UW Professor Ken Oshima looks to history, design and the younger generation of international architects

BY AMY HARTWELL
GGLO Architects

There is no doubt that the urban landscape of Seattle has been directly influenced by Asian aesthetics and sensibilities. This is true of most metropolitan centers, particularly those along the Asian-Pacific rim, and the study of this topic has led Dr. Ken Tadashi Oshima, Ph.D. to the University of Washington’s Department of Architecture. Though a relatively new addition to the university’s faculty, Oshima is known as a professor whose high energy, intelligence and enthusiasm for architecture make him a naturally charismatic mentor.

Originally hailing from Fort Collins, Colo., Oshima earned his master’s in architecture from U.C. Berkeley in 1993 and his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2003. He spent his post-doctoral time in 2004-2005 as a Research Fellow at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, examining Japan in the international context.

His research focused on Englishman Christopher Dresser, a 19th century botanist, designer and writer widely regarded as a pioneer of industrial design and product manufacture. Dresser’s influences included Japanese, Egyptian and Asian art and design, as well as abstract patterns based on his study of botany. In part, Oshima studied how Dresser’s trip to Japan in 1876 for the Victoria and Albert Museum influenced the designs that Dresser created in England and the overall effects of cultural exchange upon global architecture of the time.

Oshima has experience in a variety of capacities with architecture and urban planning. After college, he went to Japan as an intern for Toyo Ito. In 1990, he returned to the states to attend graduate school and then worked on various renovation projects in San Francisco’s Japantown. He later earned a Fullbright scholarship to study the waterways of Tokyo, and this eventually led him to pursue professional academia. For Oshima, teaching both history and design is ideal as those are his main areas of interest, and to be doing so in the jump-started architectural climate of Seattle is a plus. He is also pleased to be back on the West Coast, near his relatives both in Colorado and Japan.

Oshima serves the local and international academic community as a lecturer, researcher, instructor and symposium organizer. His most recent project has been to coordinate the Spring 2006 lecture series at the Henry Art Gallery entitled “Craft and Construction in Contemporary Japan,” sponsored by MulvannyG2 Architectures Shanghai/International Group. The series has featured noted contemporary architects Waro Kishi/K-Associates (Kyoto), Tezuka Architects (Tokyo), Atelier Bow-Wow (Tokyo), and Hitoshi Abe (Sendai).

Each of the visiting architects has participated in Oshima’s Spring 2006 seminar at the university. By giving his students the rare opportunity to participate in informal question-and-answer sessions with these professionals, the undergrads learn firsthand of the design and construction process in other countries and get “the real story” behind architectural practice. His students are fortunate to tap into this type of intellectual dialogue. Rather than relying on the older generation of “starchitects” like Gehry or Foster for inspiration, Oshima sees the younger generation of international architects as originators of new and provocative designs. The back-and-forth exchange of information, both historical and contemporaneous, and the influence of time on buildings are critical factors that form the basis of Oshima’s research.

In comparing building in England versus Japan, for example, Oshima describes England as a place that cherishes the preservation of historic city fabrics, while Japan looks to newness to the point of almost constantly rebuilding the city. In the exploding population centers of Japan, Korea and China, the sheer volume of new construction allows room for more experimental designs. These countries, particularly those with formerly closed borders, look to the outside influences of international architects for solutions that generate new ways to reinterpret the existing physical context.

Indeed, certain Asian qualities inform modern designs, but they are interpreted differently and perhaps un-self-consciously; characteristics such as cleanness of line, use and expression of natural materials, and minimal ornamentation have an eternal, subliminal appeal. Oshima hopes that the guest lecturers represented at the Henry series will illustrate the multiple ways these common themes can be used to create new forms of architecture, both internationally and in Seattle.

Oshima’s recent publications include the forthcoming essay “Characters of Concrete,” in “Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noémi Raymond,” Princeton Architectural Press, 2006; “Christopher Dresser and the Evolution of his ‘Art Botanical’ Depiction of Nature,” Decorative Arts Society Journal, 2005, 53-65; and “Manfredo Tafuri and Japan: An Incomplete Project,” Architectural Theory Review, (Vol. 8, No. 1, 2003).
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