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HOME > No.32, Feb. 2023 > Feature Story : Communication via computers, and their application to architectural design

Communication via computers, and their application to architectural design

Akihiro Mizutani

Associate Prof. Akihiro Mizutani (left) and his students
Associate Prof. Akihiro Mizutani (left) and his students

The use of computers in architectural design and urban development, starting with 3D-Computer-aided Design (CAD) and Building Information Modeling (BIM), is already common, and dates back to the Sixties, right at the dawn of the computer era. Associate Prof. Mizutani has been looking into the potential of computers as thinking tools by delving into the history of computer use in architectural design, and reassessing its significance. In addition to theoretical research, he is also working on implementation design, pursuing the optimal ways to combine our strengths with those of computers, or existing systems and computers, while working on implementation design.

Interview and report by Madoka Tainaka

Current Significance of Computer Application at the Tange Laboratory

Kenzo Tange is renowned as the architect who designed the Yoyogi National Stadium and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Although considered a great master who laid the foundations for modern Japanese architecture and nurtured many protégées, including Arata Isozaki and Kisho Kurokawa, it is not widely appreciated that the Kenzo Tange Laboratory at the University of Tokyo was an early adopter of computers from around 1960. Associate Prof. Mizutani studied under Hajime Yatsuka, an architectural student of Kenzo Tange, while a graduate student at the Shibaura Institute of Technology. He was engaged in preparations for the "Metabolism Exhibition"* planned by Mr. Yatsuka (hosted by Mori Art Museum from September 2011 to January 2012), and researched the history behind the Tange Laboratory’s use of computers, which sparked an abiding interest in the subject.

Assoiate Prof. Mizutani was engaged in preparation of the "Metabolism Exhibition."
Assoiate Prof. Mizutani was engaged in preparation of the "Metabolism Exhibition."

Associate Prof. Mizutani explained, "In those days, there was already a trend towards applying computers to architectural construction and planning, but in terms of urban planning, the Kenzo Tange Laboratory at the University of Tokyo led the way. Professors Manabu Yamada and Yoshio Tsukio were primarily responsible for this, and their "Survey into the flow of employees and visitors through the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building" in 1963 was reputedly a first. This gave rise to the development of a computer language specifically for urban design, known as URTRAN, and the means to simulate crowd flows for the 1970 Osaka Expo, etc."

An interesting side-note is that the Tange Laboratory’s interest in computers was triggered by a thesis entitled "The Use of Diagrams in Highway Route Location" by C. Alexander and M.L. Manheim. The paper patterned each of the 26 determinants of highway construction (cost of land work, comfort and safety, development potential of the area...), and by painting the best areas black, the area with the darkest colour when these patterns were superimposed was shown as the best route.
"This method is interesting because by prioritizing the determining factors and adjusting the overlapping layers, we can freely select or discard different factors. Although Alexander et al. did not use computers, the Tange Laboratory had the foresight to consider that computers could be applied here to simulate macro urban design."

These efforts of the Tange Laboratory were held up by various factors. To begin with, student protests that rocked academia in the late Sixties, rendering the campus’s mainframe computer unusable for two years. There were also some teething troubles for the early computers. Finally – triggered by Expo ’70 – Arata Isozaki started considering architecture separately from cities related to governmental power (the so-called, "Withdrawal from the City" declaration), leading architects who sympathized with him to lose interest in cities.
"Having said that, this initiative by the Tange Laboratory was groundbreaking in terms of using computers, not only for efficiency, but also to clarify the designers’ thought and design processes, and bolster the logic of the actual plans. This still holds true today, thanks to the massive development of modern computers, and has become a primary motivation for me to theorize about the role of computers in architectural design."

*Metabolism Exhibition
This exhibition reviewed an architectural movement that sprang up around 1960 led by young architects, such as Kisho Kurokawa, Kiyonori Kikutake, and Fumihiko Maki. As per its name – Metabolism – it reflects changes in society and demographics, and proposed an image of cities and architecture that grow organically.

Exploring the Potential of Digital Technology

While developing design tools, Associate Prof. Mizutani promotes research into how computers actually affect design in tandem with theorizing about computational design in architecture. One such initiative is a workshop on the digital fabrication of chairs (using software to support manufacturing).
He said, "In this workshop, we developed a support tool that presents a 3D image of a chair on the display simply by inputting three lines and specifying each component’s dimensions, etc. We also developed a tool that enables input on a tablet just like drawing a picture with a pen and paper. These have enabled anyone – even elementary school students – to design original chairs of their own simply by applying designs for the sides of the chair, with the flexibility to adjust the pitch of the seat panel."

Elementary school children trying to make their original chairs using our developed tool.
Elementary school children trying to make their original chairs using our developed tool.

In addition, Associate Prof. Mizutani proactively uses visual programming and other design tools to conduct structural analyses, such as gravity-induced deflection, while studying the model on the screen. Head-mounted VR displays also help them to draft design proposals and form a consensus.

He added, "When drawing a design on paper, you need to redraw the whole thing whenever you want to make a small change to the shape, don’t you? However, digital technology enables you to simply amend the draft design by changing some parameters, or visualise and communicate our images to each other during collaborative work. In other words, the time needed for drawing and communication can be significantly reduced. As a result, we can concentrate purely on the creative elements, such as design. I believe that such "appropriate" use of computers like this leads to better design."

Creating Better Architecture is the Goal

On the other hand, Associate Prof. Mizutani does not consider computers as indispensable to modern architectural design. He reiterated, "Models are still relevant in architectural design, and I also sometimes design without resorting to a computer. Our objective is simply to create good architecture, and computers are purely a means to that end. Actually, regarding the work selected for the SD Review sponsored by Kajima Institute Publishing Co., Ltd. in 2022, although we used computers for some environmental simulations, etc., most of the basic design derived from hand-built models. While it depends on the architectural scale, I often come up with better ideas by starting out with a hand-drawn sketch. For that reason, I think it is important to use computers appropriately by playing to their strengths."

The work selected for the SD Review sponsored by Kajima Institute Publishing Co., Ltd. in 2022
The work selected for the SD Review sponsored by Kajima Institute Publishing Co., Ltd. in 2022

On the other hand, he also feels that we have some way to go before we can claim to be fully utilizing the strengths afforded by computers and applying our knowledge of informatics to modern architectural design. Prof. Mizutani concluded by saying, "Whether or not we use a computer will affect how a design is expressed. However, it is too soon to say that digital technology is capable of creating unique advanced architecture. Why is this? Is it due to limitations of the tools, or just how they are used? I personally believe that computers will be used to create even better architectural designs in the future, so I want to continue exploring how best to use computers to produce better architecture."

Reporter's Note

Associate Prof. Mizutani first became interested in architecture while at junior high school – in part because his father was engaged in an architectural job. A visit to the Kisho Kurokawa Retrospective when he was at senior high school set the course for his future.

Associate Prof. Mizutani said, "I was incredibly impressed at the time by the model of the Project for a Helix City for Tokyo (1961) inspired by the double-helix structure of DNA. Later, in what seemed like fate to me, I re-encountered this model at the Metabolism Exhibition." After graduating from university, he joined Kengo Kuma & Associates as he had decided to work as an architect, but unable to give up his passion for research, he returned to university to pursue his doctorate. Subsequently, he opted for an interdisciplinary approach as a "professor architect" which allowed him to engage in both research and practical work. I am confident that he will continue to pioneer new architectural approaches in this digital era through both theoretical research and practice.

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Researcher Profile

Akihiro Mizutani

Akihiro Mizutani

AkihiroMizutani received PhD degree in 2013 from Shibaura Institute of Technology, Tokyo, Japan. He started his career at Kengo kuma and Associates. Since he started his career at Toyohashi University of Technology as an assistant professor in 2014, has been engaged in architectural design, architectural planning, and urban design. He is currently an associate professor at Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering of Toyohashi University of Technology.

Reporter Profile

Madoka Tainaka

Madoka Tainaka
Editor and writer. Former committee member on the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Council for Science and Technology, Information Science Technology Committee and editor at NII Today, a publication from the National Institute of Informatics. She interviews researchers at universities and businesses, produces content for executives, and also plans, edits, and writes books.