The beginnings of the broad reconfiguration of the built environment in Japan—from agriculture via the food industry to architecture, from household appliances to the city and countryside—can be traced back to the late nineteenth century. Yet the factors that widely transformed society at this time were less a set of formal accomplishments, but rather a set of new fields of scientific expertise (e.g. hygiene), processes (e.g. electrification), and expert knowledge (e.g. the professionalization of architects, engineers and urban planners). These new fields allowed for the regulation of the environment through a series of systems, devices, and techniques, bringing in turn a comprehensive reorganization of architecture and urban planning: how it was constructed, how it was controlled, and how it was understood amongst the different practitioners and the users of the built environment.
These changes can be traced through the various scales at which architecture operates, ranging from the planning of infrastructure and urban development to the design of individual buildings formed from an assemblage of regulations, techniques, and technical devices, each with their own fields of discourse, systems of knowledge, and constellation of products. Not only have these transformations changed our understanding of architecture, they have also changed the way individuals and social groups experience the built environment. Therefore these transformations are not only of a technical nature but also span a discursive arc between contradictory notions of modernity.
To do justice, therefore, to this multifaceted dimension of these architectures, devices, or elements that have transformed Japanese everyday life in the last 130 years or so, we have called them “Things of Modernity”. Following Martin Heidegger’s definition, a “thing” is etymologically a concrete object, like a “piece of wood, a stone, a knife, a clock, a ball, a lance, a screw, or a wire,” or even a “railway station,” but also simultaneously a trial, an issue, and by extension a place of gathering (still called a “thing” in Scandinavian countries), where reality is negotiated. A thing is therefore not only readable as a “matter of fact” but above all as a “matter of concern,” as Bruno Latour, building on Heidegger’s distinctions, would put it, because “matters of fact” are not what we experience, rather only a very partial view of it. To understand objects as “things” would therefore not mean stripping them of their concreteness, but on the contrary adding reality to them by merging them with “the complex, historically situated and richly diverse matters of concern” in which they are positioned.
The general aim of the course was to propose a new reading of modern architecture, starting less with the ever-shifting “heroes” or “pioneers” or with the “key buildings,” but instead with a series of “things” that at the same time shaped Japanese modernity. The course lasted two terms. While in the first the movement from an “object” to a “thing”, from a “matter of fact” to a “matter of concern”, was considered in four lectures (revolving door, elevator, frame, air) and analyzed by the students through a series of short films on individual elements, the course in the second term was divided in two parts. The first addressed the topic through a series of four seminars dealing with the methods and tools of historical and theoretical inquiry, while students were asked to independently work on a historical investigation of a particular “thing,” analyzed in three different periods in time: the period before the mechanization of the house (ca. 1885–1900), the post-war boom era (ca. 1950–1965), and the near present (ca. 1995–2010). This research was presented first in the form of an atlas and as a map. The second part, which was held in collaboration with Prof. Y. Tsukamoto and Prof. K. Sasaki, proposed a synthetic representation of the research done in the first part in the form of an axonometric drawing.