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Yanaka Ginza by Vania Alverina and Yuhan Li
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A week in Tokyo: Urban life inspires new architectures

26 September 2018
Streetscape becomes classroom in immersive studio
Second year architecture double degree students (Bachelor of Design in Architecture (Honours)/Master of Architecture) recently spent 5 days in Tokyo, soaking up the architectural charms and fast-paced life of the bustling city.

The group found themselves in the Yanaka Ginza precinct during the hottest Tokyo weather in over a century. This intensive architectural design studio was designed to challenge students to consider the cultural, environmental, architectural and urban conditions and possibilities of their host city, and to produce an architectural design project in response to their findings. Despite the overwhelming temperatures, the students were excited to immerse themselves in the urban environment, and swiftly got to work conducting a range of analytical mapping exercises and site studies.

Yanaka Ginza

Just off the main artery of Yanaka Ginza, where most shops are situated. Photo: Rachel Liang.


“Firstly, we noticed that there were almost no public spaces in Yanaka Ginza, and any seating is provided by individual shop owners in front of their stores,” students Vania Alverina and Yuhan Li explained.

“There was a noticeable limitation in space — the streets were much narrower than what we are used to in Australia, and there were no built footpaths, only boundaries outlined on the road. The city overall is like a metropolis, everything goes upwards.”

Students were asked to observe the ‘material inventiveness’ of Tokyo’s building facades, and to document example of both ‘thick and thin’ boundaries within the city.

Abbey O'Regan

Abbey O'Regan

“After Hiroshima, there was a great need for new architecture and Tokyo was rebuilt from scratch, which led to lots of innovative and exciting design,” Abbey O'Regan explained.

“In comparison, Sydney’s architecture is much more a visual timeline of movements in architecture; early settlement architecture from the 1800s through to the more contemporary cityscape of today. Japan also has a much larger nightlife than Sydney, so it was interesting to see how the cities architecture radically transforms from day to night.” 

Rachel Liang’s observations were detailed and poetic: “The architecture in Yanaka seemed to create opportunities for subtle thresholds and boundaries to emerge, often in the form of changing tile patterns in the pavements, quaint narrow alleyways and placement of potted plants amongst shopfronts,” she said.  

Sketch of the main Yanaka Ginza gate by Rachel Liang

Main Yanaka Ginza gate by Rachel Liang

“The structure and situation of the bustling Yanaka Ginza strip amongst multifunctional, two-storey terraces is unlike anything in Sydney, and is characterised by the way the narrow streets gently curve to reveal a barcode of colourful facades and tiny courtyards.”

The studio was based at Tokyo University of the Arts and guiding students through their project was a familiar face. Professor Tom Heneghan visited Sydney in 2017 when he ran an intensive studio with this group in their first year. Working with Professor Heneghan again in Tokyo provided students an opportunity to build on their experiences of the previous year. Being based at Tokyo University of the Arts also allowed students to observe the way architecture is taught and new work is developed, in a cultural environment different to their own.

Honours students in Tokyo

“We were able to observe how the Tokyo University of the Arts operates as a university, preserving crafts through the passage of skill-based knowledge, rather than through academic research,” Stephanie Dodd explained.

Reflecting on their time in Tokyo, it was clear this experience left an imprint on the emerging design practices of this group of students.

“I can already see how I’m making a more conscious effort to imagine how my designs would evolve and be used for the future, not just the immediate present,” Abbey said.

Stephanie Dodd

Stephanie Dodd

“This studio confirmed my great fondness for Japan and ignited a desire to practice there someday, or at least be involved in some projects either architecturally or artistically,” Stephanie agreed. 

“It gave me more exposure to Japanese design and craftsmanship, and revealed to me the power of simplicity, thoughtfulness and humility in design, which I will carry into my own practice.”

Having now returned to Australia, the group have been tasked with expanding their initial studies into a resolved project. The final brief required the conceptualisation of an architecture designed to enhance one of the public spaces encountered in Tokyo.

Concept sketch by Vania Alverina and Yuhan Li

Playful platforms

Vania Alverina and Yuhan Li

Our project is a lookout and a public seating area that spans over a set of stairs that leads down to the entrance of the Yanaka Ginza streets. The design was inspired by the form and function of ‘cat trees’, a reference to the cat motifs that are prevalent in the shops of Yanaka Ginza. It is an irregular cluster of platforms that transitions from a flight of stairs, up to a look-out over the sunset of Yanaka Ginza, and then descends into a public seating space. Curved strips of roofing, mirroring the forms of the platforms, overlaps the seating space and extends over the shopping streets, covering the view of messy electrical cabling running above.

Concept sketch by Rachel Liang

A sanctuary for the future

Rachel Liang

My project evolved from preliminary sketches and mappings into a prospective study of whether the structure, layout and function of Yanaka Ginza could reveal how individuals might seek refuge in monumental towns in the future.

I imagined that a self-sufficient town - a city sanctuary - is preserved architecturally and socially over a period of 100 years, and remains pure as the built environment around it evolves over the decades. It acts as a large-scale timeline of human development through which individuals can seek refuge, a place to contemplate and congregate away from the chaos of the ‘modern’ world; a social construct to revive mankind’s genuineness through a connection to the past.

Sketch by Abbey O-Regan

Adaptable community spaces

Abbey O'Regan

My project is a series of modular gateways, acting as a mixture of bench seating and storage for the shops’ daily deliveries. Approaching my final submission, I am now exploring how the space can become more adaptable for the community; for example could it be transformed into a public art and design gallery or become a communal courtyard for residents of Yanaka Ginza?

Cicada drawing by Stephanie Dodd

A structure for mourning  

Stephanie Dodd

My project explores the passage of life, based on the life cycle of a cicada. I was inspired by the discovery of a cicada shell and listening to the cicadas singing in the trees of the nearby Ueno Park. Situated in the Yanaka Cemetery, my proposal comprises an organically-shaped concrete ‘tunnel’, a large bell and a translucent paraboloid ‘orb’. The paraboloid shape acts as an acoustic mirror to focus the sound of the nearby singing cicadas, giving visitors a sound on which to meditate with their grief. The tunnel, bell and seat embody transcending boundaries between the physical and the spiritual and act as a monument for processing life that has moved on.

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