Abby Enscoe, a master's degree candidate in structural engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, has been selected as the SOM Foundation's 2009 Structural Engineering Fellow. The jury recognized Ms. Enscoe for a thorough travel plan that focuses on Japanese architecture and "designs that arrange efficient structural systems into simple, purposeful spaces that impact us deeply." Enscoe studied physics as an undergraduate at Harvard and worked as a carpenter with Habitat for Humanity for two years.
I have long believed that seeing architecture in person is fundamentally different and more valuable than studying it from afar. This trip emphatically confirmed that conviction. The structure and details of buildings evoke layers of responses that cannot be imagined from a distance. Spending time in the buildings, walking in and around them, was crucial to exploring their effect on people. I have always loved Japanese architecture, but my understanding of its impact was necessarily limited to what I could learn from books and photographs. Visiting with the time to explore slowly and carefully was an amazing experience, even more than I hoped it would be. Studying these structures in person gave me the chance to see the power and impact of craftsmanship, innovative structural systems, and architectural choices.
My trip to Japan evolved continually, both during planning and while I traveled. During the months between receiving the SOM fellowship and leaving for Japan, I invested a good deal of time in researching Japanese architects and structures. My itinerary developed as I fine-tuned my interests and knowledge of Japanese architecture. While traveling, I was able to approach my itinerary flexibly as I found some structures prohibitively hard to reach and discovered others that I had not focused on before. I learned about the Sayamaike Museum from an Australian architect about to start an internship with Kengo Kuma. I missed visiting Ando's Church on the Water because it was closed for weddings throughout my time in Hokkaido.
I let my reactions to the structures themselves guide my approach to the trip as well. I spent all day exploring many buildings, and left others after only an hour. I found I could easily sit still for hours, writing, drawing and watching people move through the spaces. I visited Himeji-jo a second time after the first time bowled me over. Ancient buildings absorbed more of my time than I had expected they would; I spent long, wonderful days exploring their halls.
Perhaps because Japan is such a friendly, safe, navigable place to travel, I found that I could focus my mental energy on Japanese architecture and culture to a far greater extent than I had expected. I brought architecture books with me on my trip, and I spent many evenings sitting on tatami mats, drinking tea and learning about temple construction and Japanese history, or studying Japanese. Taking the time to learn about the connections between architecture and history in advance made visiting the buildings a rich experience.
Overall, I learned far more than I expected to learn, and often in different directions than I had anticipated. The attention to detail, the history, and the intricate craftsmanship of the ancient buildings were breathtaking. Modern structures offered lessons in a high level of craft that seems largely absent from construction in the United States. I appreciated the chance to study Japanese earthquake engineering in the context of real buildings with a wide variety of structural systems. As a result of the trip, I have an array of new ideas about structure, a greater appreciation for craft, and a better understanding of how architecture impacts people. I will also continue to savor memories and impressions of my time spent visiting Japanese buildings. I am deeply indebted to the SOM Foundation for the opportunity to explore Japan and learn about its rich architectural heritage and the directions Japanese architects are exploring today.