Puppet Theatre Seiwa

Kazuhiro Ishii

Subject | Kazuhiro Ishii has a special relationship with timber as a building material. According to his philosophy, timber structures - in terms of their design and appearance - should not imitate their modern steel or concrete counterparts but instead exemplify timber's own characteristics. And part of his philosophy are the "impressive dimensions". His structures - in particular the puppet theatre in Seiwa - attempt to employ timber as a building material in its very own grandeur. This is of course based on the Japanese tradition of timber buildings which, however, has been very much suppressed in recent decades by the steel and concrete of "modern" architecture. Kazuhiro Ishii admits that he was also inspired by the children's game "Waribashi" in which houses and other objects are created by using sticks and rubber bands as the "building elements". This fosters the development of a feeling for three-dimensional design, leading to a highly individual imagination.

In Japan at present, the building regulations are biased towards steel and concrete, and in fact are positively anti-timber in terms of design aspects, perhaps because of the greater stability required for taller buildings, perhaps because of the fact that wood is a combustible material. Therefore, Kazuhiro Ishii could put his ideas into practice only with a project embodying traditional Japanese culture, such as this puppet theatre. Indeed, his design for the exposed roof construction is unique and impressive.


Seiwa Bunraku-kan (Seiwa Puppet Theatre), Kumamoto Province, Kamimashiki-gun, Seiwa-mura, Oaza-Taihei Haraguchi 152, Japan


Seiwa-mura (local council) Architect

Kazuhiro Ishii Architect & Associates, Tokyo

Structural Engineer Hamauzu Kozo Sekkei-shitsu

General Contractor Nishido Komuten

Date of Completion 1992

Design | Puppet theatres have along history in Japan and Bunraku puppet theatre has existed in its present form since the 16th century.The performers are the puppeteers, the musicians and the narrator. Each puppet requires three puppeteers! One is responsible for the head and right hand, another for the left hand and the third for the legs. Puppet drama has suffered a serious decline in audiences since the dawn of widely available cinema and television in the middle of this century. However, Seiwa on the island of Kyushu has been able to retain its puppet theatre which has risen to the status of a major cultural attraction.

The complete rebuilding of the theatre was carried out as part of a regional economic aid package. The use of timber as the main building material was a

5 | Detail of roof construction, auditorium, scale 1:75. At the bottom the beams in the traditional dimensions of 390 x 420 x 3600 mm joined together by 2 No. 24 mm bolts, which form the loadbearing lattice. Above these a diagonal grid of 25 x 90 mm battens (90 mm dim. vertical). The 120 x 120 mm posts standing on these carry the 105 x 105 mm purlins right around the roof, interrupted in the central section by a further diagonal grid of 25 x 90 mm battens. The 40 x 105 mm rafters are spaced at 450 mm centres.

6 | Section through exhibition hall, scale 1:100.1 Main columns, 300 x 300 mm. 2 Lower beam grid comprising 140 x 180 mm members. 3 Upper beam grid comprising 300 x 360 mm members. 4 Roof beams, 180 x 330 mm, supported on each other in the form of a spiral.

5 Wall construction: 90 x 90 mm intermediate members, 75 mm boarding inside and outside, 10 mm base coat and 3 mm finishing coat rendering on outside face.

6 Roof construction: 40 x 105 mm rafters each supported on two 90 x 90 mm purlins right around the building, 12 mm boarding with clay tiles, 50 mm rock-wool thermal insulation underneath with fibreglass sheeting.

Theatre Roof PlansKazuhiro Ishii Plan

primary stipulation of the client in order to support the region's timber industry. The original intention was to offer bimonthly performances of traditional Bunra-ku puppet drama. However, as it turned out, the interest was so great that there are now 30 performances each month, attracting a total audience of 4,000! A success far in excess of what had been envisaged.

The project comprised the theatre itself and an exhibition hall. In his design the architect separated the structure into three distinct parts: the auditorium as a square building with a pyramid-type roof, the stage building as a rectangle at right-angles to this and with a hipped roof, and the exhibition hall as an almost pagoda-like circular building linked to the auditorium by a covered walkway. Owing to the different designs, the internal spaces each radiate a unique character. Kazuhiro Ishii's ideas are unmistakably related to those of the Buddhist monk Chogen (1121-1206) who influenced temple architecture over many centuries, as can still be seen today at the southern entrance to the Todaiji Temple in Nara and the Jodo Hall of the Jodoji Temple in the Hyogo district.

7 I The ceiling of the auditorium in the form of a load bearing lattice of beams carrying the roof construction.

Structure Auditorium | Using the above-mentioned "Waribashi", Ishii developed a very special roof construction for the approx. 12-m-square auditorium based on the traditional dimensions for timber members, namely 390 x 420 x 3600 mm -very compact building elements. In order to be able to span the whole area without intermediate columns, he created a horizontal beam lattice made from these traditional timber blocks to support the roof structure with its much smaller-dimensioned members.

Basically, the lattice consists of cantilever beams joined to each other in a locked chain and supporting each other at right-angles. The parallel chains of beams are in each case supported in the opposite direction so the whole becomes a three-dimensional lattice system. Each joint between the beams consists of two 24 mm bolts which hold together the ends of the beams via appropriately shaped 16-mm-thick steel channels. This is a concession to modern methods but it is a suitably modest and ingeniously solved detail. Fixed to each of the high points of the lattice is a diagonal grid of 25 x 90 mm battens which cross each other at the support points. Above this is the roof truss consisting of 120 x 120 mm posts, a second lattice of 25 x 90 mm battens, the 105 x 105 mm purlins and the 40 x 105 mm rafters at approx. 450 mm centres. Incidentally, the centre posts do not run right through but instead are cut off at the level of the second diagonal lattice.

The whole roof structure weighs 15 tonnes, a joy for the timber trade but an irritation for the project's structural engineer and the local building department which had to approve it!

7 I The ceiling of the auditorium in the form of a load bearing lattice of beams carrying the roof construction.

8 I Worm's-eye view of auditorium roof.

9 | Worm's-eye view of roof to exhibition hall.

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