In the architecture of the Ise Shrine, the choice of timber as a building material takes on an integral role to the building’s

process, environment and meaning. Every 20 years the shrine complex is rebuilt, up to 14 000 Japanese cypress trees are required; equating to 10 000 m3 of lumber. Dimensions of the pillars and columns are predetermined, and require timber members which are up to 1200 millimeters in diameter – a quality which demands at least 400 years for its production. Whilst on the one hand this may be regarded as impractical or unrealistic, the long production time necessitates an understanding and planning for the future, and invokes the imperative for renewal – short term solutions are not an option. Far from being an ‘off the shelf’ material, it is manifested as an environs to the shrine architecture, a forest of 5500 hectares containing plantations of cedar to sustain the construction of the shrine buildings, whilst simultaneously acting to protect the headwaters of the adjacent Isuzu river, and provide an appropriate scenery. The reuse of the material beyond the shrine’s lifespan of 20 years also becomes integrated into the process, whereby the shrine is disassembled and redistributed to repair and construct shrines within outer precincts. Though this act of dismantling itself is far from appropriate as an outcome to all buildings, too often buildings are designed as finished products, without consideration of a potential material cycle beyond the its current function. The integral role of timber as a material is particularly evident when one considers what would have resulted had a different material such as stone been selected.

building ecologies
yui uchimura + flynn lewer

Cedric Price, Inter-Action Centre

what is our contribution to the built environment? what about the old contributions? can they still contribute?



material cycle

400 years


known life span


The construction of the Ise Shrine facilitates social interaction via the Shikinen Sengu festival, whereby members of the local community transport timber members used for its construction upstream the Isuzu River, towards the site. Whilst upon first glance this may appear a technically redundant aspect of the construction process, it provides social cohesion between different generations – a premise which is essential to the shrine’s building process which requires knowledge transfer to occur between each generation. The individuals within the local community are provided with a role of active involvement, and consequently participants describe the festival as a valuable experience that they would like to pass on to their children. Seemingly mere sentiment, however emotional and social incentive without which the elaborate building process of the shrine may not be possible at all. Similarly, social interaction is the basis upon which social values are constructed, those values which determine whether we actively engage with the issues of environmental sustainability. Another notable aspect of this example of social interaction is the heavy participation of children. Despite the undeniable impact of social values that are ingrained in our childhood, and thus become assumed as the habitual actions and mentalities inherent in our everyday lifestyle, few architectural building processes engage this potential with children. Cottrell & Vermeulen’s Westborough Primary School is a rare example which does so – constructed out of recycled cardboard, the responsibility for the collection of material is given to the students, introducing the exponential potentials of an individual’s sustainable actions in a collective environment.



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In the Inter-Action centre, there is a conscious desire to integrate previously produced space into a larger whole. The building is a community centre formed by plug-in units comprised of pre-fabricated houses, containers and industrial materials. It aims to be a ‘value-free and artless’ community centre, dependant on a culture of contribution by the using community in order to function. By this there is meant a consideration of the building as an agglomeration of parts, of meanings and production processes. The building is dependant on the contribution of these parts for functional space and everyday industrial materials make up the connections between them. It raises the issue of specialised spaces and their production- if you treat them as units they can contribute to a greater whole. That is the essence of this argument, treating a house or a container as a unit of space, like thinking of a bottle as a vase. Essentially when objects are produced they can be adapted for a multitude of different uses, why is architecture any different? This perspective raises the issue of consumption. We are not currently aware of the implication of our spatial desires and our responsibilities as ‘users of the environment’. The Inter-Action centre has been developed in a way to counter any single unit being used (consumed) in the way it was supposed to, the ‘users’ contribute in making the building as they are responsible for additional units and materials that make up the overall space. Communal spaces, such as music performance rooms, are simply one of these pre-made units stripped down to a simple space so they can function as anything. Adaptability is an anti-consumerist ideal, the Inter-Action centre advocates a greater awareness of the production of buildings through making various typologies adaptable. Maybe building a sustainable environment is less about making buildings more sustainable but about adapting the ready made in a manner that exposes the production process itself and exposes the user to their role in this process. Sustainability is fundamentally a resource-loaded debate, so we are only really engaging in a discourse when we become critical of production itself.

what contributes to making a space?
social generation <+0 years>

social cohesion + incentive knowledge transfer

‘it’s fun’

social generation <+20 years>

social generation <+40 years>

technical skill

social generation <+60 years>

‘i‘d like to pass it on’

festival : material transportation


i n t era

c t i on

construction of building


Upon considering where the ‘value’ is placed in the Ise Shrine, it is interesting to note that whilst there is inherent symbolic value in the shrine itself, most of the technical value and knowledge lies not in the building itself but in its process. Whilst some suggest that the period of 20 years is based upon the time required for passing down the carpentry skills, this idea also may be reversed to say that the life span of a building is limited to 20 years in order that technical skills and knowledge must be passed down through each generation. The physical permanence of the building is thus sacrificed in order to transfer the technical value from a static object into a dynamic process, ensuring that the people of every generation are actively endowed with valuable technical skills and knowledge.

a seasonal surface, continually modified- connected to a wider culture of celebration and renewal.
In Djenne, Mali the seasonal cycle of wet and dry periods is associated very closely with the architecture and culture of the community. As the wet season erodes the mud surface of their Mosque, there is a need to constantly repair the damage done. Every spring in Djenne there is a festival in which the whole community takes part, of which the primary objective is to repair the damage done both by the wet season but also cracking from the temperature and humidity fluctuation in the local climate. These buildings have in-built devices allowing for this repair to take place, palm wood ‘ladders’ that allow the men to climb up the facade and smear a fresh layer of mud on the wall. When the festival takes place it is primarily about the spectacle of the young men climbing up the ‘ladders’, as it becomes a race to see who can get to the highest spot. Veterans of past festivals watch from the main square and children participate by playing in the mud mixture, stirring it up for use on the facade.


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ry d


In architecture today there appears to be a tendency for innovation to extend only so far as architect’s design of the building itself, rather than the building process facilitating a transfer of knowledge to the users. Whilst the transmittal of knowledge over countless generations as manifested in the building process of the Ise Shrine may be impractical with vernacular architecture, contemporary manifestations of knowledge transfer between the building and users can exist. A relevant example is Osamu Ishiyama’s ‘Open Technology House’, whereby the architect has designed specifically the construction process of the building rather than the product, in order that it may be undertaken by the inhabitants (including primary school children).


sfe r

knowledge + value [within object]


rebuilding = necessity for knowledge transfer

knowledge + value [within object]


Maybe in looking at the Djenne Mosque, we can appreciate the opportunities in building with seasonally affected materials. We are so conditioned to building with materials that have little or no effect from seasonal change. What this institutes is a loss of connection to these natural cycles which ultimately leads to ignorance of such processes even existing. The notion of community response is also an important one, that by doing small things as a group, larger meanings are addressed; cohesion of community, cultural expression. We should also ask what interactivity means in this sense, are we merely distancing ourselves from real environmental conditions or are we interacting with an ecology of which we play a vital part in maintaining?


djenne, mali
The festival highlights how the Mosque is a holistic form of community building. Its value to the people is built over time, it asks for a response from the community by eroding like a landscape. The seasonal response thus becomes a community event, bonding the people as well as the facade. A building like this addresses interactivity in a meaningful way. Interaction is the coming together of a community and the shared space between the ladders. Having fun whilst repairing the decay, knowing that if they didn’t, the building would surely melt back into the earth.

knowledge + value [within object]

rebuilding = necessity for knowledge transfer

knowledge + value [within object]

seasonal response on a human-scale?

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