The LIXIL* International University Architectural Competition is an international design competition for university research laboratories. Every year, universities from around the world are invited to participate in this site-specific competition. The site is Memu Meadows in Taiki-cho, Hokkaido, which is composed of experimental sustainable projects including MÊME by architect Kengo Kuma. In its third year, the competition – themed “Retreat in Nature” – calls for innovative solutions for sustainable architecture. The team with winning scheme is invited to construct the project on the site. The competition has already started for this year and will meet the deadline in late March.
We’d like to share the discussion on the competition by this year’s jurors – Kengo Kuma, Tomonari Yashiro, and Darko Radovic – as well as last year’s juror Momoyo Kaijima which was held at Memu Meadows in November, 2012.
Thinking about a new kind of well-being
— First, tell us something about the vision of this competition and what the jury would like to see in the proposals.
Kuma: I think that the overall theme of this Taiki-cho project is the search for new values to replace those of 20th-century industrial society, for a new kind of well-being. Originally it was all pastures here, a place for raising livestock and agriculture. Is there a 21st-century way to regenerate a place like this? And not only as a spot for vacation houses. I think it would be good for another kind of productive activity to take place here. It could be agricultural activities, or the production of energy, or some type of intellectual work. But I think it is important for some type of productive activity to take place. Also, it should be possible here for people to experience the kind of well-being that comes from participating in productive activities themselves.
Yashiro: In the 20th century, owning of artifices as much as possible was one of the significant main indices of well-being. However, in the 21st century, we are now getting to share a common perception that the quality of life is more valuable. The “production” defined by Prof. Kuma does not imply mass production and consumption in the context of 20th century but rather the creation of something tangible or intangible by enhancing the power of a place. The creation is the core of the concept of well-being in the 21st century I am looking forward to seeing the proposals that illustrate this new implication of well-being.
Radovic: The London-based New Economic Foundation has developed “Happiness Index”, measuring “what really matters” to the citizens of various countries around the World. At the bottom of their list are some African countries, ravaged in wars. Just above are the United States, and not much better ranks Australia. At the top of the list are some South American and Caribbean countries. That shows that happiness is not about money. Growth and income simply do not correspond with the level of happiness. It is important to understand the difference between what was thought to make us happy in the 20th century, and what should be making us happy in the 21st century. The LIXIL competitions are about such things, about the next generation of thinking. I believe in environments which engage emotionally, which are capable to trigger creativity. Such engagements makes us happy. As a German researcher Michael Baumgart says, we need to stop trying to be less bad, and try to be good. There is a big difference in that very ambition – in that desire to be good.
Kaijima: I am involved with town management in the town of Daigo in Ibaraki Prefecture. I was surprised by how many residents there have a side job, either in their work or because of their interests. As Mr. Kuma said, most jobs in the modernized society of the 20th century were full-time occupations, because that is the most efficient way to organize production. But I imagine that people in the past enjoyed richer and more varied lives thanks to their side jobs. It is often said that Japanese people enjoy working. I think the reason for that is simple – work is enjoyable. But when work becomes specialized the worker is involved with only one company, which can be oppressive. I think that for work to be enjoyable it is important to avoid overspecialization. That is why I recommend to my students that instead of relying only on architecture to make a living they should consider being involved with various other occupations, such as farming or fishing. At a time when we have to spend more time thinking about architecture before building, having a second occupation is one model of a richer life. I expect that the residents of Taiki-cho have various interests and other jobs, and that they have the skills to make a living that way. That new kind of lifestyle could be part of a proposal.
The attractions of Taiki-cho
— What are the attractions of Taiki-cho, the site of the competition?
Kaijima: One attraction is that Taiki-cho has both sea and mountains. I think it would be interesting for proposals to consider occupations that take advantage of that kind of landscape.
Kuma: I agree. The actual layout of trees and fences in Taiki-cho might offer hints for thinking about the relationship with nature. I would like to see proposals that start from there and develop ideas through local, physical research. That would be interesting.
Yashiro: Though the population density of the village here is extremely low compared with Tokyo and other mega cities, everyone here knows each other and help each other. It was surprising for me to learn that the village has such an intensive community.
Radovic: In both nature and in activities of the people in Taiki-cho there is a strong aesthetic component. The large scale is extremely valuable here, and it would be very important to think about an overall spatial strategy for Memu Meadows. Not to define some hypothetical final outcome of the LIXIL project, but to create a strategy which makes sure that each of the forthcoming steps is environmentally and culturally responsible, that all those steps relate to an established culture of the place, to that desire to express aesthetically. With these three houses complete and the fourth one to come soon, the LIXIL project is reaching the level of complexity which demands thinking about a conceptually well considered whole.
The theme “Retreat in Nature”
— What do you think of the theme for this competition?
Kuma: The theme of this year’s competition is “Retreat in Nature”. Compared to the previous themes – “New House” and “Next Generation Sustainable House In Taiki-cho” – the interesting thing about this year is the focus on the specific location in Taiki-cho. Up to now, we have thought about sustainability rather abstractly, but taking up a stance toward a specific place is an important part of sustainability. Here we are offered a site in Taiki-cho, which is a wonderful place. How should we interpret this place? What solutions can we provide? I think that these are hidden challenges implied in this year’s theme of “Retreat in Nature”. So this time I am hoping to see a different kind of sustainable architecture, compared to the previous competitions.
Yashiro: What kind of life would you like to lead if you lived here yourself? I hope that the students who participate in this competition will ask themselves about the meaning of well-being, based on their own outlook on life. Walls and floors are man-made elements. I am looking forward to proposals that place them carefully, one by one, while thinking about the nature of the site here in Taiki-cho.
Radovic: Word “retreat” implies withdrawal from something. I think that it is very important for this project that the retreat to Memu Meadows is not considered as an escape. We are not seeking binary oppositions – city-nature as good-bad; we are not suggesting some running away from the city. The paradise does not exist. This retreat should be the place to recharge, in order to go back and do better in and for the environments in which we live and for which we are responsible.
Yoichiro Ushioda (LIXIL JS Foundation President): In my understanding, a retreat is a time to step back temporarily and then return to where you came from. Life in the city is convenient, but it can become oppressive, like living in a birdcage. When I come to Taiki-cho, there are negative things and positive things. There is the smell of horse manure, what you might call the scent of life. And then I go back to Tokyo. Via this competition various buildings have started to appear in Memu Meadows and the attractions of a retreat are growing. While thinking about what it might be like five or ten years from now, I am looking forward very much to new proposals.
A cluster of architecture created over time
— What is Memu Meadows going to be like in the future, as more and more buildings appear?
Kuma: In this competition I think the time has come when we can start to think about the ensemble of the entire site. There are the existing buildings for the pastures, and the three new buildings. As an ensemble, this looks like a place where a new kind of well-being and a new kind of productive activity might come into being, a place for challenges. We have sustainable experimental residences elsewhere, as stand-alone units, but I believe there are not many other places in the world where they come together into an ensemble, like a village where people gather. I think the time has come when we can start thinking beyond what can be accomplished by a single work of architecture.
Kaijima: This is the first time I have been here, but now I understand the scale of this project. In addition to the technical aspects of the architecture, it is also about the kind of people who will gather here and about creating a new system. I think that two themes for Memu Meadows are producing that kind of system and the process of fostering its development. In Denmark there is a type of school called the Krabbesholm Højskole, which teaches subjects associated with art, architecture and design. We did a project for one of those schools, which uses former farm buildings with renovations and new additions. The project is called the “Four Boxes Gallery” (Shinkenchiku, 2010:02). This school has been using the same buildings continuously for 300 years, taking good care of them. It is interesting to think about what this Taiki-cho project might become as it continues over the years.
Radovic: My final comment is one with three dots. I do not want to make any conclusive statements. I would like to see how this project develops, how it acquires the dimension of time. Great American architect, Louis Kahn used to ask: “What this place wants to be?” Right now, I think, Memu Meadows is acquiring a distinct character and it is reaching maturity. So, it is the right moment to ask. With lots of optimism, I put emphasis on those three inconclusive dots, as long as the initial idea – the next generation sustainable thinking – frames the overall project. The framework for the future of Memu Meadows should strictly demand sustainable, environmentally and culturally responsible interventions. Within that framework – we should be doing whatever this place wants to be.
Yashiro: The students from Waseda and Keio Universities who won the 1st and 2nd competitions realised their architecture through a process of trial and error. We have seen how this place has inspired, educated and matured them. If Taiki-cho in Hokkaido could provide the places of opportunity for more succeeding proposals, Taiki-cho could be a mecca for experimental sustainable buildings in the sense that it provides continuous and exclusive opportunities for ambitious young people from all over the world. This continuous challenges have similarity with a game of Go, where players place one stone at a time then review the consequence’s contexts then place another stone somewhere and so on.
Kuma: Yes, a plan that is not a master plan. Recently I gave lectures at Aalto University and Harvard University and was told that it was like a dream come true for the students to be able to participate in a project like this. That is how attractive this project has become internationally. This time the number of participating universities is up, and they are coming from all over the world. I have been surprised by the unexpected way that the project is developing.
(On November 17, 2012, at Memu Meadows, Taiki-cho, Hokkaido)
Edited by Shinkenchiku, translated from Japanese by Thomas Donahue
We also have covered the winning projects from 2011 and 2012, “A recipe to live” by Waseda University’s Masaki Ogasawara, Keisuke Tsukada, Erika Mikami and “BARN HOUSE” by Keio University’s co+labo Radovic.