Learning from Architectural Ethnography

Momoyo Kaijima 1

I‘ll begin this story in 1969, the year I was born, but also the year that Reyner Banham‘s The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, Bernard Rudofsky‘s Streets for People: A Primer for Americans, and Philippe Boudon‘s socio-architectural study, Pessac de Le Corbusier, were all published. Around the world, architecture was taking a postmodern turn. Japan was in the midst of a period of intense economic growth. My own neighborhood of Yotsuya, close to the main venue of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was being transformed by rapid urbanization. When I started elementary school its main street, Gaien Higashi Dori, a two-lane road lined with two-story shops, some of them owned by parents of my classmates. Then the road was widened to make four lanes and the little shops had to close: one after another, my classmates and their families moved away. Around the same time, our old family home was demolished to make way for new apartment building. All that remained of the place where I‘d spent my early years was a cherry tree beside the road.

My grandfather used to live with us. He would wear a kimono at home but go to work in a suit and tie—the embodiment of the mixing of Japanese and western cultures in our daily life. Children‘s television shows reflected a similar cultural fusion; the most popular animation series were Manga Nippon Mukashi Banashi (Once upon a time in Japan, based on traditional folk tales) and Hayao Miyazaki‘s Dog of Flanders and Heidi, Girl of the Alps. As more Japanese started to travel abroad in the 1970s, more books were published in translation—stories like Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie set my imagination roaming around the world. Another book, avidly devoured when I was a little older, was a scenographer‘s travel diary containing detailed sketches of a journey to India.

By the time l started to study architecture in the late 1980s, Japan‘s bubble economy was at its peak and real-estate speculation was rampant. I remember newspaper reports of a dump truck deliberately crashing into an old house near our neighborhood. Skyrocketing land prices meant that any existing building on the site was not worth a single yen. How had it come to this? At every opportunity I walked around the city, trying to witness the changes with my own eyes. And again I read books, searching their pages for the root causes of this situation. There was a flurry of publications on Tokyo around this time, partly in response to its rapid urban transformation—a 1987 pocket edition of Wajiro Kon‘s Kogen-gaku Nyumon (Modernology, first published in 1930); Rojo Kansatsugaku Nyumon (Introduction to Street Observation Studies, 1986) by Genpei Akasegawa and the Street Observation Society; Kanban Kenchiku (Billboard Architecture, 1988) by Terunobu Fujimori; and Toukyou no Kukan Jinrui-gaku (A Spatial Anthropology, 1985) by Hidenobu Jinnai, among many others. These books inspired me to imagine different flows of time in the changing cities of Japan. In parallel, I gained a wider perspective on urban and architectural theory by reading work that had newly appeared in translation, including Rudofsky‘s Architecture Without Architects (trans. 1984), Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown‘s Learning from Las Vegas (trans. 1978), Rem Koolhaas‘s Delirious New York (trans. 1995), and Aldo Rossi‘s The Architecture of the City (trans. 1991). What interested me about these books was their attempt to explain the nature of urban space in specific cities and places. I hoped that I too would be able to write books like that some day.

Wandering through the streets of Shibuya in 1991, the year Japan‘s asset price bubble burst, I came across an intriguing apparition: a spaghetti snack bar crowned by a baseball batting cage. I never got the chance to survey the building—it was demolished shortly after I discovered it—but this was the virtual prototype for the Made in Tokyo project. It set me to thinking about the building types that are specific to Tokyo—buildings defined not as a single entity but as environmental elements or hybrid assemblages that bring together otherwise unrelated functions or structures. When Arata Isozaki invited me to participate in the exhibition »Camera Obscura or Architectural Museum of Revolutions« in 1996, I put forward a collaborative proposal to make a guidebook to this architecture based on the data we collected in our surveys. It took us more than four years to prepare Made in Tokyo, which was published in 2001. The book describes an architecture that, far from attempting to control the surrounding environment, is itself defined and shaped by the accidents of the site and the participation of the people who inhabit it. Pet Architecture Guide Book, published the same year, looks at very small buildings that have been customized by their owners, showing how individuals practice their own space production—breaking the general rule that architecture is a collective enterprise. I found this sense of freedom quite refreshing, and became interested in exploring a method of observing and drawing architecture and urban space from the viewpoint of the people who use it, rather than the architects and planners who are involved in its construction.

Using the architecture specific to a city as a basis for developing urban theories, our drawing studies expanded beyond Tokyo. »Broken Paris« (Atelier BowWow, Tsukamoto lab. / Tokyo Institute of Technology, Kaijima lab. / University of Tsukuba, 2001) is an annotated map of the urban blocks in an area of the French capital largely overlooked by Japanese tourists, the 13th arrondissement; »Mito Dead or Alive« (Kaijima lab. / Univeristy of Tsukuba, Atelier Bow-Wow, 2004) observes urban space through the lens of empty houses and vacant lots; »Walking with Atelier Bow-Wow Kanazawa Machiya Metabolism« (Atelier Bow-Wow, 2007) explores the city in relation to the traditional townhouse (machiya) typology. Through these studies, we found that building types can offer a key to understanding processes of urban transformation. Our field of research then expanded further, into suburbs and rural areas. »Kitamoto Face Project« (Kitamoto Face Project Committee, 2011) attempted to define a local identity for Kitamoto City, a former mountain farming community (satoyama) that is now a suburban town in the Greater Tokyo Area. In order to investigate the processes of urbanization at work here, we conducted research on a wide range of subjects, from the changing management of the woodland to civic engagement groups and more. For us, the town‘s greatest asset lay in its integration of natural environment, architecture, people, agricultural land, and newly developed residential areas. At Tanekura in Miyagawa-cho, Hida-shi, Gifu Prefecture, we met with Mr. Ueno, a 96-year-old village elder and author of a self-published ethnographic study, Tanekura in the Mountain (2002). We found his stories of daily life in the village very inspiring. One tale in particular sticks in mind. There was no train station in the village, but on days of heavy snow the children could take a short cut home from school— by jumping off the moving train into the cushion of a snowdrift. This was a unique arrangement between the local inhabitants and the train that ran through the mountains, and it speaks of a way of life that no longer exists today, except perhaps in the tales of the village elder. Later, we collaborated with students to make a map, Tanekura Shuraku Ezu (Kaijima lab. Ando lab. / University of Tsukuba, 2010), that depicts the whole »ecosystem« of the village based on stories told by the inhabitants. Each component of this ecosystem— the house, the hut, the warehouse (kura), the farm crops, the different types of trees—has its own story to tell. Whereas in Made in Tokyo we addressed the way buildings accommodate their occupants‘ livelihoods, be it as a ready-mixed concrete producer or a taxi company, at Tanekura we found that the means of livelihood shaped not just the buildings but the entire landscape of the village. We learned that the domains of daily life are regularly influenced by natural and geographical conditions, because what we perceive as natural landscape, as farmland or forest, is often actually created by human hands.

In 2011 the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami was followed by meltdowns at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant—a triple disaster that brought untold devastation to both rural areas and cities. Working with ArchiAid, a relief and recovery network of architects set up immediately after the earthquake, we conducted a field survey for a reconstruction plan for the coastal region of Ishinomaki-shi. We talked to village residents about the ways of life and the landscapes that had been washed away by the tsunami, and used the fragments of information collected in the interviews to make drawings that reconstituted these spaces. The process was akin to putting together pieces of a puzzle in one‘s memory, and I began to think that we might call this way of working »Architectural Ethnography.« I thought that if we could draw up a reconstruction plan based on a thorough understanding of the village gained through the survey, then it could serve as an effective means of illustrating and realizing an entire sequence linking past, present, and future.

What is Architectural Ethnography?

According to the standard dictionary definition, ethnography is the »representation of a society and culture of a specific ethnic group based on fieldwork.« For our purposes, we might substitute this focus on a »specific ethnic group« with a broader consideration of »people« or a »community« or an as yet undefined social »group«. We then need to ask, what aspects of architecture might be incorporated into the research methods and means of representation of ethnography to create this hybrid form, Architectural Ethnography? The word »architecture« refers to a physical enclosure that protects and supports human life and activities. Its definition can thus encompass an assemblage of buildings, the environment that surrounds them, the city, and so on. A unique characteristic of architecture derives from its bigness, which binds it to gravity and means that it changes only slowly over time. The making of architecture, then, demands both historical thinking and adaption to the time-based rules and regulations that govern its construction. When we undertake an architectural project, we are actually engaging in a kind of »case study«, responding to the specificity of the context using qualitative, rather than quantitative, research methods. Moreover, the realization of a project is not an exercise in isolation but, on the contrary, involves a large number of people – construction professionals as well as eventual users of the building. At each stage, architecture employs drawings as a medium for sharing information. The scale and the qualities of these two-dimensional representations can be tailored to be viewpoints of specific professional groups or users. They can communicate the design intention in few lines or, equally, integrate and visualize complex information based on scientific and technological investigation. In other words, one of the characteristics of architecture is that it has its own built-in means of critical evaluation that guides the project through all the stages of its development. Working continuously across scales ranging from 1:1 to 1:1000, the architect moves fluidly between different dimensions, between part and whole, between the empirical and the abstract. And it is this quality of autonomy that is overlaid on ethnography to make Architectural Ethnography.

In Japan, at least, ethnography is a scientific practice that arose during a time of profound societal and economic change, as the country completed its transition to a modern, industrialized state. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the founder of Japanese folklore studies, Kunio Yanagita (1875- 1962), traveled to remote rural regions to collect folk tales and information about local customs that were dying out. He conducted field surveys using the method of interview, and then documented his findings in writing. By contrast, the architect Wajiro Kon (1888- 1973) made sketches of the fast-disappearing vernacular house form, the minka, and made the results of his research freely available in the publication, Nihon no Minka (Minka of Japan, 1922). Kon likened his surveying of minka to the collecting of insects, saying that both required intensive and meticulous observation to document the colors, shape, structure, and habitat or environment of their respective subjects. His comment reveals an aptitude for abstraction based on the individual viewpoint of the observer. Later, in Modernology (1927), Kon would apply his methods meticulous observation to the documentation of Tokyo street life, sketching and recording the tools people used, the clothes they wore, and even the ways they took a nap. He also documented the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Tokyo, surveying the ramshackle shelters that the survivors built using whatever material was to hand. Both the shelters of rubble and the minka were types of architecture on the verge of extinction.

The aftermath of a natural disaster was also the focus of the ethnographic study, Tsunami to Mura (Tsunami and the Villages), published by Yaichiro Yamaguchi (1902- 2000) in 1943. Yamaguchi, a follower of Yanagita, compared the impact of the tsunamis that hit Sanriku in 1896 and 1933, using the accounts of the village elders to explore the differences in the processes of recovers in each case. He made a map to show the limits of the tsunami inundation and the subsequent changes to the shape and extent of the settlement: what had become clear was that the spaces that had been lost in the tsunami still existed in people’s memories – until the oral tradition passed down by the village elders died out. Wasurerareta Nihonjin (The Forgotten Japanese: Encounters with Rural Life and Folklore, 1960), by Tsuneichi Miyamoto (1907- 1981), records this kind of »forgotten« history of Japanese rural life, as leayed by fisherman, farmers, and itinerant peddlers. All of this fieldwork was instigated by scholars who feared that the modernization of Japanese society would destroy the pre-modern way of life, where the means of livelihood of the inhabitants was closely allied with the materials and styles of the architecture, as seen in the minka.

Experiments in Architectural Ethnography

The Architectural Ethnography that I propose is an extension of this line of thought, inspired by the urban research that I read after publishing Made in Tokyo. A number of these books came from their authors, who were applying a similar approach to their own cities. Others were acquired at exhibitions and conferences in Japan and overseas, where I came into contact with architects, scholars, and artists with similar interests. I wondered why all these works were published around the same time—it was an intriguing coincidence. Like the emergence of ethnographic studies during a period of profound societal transformation, the proliferation of this kind of urban research is perhaps in some ways a reaction to rapid urbanization and the changes wrought by globalization, advances in technology, natural disasters, and war. In our institutionalized societies, the connection between architecture, environment, and human life is often difficult to perceive. My awareness of these issues may have something to do with my age, as I belong to the last generation of architects whose design studios at school were based on hand drafting. I also remember life before the information society. But that is exactly why I feel compelled to draw the world from the standpoint of daily life, or an ethnographic point of view, trying not only to observe the existing situation but also to reconnect pieces of our disconnected world. To achieve this, I believe we can build on the experimental tradition of the pioneers of ethnography, and use drawing as a means to understand and share our knowledge of the processes that are rapidly transforming architecture, cities, and the environment at large.
In preparing this exhibition we considered nearly 200 works made over the last 20 years. Most of these take the form of books produced by architects, academics, schools (including design studios), and research institutions, but we also -looked at works by artists who have surveyed or drawn a wide range of subjects—from farming communities to fishing villages, from ecosystems and natural topographies to the global environment. The following sections explain our experiment in Architectural Ethnography more fully by describing common themes explored in these drawings of, for, among, and around architecture.

Drawing of Architecture

The first category—drawings of architecture—collects, categorizes, and illustrates buildings. In addition to plans and sections, many of the works use axonometric and isometric projections to describe patterns of human behavior and ways of life, with a focus on materiality and objectivity. Rather than using the traditional means of typological analysis, which carries the risk of isolating the building from the human life it contains, these drawings illustrate buildings that change in response to changes in the way people live. One way to depict this idea of architecture as an extension of human life is to draw details of the elements surrounding the building. In the works collected here, this method is used on various scales. At the scale of architecture, Typology: Review No. Il, Review No. Ill (Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein / ETH Zurich, 2012, 2015) brings together a variety of types of buildings and urban spaces from around the world; Maidan Survey (BUREAU A, Burø, 2014) shows the barricades around the central square in Kiev; W House (Yukiko Suto, 2009—10) portrays the history of a house on the verge of demolition from multiple viewpoints, and My Home/s: Staircases - 2 (Do Ho Suh, 2012) tracks the history of the places the artist has lived. At an urban scale, Postmodernism Is Almost All Right: Polish Architecture after Socialist Globalisation (Piotr Bujas, Lukasz Stanek, Alicja Gzowska, Aleksandra Kedziorek, 2011) describes the Cold War exporting of socialist models of urban planning; Cities without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook (Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon, Clara Wong, 2012) illustrates the circulation networks of Hong Kong, while Glasgow Atlas (Studio Tom Emerson / ETH Zurich, 2014) shows urban spaces in a post-industrial Scottish city. Architecture Reading Aid Ahmedabad (Niklas Fanelsa, Marius Helten, Björn Martenson, Leonard Wertgen, 2015) views the city through a different lens, documenting spatial practices in Ahmedabad; Rogue Economies, vol. 1, Revelations and Revolutions (GSA Unit 14/ University of Johannesburg, 2017) explores the underbelly of economic transactions in Johannesburg; and Valparaíso Público (Marie Combette, Thomas Batzenschlager, Clémence Pybaro, 2013—17) depicts a city that has adapted organically to its hilly topography. Another approach is to understand architecture in relation to time. From this viewpoint, we can see that My Home/s: Staircases - 2 illustrates a temporal sequence of spaces, whereas W House expresses the overlap of different flows of time through the detailed expression of the incidental elements surrounding the building, and Typology: Review No. Il, Review No. Ill conveys developments in architecture by juxtaposing contemporary and classical building types. Akin to an ethnographic fieldwork, these drawings form a record of the impact of change over time.

Drawing for Architecture

This section focuses on drawings for architecture, where we can observe three types of approach. The first kind focuses on the ways buildings are transformed through adaptation or reconstruction, and uses this as a device for describing architecture‘s wider relations to external social and economic factors such as rapid population growth, industrial decline, and so on. Made in Tokyo: 15th Year Update (Lys Villalba, 2015—17), iEI Tiempo Construye! (Fernando Garcia-Huidobro, Diego Torres, Nicolås Tugas, 2013), Glotzt Nicht so Romantisch!: On Extralegal Space in Belgrade (Dubravka Sekulié, 201 2), and Vernacular Toolbox: Ideas from Modern Builders in Rural China (Rural Urban Framework and Sony Devabhaktuni / The University of Hong Kong, 2017—18) all show how the changing states of architecture can serve as an index for the observation of urban life.
The second approach is to develop patterns of architecture and landscape like a language. Let‘s Make Kamiyama Landscape with Toy Blocks (Hajime Ishikawa Laboratory / Keio University SFC, 2017) documents the landscape of a farming village, indicating the different forms and meanings of contemporary and traditional architectures with different patterns of toy blocks; A Pattern Book for Oshika Peninsula (ArchiAid Oshika Peninsula Supporting Seminar, 201 1 —12) outlines a future vision of life in the fishing villages, compiling the elements of a new architecture in the form of a pattern book to facilitate their application.
The third approach is to share knowledge of construction techniques by illustrating them. The Building of the Queensland House: A Carpenter‘s Handbook and Owneh‘s Manual (Andrew L. Jenner with John Braben, 2013) offers a window onto the carpentry techniques of a hundred years ago, with a detailed account of the construction of a colonialstyle house in Brisbane, Australia. Basics of Dry Stone Walling for Terraced Landscapes (Junko Sanada, 2014—17) describes the essential techniques the author learned from a village elder in Tokushima Prefecture, while SUDU: Manual (Dirk E. Hebel,
Melakeselam Moges, Zara Gray, with Something Fantastic, 2015) provides an introduction to sundried adobe brick architecture in Ethiopia. These handbooks are small and light, for convenience of use on the building site. Crucially, they include details on the handling and performance of the materials and the processes of construction. By contrast, Livre Invisible: A Guidebook on Mon(s) Invisible (Constructlab, 2015) documents a collaboration that had the aim of reclaiming a public green space for a summer. Here, the drawings provided a means for all the participants in the project—architects and local residents, visitors, students—to visualize and communicate their shared goals. These are drawings that indicate the relations between people and architecture from the viewpoint of the author, while suggesting a variety of forms that these relations can take.

Drawing among Architecture

A number of the drawings in this category illustrate objects, tools, and spaces that express how people‘s ways of life are shaped by different climates, topographies, cultures. Revolusi dari Dapur (Gede Kresna, 201 6) captures the changing food culture and eating habits on the island of Bali through a focus on materials and kitchen implements; Arqueologia Habitacional (Juan Carlos Tello, 2009—) uses household goods to explore the cultural phenomenon of customizing a space to make it personal; On Urbanism and Activism in Palestinian Refugee Camps: The Reconstruction of Nahr el Bared (Ismael Sheikh Hassan / KU Leuven, 2015) draws on people‘s memories to piece together the life of a destroyed Palestinian camp; and Refugee Republic (Jan Rothuizen, Martijn van To‘, Dirk-Jan Visser, Aart Jan van der Linden, 2014) looks beyond the stereotypical images of despair associated with the refugee camp to show the inhabitants engaged in the same day-to-day activities as the rest of us—going to school, cooking dinner, spending time with family and friends.
Scenes of daily life are combined with architecture in other works such as Revendications (Oswald Adande, 2016), a diorama of the large port city of Cotonou, in Benin, made of empty packs of coffee and waste paper; and Granby Four Streets (ASSEMBLE with Marie Jacotey, 2013—), a drawing of streetscape in Liverpool. Both of these works incorporate people as an essential part of the landscape. Other drawings capture scenes of daily life from the perspective of the people involved. Many of these works describe public spaces animated by human activity. A Little Bit of Beijing: 798 (Drawing Architecture Studio, 2013) is in the style of a graphic novel, with rooftops cut away to expose how people inhabit or use the buildings; The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion (Interboro Partners, 2017) is about the weapons used to restrict or promote people‘s access to the city; Usages: A Subjective and Factual Analysis of Uses of Public Space, vol. 1, Shanghai, Paris, Bombay (David Trottin, Jean-Christophe Masson, Franck Tallon, 2011) charts the ways that the public spaces of Paris are appropriated over time. Flexible Signposts to Coded Territories (Florian Goldmann, 2008—12) shows the repetition and overlapping of graffiti tags on the streets of Athens, while Map of France (Yukio Miyashita, 2017) was assembled from several maps brought back from different travel destinations. These works seek to convey images of architecture in people‘s memories and minds.

Drawing around Architecture

The last category encompasses drawings that go beyond the building to survey situations in the wider landscape—natural and manmade. Some of these drawings deal with networks. Local Ecology Map of CASACO (tomito architecture, 2014—) describes life in a residential neighborhood of Yokohama, with a focus on the hilly topography and development over time; LIVING along the L INES—Fukushima Atlas (Akihito Aoi, NPO Fukushima Housing and Community Design Network, Team Fukushima Atlas, 2017—) tracks the movements and relocations of the population displaced by the meltdown at the nuclear plant; Design Construction Networks (Who Builds Your Architecture?, 2014) highlights the architect‘s ethical responsibilities towards the construction workers who realize their work; Building from Waste: The Ship Breaking Industry and a New Paradigm for the Urbanisation Of Mumbai (Joseph Myerscough with Sarah Mills / Leeds Beckett University, 2015) imagines dismantled ships being adapted and re-used to improve living and working conditions in Mumbai; Do You Hear the People Sing? (Crimson Architectural Historians with Hugo Corbett, 2016) interrogates public space as a space of protest. These works suggest that the relationship between architecture and human life is not defined by a continuous, physical space, but rather is mediated by diverse factors including history, movement, livelihood, songs, and more.
Other drawings focus on topography. One Hundred Views of Dogo (YAMAGUCHI Akira, 2016) is a »stranger‘s« guide to the town‘s cultural attractions that blends actual and fictitious viewpoints; Hong Kong Is Land (MAP Office, 2014) proposes to add eight new floating worlds to the existing territorial islands and peninsulas that make up the watery network of Hong Kong; Panorama Pretoria (Titus Matiyane, 2002) highlights the relations between topographies and cities by drawing a world map viewed from an airplane; Revisiting Wajiro Kon‘s »Nihon no Minka« (Rekiseikai [Team Asphalt], NAKATANI Seminar, 2012) goes back to the Japanese minkas surveyed by Wajiro Kon some 90 years ago and redraws them in a long section in relation to their surroundings. Coupe! (Éva Le Roi, 2008) cuts deep into the earth to show the interface between geological strata and our living environment.
This kind of method was also used in the workshop Sanriku Project 2013 (Urban Risk Lab / MIT, Hiraoka Lab / Miyagi University, MISTI Japan / MIT, Reischauer Institute / Harvard University). Returning to Sanriku some 70 years after Yaichiro Yamaguchi‘s study, Tsunami to Mura, the workshop participants drew scenes to describe people‘s lives and the process of recovery after the latest disaster. Our life can never be detached from the Earth.
Alongside these works, there are unique studies that investigate new possibilities for drawing based on the perceptual worlds of individual organisms—human and non-human— as described in Jakob von Uexküll‘s theory of Umwelt (Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen: Ein Bilderbuch unsichtbarer Welten, 1934). New territory is also being explored in drawings that document, at a large scale, themes as global mineral reserves, the aquatic environment, and the world below zero degrees Celsius.
Architectural Ethnography is an evolving field, and as it develops we expect it to yield more new types of drawings describing different worlds.

Learning from Architectural Ethnography

The exhibition brings together in a single space forty-two investigations that convey the profound changes that are reshaping the environments we live in, as viewed from the unique standpoints of their individual authors. By looking at these works now with our own eyes, we can gain a greater understanding of both architecture‘s relation to society and the role it can play in improving our daily lives. Architectural Ethnography, in reconnecting pieces of today‘s disconnected society, and critiquing from viewpoints both inside and outside of architecture, allows us to learn many things from the drawings of our time.
As the world confronts significant change, it is our hope that this exhibition will provide a platform for expanding the discourse around the relations between architecture and human life and actively inform the development of architectural and urban theories that will contribute to the common good, for all humankind.

  1. The text was originally published in Architectural Ethnography, edited by Momoyo Kaijima, Laurent Stalder, Yu Iseki, TOTO Publishing, Japan, April 2018