Slow Living: Experiments in Sustainable Architecture

A democratic, adaptive community: Setagaya-Mura, Osamu Ishiyama, 1997 – ongoing. Image c.o wakiii

A democratic, adaptive community: Setagaya-Mura, Osamu Ishiyama, 1997 – ongoing. Image c.o wakiii

Slow fashion has gained significant momentum in the fashion world the past couple years, as the conscious consumer shifts focus toward sustainable and ethical manufacturing of their clothes and accessories.

Slow fashion is as much a mindset as it is a tangible practice. Slow might be determined by the quantity of individual consumption, by purchasing more wisely and with more consideration to the process behind it’s making. Slow might mean supporting designers and brands that do not cut corners in order to maximise profit, to the detriment of workers or the environment. It might mean the acceptance of patience, if materials are not man-made, require long treatment processes or are not produced en masse. Such values - astuteness, aesthetics, forbearance and foresight – are inherent in the making of Peau de Chagrin objects.  

Of course, principled consumption extends to all forms of production and the environments that shape our daily lives. In Japan, the average lifespan of a house is just 25 years, given the hyper-expansion of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and other metropolises. The Japanese landscape is put under a constant resource-intensive cycle of building, demolishing, rebuilding, demolishing.

Osamu Ishiyama, b. 1944 is a Japanese architect who, though formally educated at Waseda University, is seen as a bit of a dilettante within the industry, for his avant-garde approach to architecture.

Countering Japan’s perpetual renewal of housing, Ishiyama’s own home, ‘Setagaya-Mura’, has been in a continual process of reuse, renewal and occupancy for the past 20 years. Setagaya - a ward in Tokyo - and Mura – translating as ‘village’ – is a spacious Japanese-style building and home to 7 of Ishiyama’s family and often a trainee architect. The ‘village’ has earned somewhat a mythical prestige through the ongoing experiments in self-sustainability, as some of the rooms have been removed over the years, exposing interior walls, and sections of the roof taken away to create different light and spatial dynamics.

Setagaya-Mura is a prime example of Ishiyama’s approach to architecture, challenging and fighting for control against developers and authorities who are arguably without the foresight or interest of individual needs or sustainable investment, and back into the hands of the craftsman. It also stands, like the pioneering designers of slow fashion, as a statement against the ‘amnesiac-culture’ of a consumer society.

“The project should be considered as a form of society, not a private home”, - Ishiyama has said, reportedly being open to the intuition of others and even on-site improvisation, transforming the spaces through a considered dialogue of material application and needs of others. The process is a slow and personal labour, critiquing the dependency or expectancy of immediacy and upending the tedium of monolithic architecture.

Ishiyama’s practice often displays an appreciation and understanding of traditional craft techniques, yet will employ all kinds of materials and technologies beyond mainstream architecture, and apply them in a way that is seen as visceral or heavy, with no pretence behind the construction process.

‘Gen-An’ (pictured below) is a rudimentary yet experimental use of basic materials intended to allow its residents to live off-grid. In ‘Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling’, Barry Bergdoll writes: “Ishiyama coined the term “direct dealing”, meaning consumers could bypass conventional commercial networks that made housing and architects more expensive.”

The ‘Fantasy Villa’, or Gen-An, Osamu Ishiyama, 1975.

The ‘Fantasy Villa’, or Gen-An, Osamu Ishiyama, 1975.

His buildings are to be lived in, used, but are adaptive to what exists before, and therefore democratic and slowing down the intensive construction industry.Pursuing a slow-living lifestyle, the house is now in the process of holding the capacity to renew it’s own energy supply, and provide a rooftop vegetable garden.

Setagaya-Mura and the wider portfolio of Osamu Ishiyama’s architectural practice is an inspiration for all those championing a slow fashion revolution, evidencing the positive effect of democratic and sustainable design on a community, and the determined agency of the individual in face of industrial manufacturing, exploitation and contamination of the environment.

PdC