Mark Sarkisian (Chair)
In the Spring of 2002, I took a course on the architecture of modern Japan at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. It was my first exposure to contemporary Japanese designers such as Kisho Kurokawa, Shigeru Ban, Kengo Kuma, and Kazuyo Sejima. I found their work to be both innovative and intriguing in that it was fundamentally different than the architecture I had studied previously, primarily from Europe and the US. I began to familiarize myself with the traditional architecture of Japan in order to better understand the context these designers were working in. It was during this time that I became fascinated by the Japanese Shinto shrines. These simple structures constructed of thatch and unfinished wood had been in existence for over two thousand years. To maintain their appearance, some of the shrine buildings were dismantled every twenty years and reconstructed in the same form using new materials as part of a religious ceremony—some of the structures have been rebuilt over sixty times to present.
I compared the Shinto shrines to the religious architecture of the West, the Gothic cathedral in particular. Both of these structures had successfully stood the test of time, but by different means: the cathedral due to its robust structural design and the durability of the materials used in its construction and the shrine due to the simplicity of its construction and the use of renewable materials. I wondered how these design strategies reflected the values of their respective cultures. Moreover, I wondered which of these design strategies represented a more appropriate model for sustainable development from a structural engineering perspective.
These questions were the impetus behind my proposal to the SOM Foundation to travel to Japan and the United Kingdom. I was fascinated by the contrast inherent between these places. In addition to traditional differences, modern sentiment regarding the preservation of building structures also appeared distinct. Both countries are land constrained with similar urban pressures, yet the average lifetime of a building in London is over fifty years while in Tokyo, it is under thirty years—the longest and shortest in the world, respectively, for a metropolis. In addition, the building industry is structured differently in Japan than it is in Europe and the US. Most notably, a significant portion of the buildings and bridges now being built in Japan are design-build projects built by large contractors, in contrast to the design-bid-build process familiar in the West. By visiting structures and speaking to designers in each country, I hoped to gain to insights into both cultures and to determine if there are fundamental differences in Eastern and Western thinking regarding design and construction. I also hoped to identify ideas and techniques that had fostered innovation in these distinct environments.
I left for Japan in the fall of 2003 full of expectations. After returning from my Fellowship travel to the United Kingdom earlier in the summer, I was anxious to compare what I had seen there with Japan. What I found in Japan were experiences that I had not expected. I am grateful to the SOM Foundation for making it possible for me to discover the gap between expectation and experience resulting from my extended stay in Japan.
The trip generally exceeded my expectations. The language barrier was not as much of a problem as I expected in Japan and I found it quite easy to get around on public transit. I was able to visit all of the buildings and bridges that I wanted to see as well as some outstanding additional structures that I was not aware of before leaving the US. I was also able to arrange meetings with some architect and engineers in both countries for whom I have a great deal of respect including Shigeru Ban, Maturo Sasaki, Kengo Kuma, and Chris Wise. The opportunity to speak to these designers about their work was a tremendous learning experience as it gave me insight into how these creative individuals approach a design problem, what inspires them and the techniques and technologies that they have chosen to adopt. Finally, I toured several large Japanese design-build companies, including Shimizu Corporation, Hitachi Zosen, and Misawa Homes. I learned how these corporations are organized, the different services they offer, and the types of research that they are currently pursuing.
Looking back upon my travels after a working for a year with Ove Arup Consulting Engineers in London, I believe the experience has had a substantial impact upon my early professional development. The variety of innovative structures that I was able to visit during my Fellowship has improved my awareness of the influence that culture and tradition have upon one’s design approach and encouraged me to look at how others have approached similar design problems from different cultures and disciplines. In addition, the Fellowship has provided me with an introduction to a diverse group of architects and engineers that I remain in contact with today. In this regard, the benefits of the Fellowship are still being reaped through mentoring and collaboration.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology