Yeoryia Manolopoulou, Niall McLaughlin, Michiko Sumi

‘Limit the sprawl of cities’. ‘Use the existing building stock’. ‘Replace, build on top and in-between, but do not expand’. These phrases are increasingly used to argue that the reuse of existing buildings and the restriction of urban sprawl is the new design ‘solution’ for architecture and the city. In a world that struggles to balance the forces of modernity with the current environmental challenges and with the histories and social desires of local places, what are the possibilities and limits of keeping buildings? To chose whether or not to build, what, how and for how long, requires a continuous and in-depth understanding of the physical, social and political realm. To preserve is first of all to find, learn how to actively observe and collaborate.


The human need to keep and care for objects and places is as important as the urge to create new things. This tension is productive for architecture because it points to the limits of design. What exactly do we want to keep? Buildings? Landscapes? Experiences? Social organizations? In certain cases the continuation of meaning and experience may demand the demolition of buildings more than their conservation. In this context how, when and where can reuse be a radical design action? How can it operate within and against the authority of architecture? And is it ever necessary to make a totally clear start for buildings?


This year Unit 17 explored these questions in relation to Japan where the notion of ‘keeping things’ is cherished and handed over from generation to generation and where the Shinto Shrines are rebuilt every twenty years to symbolize both continuity and impermanence. A year ago the tsunami once again wiped out several coastal cities. How to begin again? ‘Take it from the top’ is what you say in music rehearsals when you restart after finishing or interrupting the previous attempt in order to create an improved or adjusted version. It can be used similarly in architecture to imply a symbiotic process of both keeping and changing.


The students started studying collaboratively different aspects of the Japanese contemporary society, its history and environment. In November we visited Tokyo, Sendai, Ise and Kyoto while many students also travelled to Osaka, Yokohama, Kamaishi, Ishinomaki and Tama New Town. They chose sites to carry out detailed research and develop individual design proposals. Year 4 were asked to experiment in order to open up possibilities for themes that they could bring forward to their final year whereas Year 5 brought their projects into a more complete state. Doubt and the process of constantly working between multiple and sometimes contradictory options were encouraged throughout.


Different interests aroused during the course of the year but most fall under three main categories: projects based around observations of Japanese society looking at ageing, shrinking populations, primogeniture, weddings, divorce, pilgrimage, nursery care, homelessness and teenage isolation; projects looking at the impact of natural disasters on buildings, cities and landscapes; and, finally, projects looking at the material processes, innovations and traditions of the local building culture and technology. Students researched the current architectural discourse in Japan but there is not a great deal of formal borrowing in their projects. The writings of Atelier Bow Wow, however, offered them a way into the Japanese society that was not possible through the direct emulation of other resources.


We can now observe that many of the students’ projects present Japan as a culture in crisis where economic, demographic, social and geotechnical factors combine to create a condition of almost intractable difficulty. In all of this they recognize the unique relationship between Britain and Japan in geographical, historic and financial terms. Perhaps that is why Japan is a potent place for us to visit. It is like our own place seen differently. This island off a major continental power with its history of imperialism and isolation is facing questions about twenty-first century predicaments that we are only beginning to consider.

©2019 by UNIT 17, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL