KPF/AF Student Travel Award 2007

The 2007 award was won by Alex Bank, of London Metropolitan University. Alex was chosen by a jury of David Leventhal (KPF), Ellis Woodman (Building Design) and Rowan Moore (The Architecture Foundation). Sara Shafiel, a student at The Bartlett, was selected as runner-up.

Alex Bank


Sara Shafiel




Report from the 2007 Award winner, Alex Bank

The KPF/Architecture Foundation Travel Award has helped me sustain the thinking about public space that I began during my architectural diploma. The Urban Figure design project I submitted last year aims at being close to life, to challenge a priori beliefs about public space and appropriate densities for a public building in the heart of London. Informed by Renaissance Paris' hôtels particuliers, the proposal took the form of a figurative building of generative void spaces, robust to changes in use, embedded in a decaying city block towards the Piccadilly Circus corner of Soho. I continue to explore ideas about the city and its public realm in my professional work as part of Florian Beigel and Philip Christou's Architecture Research Unit at London Metropolitan University, and on my travels.

Talking of which, the bursary helped finance a trip two summers ago from London to Tokyo, between arguably the capitals of the occidental and oriental world respectively. I spent seven weeks in Japan, my time divided between two contrasting social and spatial contexts; Tokyo and a remote mountain village called Koshirakura in the Niigata prefecture.

On reflection, Tokyo can be thought about as the stage on which the fall of public man has reached its apotheosis. Conversely it is also a city rich in clues for urban salvation. It is a city in which I imagined Richard Sennet developing spatial bipolar; one eye weeping while the other, over stimulated, blinks excitedly in civic awe. 

Tokyo is the epicentre of those quintessentially Japanese social phenomena like karoshi (death from overworking). Specific to contemporary urban Japan, these social disorders talk about the difficulty with which Japanese culture skirts between tradition and a technocratic modernity. Of spatial intrigue, hikikomori, an extreme disorder of epidemic proportion, illustrates the alienating potential of the contemporary city. Loosely meaning an acute state of self-imposed anomie, it is a condition into which an increasing number of young Japanese fall. Sustained in secret at home by ashamed parents and technology, this complete public withdrawal into the intimate, private realm lasts 4 years on average.

In the spirit of things, I gained personal opting out of society experience through early mornings spent in Tokyo's ,manga cafés - a hybrid combination of western internet cafés, magazine libraries, video/computer game rental stores and service station cafés. Opportunistically located in the subterranean bowels or dizzy crowns of mixed-use high rises, these extraordinary open plan spaces consist of small terraced cells enclosed by 2 metre high partitions. Each cell is equipped with a personal computer, internet, phone, games console, hi-fi, satellite television, dvd player and mandatory head phones.  Rentable hourly (not yearly!), the manga café demonstrates clearly how technology fixes you in individual space.

Worrying retreats into the private realm aside, Tokyo has a truly public urbanity that I found reaffirming. Tokyo remains an enigmatic entity, a cacophony of incompatible building forms and materials; irregular winding streets, alleys and the constant bustling mass of humanity. Tokyo possesses the perfect preconditions for sociability. Remarkable spaces like Shibuya or Shinjuku privilege difference. They are sensate environments of high density with the possibility for the uncontrolled, the unpredictable and the spontaneous. A prerequisite for a vital urbanity, this participatory, spatial experience is exemplified in Tsukiji (Tokyo's largest fish market) with its co-existence of active bodies against marooned marine life.

Exhausted, the stillness of the remote village of Koshirakura in Niigata (a mountainous region north of Tokyo) was openly welcomed. That is a stillness broken for three hot summer weeks by the sound of the precise pull of Japanese saws and knock of chisels. The workshop, founded and co-ordinated by the Architectural Association's cult tutor Shin Egashira, then in its 11th year, combines communitarian and architectural ambitions. Participants stay in an abandoned school building, take part in annual community rituals and build things. Each group aims to leave the village of approximately 80 elderly inhabitants with a useful public structure that relates to the landscape: a roadside watermelon cooler, an ephemeral cinema screen, a stargazing platform. All are constructed from timber and incorporate translations of vernacular details, eschewing screws and nails!

The project that year was the first to take place in an existing building, an abandoned farmhouse with an ancient core given over to the workshop. It was the beginning of a long-term project to create a real public building for the village. It took the form of a series of architectural interventions that were about making the house habitable in the imagination.

One project involved inserting inside the house an 8 metre high tree trunk that passed through intermediary floors to connect the ground floor and roof apex.  An external intervention took the form of a delicate, vertically slatted screen leant on the house. In its near vertical position, the screen protects the glazed elements of the house from the destructive pressure of deep winter snow. Animated in the summer months, it slides down the façade to provide a shrouded space and a table from which to serve sake. All interventions endeavoured to bring the village into the house and the house into the village.