Akihisa Hirata has been spending a lot of time in Europe lately. April saw the Japanese architect's Panasonic sponsored Photosynthesis installation at Milan's Salone del Mobile, while August heralded his debut at the Venice Biennale: Hirata was included in the Japanese pavilion, curated by his former employer Toyo Ito and which has received the prestigious Golden Lion award. This month, the increasingly feted young architect is the subject of Tangling, his first international solo exhibition, which recently opened at London's Architecture Foundation.
Timed to coincide with the London Design Festival, Tangling has been co-curated by the Japanese curator Naomi Shibata and Justin Jaeckle of the Foundation. It consists of a looping, site-specific structural installation that dominates the volume, and room-length windows, of the compact street level gallery. Constructed by structural engineers AKT II and assembled onsite, the self-supporting form is a highly experiential work. The structure compels the visitor to duck under its low arcs and squeeze through its narrow passages, creating a highly embodied awareness of the architectural environment. This effect is intentional, an expression of the architect and curators' desire to communicate to visitors as much the feeling of a Hirata structure as the ideas behind it.
The loop is a materialisation of "tangling", the concept on which Hirata's practice is based and which he sees as the optimal approach for creating architecture. According to Hirata, "tangling" reflects the ecological nature of the reality in which architecture is produced and lived in, a complex condition of relationality and contingency he sees as overlooked by twentieth century architecture and its Modernist dogma of rationality and autonomy. Instead, following the eighteenth century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and his theories of the coexistential and relative nature of space, Hirata calls for an architecture able to realise its social potential and responsibilities through a conceptually and formally entangled approach.
The looping ribbon-like structure is clear as physical manifestation of these ideas, yet it is more than an explanatory device. It also serves as the display mechanism for statements by the architect as well as over three hundred models and sketches of recent work by the Tokyo-based Akihisa Hirata Architecture Office. While these models undoubtedly disrupt the loop's purity, the different forms and materials displayed both bring it alive and further explicate the ideas it embodies.
Around twenty projects are profiled in, on and around the structure. They are arranged in thematic groupings that share an interest in the interconnectivity and commonality between natural and artificial forms. In some groups the emphasis is on geometry and mathematics, as in the pleats and "hyplane" triangle system that has generated the forms of projects such as 2010's Prism Liquid installation in Milan and 2007's Gallery S in Tokyo. Others, such as 2012's School N and the as-yet uncompleted Tree-Ness House speak of Hirata's belief in the importance of respect for nature. According to the architect we need to both recognise that we are a part of what he calls the "living world" but also that nature, in conjunction with technology, can provide solutions for the appearance and organisation of our artificial environment.
These projects are accompanied by a number of films specially commissioned for the exhibition. At the rear of the gallery space is a video interview with Hirata by the Canadian artist Maris Mezulis, while on the walls on one of the central spaces made from the loop's form are three projections that each offer a different viewpoint of a day in the life of three of Hirata's Japan-based projects; 2006's Showroom H, 2011's private house Coil and the temporary Bloomberg Pavilion. Placed above the visitor's head, the films are positioned in a way that visitors cannot see all three perspectives at once, but are aware of their presence, a 360° projection that reiterates the exhibition's aim to create a physical understanding of Hirata's work.
The entwinement of structure and display in Tangling is a highly effective device. It not only adds an experiential quality conventionally lacking in architectural exhibitions, but also materialises the values of complexity and interconnectivity that underpin the architect's approach. As the models, sketches and architectonic statements assert, this is a show for architects, but the curators are attuned to the need to balance the demands of this specialist and the wider public audience that pass by the windows of this London street. With the latter in mind, while the exhibits do shed light on the process involved in the form creation of Hirata's work, I did feel the need for more explanation to further understand the origins and development of the architect's conceptual approach given its import here. This one small criticism aside, this is ultimately a densely packed and rich show of a culturally aware and environmentally sensitive architect. Catharine Rossi (@cat_rossi)
Through 17 November
Akihisa Hirata: Tangling
136-148 Tooley Street, London