OF TIMBER AND DRAGONS
2020
Three Structures for a Disaster Prone Village
Studio Tutor: A/P Tsuto Sakamoto
Published in KooZArch, June 2020

The project begins with the site of Hiraenoki, a village situated in the mountainous region of Asakura City, Fukuoka. In 2017, the village suffered extensive damage from flooding and landslides, which they are still currently recovering from. A threat of landslides, coupled with the phenomena of depopulation, causes burgeoning anxiety among the villagers.

 

Landslides, which are a more immediate problem, was assessed. In post WWII Japan, the lumber industry boomed, encouraging many to convert areas of mountainous forest to support the agriculture of two of Japan’s most famous timbers - Hinoki and Sugi. With imported timber being relatively inexpensive, the demand for locally grown softwood rapidly decreased, leaving these plantations unharvested. Redundant Hinoki and Sugi plantations now consist of 98% of Japan’s natural forests. As a result of this monocultural undertaking, much of Japan’s biodiversity was lost. Hiraenoki is familiar to this - surrounding the valley are tall evergreen Hinoki and Sugi trees, without any other species of flora to be seen.

 

Once, it provided hope for post-war economic recovery. Now, the trees become mere threats to the lives of the villagers. During the 2017 Northern Kyushu flooding disaster, landslides weaponise driftwood, causing violent destruction to property, infrastructure and human lives. In the first place, the monoculture encourages landslides - the loss of root diversity makes it easy for earth to be dislodged. Surrounding the basin of Hiraenoki, their presence now alludes to anxiety rather than hope.

 

Concrete slope stabilisation used to mitigate further land erosion is a common strategy in Japan in dealing with landslide disasters. Calculated with precise engineering, and built by teams of skilled builders, they represent mankind’s ability to domesticate nature with rationality and skill. Concrete as a dense, monolithic material alludes strongly to strength and durability, and hence an idea of permanence and safety, which dispels the anxiety of disasters. Yet, as a monolithic material, concrete is unable to fully accommodate the contingent nature of disasters, despite its high cost and skilled labour. Psychologically, dispelling the anxiety of the villagers results in forgetting the existence of disasters - especially the manmade aspect of it.

 

Of Timber and Dragons uses Hinoki & Sugi timber, available in excess, and challenges the over-reliance on concrete as a material to soothe anxiety from disaster. A series of material explorations organises the project towards design choices. While concrete is strong and monolithic, timber’s material quality ranges from the durable, as can be seen from Japan’s oldest temples, to the ephemeral, which Of Timber and Dragons largely attempts to take advantage of, to deal with the contingent nature of landslides within the village of Hiraenoki. Through material and metaphor, the project describes how timber’s construction and destruction could be the possible agent in helping the villagers of Hiraenoki in dealing with their abstract anxiety of landslides in another manner, rather than through sheer resistance. Subsequently, the narrative also plays out how timber assimilates into the daily lives of the villagers, creating a cultural legacy for the village, to be carried forward past its current sedentary population.

Material Research & Process
Tale of Timber and Dragons

In post WWII, Japan lost 98% of its natural forests. These forests, initially diverse in flora and fauna, were cleared by humans to make way for the planting of Hinoki and Sugi trees - and the diversity that nature once had was gone. Angered by humans’ ambition to control and domesticate Nature, Mizuchi, a dragon deity, arose from his slumber and induced heavy rain onto the Mountainous regions of Kyushu.

 

Houses were swept away by floods, and those that were spared were destroyed by fallen Hinoki and Sugi trees. Humans that survived the onslaught had to deal with loss and fear. The overwhelming power that Mizuchi brought made humans feel absolute powerless and hopeless.

 

To reverse mankind’s errors, Hinoki and Sugi trees were decidedly chopped down by the city, and in their place are tree species belonging to Japan’s primary forests. Mikan, Amakatsu, Arakashi, Kunugi, Sakura, Ume. The diversity of trees brought along the lost biodiversity - insects, beetles, birds, monkeys, deers, boars - that found a habitat that could once again sustain their living. The timber, the weapon in which mankind unleashed upon itself, once a source of hope turned source of anxiety, is made to serve both Mizuchi and the villagers. Three timber structures were designed and constructed as offerings.

The Dragon Shrine, structure of robustness, in which Mizuchi is enshrined within. Its sturdy presence soothes the villagers’ anxieties.

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The Claw Tent, structure of mutability. Placed within the village as offerings to Mizuchi, in hope that Mizuchi would spare them from her wrath.

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The Dragon Spine, structure of volatility. A reminder that at the end of the day, Mizuchi is unpredictable - but in her power, we can find a kind of beauty.

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01 - Of Timber And Dragons
Digital Drawing
1189mm x 750mm

(Top Left, Dragon Shrine, Sectional Cavalier Projection, 1/100 Scale)

The Dragon Shrine becomes a new community area where villagers gather. Some take a bath in the onsen, while others prepare to cook a large dinner with the local ingredients - persimmon, venison, bamboo shoots and wild mushrooms. Visitors to the village enjoy the array of delicacies whipped up for them as they are nested within a tranquil environment.

(Top Right, Claw Tent, Sectional Cavalier Projection, 1/50 Scale)

The visitors return to their tents after their meals, writing about their experience in Hiraenoki. They peek out to enjoy the view amidst the persimmon orchard. Darkness envelopes the tent, and they put out the lights for a good night’s rest.

(Bottom Right, Dragon Spine, Sectional Cavalier Projection, 1/50 Scale)
(Top Left, Dragon Spine as Fence, Sectional Cavalier Projection, 1/50 Scale)

The next morning, villagers take turns to brush the drying persimmons, bringing its sweetness out to the surface. Some neighbours stop by for a chat under the persimmons. A deer, determined to trespass into the persimmon orchards, is unfortunately stopped by the fence surrounding it.

Drawings in Negative Space:
From Tree to Timber (Elevation & Section, 1/100 Scale)
Shrine Layout (4 Plans, 1/200 Scale)
Tent - Structural Logic & Stored Energy (Axonometric Projection, 1/25 & 1/50 Scale)
Spine - Structural Logic & Stored Energy (Axonometric Projection,1/10 Scale)

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02 - Landslide
Digital Drawing
1189mm x 750mm

(Bottom Right, Dragon Spine Signal, Axonometric Projection with Time, 1/200 Scale)

The first signal has gone off, the sign of an imminent disaster. With heavy rain falling on his face, the cluster chief knocks on each door and tells everyone to evacuate. The young assist the old to escape. When everyone has left for the evacuation route, he detonates the cluster spine, and it explodes violently, sending wood flying into the sky in a chain reaction.

(Top Center, Dragon Shrine Shelter, Sectional Axonometric & Worm’s Eye Axonometric Projection, 1/200 Scale)

The village chief notes the signal from the shrine, and receives the villagers. Luckily, all the villagers have managed to evacuate to the shrine, and there were no casualties this time. The villagers gather to the edge of the shrine, and the chief detonates the tail surrounding the shrine. The villagers were safe.

(Bottom Left, Claw Tent Landslide Mitigation, Axonometric Projection with Time, 1/200 Scale)

Just then, a chunk of land across the shrine, dislodges before their eyes, and approaches the persimmon orchard. Mud crashes into the first barrier of tents,  destroying them, but was weakened in the process. The sound of wood cracking echoes through the mountains. Thankfully, the slide stops at the second barrier of tents, and does not reach the houses.

Drawings in Negative Space:
Spine - Detonation Mechanism (Axonometric Projection, Scale 1/10)
Powered by Wood - Shrine System (Cavalier Projection, Scale 1/100)

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03 - How to Make a (Hiraenoki) Stool
Digital Drawing
1189mm x 750mm

1. Have a landslide
2. Tents resist landslides, are destroyed, and create timber debris
3. Collect timber debris
4. Cut timber debris lengths according to dimension
5. Join timber with screws

(Bottom Left, Debris Collection, Axonometric Projection, 1/100 Scale)
(Bottom Center, Debris Collection, Axonometric Projection, 1/50 Scale)

The flood subsided, leaving all surfaces covered in mud. Some driftwood were left piled up, but not a significant amount that would restrict recovery operations. One or two homes had some minor driftwood damage, and you could see the landslide scars cutting across the orchard. The villagers collect the debris from fallen tents and spines, mostly covered in mud, and bring it to the workshops. 

(Bottom Right, Shedding the Skin, Sectional Cavalier Projection, 1/40 Scale)

The weathered skin of the shrine is also another source to provide the village with more timber. Villagers shed the skin of the shrine, and bring it to the workshops as well. New timber eventually replaces the old skin of the shrine.

(Center to Top, Disaster Furniture, Axonometric Projections, 1/25 Scale)

With a manual in hand, handsaw and screw drills on the other, the villagers skilfully convert the debris into furniture - stools, benches, ladders and a drying rack. They clean their houses, floor covered with a layer of mud, and they take a rest on the stool, while their soaked mattresses are hung outside to dry. Villagers sell the excess furniture, which are highly valued for their simple design and more importantly, the timber’s role in protecting the village.

Drawings in Negative Space:
Disaster Furniture - A Manual (Exploded Cavalier Projection, 1/20 Scale)

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04 - Death of the Village
Digital Drawing
1189mm x 750mm

(Depopulation has threatened the village with extinction. Those who have stayed are old, and their children have left for the city for a better future - and they anticipate a certain death. Yet, death never really means death. Bodies cease to live and are taken over by decaying matter. Creeping figs grow on houses that have stopped supporting human lives. Replacing its tangible form with intangible memories, the village continues to exist in other ways. Hiraenoki lives on.)

Most of the sedentary population of Hiraenoki have passed. However, the carpentry activity and the regeneration of primary forests have attracted many enthusiasts, artists and researchers to stay in the village, creating a new transient community of villagers. Every year, the descendants of the villagers return to their hometown, and are joined by the village’s new population for the Dragon Festival, to remember the legacy of Hiraenoki and to pay their respects to Mizuchi.

(Top Right, Exploding Tents, Erecting Tents, and Mikoshi Procession, Cavalier Projection, 1/100 Scale)
(Top Center, Occupied by the Wild, Cavalier Projection, 1/100 Scale)
(Top Left, Biodiversity Research, Sectional Cavalier Projection, 1/100 Scale)

The festival begins with the collapsing of older claw tents, which would be recycled to become furniture to be sold. A Mikoshi procession follows, and several new tents are carried on the participants’ shoulders from the shrine over to the new sites to be planted. Many claw tents are also left deep into the forest, for the researchers’ uses, but they also become objects taken over by other agencies, such as birds that nest on it, ferns that grow around it, if not collapsed by termites that have been chewing on them.

(Center, Watching the Spectacle, Cabinet Projection, 1/200 Scale)

Gathered onto the shrine, the participants pick up brooms and rags, cleaning the compounds to preserve its structure. The villagers finish cleaning, and the clock strikes. They gather to the edge of the shrine, ready for the spectacle.

(Bottom Left, Destructive Spectacle, Axonometric Worm’s Eye Projection, 1/25 Scale)

The village chief begins with the countdown. The festival culminates with this as the highlight, the explosion of the dragon’s spine, to remind the villagers of Mizuchi’s subliminal beauty. Many visitors are in awe. Flinging timber, seeds, spores, ashes, and other small matter and microbes, the explosion marks the end of the festival, but also marks the start of new nonhuman life in Hiraenoki.

Drawings in Negative Space:
Tent - Detonation Mechanism (Axonometric Projection, Scale 1/10)