Bunraku Puppet Theatre

The Burnaku Puppet Theatre designed by Kazuhiro Ishii is set in the town of Seiwa in Kumamoto Prefecture, southern Japan. It is set in the landscape surrounded by dramatic high hills which form a backdrop and a natural border to the site. It is a complex of four distinct buildings, each distinct but brought together through the use of a common architectural language. All the buildings use timber for their structure and all of them except the newly built restaurant use some form of RF structure. The structures are very much part of the overall architectural language, and to a great degree contribute in creating its particular architectural expression. The structures used are all different and define each space in a very sophisticated way.

These examples show how RFs can be designed in a way to give a completely unique and different expression, each suitable for the particular building where they are used. Yet they show the designer's great ability in this complex of buildings: to create distinct and different buildings that are unified by common elements.

The complex consists of four free-standing buildings in the landscape: a Puppet Theatre with auditorium; an exhibition hall building; and the shop

▲ 7.32 Seiwa Bunraku Puppet Theatre complex. (Photo: Kazuhlro Ishii.)

and café in a separate building. A recent addition to the complex is the new building that houses the restaurant.

When Ishii was commissioned to design the Puppet Theatre complex, he wanted his design to help in regenerating the local rural communities, which are in decline. He studied the history and the characteristics of the locality. As always, his approach was to understand the regional issues, the culture, traditions, and by respecting the old to create a contemporary reinterpretation in the form of architecture that links the old and the new in a novel way.

Ishii decided to use wood for the Puppet Theatre complex in Seiwa because of his strong views about environmental issues, but also because he wanted to help the local timber industry. He found writings about a Buddhist monk called Chogen who lived in Nara in the twelfth century and who had used a spiral layering of timber to create structures. Inspired by this, Ishii created the RF structure for the exhibition building.

The RF structure over the exhibition hall is perhaps the most impressive of all the RFs on the site. The exhibition hall is a 13-metre-high space which is flooded in light from the windows and the roof light. It is the building which houses the permanent exhibition of puppet masks, puppets and paintings showing scenes from puppet shows. The hall is a relatively small building of only 8 metres span, but the double height as well as the light that floods the space make it feel a lot bigger than it really is.

Reciprocal Frame Roof
▲ 7.33 Seiwa exhibition hall.
Ishii Roof
▲ 7.34 The double height space of the exhibition hall makes the space feel bigger than it really is. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)

Part of the architectural expression is achieved by using an RF structure for the roof which is left exposed and is visible in the space. The 12 RF beams that form the roof structure are supported by a woven structure which consists of two flat RFs spiralling in opposite directions and supporting each other. The RF structure is only apparent when entering the exhibition hall, because externally the roof is clad with ceramic tiles laid concentrically on rafters.The exposure of the RF only in the interior of the exhibition hall adds to the visitor's astonishment when noticing the roof for the first time after entering the space.

The tall and slender timber columns in the 13-metre-high space are at the limit of the length allowed by Japanese building regulations.To prevent the slender columns from buckling, the woven double spiralling RF structure is repeated in the form of a three-dimensional ring beam at the columns' half span. Only a 'structurally minded person' realizes the utilitarian function of this ring beam, because it fits so well in the

Structural Roof Theatre

▲ 7.35 Seiwa exhibition hall - roof plan. (Drawing: ▲ 7.36 Selwa exhibition hall - section. (Drawing:

Tadashl Hamauzu.) Tadashi Hamauzu.)

▲ 7.35 Seiwa exhibition hall - roof plan. (Drawing: ▲ 7.36 Selwa exhibition hall - section. (Drawing:

Tadashl Hamauzu.) Tadashi Hamauzu.)

context of the building and gives the impression that it is purely part of the architectural expression. By mirroring and repeating the three-dimensional woven double RF, the space feels more complete. One cannot separate the 'architecture' from the 'engineering' of the building. They are in unity, they complement the 'one' and 'whole' in a way that only a really successful piece of design can.

The detailing in this building is done by using carpentry joints that are based on traditional Japanese 'Vatariago' joints. None of them use any metal connectors. The architect, Ishii, and the engineer, Tadashi Hamauzu, worked very closely to develop the structure that fits and complements the architectural expression envisaged by Ishii. This can be seen by looking closely at the building design. The technical necessities are resolved so that they are part of the architecture. The buckling protection of the columns is clearly part of the overall architectural expression. Also, the ring of RF beams spiralling in opposite directions that support the RF roof structure is relatively heavy, which helps against wind uplift but at the same time mirrors old, traditional Japanese roof structures. It is both utilitarian and beautiful. And, as for the most amazing pieces of

▲ 7.37 The RF-like ring beam reduces buckling.
Reciprocal Roof
▲ 7.38 The complex and beautiful RF roof structure of the exhibition hall - internal view. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)

architecture, it is difficult to decide what came first: the need for a particular architectural expression or the necessity to resolve it in a technically viable way. The two are part of one inseparable whole, a very refined piece of architecture.

Kazuhiro Ishii
▲ 7.39 Assembling the pre-cut RF timber beams. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)
▲ 7.40 Detail of the RF notched beams. (Drawing: Tadashi Hamauzu.)

When I confront Ishii, asking him why he did not use a roof structure consisting of rafters that meet at one point at the top, he simply says:

'Look at the universe — it shows a spiralling motion, one that rotates around the centre but avoids it. My roof does the same. This is not a utilitarian building, unlike a castle that in the old days was used for protection and had only one function. There, the beams always used to meet in the centre. An exhibition building is a space that can be interpreted and used in many ways. That is why the structure is one that has a cosmic look, and just like the universe

▲ 7.41 All RF timber beams are in place - elevation. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)
Kazuhiro Ishii
▲ 7.42 The structure of the RF roof is in place. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)

that surrounds us and forms our world, the RF structure in this building creates the "World" of this building.'

To this I can only add: 'Typical Ishii symbolism realized in the most amazing and beautiful way!'

▲ 7.45 Puppets' 'involvement' In the construction process. (Photo: Kazuhlro Ishii.)
Strucrual Behaviour Construction
▲ 7.46 Puppets exhibited in the finished building.

The other building on the site is the auditorium building, which is connected to the exhibition building via a covered but open walkway. Inside the auditorium building the architect has used a planar grillage structure (referred to in Japan as a 'chopstick structure') to create the roof and the ceiling. One could describe it as a flat type of RF structure, consisting of relatively short timbers that are interlocked and create a woven effect.

The atmosphere and the feeling in the auditorium are very different to the exhibition space. Unlike the exhibition hall that was flooded in light, the auditorium is a very dark and oppressive space. The roof structure,

▲ 7.47 The auditorium building is connected to the exhibition hall via a covered walkway.
▲ 7.48 Section through the auditorium and stage. (Drawing: Tadashl Hamauzu.)

which is left exposed in the space, adds to the feeling of weight. It is a very heavy interlocked grillage consisting of timber beams that overlap each other to form the roof structure. At the points where the timber beams cross each other and interlock, the overall section (of all three members) exceeds 1 metre in depth. It is a heavy weight hanging over our heads, making us feel the oppressiveness of the space almost physically. I ask Ishii why he used such a heavy structure. He explains:

'The puppet stories that are presented in this theatre are of a specific kind. This is a Bunraku Puppet Theatre and the stories are ones that tell us about

▲ 7.49 Auditorium - internal view towards the stage. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)
▲ 7.50 Auditorium - internal view of the oppressive space. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)

the hardship of people who suffered from the Samurai. They are stories about love, money, loss, etc., but they are always sad stories. I felt that it was important to express this feeling of hardship through the architecture of the building. Thus, the heavy timber structure. I based my design on a module used in traditional buildings, "ken". One ken is about 1.8 metres and the roof modules are one ken (1.8 m) or two kens (3.6 m). The whole structure of the roof and therefore the building is designed using this basic module.'

I challenge Ishii with my next question: 'I understand the importance of achieving the appropriate expression for this space by using a heavy

▲ 7.52 Assembling the timber beams' pre-cut beams. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)

timber structure, but did you not feel that it is wasteful to use up so much timber?'

It is interesting that both Ishii and the engineer, Hamauzu, explain that the structure was calculated and say that it needed to be that deep. As it is a public building the roof beam design was governed by the limited deflections of the timber members. After doing the calculations for the structure, it became apparent that there was an important requirement that governed the depth of the beams, one that went beyond the intention of the architect to have an oppressive and heavy structure in the space. It is clear that the architect and engineer were able to work very

▲ 7.53 The shop and café building - elevation. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)
▲ 7.54 The roof structure of the shop and café building is a type of RF structure - internal view. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)

closely from the early stages of the design. This teamwork of architect and engineer has resulted in a very beautifully crafted piece of architecture, where technical and aesthetic considerations are in full harmony.

The other two buildings on the site, although different, are equally successful. The shop and café are housed in an elongated and curved-in plan building whose roof truss uses RF principles. It is a truss where interlocking beams that are shorter than the span are used which, although different to an RF structure, has some resemblance to it. In a way, it is similar to the temporary bridges that Leonardo da Vinci designed (see Chapter 2).

▲ 7.55 Physical model of the café/shop roof structure used in the design process.
▲ 7.56 Façade detail.

The last building on the site, the restaurant, was erected in 2004. Although very different to the three buildings described so far, it is interesting how Ishii has been able to work with the same theme of grillage structures and develop it a stage further. The restaurant is housed in two volumes, each covered with a membrane structure. The load-bearing part of both buildings is a very unusual combination of rough, massive section, round timbers interlocked in a grillage structure with steel-pinned connections. The contrast of the rough timber and the smooth steel pins, combined with the lightness of the membrane, creates a

▲ 7.57 Restaurant bui|ding - externa| view. (photo: ▲ 7.58 eternal view of the restaurant. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)

Kazuhiro Ishii.)

Membrane Structure Theatre

▲ 7.59 The pinned timber structure folds and is locked into its final position. (Photo: Kazuhiro Ishii.)

magnificent space. And although the restaurant structure does not work like an RF, it takes the idea of the RF to another level of development, one that complements the architect's vision.

It is interesting that at the time of construction of the Seiwa Burnaku Puppet Theatre (it was built in 1994), it was necessary to make physical models of parts of the structure at 1:3 scale in order to convince the authorities and to make sure that all the complex joints would fit together. The building complex is like a huge three-dimensional jigsaw. All joints are carpentry joints and everything slots and fits together. The joints are all based on traditional Japanese joints that have been developed for this purpose. All the RF structures used in these buildings, with the exception of the auditorium 'chopstick grillage', are constructed without the use of any metal connectors. No nails or screws were used to put these great puzzles together. All materials including timber as well as construction workers were local, which helped the economy of Seiwa.

When I ask Ishii about the complex notching of the beams and whether any mistakes were made in the cutting, he simply replies:

'If they [the construction workers] had made mistakes, they hid them from me. I never heard about them. I know it was not easy to build the Seiwa

Burnaku Theatre, but what is easy in life?'

In my view The Seiwa Burnaku Puppet Theatre is one of the most remarkable applications of RF architecture. For me it is a building complex that synthesizes architecture and engineering in the most beautiful way. It is a design that is about unity of the old and the new, about dialogue, and about achieving form through the exploration of how to use materials and structures to tell a story, a story of architecture. After visiting this building, still beautiful though it was built in the early 1990s, I look at buildings in a different way. I expect more from them. I recommend the experience of visiting Seiwa and the beautiful RF structures by Kazuhiro Ishii to everyone.

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  • Armaan
    How did bunraku theatre develop?
    10 months ago

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