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Emperor’s Castle by Thomas Hillier


For his student thesis project at the Bartlett School of Architecture, Thomas Hillier produced an immersive narrative world, complete with origami-filled hand-cut book pages and an elaborate model of the story's architectural landscape. Hillier's project was called The Emperor's Castle and it was inspired by the work of Japanese printmaker Hiroshige.

The Emperor’s Castle originates from a mythical and ancient tale hidden within a woodblock landscape scene created by Japanese Ukiyo-e printmaker, Ando Hiroshige. This tale charts the story of two star-crossed lovers, the weaving Princess and the Cowherd, who have been separated by the Princess’s father, the Emperor. These characters have been replaced by architectonic metaphors creating an urban theatre within the grounds of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo.

The result is astonishing; the images here have been presented in order, so you can follow the flow of the tale, with descriptive text supplied by Hillier. I would advise, however, that you also check out the Flickr set I put together for the project, where much larger versions of these images (and more text) are available.

The first two images, Hillier says, are taken from his "research storybook." They are hand-cut paper collages, and they show us "two acts from a series of five that illustrate and explore the narrative structure of the tale." The scenes thus supply "a series of clues, which can inform the future architectural proposition."



Image 1 (Act 3, Eternal Punishment) illustrates the Emperor’s anger over his daughter’s relationship with a cowherd. He separates the couple, placing them back in their original locations. The Emperor wanted to be sure they would never meet again, so he closed the castle and opened the heavens. Rain fell, causing the castle’s moat to flood, creating an island of the castle surrounded by a deep and swift lake unassailable by any man.

Image 2 (Act 5, The Last Meeting). Seeing the sadness of their friend, the Princess, the birds and animals came together to decide how to stop the torrent of her tears. So the sky became black as all the magpies and crows, with their wings spread wide, formed a bridge across the lake. When the Princess realizes what the birds have done, she stops crying and rushes across the feathery bridge to embrace the Cowherd and renew their pledge of eternal love.

The next three images "are hand-cut exploratory paper collages" illustrating "the architectonic character transition" through which the story's human figures are transformed into pieces of architecture.

In a way, it's the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili as retold for Late Edo Japan.






From Hillier's project text:

Image 3 (The Emperor’s Origami Lungs). The Emperor’s lungs come alive through differing gestures and surface transformations based on geometrical tessellations adopted from origami crease patterns. The lungs imitate the motion of breathing through expansion and contraction creating a bellowing volume that allows the Emperor to project his emotions both visually and audibly. They rise and fall, creating a bobbing motion, which produces a rippling affect onto the surrounding skin. The severity of these ripples will depend on the anger of the Emperor, and can cause the newly knitted areas of skin to become loose and break, stopping the Princess from ever reaching the cow herder.

Image 4 (The Princess’s Knitted Canopy). The Princess, a flexible, diaphanous knitted membrane, envelopes the spaces below and is fabricated using the surrounding ‘Igusa’: a natural rush material used in the fabrication of tatami mats. Igusa expels a soothing scent as the skin undulates, which is said to calm body and mind. This scent acts as a perfume of remembrance to the cow herder and his time spent running hand in hand through the meadows with the Princess.

Image 5 (The Cowherd’s Mechanical Cow-Cutters). The cowherd has been reinterpreted architecturally as the grass band, which wraps the perimeter of the site, encompassing the Emperor’s lungs and Princess’s knitted skin. Embodying the cowherd are the mechanical cows, which act as wind-up grass-cutting devices that constantly wander the grazing land, cutting the grass and fanning the aroma towards the Princess as a reminder of the cowherd. These cows are waiting and hoping for the moment the Princess knits her skin over the mechanical waves towards them, re-enacting the connection between the two star-crossed lovers.

The mechanical symbology of the resulting landscape—with "the Princess's knitted membrane knit[ting] itself ever larger... to reach the grass parkland perimeter representing the Cowherd"—is outlined in more detail in the project text.

The rest of the images—including the full model, above—showcase Hillier's exquisite craftmanship.







Image 7, above, shows us "the contoured landscape underneath the knitted canopy, exposing the series of connecting walkways that allow the Emperor’s army to run from one lung to another," while Image 8 reveals "the Emperor's origami lungs." Image 9 reveals how those lungs operate; there, we begin to see "the lung movements" of the Emperor, Hillier writes, as they "generate a bellowing volume of air." This air is then "forced upwards, sending the woven lung collars into a thrashing frenzy, visually increasing the impact of the Emperor’s anger." In another context, it might be interesting to explore the use of pneumatic metaphors to explore the nature and function of imperial power; but such an essay will have to wait for another day.

Image 10, meanwhile, zooms in on the Emperor's "Mechanical Moat," a machine-hydrology that surrounds and delimits the project landscape.

And then we reach the finale.


The images below are "the final triptych," Hillier writes. They offer "a section through the urban theatre [that] illustrates the frenetic ‘life’ of the building. This 1.8m x 0.8m piece is the culmination of all the research and design synthesis carried out above."







Hillier's project is a beautifully realized example of something I've long been curious about—for instance, if a book like Ulysses had been "written" not with a typewriter but with a 3D printer, what sort of architectural world might result? The Emperor's Castle offers at least one possible answer for how literature could be translated directly into urban and architectural space.

Now reverse-engineer this: take a landscape garden somewhere—or an accidental assemblage of parks, buildings, rivers, and homes—and interpret that setting as if it is literature. Do a reverse-Hillier, so to speak: start with the landscape and extract characters and motivated dramatic actions from the objects placed within it.

In any case, again, check out the Flickr set for more text and much larger images; and don't miss Johan Hybschmann's "book of space," also produced this year at the Bartlett.
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