Immersive Learning in Japan

Students from the University of Minnesota and Tokyo University of Science

Students from the University of Minnesota and Tokyo University of Science

“Japan is a test, a challenge to think the unthinkable, a place where meaning is finally banished. Paradise, indeed, for the great student of signs.” – Edmund White

“Many new buildings in Japan remind us of the poignancy of things on the verge of disappearing or, conversely, on the point of emerging. Experiencing them is a process of suspending architecture in a perpetually evanescent and temporary state of ‘in-between’ where becoming and fading away, growth and decay, presence and absence, reality and fiction, silence and speech take place simultaneously—or perhaps are one and the same thing. It is in this sense that many of these designs evoke the images of elusive phenomena, of twilight, shadows, clouds, or mirage, and gain a certain ephemeral or fictive quality.” – Botond Bognar, The New Japanese Architecture

Japanese architecture and design have long fascinated a global audience. The masterful combination of aesthetic elegance, functional pragmatism, technological sophistication, and precision in craft that characterizes exemplary works from Japan has exerted a strong influence abroad, especially during the last two centuries.

The enduring significance of Japanese architecture and design for foreign audiences has revealed a fascination with something deeper than mere visual or organizational qualities. The product of a homogeneous culture that developed in relative isolation over millennia, the Japanese creative process is connected to deeply embedded traditions and philosophies that define space and time as particularly precious commodities. As a result, Japanese design embodies a heightened awareness about the ephemerality of existence and the significance of the present moment. Japanese artists and craftspeople therefore approach their work with an acute interest in perception, seeking to enhance the viewer’s multisensory experience. It is not enough for a creative work to be attractive or functional; it must also readjust expectations about reality. This elevated state of consciousness is possible when one is simultaneously aware of the physicality and ephemerality conveyed by a work, resulting in a vacillating condition of permanence and impermanence, emergence and dissolution, reality and illusion.1

In this study abroad course, we will address questions such as: What unique design opportunities are created within this so-called “floating world?” How do Japanese designers balance the ephemeral with the concrete? How does such a dense urban environment relate to the scale of material details? How are conflicts resolved between privacy and publicity, modernism and tradition, or Western and Japanese qualities? Participants in this traveling design studio will conduct in-depth analysis and generate critical design proposals situated within Tokyo and beyond. Working in collaboration with students and faculty from the Tokyo University of Science, participants will also be exposed to meaningful aspects of Japanese culture and daily life that go beyond a typical tourist’s superficial perspective of Japan.

1. Excerpted from Blaine Brownell, Matter in the Floating World (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011): 11.