the nature of modern Japanese culture through the design of a space specifically for and particularly about Tokyo's Urban condition.


1. Hideyuki Oka The Art of the Japanese Package

2. Chris Fawcett The New Japanese House