Learning from Japanese Structural Design: Reflections on the Symposium

MoMA’s exhibit on Japanese architecture (through July 31, 2016) examines the “constellation” of influence in the country’s early-21st-century architecture and design community, but perhaps not so explicit in the exhibit are 1) the structural engineers’ parallel relationships of influence and 2) the structural engineer’s role in collaborating with architects to produce these works. In an effort to explore these characteristics of structural engineering influence in Japan, Prof. Guy Nordenson (of Princeton University and Guy Nordenson and Associates) and Prof. John Ochsendorf (of MIT) organized a symposium, titled “Structured Lineages: Learning from Japanese Structural Design,” which brought together some of the top structural designers from both Europe and the US for discussion.

Most of the lectures presented by the guests focused on the works and experiences of specific Japanese structural designers and educators such as Yoshikatsu Tsuboi, Mamoru Kawaguchi, Masao Saitoh, Gengo Matsui, Toshihiko Kimura, and Mutsuro Sasaki. Each half of the symposium brought the speakers together for a vibrant panel discussion moderated by our Prof. Sigrid Adriaenssens and MIT’s Prof. Caitlin Mueller. The final panel discussion welcomed Prof. Sasaki himself to the mix.

First panel discussion moderated by Prof. Adriaenssens. Left to right: Seng Kuan, Marc Mimram, Sigrid Adriaenssens, Mike Schlaich, Laurent Ney.
Second panel discussion moderated by Prof. Mueller. Left to right: Guy Nordenson, Chikara Inamura (acting as Prof. Sasaki’s interpreter), Mutsuro Sasaki, Caitlin Mueller, Jane Wernick, Bill Baker.

Several fruitful discussions and themes arose from the independently-constructed lectures. Reflecting the literal implications of “lineages,” Prof. Seng Kuan referenced the traditional lineage model in which Japanese arts and crafts get passed down for seven or more generations. As Prof. Ochsendorf demonstrated in his lecture with the help of Chikara Inamura, such a “lineage” is visible in 19th-20th century Japanese structural engineering:


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Depiction of influences in 19th-20th century Japanese structural engineering. Adapted from Chikara Inamura’s diagram as appearing in Prof. Ochsendorf’s lecture

Simultaneously, as Prof. Adriaenssens points out in the panel discussion, “lineages” can evoke a different concept—one of interfacing. “What conditions allow mentees to step outside previous teachings?” she asks guest speakers, referring to how “anxiety of influence” affects both Japanese structural engineers and the speakers themselves.

Prof. Marc Mimram comments that while the Japanese seem comfortable with imitation, such imitation is highly discouraged in France, his own country. This drive for originality in France propels the motivation to take risks. Prof. Kuan cites other motivations for risk-taking in Japan: the construction industry is organized differently and has an immense capacity to verify projects at earlier stages of the design process. This may, in part, additionally explain what Bill Baker observed in his lecture: the emergence of strikingly slender and elegant forms in a country that experiences immense seismic activity. The ability to take risks can ultimately lead to the possibility of more playful forms.

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A model of a column from the Sendai Mediatheque, designed by Toyo Ito & Associates and engineered by Sasaki and Partners, on exhibit at the MoMA. In his lecture, Bill Baker mentions that the structure has withstood a magnitude 9.1 earthquake.
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Model of the Meiso no Mori Crematorium (2006), designed by Toyo Ito & Associates and engineered by Sasaki and Partners, on exhibit at the MoMA.
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Risk-taking in engineering can lead to a variety of playful forms. Source: Mike Schlaich’s lecture

Japanese education is another important factor that has stimulated the country’s unique culture of exchange between architects and engineers. The Japanese term 建築 (kenchiku) refers to a single field of structural engineering and architecture. In Japanese universities, students in architecture and engineering share three years of education together in this department, a rare phenomenon in the US. (Japan is not alone in this educational model– in our interview with him, Thorsten Helbig of Knippers Helbig has cited a similar educational experience in Germany.) Prof. Ochsendorf shared with us several quotes from the University of Tokyo’s structural engineering department website:

“There is never just one solution to the problems that arise when formulating engineering plans.”

“We want our students to be ‘artists’ in the field of engineering. To that end, they are expected to have the courage and audacious creativity to draw a picture on a blank canvas.”

“Engineering is a creative discipline. The Faculty of Engineering helps students to develop their creativity by offering not only courses for deepening technical expertise but also design workshops.”

This sort of ideology, Prof. Ochsendorf comments, is a rarity at structural engineering programs of American universities. By way of comparison, he uses an anecdote from his own undergraduate days to provide a metaphor for the relationship between student engineers and student architects in the US: every year on Dragon Day, engineering students at Cornell would set the architecture students’ full-scale dragon model on fire.

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At the symposium, Prof. Ochsendorf recounts the humorous yet telling tradition of Cornell engineering students ravaging the architecture students’ dragon.

If Japanese students of engineering and architecture are brought up in the classroom together rather than constantly pitted against each other, perhaps it is no wonder that Japan features a more cooperative and intimate relationship between architect and engineer. The story between Prof. Mutsuro Sasaki and architect Toyo Ito is one heartfelt example. According to Prof. Sasaki, when entering the University of Tokyo, Ito wanted to study under engineer Tsuboi, but his math skills were not strong enough. His strengths, however, were in paintings, and he pursued design work instead. On the other hand, Sasaki excelled in math and struggled with drawings despite his passion for design and studio. Consequently, when Ito and Sasaki began to collaborate with one another, each felt a sense of mutual understanding. Prof. Sasaki asserts now that this understanding through “experiencing both engineering and design is less likely to occur when the educations begin separately.”

Education plays another role in Japanese structural engineering which is not so prevalent in the United States: virtually all of the Japanese structural engineers discussed at the symposium additionally held academic positions at universities. The symposium lectures made it clear that unique mentor-mentee relationships and influences arose from engineers being able to occupy an additional role as educator. Prof. Ochsendorf notes that Prof. Nordenson is one of the few (if not the only) practitioner-professors in the US, with his position as professor at Princeton University and head of his structural design firm Guy Nordenson and Associates. It is in fact difficult and discouraged in the US for professors outside the field of architecture to additionally be involved in practice.

The symposium brought to light many characteristics of structural engineering in Japan, primarily revolving around education, that have lent to the successes of Japan’s structures. There are lessons to be learned from these observations as we compare them against our own models.

Undergraduate students in Princeton’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department and the Form Finding Lab meet Prof. Sasaki after the symposium. Left to right: Jessica Lu ’17, Demi Fang ’17, Mutsuro Sasaki, Lu Lu ’16, Michelle Chang ’16.
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The speakers traveled from all over the world to meet at MoMA in New York City for this symposium. Left to right: Caitlin Mueller, Seng Kuan, Jane Wernick, Guy Nordenson, Marc Mimram, Mutsuro Sasaki, Bill Baker, Sigrid Adriaenssens, Yoshiyuki Hiraiwa, Mike Schlaich, Chikara Inamura, John Ochsendorf, Laurent Ney.

Thank you to Prof. Guy Nordenson and Gina Morrow at Guy Nordenson and Associates for their assistance in clarifying material for this post.

Author: Demi Fang ’17

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