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.

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First panel discussion moderated by Prof. Adriaenssens. Left to right: Seng Kuan, Marc Mimram, Sigrid Adriaenssens, Mike Schlaich, Laurent Ney.
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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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