November 11th, 2008
This Friday we went to the 10th anniversary party of an engineering office called Structured Environment, which was founded here in Tokyo by a talented engineer named Alan Burden. Our connection to the office is simply that Alan was the engineer who helped us figure out the structure for the yoyogi house.
At the reception desk for the party we were given a small ringed booklet that compiled 10 years of his work, which is pretty impressive. It was also interesting as the work of the office tends to be for buildings that fit into the Architecture (note the Capital A) category, in which the engineering is as refined as the architectural concept. Which is sadly not all that common. Perhaps even less common in Japan than in other countries, as architects here often do their own engineering. The reason for this is simply that all architects in this country are officially licensed as structural engineers rather than as architects. Some just happen to choose to practice as architects or designers rather than as engineers.
The upshot of this state of affairs is that it is never a foregone conclusion that a specialised engineer, in the Western sense, will even be involved in most of the projects going up in the city. The first Japanese office I worked for never hired an engineer but did all their work in house,and expected us all to learn how to do the math and to produce the engineers drawings. For me that experience was invaluable, but also taught me that engineering truly is an art, and that collaboration with someone who likes to push the limits of engineering as much as we enjoy pushing the limits of program can make architecture truly stand out.
While it is essential that an architect have some sense of how to design a building’s structure holistically, the knowledge that the work will be made better by a creative engineering team is actually pretty liberating at the design stage of a project. Instead of working within our own limits we get to expand our limits to those of the the team. Which is maybe a good reason for teaching architecture as a collaborative process, rather than as an effort of the individual. The difference when a good engineer is working with an architect is really something. The examples of Cecil Balmond, and the techno-wizardry of offices like Arup and Matsuro Sasaki are the more famous examples. I would say that Structured environment is working in the same direction as these great firms, and hopefully they will get the opportunity to let more people know about their work in the near future.
Apart from working with us, Structured Environment has also partnered with some rather famous architects on genuinely seminal pieces. After ten years the list of collaborators is pretty long, including Diller and Scofidio, Richard Rogers, and more recently Ryue Nishizawa (of SANAA). I can’t pretend to know how much of the process is collaborative and how much the engineer’s hand is visible in the final works for any of these firms specifically, but I imagine there was some real interaction going on, even in the smaller projects.
That engineers and architects see the world in different ways is pretty obvious however. I love to look at the portfolios of engineers, because the pictures are always of buildings under construction, the finished building is alost irrelevant. Engineering is perhaps focused more on process than any other profession. Results matter but the way the results are achieved is just as important.
Alan’s website certainly proves the rule. While the completed buildings are shown, the bulk of the images for each project revel in the act of construction. Which is great. A lot is revealed in the construction process that we foget about when a building is done. So much so that I kind of wonder why in architecture school we only ever get slide shows of finished buildings. By that point we are reduced to analysing the architecture like psycho-analysts, probing the surface from the outside where the best we can do is guess.
Here are a few examples of projects from the Structured Envirnment website:
Towered flats – milligram studio
Moriyama house – Ryue Nishizawa
Changing the subject entirely, for those of you who don’t know this last project, the Moriyama house (by Ryue Nishizawa, partner of Kazuyo Sejima in SANAA) is an extreme example of how architects in Japan are beginning to tackle the problem of building in a city that simply refuses to be anything other than urban. It literally explodes the functions of daily life across a site that is unashamedly open to its surroundings. The idea is amazing. Its execution is extreme, with some of the rooms/houses on the site containing nothing more than a toilet or a sink. In this case the impact of the design depends on how immaterial the buildings can be made. Which is interesting in itself, but I guess also brings us back full circle to the role of the engineer in making great architecture. Even here, where the building is almost non-existent (for what I would say are cultural and theoretical reasons) the engineer’s necessary fascination with efficiency becomes the architect’s aesthetic.
Which is a pretty interesting state of affairs.