Emperor's Castle
From "The Emperor's Castle" by Thomas Hillier, produced at the Bartlett School of Architecture, 2009.

Hillier's Project Text:

The Emperor’s Castle

The Emperor’s castle originates from a mythical and ancient tale hidden within a woodblock landscape scene created by Japanese Ukiyo-e printmaker, Ando Hiroshige. This tale charts the story of two star-crossed lovers, the weaving Princess and the Cowherd who have been separated by the Princess’s father, the Emperor. These characters have been replaced by architectonic metaphors creating an urban theatre within the grounds of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo.

Images 1 and 2 are two acts from a series of five that illustrate and explore the narrative structure of the tale in aim to create a series of clues, which can inform the future architectural proposition. These hand-cut paper collages are cut into a sketchbook creating a research ‘storybook’.

Image 1 (Act 3, Eternal Punishment) illustrates the Emperor’s anger over his daughter’s relationship with a cowherd. He separates the couple, placing them back in their original locations. The Emperor wanted to be sure they would never meet again so he closed the castle and opened the heavens. Rain fell, causing the castle’s moat to flood, creating an island of the castle surrounded by a deep and swift lake unassailable by any man.

Image 2 (Act 5, The Last Meeting): Seeing the sadness of their friend the Princess, the birds and animals came together to decide how to stop the torrent of her tears. So the sky became black as all the magpies and crows, with their wings spread wide, formed a bridge across the lake. When the Princess realizes what the birds have done, she’s stops crying and rushes across the feathery bridge to embrace the Cowherd and renew their pledge of eternal love.

Images 3 - 5 are hand-cut exploratory paper collages into the architectonic character transition that make up the architectural proposition.

Image 3 (The Emperor’s Origami Lungs): The Emperor’s lungs come alive through differing gestures and surface transformations based on geometrical tessellations adopted from origami crease patterns. The lungs imitate the motion of breathing through expansion and contraction creating a bellowing volume that allows the Emperor to project his emotions both visually and audibly. They rise and fall, creating a bobbing motion, which produces a rippling affect onto the surrounding skin. The severity of these ripples will depend on the anger of the Emperor, and can cause the newly knitted areas of skin to become loose and break, stopping the Princess from ever reaching the cow herder.

Image 4 (The Princess’s Knitted Canopy): The Princess, a flexible, diaphanous knitted membrane, envelopes the spaces below and is fabricated using the surrounding ‘Igusa’: a natural rush material used in the fabrication of tatami mats. Igusa expels a soothing scent as the skin undulates, which is said to calm body and mind. This scent acts as a perfume of remembrance to the cow herder and his time spent running hand in hand through the meadows with the Princess.

Image 5 (The Cowherd’s Mechanical Cow-Cutters): The cowherd has been reinterpreted architecturally as the grass band, which wraps the perimeter of the site, encompassing the Emperor’s lungs and Princess’s knitted skin. Embodying the cowherd are the mechanical cows, which act as wind-up grass-cutting devices that constantly wander the grazing land, cutting the grass and fanning the aroma towards the Princess as a reminder of the cowherd. These cows are waiting and hoping for the moment the Princess knits her skin over the mechanical waves towards them re-enacting the connection between the two star-crossed lovers.

These three architectonic characters interact with one another creating this narrative piece of architecture, which slowly unfolds before ones eyes in the centre of Tokyo city:

The Princess’s knitted membrane knits itself ever larger in aim to reach the grass parkland perimeter representing the Cowherd, thus recreating the connection lost. Linked within this skin is the series of enormous folded plate lung structures. These origami lungs of the Emperor expand and contract blooming like flowers creating the sensation of life. The lungs, deployed around the site act as physical barriers that manipulate the knitted skin as it extends towards the outer parkland, these manipulations are controlled and articulated by the Emperor’s army using a series of complex pulley systems which pull back the lungs and the surrounding skin forcing the knitting to begin again.

This piece of narrative architecture was the vehicle to examine current day cultural and social issues in Japan such as unconditional piety, relentless work ethic, and conservative attitudes of love.

The way the work was represented throughout was key in illustrating my precise architectural ambition for the project. Tokyo is looked upon as the city of ‘bright – lights’ and fast moving technology, yet within its underbelly still exists the idea of ‘exquisite craft’ that has defined Japan over the centuries, I wanted my work to compliment these ideals. The work is represented through the medium of precise and meticulously crafted hand cut paper collage along with pencil work, thread work and even hand knitting.

Image 6: Final model in its Tokyo context.

Image 7: The contoured landscape underneath the knitted canopy, exposing the series of connecting walkways that allow the Emperor’s army to run from one lung to another.

Image 8: The Emperor’s origami lungs.

Image 9: The lung movements generate a bellowing volume of air, which is forced upwards sending the woven lung collars into a thrashing frenzy, visually increasing the impact of the Emperor’s anger.

Image 10: The grass band of the cowherd is the park the public use to watch the spectacle. This band sits above the ‘Potemkin’ mechanical waves that represent the deep and swift lake. These waves are interspersed with the ‘Igusa’ rush meadows which are cut and sent to the Princess for knitting.

Image 11–15: The final triptych, a section through the urban theatre illustrates the frenetic ‘life’ of the building. This 1.8m x 0.8m piece is the culmination of all the research and design synthesis carried out above.

The aim of the Emperor’s Castle was to provoke thought but never patronise or attempt to solve all the world’s problems.
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