The Fifth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2003
Berkeley Prize 2003

Ema Bonifacic

A place for familiar rather than foreign visitors: Project for a Bus Shelter, Koshirakura, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

"Ulrich hesitated for an instant. He was doubtless a believing person who just didn't believe in anything. Even in his greatest dedication to science he had never managed to forget that people's goodness and beauty come from what they believe, not from what they know. But faith had always been bound up with knowledge, even if that knowledge was illusory, ever since those primordial days of its magic beginnings. That ancient knowledge has long since rotted away, dragging belief down with it into the same decay, so that today the connection must be established anew. Not, of course, by raising faith 'to the level of knowledge', but by still in some way making it take flight from that height. The art of transcending knowledge must again be practiced. ... For what he meant by the term 'faith' was not so much that stunted desire to know, the credulous ignorance that is what most people take it to be, but rather a knowledgeable intuition, something that is neither knowledge nor fantasy, but is not faith either; it is just that 'something else' which eludes all these concepts." 'The Man Without Qualities', Robert Musil

There is no 'look' to architecture of cultural or social value. It is not something which is easily learned from a book nor from other typically defined sources of 'knowledge'. Responsive to the particularities of a situation of people and place, it is precisely this merit which keeps such architecture also elusive, difficult to document or define in some generic or canonic fashion. It is thus to our creativity in learning that all possibilities rest. If knowledge is not simply about knowing but about experiencing and belief, then we are already released into the realm of 'knowledgeable intuition': a tremendous source charging the nature of our response architecturally to the circumstances of life. Yet even Ulrich offers us no solution, he offers us a challenge inclusive of 'today' being always today (how contemporary 'urgency' remains...), a challenge to reconsider belief - not by discarding that which has passed, but by transcending that which is too easily accepted. It could be said, in another way, that discourse must be made active.

 

Bruno Munari, Italian artist and designer, makes a workshop for children. Among other activities, the children stand in a courtyard or leaning out of open windows. Their arms are stretched up toward the sky, their eyes are laughing. Around, above, in front of them strips of white paper spin, hesitate, float, glide. Enchanted, you ask Munari, What is this?! He replies, "Making The Air Visible".

Kurt Hahn, distinguished educator, and Air Marshall Sir Lawrence Darvall, former Commandant of the NATO Defence College in Paris, make a school. With the support of the United Nations and individuals such as the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the first United World College is established in 1962 in a remote location on the Atlantic coast of Wales. Students of 16 and 17 years of age, regardless of race, creed, color, background or financial ability, are brought together from over 70 countries around the world to live, study and explore together the ideals of cooperation and international understanding through active service to others. Over the years, nine more UWCs are established in countries on all five continents. The Colleges exist from the idealistic conviction of these young people, their commitment, openness and will to act. 'Students do not "come to the College" - they become the College'. Engaged, you ask Kahn, What is this?! He replies, quoting a post-war grafitti in a churchyard in Belgium, "plus est en vous" (there is more in you). Intrigued, you ask Lester B. Pearson, What is this?! He replies, "How can there be peace without people understanding each other and how can this be if they don't know each other?"

Air. Peace. How can we answer to such large phenomena? How can we even begin to understand? Herman Hertzberger, in his introduction to "Lessons for Students in Architecture", cites Brancusi saying: " Les choses ne sont pas difficiles a faire, ce qui est difficile, c'est de nous mettre en etat de les faire." (Things are not difficult to do, that which is difficult is to put ourselves in the state to do them).

Both Munari and Kahn offer what are actually practical responses to complex notions. And it is from this simplicity and practicality that poetic and meaningful relations are articulated and realised. Munari and Kahn demonstrate the importance of creating for others the opportunity to gain for themselves an awareness of the nature of things which support our existence, as well as the ability to address our desires for things with whose nature we want to live. This, as they show, does not have to be a rational understanding - it can be something very sensual, very intuitive, but which is dependent on experiences which both challenge and nurture our tactile, emotional, visual perceptiveness. Equally, it is an encouragement of communication: opening ourselves to experiences gives us inspiration and strength, it brings us precisely into this State of Doing, of Making, of Action.

 

In the summer of 1997, a small group of students designed and constructed the first and only bus shelter for the residents of the remote village of Koshirakura, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. The small population of the village means that the youngest inhabitants are taken by bus to school in the next town, with the eldest villagers meeting in the late afternoon to await their grandchildren's return. The request, from the residents themselves, was for the provision of a shelter for these moments of waiting through all seasons, be it during the sun-filled approach of summer or amidst the overwhelming meters of winter snow.

During the humid days and nights that month of August, the students joined in the life of the valley and its residents, finding themselves increasingly filled with inspiration, techniques, and sincere purpose for their contribution to the village. Sited near the top of the single road leading down through the village, the bus shelter, like the local houses, is made to open itself out in the summer while offering seating and shade, and likewise close up in the winter, while still providing a way to watch for the arrival of the bus and the falling of the snow. In the summer of 2000, an increase in school-aged children since the initial construction led to the necessity of an extension to this bus shelter. A new group of students took on the proposal, collaborating from backgrounds of Canada, Croatia, Germany, Japan, England, Hong Kong and Sweden. What we made is perhaps best described simply as the borrowing of three large boulders, from the local river, which in the summer support a framed view over the hills surrounding the village and which in winter support a traditional mud oven upon which water for tea is boiled and a wood bench is warmed.

Arrival in Tokyo and unbelievable August heat. Trains, four, each with fewer carriages from the last, take us away, bring us closer. A drive from the provincial station of Tokamachi to the village of Koshirakura later becomes a familiar route, although somehow those tremendous greens of the first moments are never glimpsed in the same way again. There is dense vegetation, heavy with moisture, everywhere. The village is quiet. It is just another afternoon. With time, it becomes evident that this quiet actually means that everyone is busy, and the valley landscape they inhabit absorbs any sounds in the meantime. The village is peculiar in the region primarily for the fact that there are actually families living here. In many of the other villages, it is only the elderly who remain - most of the younger generations move to the towns and cities, leaving behind an increasing number of ghost villages. Koshirakura, however, has a very strong sense of community, and although some of the elder children do leave for studies in Tokyo, many remain and young families continue to establish their lives here. The home industries are impressive. All highly skilled at their work, the locals each have their own specialty, ranging from very technological production of electronic parts, to carp rearing, mushroom cultivation, and specialized carpentry. The built houses in which these activities take place are often a mix of old and new -authentic, traditional materials and constructions continue to predominate, however, many extensions, often with rather temporary, new materials such as corrugated steel and plastic, are visible as well. It seems to be a general attitude: the eldest villagers who still cultivate the local land can be seen going to and from the fields on their Honda Cub90s, large woven baskets strapped firmly to their backs.

Our site is a crossroad of many pathways: private, public, of man, of nature. Water on its way down the hill, the sun, the wind, the snow; vehicles on the asphalt road in front, to the back, people taking a shortcut on the dirt slope instead of following the excessively winding road which must serve the entire village. It is also the meeting point of the eldest and youngest inhabitants, a place where they are together, alone, and outside of any other situation in their larger daily family life. At this elevated point in the small valley, the site is also a special sort of gateway: an entrance to the village it is also a distinctive experience of the landscape - the view from this point seems not to 'touch' anything, it is floating above the trees, the houses, the carp pools, the mist which settles in late night until early morning. Physically though the site has certain restrictions: the existing shelter is set almost against the road to the front, to one side there is an electricity pole not to be obstructed, to the other side the well used dirt pathway, and just behind, a dramatic slope. Our ambition, to provide extra seating as well as comfort according to the season, prompts us to take advantage of the situation. Keeping the existing wood slat floor but removing the angled corrugated plastic at the backside of the shelter, we propose an extension which opens out as a simple, shared verandah, accessible only through the current structure. By doing so, the orientation of seating inside the shelter is face to face rather than side by side. Such access also means that the frame of our construction has more options of being clad or likewise being left open. It is decided that the seating will double as insulation: closed on all sides from floor to bench level and constructed with traditional mud wall techniques, the wood slab of the bench seat is supported by the oven itself. The solid walls of the verandah continue up beyond the seat level to meet either ledge of back or, in the summer, lounging arm and gaze across the valley. From that point up until the level of the roof, the verandah can be completely open or closed on all sides. Structural timbers frame the open summer view and in winter carry the de-mountable wood shuttering, typical of the region and protecting from the snow which often builds up to roof level.

Timber left over from construction of the initial shelter is used for the structural frame. The best option is to construct only with japanese joints. A professional joiner works with us one day, giving advice and techniques. Special red dirt necessary for the mud mixture is brought to us kindly from a local man who also takes us in the back of his truck to collect a particular hay from another neighbor. He shows us some of the very old mud buildings in the village, mostly the family storehouses for valuables and heirlooms, and then assists us in making our first mixture. Despite wishing to cantilever above the sloping ground, we find we are unable to build structurally off of the original bus shelter. An unusual foundation of three large boulders, varying in size to adapt to the uneven ground, prove to offer the solution - solid but not recognizable purely as structure, they allow our verandah to remain floating above the ground. The morning after our night visit to the river, three old men pass by walking on their way to a funeral in the next village. They smile at us, and in an approving tone chatter together to us, "ah, so we see you borrowed some nice, strong stones from the river!"... Energy is given to us in many forms - food, tea, electricity, a massage, tools, questions and comments while we work, and even after we work through the last night hammering down the new lead roof, friendly smiles and jokes greet us in the morning. Perhaps, though, there is slightly too much pleasure taken in pouring us sake at 8 o'clock that same morning, part of the traditional commencement of the local Maple Tree Festival.

The first visit of the grandmothers into our small verandah extension to the bus shelter where they await their grandchildren's return from school. I believe that I may never be able to say whether it was more significant for us as a gesture toward the space we had created for them, or as a gesture toward the whole notion of public space, but they all took their shoes off as they entered. Overwhelmed, I ask...

 

The making of this bus shelter is a small event in a village so remote it will certainly be a place for familiar rather than foreign visitors. The nature of this project, however, could be anywhere. It is described here not to expose a particular culture or place. Rather, it is an articulation, through the medium of architectural activity, of the significance of our conscious efforts as individuals: choosing to participate, choosing to create such occasions, to recognize and support the initiatives of others, to involve, to expose. It is from this 'height' that we may take flight, for the experiences resulting are often so strong precisely because they are beyond our conscious intentions. Perceptiveness and response through our work will increasingly be with the knowledgeable intuition of a true individual: one who recognizes, interacts, and with pleasure depends on the presence and activity of all other individuals and forces.

If the challenge is taken to accept the responsibility of believing, our work will demand us to actively make conditions, on a personal and public level, for a 'meeting' of the notions of life and living, activities which cannot be exclusively man or earth, now or then, here or there, but rather a dynamic and sensitive collaboration.

 

 

 

 

 

References:

Balcells, C./Bru, J. Al Lado De:Limites,Bordes y Fronteras(Alongside:Boundaries,Borders and Frontiers).Barcelona:Editorial Gustavo Gili,2002.

Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Hamburg:Rowholt Verlag GmbH,1978.(English translation-Great Britain:Alfred A. Knopf Inc,1995);esp. pp.897/898.

Oliver, Paul(ed.). Shelter and Society.Great Britain:Design Yearbook Limited,1969.

Rudofsky, Bernard. Architecture Without Architects. New York:Museum of Modern Art,1964.

Tanchis, Aldo. Bruno Munari: Design as Art. Italy:Idea Books Edizioni,1986.(English edition-US:MIT Press,1987)

Special Thanks to the village of Koshirakura, the regional government of Niigata, and Shin Egashira.


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Ema Bonifacic, Architectural Association School of Architecture, UK
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