On the Spline

On the Spline Spline I recently published an academic paper answering the question: where do curves come from?

I started this research well over a decade ago when I was working everyday with 3D design software at Grimshaw architects in London. The research began when I gave an internal presentation to overcome the architects’ reticence about using 3D software to design their curved buildings (something the practice was already famous for). My quest to demystify curvilinear geometry by explaining its origins and mechanics was fascinating, but also challenging, as I don’t have a technical background in mathematics or computational geometry. I hope that this article will help designers and anyone interested in understanding the origins of our contemporary design language. Continue reading

A+U Magazine: Data-Driven Cities

A+U Magazine Data-Driven Cities IssueI edited the November 2014 issue of a+u (Architecture & Urbanism) magazine. The issue’s theme – Data-Driven Cities – is broad, designed to encompass a range of technological drivers reforming urbanity. It’s also a provocative title which elicited many contributors to implore that human agency, not big data, should sit firmly in the driver’s seat when harnessing computation to analyze, develop and improve cities. Continue reading

On the Passing of Kathryn Findlay (1953-2014)

I recently learned with sadness that Kathryn Findlay has passed away from a brain tumour at the age of 60. She leaves an important architectural legacy for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the works that Ushida Findlay built in Japan during the early-to-mid ’90s were truly groundbreaking. Since the Modernist era of the 1950′s and 60s, relatively few significant curvilinear buildings had been realised anywhere in the world. The Truss Wall House (1993), stands out as a seminal work of Japanese residential architecture. It’s also emblematic of a strain of eccentric and extreme houses built in the country’s recessionary post-bubble era.
Her works presaged a formal approach that gained mainstream adoration with Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim and is now epitomised by the proliferative works of Zaha Hadid, who graduated from the AA only a couple of years prior to Kathryn. Ushida Findlay’s control over form, with all building elements – walls, floors, ceilings, even handrails – merged into a sculptural totality, before modern 3D animation and CAD software trivialised form-making. Designing these works by hand – not to mention (what I guess) are hand-drawn/stippled renderings – must have a been a massively labor intensive undertaking.

I don’t find anything self-consciously avant-garde about Ushida Findlay’s houses. They seem irreverent and playful, capturing a uniquely Japanese spirit of fantasy – a spirit akin to legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki. Speaking to the Guardian last year, she spoke of the “disapproval (the firm received) in Japan for not being minimalists.” But they persevered in the hope that eventually, “they’ll understand you, and you’ll understand them.”

Kathryn Findlay did eventually convince Japan to take notice and was one of very few outsiders to crack into its somewhat closed and (still, to this day) patriarchal culture. But Kathryn was the first female academic appointed to the faculty of Tokyo University’s School of Architecture. She will be remembered in Japan along with names like Josiah Condor and Antonin Raymond, as an exemplary foreign architect who left a lasting impression here.

It is a shame that I never had the honor to meet Kathryn Findlay in-person. But as a fellow AA-graduate, who has chosen to start a career in Japan, and shares an interest in the complexities of building challenging architecture, she is certainly a role model.

CNN Interview on Japanese Residential Architecture

The CNN interview I gave last week has aired as a part of a piece on Japanese residential architecture (I show up around 1:00 in). The crew got in touch after reading the ArchDaily article and they contacted the owners of some of the homes pictured to arrange access and interviews.

Sou Fujimoto was also interviewed in his House NA, so I tagged along to see it for the first time firsthand. Although I was familiar with the design concept, I came away with a deeper appreciation after talking to the client (who didn’t wish to be interviewed on camera). Of course, seeing how a home is actually lived in – as opposed to staged photographs soon after completion – is always an eye opener (curtains, space heaters, the inevitable clutter of daily life). I thought the CNN cameraman caught the house’s lived-in charm rather well.

CNN shoots Sou Fujimoto's House NA

Thanks Paula, Nicki, and the rest of the CNN crew.

Map of Tokyo Residential Architecture

I was contacted by a number of news outlets after I published my recent article explaining Japan’s crazy housing economics and how I think they facilitate experimental residential architecture. Since many people seem keen to see or photograph these in-person (or via streetview), I have assembled a map that catalogs some interesting examples of Tokyo residential architecture. Google’s new maps engine sure looks snazzy, doesn’t it?

Currently, the map is centred around West Tokyo, where most of the famous examples are clustered. By no means exhaustive or authoritative, I plan to gradually update it (time permitting). I welcome any additions to the map that readers care to suggest. Just tweet them to me: @AlaTown

Why Japan is Crazy About Housing

Japan is famous for its radical residential architecture. But its penchant for avant garde housing may be driven by the country’s bizarre real estate economics, as much as its designers’ creativity.

The following article about Japanese housing economics and how they motivate Japan’s penchant for experimental architecture first appeared on ArchDaily, where it quickly became one of their most popular articles. Unfortunately, copyright restrictions prevent me from including here the photography that accompanied the original article.

In architectural magazines and websites, like ArchDaily, we see a steady stream of radical Japanese . These homes, mostly designed by young architects, often elicit readers’ bewilderment. It can seem that in Japan, anything is permissible: stairs and balconies without handrails, rooms flagrantly cast open to their surroundings, or homes with no windows at all.

These whimsical, ironic, or otherwise extreme living propositions arrest readers’ attention, baiting us to ask: WTF Japan? The photos travel the blogosphere and social networks under their own momentum, garnering global exposure and international validation for Japan’s outwardly shy, yet media-savvy architects. Afterall, in Japan – the country with the most registered architects per capita – standing out from the crowd is the key to getting ahead for young designers. But what motivates their clients, who opt  for such eccentric expressions of lifestyle? Continue reading

Terrace Housing – Why is it uncommon in Japan?

Western visitors are often struck by the density Tokyo’s small houses. Often a gap of only 40 centimeters (15″) separates two houses – barely wide enough for a person to squeeze between. Windows often look into these dark gloomy voids. Seeing this depressing site throughout Japan’s towns and cities leaves me to wonder: why haven’t the Japanese built more terrace housing? Continue reading