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London Design Biennale Japan Pavilion: Interview with Toshiki Hirano: “Reinventing Texture”

London Design Biennale Japan Pavilion: Interview with Toshiki Hirano: “Reinventing Texture”

CF: It’s been a great pleasure and a long journey (through this pandemic period of endless uncertainty) to curate “Reinventing Texture” with you. Can you believe it is finally happening?

TH: It was indeed a long project, despite its scale. I remember the journey started when we met at the café inside the Royal Academy of Arts in the fall of 2019, after we had finished Kengo Kuma’s installation at the V&A in London. You were the curator and I was the project leader for Kuma. I showed you some of my projects for the first time then, and this installation piece [fig.1] in which I investigated uncanny qualities of fake materials in particular [faux fur and gravel], led to the theme of texture. (Main image: 50 to 100 photos taken with a handheld smartphone can create a highly accurate digital model[fig.6] )

Fig 1.

CF: Responding to the London Design Biennale’s theme of “Resonance”, why did you choose Japanese Washi paper as the central material for “Reinventing Texture”?

TH: To answer this question, I have looked back at our initial correspondences at the very beginning of the project, and found what I wrote in one of the emails to you:

“After I read the director’s statement of the Biennale, I was very impressed by its not only mentioning the positive aspects of the concept of Resonance but also the negative ones (ironically, we are facing the negative side of resonance by the spread of Coronavirus!). 

Having said this, I started thinking about if we can implement the concept of “Non-Resonance” while pursuing the interactions between textures/materials/sounds. I’m just writing this concept randomly, thus I don’t have a specific idea how to implement this, but it would be interesting if we can somehow create a moment where elements in the project no longer interact with the viewers as they expect and start to behave on their own. It must be the moment where the viewers realise that what they understand about the things are only a fraction of what the things really are, where the viewers have glimpses of the non-resonant hidden side of the things. Having an acoustic aspect (I intentionally use the word acoustic here not to limit to music) might be quite interesting to implement this idea.”


This was written in February 2020, way before I came up with the idea of 3D scanning and papier-mâché [fig.2], but this line of thought was already forming a base concept of the project. I chose Japanese Washi paper as the main material because there’s a quality which allures people, but at the same time there’s also a mysterious side in the material.

CF: The Washi paper has come from Awagami Factory in Japan. How did you choose which Washi paper to use?

TH: Washi paper has different colours, thicknesses and strength, depending on which factory it is from. The one I used in the project is made of unbleached fibres of kōzo plants and it has a beautiful custard-white colour. Fibres of kōzo plants are longer and thicker than fibres of other plants used for Washi paper, which makes the paper strong[fig.3]. The paper has a smooth surface on the front side and rough on the back, and I chose to use the back side to create more shades in the relief’s surface.


CF: Is experimentation the fundamental principle of the Sekisui House – Kuma Lab? And does this kind of experimentation lead to new thinking & practice in architecture? Is this the continued ambition of the laboratory at The University of Tokyo? 

TH: Projects that I led in the Kuma Lab were mainly focusing on exploring new materiality in architecture through the use of digital technologies and traditional techniques. What I’ve been doing as an individual designer is to push this exploration further, focusing more on the use of synthetic/digital materials and their uncanny qualities.

CF: What draws you to certain materials?

TH: The reason why I’m interested in fake materials like faux fur and gravel is because there’s a latent tension within them, which makes the materials uncanny. It’s a tension between how they look (natural) and what they are actually are (artificial).

CF: Can you explain your interest in “frottage” and its history in Japan?

TH: The technique of frottage was invented by the Surrealist artist Max Ernst. Ernst used a pencil or crayon to rub over a piece of paper placed on various surfaces, such as metal mesh or a piece of wood, to transfer their textures. The Japanese artist Tomoharu Makabe employed this technique to collect textures in the 1970s in Tokyo, and he coined the term “Urban Frottage”. It was an attempt to document the rapidly transforming city of Tokyo during the high economic growth period of the 1970s. (For instance, Kisho Kurokawa’s famous Nakagin Capsule Tower was built in 1972.) 


In this project I revisited Makabe’s “Urban Frottage” and updated the technique with a modern technology of 3D scanning called photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is a 3D scanning technique which reconstructs a digital model of a target object from processing photographs of the object from various angles. No special equipment is needed to take the source photographs, and 50 to 100 photos taken with a handheld smartphone can create a highly accurate digital model[fig.6]. While the scale of the target object is limited in Urban Frottage, depending on the size of the paper, photogrammetry has no scale limitations. By updating the tools from paper and pencil to smartphones, I thought that a new image of the city in the information society would emerge.

CF: In what way have you been influenced by the writings of German philosopher Walter Benjamin in coming up with the “Reinventing Texture” design concept?

TH: In Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction there’s a section where he discusses how people perceive different forms of art in modern society. He points out that we usually experience urban and architectural space in a state of distraction, without paying particular attention to those diverse textures. What I found really interesting is that Benjamin describes this reception of the urban space as “tactile”; we create images of the city in us not only by actually touching textures with our hand, but also by looking and listening to them in a caressing way – in other words, it is a resonance between different sensory perceptions.

CF: So, what you are saying is that the experience of texture does not have to be about touch. Does this fact suggest new possibilities in terms of interacting with, and designing for, the city – especially in the post-pandemic world?

TH: One observation related to this issue is that in contrast to Urban Frottage, where paper was placed directly on the surface of an object and a pencil was physically rubbed against it, photogrammetry transfers texture to the object without physically touching it, as the digital eye of a lens virtually scratches its surface. This has an interesting resonance with Benjamin’s understanding of the tactile reception of the urban space, and I feel that there is an implication of how our perception will change.

I think that the direct impacts of the Covid pandemic on the built environment that we are witnessing, such as face masks, clear partition walls and others, should fade away rather quickly. However, I think there are significant indirect/latent impacts on our sensitivities that could last much longer and affect our cultures, and eventually how the city is. I don’t think those impacts are something that can be verbally described, but I do hope that the multi-sensory experience of this project is effective in addressing the issues. 

CF: Can you describe how you approached the collection of objects and textures in the streets of Tokyo during 2020? What were you actively searching for, or did you keep an open mind as you set out? You photographed traditional, kitsch and everyday objects, and also more abstract textures, playing with scale, meaning and juxtapositions. Did you want to achieve a visual balance or was there a random aspect to your approach?


TH: As the pandemic hit Tokyo in the spring of 2020, I got stuck in Tokyo and couldn’t travel anywhere out of the city. It became unnecessary for me even to go out of my home, since all meetings and classes went online. Going out without any particular reason was not encouraged (but not prohibited) by the government under a state of emergency. So, scanning and collecting elements became a good excuse for me to go out! I tried to cover as many areas as possible: Marunouchi, Asakusa, Roppongi, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Kichijo-ji, Akasaka, etc[fig.7]. 

What I have found interesting is that the way I see the city completely changed during the process. Things that I usually dismiss became more visible – things that are usually banal or kitsch – but I think that these kinds of elements play an important role in making “a” city “the” city. This might also be because the city was deserted due to the state of emergency.

I also tried to make the selection random and didn’t want to focus on a specific scale and quality when collecting objects, as I think the city is formed by diverse textures layered at multiple scales. 

CF: There is an element of Pop Art in the finished 3D colour model, which features in your limited edition prints – do you recognise this? It’s interesting how you’ve included letters and words too.

TH: This is certainly because both Pop Art and this project use collage as a fundamental technique, although one is analogue and the other is digital. I like works by James Rosenquist, and what is interesting about his paintings is that collaged elements are not completely autonomous but they are fusing with each other to a degree that you can still read what each element is. This makes Rosenquist’s paintings so dynamic and animated. I wanted to achieve the same effect in this project, to grasp the dynamic atmosphere of the city.

CF: How did you collaborate with MA Interior Design students at the Royal College of Art?

TH: I held an online workshop for the students at the Royal College of Art in London. I taught them how to do photogrammetry, and asked them to collect elements from the city of London just as I was doing in Tokyo. What they collected creates interesting tensions with the elements from Tokyo[fig.8].

CF: What can 3D scanning contribute to the future of architecture and design?

TH: One of the most challenging things in this project was to handle the highly complex, unrationalised forms of 3D-scanned objects. Architecture has a limited ability to handle those kinds of forms and has been stuck with rationalised/simplified forms, even with the use of computers, due to the discipline’s long history of its ties to rationalisation. This project can be read as one of the attempts to break away from this long tradition of the discipline and to explore the new aesthetics of architecture.

CF: How did you transform these collected textures and objects into the relief as we see it?

TH: I put all the scanned models into a 3D modelling software, and collaged them into a long relief[fig.9]. The models were scaled and de-formed: large objects were scaled down and became parts of the whole grain, while small objects were scaled up and became figural; but at the same time some objects were kept at their original scale. This play of scale will create a confounding effect for the visitors.

CF: Did you experiment with different methods of creating the moulds for the papier-mâché?

TH: Yes, I did a quick research about how complex forms are fabricated with paper in different traditional techniques, then attempted to employ those techniques into digital fabrication. In the end I picked up a technique to produce paper dolls [fig.10], and carved out the form of the digital model from Styrofoam blocks by CNC milling in a factory, using these as moulds for the papier-mâché[fig.11] [fig.12]. However, I don’t like the fact that the moulds became useless after the paper forms were detached from them, so I want to continue the research and invent a technique to do this without moulds.

CF: Once you had the moulds back in the lab, can you explain how (after digital fabrication) you used your hands in the most traditional way to create the papier-mâché panels?

Fig. 14

TH: I pasted patches of Washi paper soaked in glue on to the moulds. I applied three layers in total: a first layer without glue, to make the panels easier to be detached from the moulds; a second layer with glue, to bind the patches of the first layer; then a third layer for the finishing[fig.13]. It took me almost 200 hours to finish pasting. After this, the panels were carefully detached from the moulds[fig.14].

CF: Where did you learn the traditional papier-mâché technique?

TH: I only realised this after I finished the production, but I actually made a model of my project in the first design studio at the school in Kyoto University using the papier-mâché technique [fig.15]! Back then, there was no digital fabrication facility in the school and I was desperate to find a way to make a translucent organic shape, and somehow bumped into the papier-mâché technique, which kids learn to make lampshades using balloons as moulds in primary schools. 

CF: The Washi wall relief in itself resonates with all these urban textures. What do the colour projections add to the visitor experience, and how will they work in the natural light?

TH: The relief is 8 metres in length, curving along three sides of the room, on panels separated from the walls by a small gap. With untrained eyes it is difficult to tell what each part of the relief is, since the entire surface is covered by a single material, the Washi paper. So, you will feel as if you are surrounded by a cryptic monolith floating in the air. The projections will cast texture maps of the scanned objects on to the surface of the relief, alluding to the hidden nature behind each part of the relief. The windows in the room are not covered, so the natural light will come in. I know this is almost a taboo for projection mappings as the natural light will dim the projected images. But I think that the dimmed projection works well with the subtle texture of Washi paper. I also wanted to make the relief constantly change its mood, depending on the time of day or weather conditions.

See Also

CF: How did the sound collaboration with MSCTY Studio begin?

TH: I remember that I met Nick Luscombe for the first time at The University of Tokyo, at the beginning of 2020, and we talked about the idea of creating an immersive and interactive sound environment. After the idea of 3D scanning elements of the city came up in summer 2020, we started thinking about what to do with the sound and reached the idea of playing collected sounds in the city.

.Fig 16

CF: Do the recorded sounds resonate with your own experience of Tokyo?

TH: Yes, but not limited to that[fig.16]. There are some interesting juxtapositions between the sounds and the collaged elements on the relief, like a sound of buying a can of soda from a street vending machine, with a vending machine itself on the relief; or a sound of the background music inside a convenience store and a pack of sushi purchased from a store on the relief. There are also some crossovers between Tokyo and London, like a sound of the Tokyo subway train and a seat on the London tube. But some sound elements are independent from the relief. 

CF: How do you hope visitors will experience the sound collage in relation to the Washi relief?

TH: I hope that the sounds will make visitors feel as if there is a hidden ecosystem behind the relief, with elements talking to each other.

CF: KP Acoustics, the main sponsor of “Reinventing Texture”, is also designing and programming the interactive sensor system. How do you think this sound element, created by Panos Tsagkarakis of KP Acoustics, will add to the visitor experience?

TH: The multiple sensors embedded around the room will collect information on visitors’ locations inside the space and play different sound pieces. I hope visitors will feel as if they are being watched by the elements in the relief.

CF: A QR code in the exhibition space will take viewers to the Japan Pavilion website, with more information about the project. Is there an opportunity there to see footage of your creative process?

TH: Yes. I have created a short trailer documenting the whole process and you can watch it on the pavilion’s website.

CF: Our discussions, teamwork and partnerships have all been done remotely, via email and Zoom, including the Photogrammetry workshops with MA Interior Design students at the Royal College of Art in November 2020. Has the project shown you what can be done, in an international sense, through digital technology?


TH: Before the pandemic, it wasn’t this easy to organise international workshops since there was an implicit assumption that we have to meet in person, therefore you had to figure out all kinds of logistics like air fares, accommodations, and visas. But the pandemic forced us to take away this assumption and this has had a huge impact on education. I can invite someone from Los Angeles and someone from London for my online studio review or lecture at The University of Tokyo, just one week before! That really accelerates international collaboration[fig.17].

CF: The project has been a collaboration between Japan and the UK, in terms of our supporters too. Do you think this meeting of two cities will highlight the similarities as well as the differences between Tokyo and London?

Yes, I think so. 

CF: “Reinventing Texture” is a kind of journey, both playful and poignant, at a time when travel between Japan and the UK is not possible. If you cannot come to London in June, because of the Covid travel restrictions, do you hope to come in the near future, perhaps to do other projects?

TH: Yes, there are lots of interesting things in arts and culture happening in London which I’m keen to play a role in, and this project is definitely a springboard for this.

CF: Can you describe the limited edition print that you have created for “Reinventing Texture”, which we hope will enable the project to travel elsewhere, after the Biennale?

TH: Yes, I printed an elevation rendering of the relief, on the same Washi paper that I used in the papier-mâché. And I have included a quote by Walter Benjamin.

CF: Thank you.

Interview by Clare Farrow, Curator:

Text and images © Toshiki Hirano. Reinventing Texture is sponsored by KP Acoustics and supported with public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and Arts Council Tokyo.