interview with jo nagasaka on recycling an old japanese house for the venice biennale

May 20, 2021

the japan pavilion at the 2021 venice architecture biennale has found beauty in humble materials and processes with an exhibition titled co-ownership of action: trajectories of elements. curated by kozo kadowaki, the exhibition centers around wooden members of a postwar house in japan that was dismantled and transported to italy. the project gives a new site and new life to these old elements, combining them with ‘normal’ materials such as scaffolding pipes, mesh and blue tarpaulin. the exhibition highlights themes of reuse and renovation and ultimately questions the sustainability of architecture.

designboom was in conversation with one of this year’s japan pavilion participants, tokyo-based architect jo nagasaka. in the interview, which you can read below, he spoke about the concept behind the exhibition and questioned the sustainability of international architecture and design fairs.

image © designboom

image © designboom

JN (continued): I was asked by kozo kadowaki, the curator of the japan pavilion, and I thought that it’s very important to have that meaning of moving things. I wanted this exhibition not to start at the site of the venue but to start from the process, and show the whole process. showing the process itself is the exhibition. that was the starting point.

and well, it was something coincidental: kozo kadowaki’s neighbor’s house was about to be demolished. so, there is a story showing the process of dismantling the house, and all the materials and all the parts of the it are reassembled at the exhibition in venice.

image © designboom

DB: which part of the japan pavilion were you in charge of designing, and how did you approach it?

JN: the storage part and also the workshop area. for this architecture biennale, the theme of the japan pavilion is exhibiting the process of making the exhibits. in that sense, the stockrooms and workshops are very important because that’s the place where the exhibit is made. the process of making the exhibits is actually the exhibit itself. and how to design the stockroom or the workshops? first, I took inspiration from normal materials, even from an everyday park bench in italy; I thought it’s very cool, even if for italian people it’s maybe normal. but, designing the stockroom and workshops was also a challenge, even though I was using ordinary materials. I think that by bringing them from japan to italy, it can become an extraordinary material. that was something that I wanted to try to do.

image © designboom

JN: I like working with materials that have different histories and different characters; that really gives me inspiration. in terms of architecture, we use a lot of wood in japan. and of course, as an architect, I have been thinking about this, we’ll bring all these materials to this exhibition and what is the meaning of using so many materials? but also, thinking about this old house that we brought to venice and knowing that so many changes happened according to the needs of each family. the house has been chipped and expanded, and the materials show these changes.

image © designboom

JN (continued): after the demolition of the house in japan, it was moved to venice and reassembled, but also, all those elements are 3D scanned and can be utilized for other purposes or other architectural projects. those materials can be used for, I don’t know, shelves, tables maybe. it will also be moved to oslo and one of the elements is going to be permanently installed. that’s one of our new proposals of sustainability because, for example, in europe, they have this stone culture in architecture, so that once they build something, it’ll be there forever. but in japan, we have this wooden architecture, which can be reused because it’s easier to take down and reassemble, especially with the technology we have these days. 3D scanning really helps to give more clear direction on how to reassemble or how a material can be reused, giving another life to these old materials. that was a new way to communicate with old wooden materials for this exhibition.

image © designboom

DB: by reusing an old structure, the exhibition explores consumption and sustainability. are renovation projects something you’re committed to at schemata architects?

JN: I cannot ignore the fact of the environmental issue, which we really have to deal with, and in that sense, of course renovation projects are meaningful. I am also working on new building projects but renovations are something that I think are more meaningful, which I of course want to keep working on.

image © designboom

DB: what projects are you currently working on?

JN: I have been working on lots of projects not only in the city but also in the suburbs. I see changes in the types of projects as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. for example, there is a project for a ski chalet in japan, also a camping site and a project where people are working and staying in a place with a hot spring. a lot of outdoor activities including leisure places but also new working environments. and I have been working on overseas projects but they are all still online based. so, currently I have been working on projects that really have the new post-coronavirus character.

image © designboom

image © designboom

image © designboom

image © designboom

image © designboom

japanese house before dismantling image © jan vranovský

packaged wooden materials image © jan vranovský

axonometric drawing of the concept image © DDAA + villageⓡ

project info:

name: co-ownership of action: trajectories of elements

location: japanese pavilion, giardini, venice

event: 17th international architecture exhibition – la biennale di venezia

commissioner: the japan foundation (JF)

curator: kozo kadowaki (associate professor, meiji university/partner in the architectural firm associates)

participants: jo nagasaka, ryoko iwase, toshikatsu kiuchi, taichi sunayama, daisuke motogi, rikako nagashima, naritake fukumoto