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Towards an Architecture of Place and Displacement

Associate Professor, Architecture and Urban Studies Director,Worrall Lab (LLLABO).

I took up my present position at the Waseda University Institute for Advanced Study in 2009, after working as an architect and urban designer with Rem Koolhaas at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. From this privileged and independent position, I have been able to develop a linked set of research interests, creative projects, and educational initiatives under the umbrella of Worrall Lab (nicknamed “LLLABO”), while also contributing to various elements of the curriculum at the Waseda Architecture program and also at the Graduate School of Global Studies at Sophia University. Here I give a brief outline of LLLABO’s mission, activities, and future agenda.

Urbanism – the theory and practice of the city in all its complexity – has been at the core of LLLABO’s agenda, and Tokyo has provided its most immediate context and inspiration. The lab’s original mission has been “to distill the logic and the magic of the Asian metropolis.” Cities are immensely complex entities, at once both nature and culture, that we both shape and are shaped by. Recognition of this reflexive dimension means that research on cities is intrinsically “impure”, combining concepts and techniques from diverse fields, ranging across architecture, history, geography, sociology, economics, even the biological sciences. Rather than being confined to the particular specialisms of urban planning or urban design, the perspectives on the city that I encourage in the lab embrace this breadth to build a layered, polyphonic imagination of the urban condition, while aiming to connect this understanding to the specific strategies of architects as they intervene on concrete sites.

This approach was applied to a survey of recent buildings in Tokyo that resulted in my first book, entitled 21st Century Tokyo: A Guide to Contemporary Architecture (Kodansha International, 2010.) Ostensibly a guidebook to the architecture of Tokyo since 1990, the book is more accurately a collective portrait of the city as seen through its recent buildings, while simultaneously reading its buildings as embedded within larger urban patterns. Such “thick description” of buildings and places fosters a view of architecture as a cultural product born of specific conjunctions of site, circumstance, and intelligence, a perspective that enriches the understanding not only of those who shape urban places, but those who inhabit and make use of the city.

Research focussed on Tokyo continues at LLLABO – a current book project involves writing a “spatial history” of the city. Meanwhile other strands of research expanding the frame of reference beyond the city proper have been gathering strength. One line explores the proliferation in Japan of initiatives employing architecture and contemporary art to revitalise declining rural locales, such as in the Setouchi Art Festival in the Seto Inland Sea and the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale in Niigata prefecture, a phenomenon that raises important questions of place-making, landscape, tourism, and audience. Another angle focusses on the emergence of a “cosmopolitan” urban sensibility among younger architects, and with it the potential for a distinctive form of “East Asian urbanism”, illuminating the question of whether urban patterns are converging or diverging under globalisation and the associated international flows of people, products, money, and ideas.

These various lines of research can be seen as orbiting a central question: how do we re-conceptualise the concept of “place” in an era of global travel and instant networked communications – in an era, in other words, of “displacement”? Today, in an global economy underpinned by mobility, place is not so much “lived” as mediated, collected, and consumed. The question of “whose place” becomes unclear – under conditions of mediation and travel, those who have legitimate claims on places can extend far beyond local owners, custodians and inhabitants; while for those defined by a condition of displacement, any primary affiliation to an original place (ie: the childhood home) becomes blurred among innumerable “elsewheres” that form the topographical map of adult identity. The production, differentiation, and consumption of place has become a major component of contemporary economic and cultural activity, in which architects and planners are deeply complicit.

To express this in poetic terms: we are all born homeless now, yet we spend our lives seeking home.

Scholars generally use publications to disseminate research, but for those in the field of architecture creative practice is a favoured domain in which the insights from research are synthesised and tested. Since 2011, LLLABO has embarked on practice-based projects, including “Australia House”, a competition proposal for an artists’ facility in Niigata prefecture (pictured), and an ongoing project for a weekend house in Chiba prefecture. Combining perspectives from research and practice, we are feeling our way towards a theory of architecture that sees “displacement” – the sense of being elsewhere than “here” – as being a key condition of contemporary experience, and seeks to think and shape places that reflect and respond to this condition.

Our goal, in a nutshell, could be described as the articulation of an architecture – and an urbanism – of place and displacement.



Associate Professor, Architecture and Urban Studies Director,Worrall Lab (LLLABO).

Australian architect, scholar, and critic. Educated in architecture at University of California, Berkeley (1994) and University of Adelaide (1997). Completed a PhD (Architecture and Urban History) from the University of Tokyo in 2005. After working at Klein Dytham Architecture in Tokyo and OMA in Rotterdam, he became Assistant Professor at Waseda University Institute for Advanced Study in 2009, and has been Associate Professor since April 2012. A contributing editor for Icon magazine (UK), and widely published and translated internationally, his most recent publication is Toyo Ito: Forces of Nature (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012).