Cover photo

#8 Reflecting on Human-Architecture Relationship

Breaking the dualistic structure

Dear Friends,

In May, I took up residence in Gonjiro, a century-old thatched house located at the southernmost point of Chiba Prefecture in Japan. Every day, I coexisted with mosquitoes and dust, leading a fulfilling life. For details on the circumstances and changes in my mindset that brought me here, please tune in to the latest episode of my Chinese podcast, titled "#8 Sending Blessings to Every Vibrant Life - The Emotional Journey from Tokyo to Living in a Japanese Countryside Thatched House".

In this letter, I'd like to share with you the evolution of my thoughts about home and hearth, and I invite you to watch two video works I've filmed at Gonjiro: "Reviving the Golden Waves on the Roof" and "Dating with Architecture"

Documentary: Reviving the Golden Waves on the Roof

Let's rewind time back to 2016. I was in my first year of high school, standing at the crossroads of choosing a college major. Around the same year, a 50-story building began to be constructed to the north of the 6th-floor apartment of a 12-story building where I had lived since birth. This place held all the cherished memories I shared with my family. Simultaneously, construction was also underway to the south, with the daytime noise so loud that I had to shout to be heard.

During my boarding school days in high school, with mixed emotions about my old home, I read "The Poetics of Space" by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. He wrote, "The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows us to dream in peace." Through Bachelard's writings, picturesque imageries of home spaces were captured, with attics and basements described vividly. Having only lived in apartments, I couldn't quite grasp Bachelard's affirmation of the vertical value of homes, but I deeply resonated with the idea of the disconnect between urban homes and the cosmos.

In densely populated cities, the vertical expansion of living space is undoubtedly unattainable. I began to ponder, what kind of home can offer its residents a harmonious, poetic, and blissful life? This became the reason why I decided to pursue architecture.

Four years ago, in my application essay for the undergraduate architecture program at the University of Tokyo, I wrote: To provide residents with a peaceful dwelling means minimizing the designer's control and functions, allowing residents to exercise their imagination and creativity within their own space, a space for self-realization.

The Deconstruction of [Designer - Dweller]

After entering university, I moved several times in Tokyo, trying to create a residential space that resonated with my soul through personal experiments each time. From a student dormitory with added communal spaces, to a standalone house with ample free space, to a narrow rectangular space so tight that I could only lay out a futon near my school, to sharing an attic room separated by a curtain with a manager in an 8-person share house...

Each move felt like an escape. Amidst the dissonance with my "old home", I gradually realized that the inner peace I sought might not be strongly correlated with the physical design of the residence. The construct of [Designer - Dweller] was deconstructed in my mind. As I embarked on a journey of spiritual exploration, I started looking for opportunities to connect people through architecture as a medium.

In February of this year, I participated in and documented a workshop aimed at restoring collapsed dry stone walls in a Japanese mountain village. In March, I took part in and recorded a 10-day process led by the Okabe Lab at the University of Tokyo, which was focused on regenerating the roof of a century-old thatched house. This was also when I encountered Gonjiro.

A Group Photo of the Century-old Thatched House Roof Renovation

I particularly like a quote by He Zhisen, "‘Architecture’ is not a passive noun, such as a house. Instead, it represents the reconnection of empathy and association between people, and between individuals and society – the construction of a new, active societal relationship, a vocabulary of action and mobilization." Through the replacement, maintenance, and care of Gonjiro's thatch, people, the community, and nature are organically linked, forming a cyclical system. At the same time, in Gonjiro, a shared home for students, both student designers/builders and their professors become informal residents. The binary opposition of [Designer - Dweller] is shattered, integrating into a larger village system.

Deconstruction of [Designer (Human) - Object (Residence)]

After the 10-day workshop, I was deeply enchanted by Gonjiro. Professor Okabe approved my permanent stay at Gonjiro, and as of today, I have been living here for two months. Apart from my regular living days, every month professors and seniors from the research lab come for meetings and stay over; I also frequently visit neighboring homes, participating in community gatherings and cleaning activities.

At the same time, I've been continuously analyzing my relationship with Gonjiro: my fondness for it seems to run even deeper than that of the senior members of the research lab; it feels like my soul resonates with Gonjiro on some level. This makes it hard for me to see Gonjiro merely as a place to live, hold events, and renovate."

[Experimental Film] - Dating with Architecture

After reading Tatsushi Fujiwara's "Reflections on Plants", which advocates for breaking the boundary between humans and plants and moving away from anthropocentrism, I began to attempt to deconstruct the power dynamic between humans and architecture in the same way. In the experimental film "Dating with Architecture", I explored my relationship with Gonjiro using my body. In this living space, I, acting as a parasite, neither tried to change nor influence Gonjiro to bring it closer to my ideal state. All I did was adapt, accept, appreciate, and preserve Gonjiro in its most genuine form. During the production process, I gradually understood the reason we were mutually attracted to each other: both of us are 'queer' 'marginalized beings' on the spectrum of various binary structures defined by society, possessing an ambiguous fluidity.

Interestingly, it's not just me. Gonjiro also attracts many people who, in various senses, belong to minority groups in society. Those who feel uncomfortable in traditional structured relationships always find an inexplicable comfort during their monthly visits to Gonjiro.

As Naguib Mahfouz said, "Home is where all your efforts to escape cease." After settling in Gonjiro, I no longer feel the need to run away.

Thank you for reading, and I wish for our lives to be full and peaceful.


July 11, 2023

Read More

[1] Bachelard, G. (2009). The Poetics of Space. (Y. Zhang, Trans.). Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House. (Original work published in French)

[2] Fujiwara, T. (2022). Reflections on Plants. 生きのびるブックス.

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