Text description provided by the architects. Okinawa, once called the Ryukyu Kingdom, has been blessed with rich forest and ocean resources.
The Okinawan people organised a unique social system by gradually adopting the culture and latest technologies of their neighbors while carefully adapting and integrating them to their particular environment. They cultivated particular lifestyles based on their natural surroundings, and thus were able to create a sustainable relationship with nature.
However, due to the constant change of governing bodies, and rapid inflow of new technologies since the Industrial Revolution, they lost touch with this delicate balance between people and nature. The architecture was no exception. The vernacular buildings were replaced by newly-imported conventional construction methods that placed a huge emphasis on convenience and safety. This led to the loss of the Okinawan cultural identity in addition to damaging the local scenery. The extent of the economic impact can be observed the concentration of wealth among the few, and consequently the architectural gap between the rich and the poor has become strikingly pronounced throughout the region’s towns and cities. Now more than ever, I see an architectural environment typical of the coffee belt, that is, the obscene contrast between the magnificent resorts and the impoverished conditions of local neighborhoods.
Having said that, it is important to recognize this chain of events not as the capitalist economy destroying tradition, but rather as the result of the haphazard adaptation of modern technology without allowing it to undergo the process of indigenization.
Now that the Information Age is in the process of maturity, we are facing a new challenge to course-correct this trend. But more importantly, it is an opportunity. By connecting new technologies and galvanizing the intelligence of local communities, I aim to nurture a new form of architecture that is indigenized, vernacular, and symbiotic with nature. By doing so, I believe Okinawa can build a rich, distinctive architectural environment once again.
It is with this wish that I built Shinminka. I tried not to be too nostalgic about the past, reasoned inductively, and looked through the lens of modern architecture. While it might be true that in many cases, the end result ended up in line with traditional Japanese architecture, some design progress has certainly been made.
This progress becomes evident when we examine two classical conflicts in Japanese architecture. First is the conflict between lateral strength of the structure against natural disasters—particularly typhoons in case of Okinawa—and ventilation to prevent humidity and to provide openness. The stronger the structure, the less ventilation there will be; hence the more humidity will remain inside, and it will also prevent openness. Second is the conflict between wind load and the size of the eaves. The larger the eaves, the more wind load there will be. The smaller the eaves, the less sunshine they can shield the interior from. (N.B. sunshine is quite strong in Okinawa in summer.) It was necessary to create solutions for both of these issues through design.
Usually to ensure lateral strength, braces are placed parallel to the walls. But by designing this way, ventilation and openness will be limited. Hence, my idea was to place braces radially toward the outside, connecting to outer columns of the building. At the same time, the roofs (the eaves) are extended to those outer columns to secure the right size and to control wind load. Thus the design of the 12 braces and outer columns provides sufficient lateral strength and works against wind load, even in the face of typhoons.
In this way I freed the structure from the necessity of walls; for the first time in my design it is possible to employ glass windows on all four sides of the building. The glass windows provide more than enough ventilation and openness to the outside environment. Seamless transition from outside nature to architecture had been realised.
This project has been completed, but I do believe there is space for further development and other possibilities. I hope Shinminka will serve as a good case study for the local architecture of Japan, and will act as a good guide to the general direction our architecture should go towards in the future.