Inspired by the Biennale theme of resonance, Toshiki Hirano’s Japan pavilion, Reinventing Texture, curated by Clare Farrow Studio, is an immersive design and sound installation that addresses the present and future of the urban environment through traditional and modern textures, objects and sounds, collected in the cities of Tokyo and London. It is a pavilion of friendship between Japan and the UK, at a time of barriers and disconnection, and celebrates the importance of sharing research experiments and digital innovations on an international scale, while at the same time reflecting local traditions and materials.
The work has been made in collaboration with students from the MA Interior Design at the Royal College of Art in London. Working remotely through Hirano’s virtual photogrammetry workshops, the students collected urban textures and made field recordings for the immersive and interactive sound collage that has been created by MSCTY Studio in Tokyo and designed by KP Acoustics. The sound responds to visitor interaction, modulating as one moves around the installation.
Hirano transforms traditional Japanese Washi paper, an ancient and environmentally sustainable material grown from natural plant fibres (rather than wood pulp) and the traditional Japanese papier-mâché technique, into a material for the 21st century. Speculating on the experiential future of the city in the post-pandemic world, it presents a myriad of textures without the danger of touch.
Using 3D scanning and digital fabrication, Hirano transforms the flexible, light, thin but durable, organic and biodegradable Washi paper into innovative and imaginative structures, with surprising strength, suggesting future possibilities.
“Washi paper is made of longer fibres than Western paper and this makes Washi paper sturdier. In the technique of Papier-mâché, patches of paper are layered randomly and this will add more structural strength to the surface made. What I found interesting in this project is that the structural properties of surfaces that have highly complex forms made of digitally scanned models are more rigid and stronger compared to a smooth and flat surface.”
Hirano concludes: “I think the direct impact of Covid-19 on the built environment that we are witnessing, such as face masks, clear partition walls, and others should fade away rather quickly. However, I think there are significant indirect and latent impacts to our sensitivities that could last much longer and affect our cultures and eventually how the city is. I don’t think these impacts can be verbally described, and that’s why I think the artistic approach in this project is effective in addressing the issues.”
Reinventing Texture Toshiki Hirano
"Reinventing Texture" collects, reassembles and reconstructs urban textures through a combination of digital technologies and traditional techniques and materials. The aim of this project is to discover new textures and images of the cities of Tokyo and London through this experimental process.
The City as a Layer of Texture
Cities are formed by myriad textures layered at multiple scales. At the microscopic scale, we find rugged asphalt, rough railway bridges, bumpy stone walls, sticky doughnuts, gloomy moss, crispy fallen leaves, fish shop fronts lined with glistening fish, shiny electronic billboards and smooth curtain walls. From a macroscopic point of view, we can find a jumbled-up building, a lumpy green space, and a knobby office building.
The German philosopher Walter Benjamin pointed out that we usually experience urban space in a state of distraction, without paying particular attention to those diverse textures. Benjamin argues that this reception of our urban space is "tactile". We create images of the city in us not only by physically touching textures with our hand, but also by looking and listening to them in a caressing way - in other words, it is a resonance between different sensory.
The Japanese artist Tomoharu Makabe's "Urban Frottage" in the 1970s is an example of an attempt to capture the image of a city through collecting the textures. Frottage is a technique in which a pencil is rubbed over a piece of paper placed on an object to transfer its bumps. Makabe used this technique to collect textures such as manholes, asphalt, and wire meshes in an attempt to capture the changing cityscapes of Tokyo during the high economic growth period of the 1970s.
This project revisits Makabe's Urban Frottage using photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is a 3D scanning technique which reconstructs a digital model of a target object from processing photographs of a target object from various angles. No special equipment is needed to take the source photographs, and 50 to 100 photos taken with a handheld smartphone can create a highly accurate digital model. Whereas the scale of the target object is limited depending on the size of the paper in Urban Frottage, photogrammetry has no scale limitations. By updating the tools from paper and pencil with smartphone, a new image of the city in the information society will emerge.
New Texture of the City
The world is currently experiencing a sense of anxiety about touching all kinds of surfaces. This anxiety will have a major impact on how we perceive textures of the city. In contrast to Urban Frottage, where paper was placed directly on the surface of an object and a pencil was physically rubbed against it, photogrammetry transfers texture to the object without physically touching it, as the digital eye virtually scratches its surface.
The collected textures are reassembled into a relief in digital space and reconstructed in physical space with a Japanese paper material taking advantage of digital fabrication and papier mache technique. The texture maps of the digital models are projected onto the surface of the Japanese paper. Through the interaction between physical space and digital space, this project conceives the future of textures in the city.
TOSHIKI HIRANO Designer
Hirano is an architectural designer based in Tokyo. He is Project Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Sekisui House – Kuma Lab at the University of Tokyo, renamed after the official retirement of Kengo Kuma as Professor of Architecture in 2020. Hirano holds a Bachelor’s degree from Kyoto University (2009) and received his Master of Architecture degree from Princeton University (2012), where he was awarded the Suzanne Kolarik Underwood Prize. He has taught a design studio with Kengo Kuma at the University of Tokyo, and worked on numerous Kuma Lab projects including “Bamboo Ring” at the V&A. Hirano has been organising an annual exhibition “Japanese Junction”, showcasing studio projects from universities around the world. He is a licensed architect and holds a PhD. Still in his 30s, Hirano represents the new generation of design in Japan, pursuing the spirit of experimentation and innovation that pervaded the Kuma Lab, but pushing this exploration in his own direction by focusing on the use of synthetic/digital materials and their uncanny qualities, enhanced by his interest in philosophy. WEBSITE
CLARE FARROW Curator
Clare Farrow is an interdisciplinary curator and writer, founder of Clare Farrow Studio. An art historian and former magazine editor in London and Paris, she has contributed to Blueprint, Dezeen, Parkett, Roca Gallery and other platforms, specialising in architecture, art, design and music. She is also the author of numerous publications, including “Parallel Structures: Art, Dance and Music”. Her multi-sensory exhibitions include “Childhood ReCollections: Memory in Design” (2015-16) and “Timber Rising” (2018-19 with Studio Woode) for Roca London and Barcelona Galleries; and in 2018-19 she curated “Memory & Light” by composer Arvo Pärt and Arup, and “Bamboo Ring: Weaving into Lightness” by Kengo Kuma, both for London Design Festival at the V&A. In 2020 she co-curated the first MSCTY Expo of architecture and music for London Design Festival and in 2021, in addition to the Japan Pavilion by Toshiki Hirano for London Design Biennale at Somerset House, she is curating “Bamboo Ring” by Kengo Kuma for Milan Design Week, reinventing it with the addition of music. She has a special interest in Japanese design and philosophy.
NICK LUSCOMBE MSCTY Studio
MSCTY (Musicity), founded by BBC 3 radio presenter, music curator and field recordist Nick Luscombe, seeks to encourage people to explore the city musically, architecturally and experientially by commissioning musicians and sound artists to compose original tracks in response to a building, design, area or aspect of the city that inspires them. He has worked with Kengo Kuma in Japan, and commissioned violinist and composer Midori Komachi to create a response to Kengo Kuma’s “Bamboo Ring: Weaving a Symphony of Lightness & Form” for Milan Design Week 2021, curated by Clare Farrow Studio. WEBSITE
JAMES GREER MSCTY Studio
A sound explorer whose “field recordings explore new territories” (Morning Star), James is especially interested in using his ever-increasing archive of sound recordings as the source for new music. He has released on MSCTY, Nonclassical, Squib Box, and more. Alongside Nick Luscombe he is part of the Tokyo-based MSCTY Studio unit. WEBSITE
Partners MA Interior Design at the Royal College of Art and MSCTY Studio.
With special thanks to Professor Graeme Brooker, Vicky Richardson, and MA Interior Design students at the Royal College of Art, London: Caroline Bang, Rita Louis, Lu Yan, Vanda Hajizadeh, Zhengxiao Wang, Liuxi Lin, Lisa Breschi, Yajing Ding, Ken Man and Xihe Chen
Reinventing Texture: Japan
Interview by Clare Farrow, Curator
CF: It’s been a great pleasure and a long journey (through this pandemic period of endless uncertainty) to curate “Reinventing Texture” with you. Can you believe it is finally happening?
Ontology of Holes, art installation at Yamamoto Gendai, Tokyo.TH: It was indeed a long project, despite its scale. I remember the journey started when we met at the café inside the Royal Academy of Arts in the fall of 2019, after we had finished Kengo Kuma’s installation at the V&A in London. You were the curator and I was the project leader for Kuma. I showed you some of my projects for the first time then, and this installation piece in which I investigated uncanny qualities of fake materials in particular [faux fur and gravel], led to the theme of texture.
CF: Responding to the London Design Biennale’s theme of “Resonance”, why did you choose Japanese Washi paper as the central material for “Reinventing Texture”?
TH: To answer this question, I have looked back at our initial correspondences at the very beginning of the project, and found what I wrote in one of the emails to you:
“After I read the director’s statement of the Biennale, I was very impressed by its not only mentioning the positive aspects of the concept of Resonance but also the negative ones (ironically, we are facing the negative side of resonance by the spread of Coronavirus!).
Having said this, I started thinking about if we can implement the concept of “Non-Resonance” while pursuing the interactions between textures/materials/sounds. I’m just writing this concept randomly, thus I don't have a specific idea how to implement this, but it would be interesting if we can somehow create a moment where elements in the project no longer interact with the viewers as they expect and start to behave on their own. It must be the moment where the viewers realise that what they understand about the things are only a fraction of what the things really are, where the viewers have glimpses of the non-resonant hidden side of the things. Having an acoustic aspect (I intentionally use the word acoustic here not to limit to music) might be quite interesting to implement this idea.”
First concept sketch by Hirano.This was written in February 2020, way before I came up with the idea of 3D scanning and papier-mâché, but this line of thought was already forming a base concept of the project. I chose Japanese Washi paper as the main material because there’s a quality which allures people, but at the same time there’s also a mysterious side in the material.
CF: The Washi paper has come from Awagami Factory in Japan. How did you choose which Washi paper to use?
Kozo washi paper from Awagami Factory.TH: Washi paper has different colours, thicknesses and strength, depending on which factory it is from. The one I used in the project is made of unbleached fibres of kōzo plants and it has a beautiful custard-white colour. Fibres of kōzo plants are longer and thicker than fibres of other plants used for Washi paper, which makes the paper strong. The paper has a smooth surface on the front side and rough on the back, and I chose to use the back side to create more shades in the relief’s surface.
CF: Is experimentation the fundamental principle of the Sekisui House – Kuma Lab? And does this kind of experimentation lead to new thinking & practice in architecture? Is this the continued ambition of the laboratory at The University of Tokyo?
TH: Projects that I led in the Kuma Lab were mainly focusing on exploring new materiality in architecture through the use of digital technologies and traditional techniques. What I’ve been doing as an individual designer is to push this exploration further, focusing more on the use of synthetic/digital materials and their uncanny qualities.
CF: What draws you to certain materials?
TH: The reason why I’m interested in fake materials like faux fur and gravel is because there’s a latent tension within them, which makes the materials uncanny. It’s a tension between how they look (natural) and what they are actually are (artificial).
CF: Can you explain your interest in “frottage” and its history in Japan?
Scanned model.TH: The technique of frottage was invented by the Surrealist artist Max Ernst. Ernst used a pencil or crayon to rub over a piece of paper placed on various surfaces, such as metal mesh or a piece of wood, to transfer their textures. The Japanese artist Tomoharu Makabe employed this technique to collect textures in the 1970s in Tokyo, and he coined the term “Urban Frottage”. It was an attempt to document the rapidly transforming city of Tokyo during the high economic growth period of the 1970s. (For instance, Kisho Kurokawa’s famous Nakagin Capsule Tower was built in 1972.)
In this project I revisited Makabe’s “Urban Frottage” and updated the technique with a modern technology of 3D scanning called photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is a 3D scanning technique which reconstructs a digital model of a target object from processing photographs of the object from various angles. No special equipment is needed to take the source photographs, and 50 to 100 photos taken with a handheld smartphone can create a highly accurate digital model. While the scale of the target object is limited in Urban Frottage, depending on the size of the paper, photogrammetry has no scale limitations. By updating the tools from paper and pencil to smartphones, I thought that a new image of the city in the information society would emerge.
CF: In what way have you been influenced by the writings of German philosopher Walter Benjamin in coming up with the “Reinventing Texture” design concept?
TH: In Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction there’s a section where he discusses how people perceive different forms of art in modern society. He points out that we usually experience urban and architectural space in a state of distraction, without paying particular attention to those diverse textures. What I found really interesting is that Benjamin describes this reception of the urban space as “tactile”; we create images of the city in us not only by actually touching textures with our hand, but also by looking and listening to them in a caressing way – in other words, it is a resonance between different sensory perceptions.
CF: So, what you are saying is that the experience of texture does not have to be about touch. Does this fact suggest new possibilities in terms of interacting with, and designing for, the city – especially in the post-pandemic world?
TH: One observation related to this issue is that in contrast to Urban Frottage, where paper was placed directly on the surface of an object and a pencil was physically rubbed against it, photogrammetry transfers texture to the object without physically touching it, as the digital eye of a lens virtually scratches its surface. This has an interesting resonance with Benjamin’s understanding of the tactile reception of the urban space, and I feel that there is an implication of how our perception will change.
I think that the direct impacts of the Covid pandemic on the built environment that we are witnessing, such as face masks, clear partition walls and others, should fade away rather quickly. However, I think there are significant indirect/latent impacts on our sensitivities that could last much longer and affect our cultures, and eventually how the city is. I don’t think those impacts are something that can be verbally described, but I do hope that the multi-sensory experience of this project is effective in addressing the issues.
CF: Can you describe how you approached the collection of objects and textures in the streets of Tokyo during 2020? What were you actively searching for, or did you keep an open mind as you set out? You photographed traditional, kitsch and everyday objects, and also more abstract textures, playing with scale, meaning and juxtapositions. Did you want to achieve a visual balance or was there a random aspect to your approach?
Hirano exploring the city.TH: As the pandemic hit Tokyo in the spring of 2020, I got stuck in Tokyo and couldn’t travel anywhere out of the city. It became unnecessary for me even to go out of my home, since all meetings and classes went online. Going out without any particular reason was not encouraged (but not prohibited) by the government under a state of emergency. So, scanning and collecting elements became a good excuse for me to go out! I tried to cover as many areas as possible: Marunouchi, Asakusa, Roppongi, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Kichijo-ji, Akasaka, etc.
What I have found interesting is that the way I see the city completely changed during the process. Things that I usually dismiss became more visible – things that are usually banal or kitsch – but I think that these kinds of elements play an important role in making “a” city “the” city. This might also be because the city was deserted due to the state of emergency.
I also tried to make the selection random and didn’t want to focus on a specific scale and quality when collecting objects, as I think the city is formed by diverse textures layered at multiple scales.
CF: There is an element of Pop Art in the finished 3D colour model, which features in your limited edition prints – do you recognise this? It’s interesting how you’ve included letters and words too.
TH: This is certainly because both Pop Art and this project use collage as a fundamental technique, although one is analogue and the other is digital. I like works by James Rosenquist, and what is interesting about his paintings is that collaged elements are not completely autonomous but they are fusing with each other to a degree that you can still read what each element is. This makes Rosenquist’s paintings so dynamic and animated. I wanted to achieve the same effect in this project, to grasp the dynamic atmosphere of the city.
Scanned model by a student.CF: How did you collaborate with MA Interior Design students at the Royal College of Art?
TH: I held an online workshop for the students at the Royal College of Art in London. I taught them how to do photogrammetry, and asked them to collect elements from the city of London just as I was doing in Tokyo. What they collected creates interesting tensions with the elements from Tokyo.
CF: What can 3D scanning contribute to the future of architecture and design?
Papier-mâché dolls.TH: One of the most challenging things in this project was to handle the highly complex, unrationalised forms of 3D-scanned objects. Architecture has a limited ability to handle those kinds of forms and has been stuck with rationalised/simplified forms, even with the use of computers, due to the discipline’s long history of its ties to rationalisation. This project can be read as one of the attempts to break away from this long tradition of the discipline and to explore the new aesthetics of architecture.
CF: How did you transform these collected textures and objects into the relief as we see it?
Modelling process.TH: I put all the scanned models into a 3D modelling software, and collaged them into a long relief. The models were scaled and de-formed: large objects were scaled down and became parts of the whole grain, while small objects were scaled up and became figural; but at the same time some objects were kept at their original scale. This play of scale will create a confounding effect for the visitors.
CF: Did you experiment with different methods of creating the moulds for the papier-mâché?
CNC milling process.TH: Yes, I did a quick research about how complex forms are fabricated with paper in different traditional techniques, then attempted to employ those techniques into digital fabrication. In the end I picked up a technique to produce paper dolls, and carved out the form of the digital model from Styrofoam blocks by CNC milling in a factory, using these as moulds for the papier-mâché. However, I don’t like the fact that the moulds became useless after the paper forms were detached from them, so I want to continue the research and invent a technique to do this without moulds.
CF: Once you had the moulds back in the lab, can you explain how (after digital fabrication) you used your hands in the most traditional way to create the papier-mâché panels?
Papier-mâché process.TH: I pasted patches of Washi paper soaked in glue on to the moulds. I applied three layers in total: a first layer without glue, to make the panels easier to be detached from the moulds; a second layer with glue, to bind the patches of the first layer; then a third layer for the finishing. It took me almost 200 hours to finish pasting. After this, the panels were carefully detached from the moulds.
CF: Where did you learn the traditional papier-mâché technique?
Physical model of Hirano’s project at Kyoto University.TH: I only realised this after I finished the production, but I actually made a model of my project in the first design studio at the school in Kyoto University using the papier-mâché technique! Back then, there was no digital fabrication facility in the school and I was desperate to find a way to make a translucent organic shape, and somehow bumped into the papier-mâché technique, which kids learn to make lampshades using balloons as moulds in primary schools.
CF: The Washi wall relief in itself resonates with all these urban textures. What do the colour projections add to the visitor experience, and how will they work in the natural light?
Hirano detaching a relief panel from a mould.TH: The relief is 8 metres in length, curving along three sides of the room, on panels separated from the walls by a small gap. With untrained eyes it is difficult to tell what each part of the relief is, since the entire surface is covered by a single material, the Washi paper. So, you will feel as if you are surrounded by a cryptic monolith floating in the air. The projections will cast texture maps of the scanned objects on to the surface of the relief, alluding to the hidden nature behind each part of the relief. The windows in the room are not covered, so the natural light will come in. I know this is almost a taboo for projection mappings as the natural light will dim the projected images. But I think that the dimmed projection works well with the subtle texture of Washi paper. I also wanted to make the relief constantly change its mood, depending on the time of day or weather conditions.
CF: How did the sound collaboration with MSCTY Studio begin?
TH: I remember that I met Nick Luscombe for the first time at The University of Tokyo, at the beginning of 2020, and we talked about the idea of creating an immersive and interactive sound environment. After the idea of 3D scanning elements of the city came up in summer 2020, we started thinking about what to do with the sound and reached the idea of playing collected sounds in the city.
CF: Do the recorded sounds resonate with your own experience of Tokyo?
MSCTY studio working on field recording. (courtesy of MSCTY)TH: Yes, but not limited to that. There are some interesting juxtapositions between the sounds and the collaged elements on the relief, like a sound of buying a can of soda from a street vending machine, with a vending machine itself on the relief; or a sound of the background music inside a convenience store and a pack of sushi purchased from a store on the relief. There are also some crossovers between Tokyo and London, like a sound of the Tokyo subway train and a seat on the London tube. But some sound elements are independent from the relief.
CF: How do you hope visitors will experience the sound collage in relation to the Washi relief?
TH: I hope that the sounds will make visitors feel as if there is a hidden ecosystem behind the relief, with elements talking to each other.
CF: KP Acoustics, the main sponsor of “Reinventing Texture”, is also designing and programming the interactive sensor system. How do you think this sound element, created by Panos Tsagkarakis of KP Acoustics, will add to the visitor experience?
TH: The multiple sensors embedded around the room will collect information on visitors’ locations inside the space and play different sound pieces. I hope visitors will feel as if they are being watched by the elements in the relief.
CF: A QR code in the exhibition space will take viewers to the Japan Pavilion website, with more information about the project. Is there an opportunity there to see footage of your creative process?
TH: Yes. I have created a short trailer documenting the whole process and you can watch it on the pavilion’s website.
CF: Our discussions, teamwork and partnerships have all been done remotely, via email and Zoom, including the Photogrammetry workshops with MA Interior Design students at the Royal College of Art in November 2020. Has the project shown you what can be done, in an international sense, through digital technology?
Zoom screen from the workshop with MA Interior Design Royal College of Art.TH: Before the pandemic, it wasn’t this easy to organise international workshops since there was an implicit assumption that we have to meet in person, therefore you had to figure out all kinds of logistics like air fares, accommodations, and visas. But the pandemic forced us to take away this assumption and this has had a huge impact on education. I can invite someone from Los Angeles and someone from London for my online studio review or lecture at The University of Tokyo, just one week before! That really accelerates international collaboration.
CF: The project has been a collaboration between Japan and the UK, in terms of our supporters too. Do you think this meeting of two cities will highlight the similarities as well as the differences between Tokyo and London?
TH: Yes, I think so.
CF: “Reinventing Texture” is a kind of journey, both playful and poignant, at a time when travel between Japan and the UK is not possible. If you cannot come to London in June, because of the Covid travel restrictions, do you hope to come in the near future, perhaps to do other projects?
TH: Yes, there are lots of interesting things in arts and culture happening in London which I’m keen to play a role in, and this project is definitely a springboard for this.
Limited Edition Prints.CF: Can you describe the limited edition prints that you have created for “Reinventing Texture”, which we hope will enable the project to travel elsewhere, after the Biennale?
TH: Yes, I printed an elevation rendering of the relief, on the same Washi paper that I used in the papier-mâché. And I have included a quote by Walter Benjamin.
CF: Thank you.
JUNE 3rd: Hirano's Online Talk at The Japan Foundation Thu, 3 Jun 2021, 13:00BST REGISTR HERE
Hirano will give a talk followed by fellow architect and co-founder of Pareid, Déborah Lopez, and will be moderated by Sarah Mineko Ichioka, director of Desire Lines (Singapore).
JUNE 16th: Reinventing Texture: In the Streets of Tokyo and London Wed, 16 Jun 2021, 13:30BST REGISTR HERE
In “Reinventing Texture”, curated by Clare Farrow Studio, architectural designer Toshiki Hirano uses 3D scanning and digital fabrication to transform the ancient art of Japanese Washi paper-making into a material for the 21st century, capturing urban textures, objects and sounds in the streets of Tokyo. The result is an extraordinary piece for the Pavilion of Japan at LDB2021.
Moderated by interdisciplinary curator and writer Clare Farrow and with an introduction by main sponsor KP Acoustics, the panel brings together Toshiki Hirano, architectural designer and Co-director of the Sekisui House – Kuma Lab at The University of Tokyo, Vicky Richardson (Royal Academy), Nick Luscombe (BBC 3 radio presenter and founder of MSCTY Studio), Professor Graeme Brooker (Royal College of Art) and Craig Anczelowitz (Awagami Factory, Japan).
Support for the Future of the Project
We are currently planning to launch a crowdfunding to enable the project to travel to another venue after the Biennale.
Limited edition prints will be available - more details to follow.