Architect Andrew Burns and artist Brook Andrew introduce Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale’s new Australia House


Staff Writer

“Surely, post 3/11, post Global Financial Crisis, we need to make buildings and spaces that are simple and allow us to remember essential things,” says Andrew Burns, the architect behind the new Australia House in Urada, Tokamachi City.

Burns’ design — a triangular structure incorporating a large open studio space/gallery and a loft for artists in residence — replaces the original Australia House, a renovated 100-year-old traditional Japanese building that was destroyed during a series of severe aftershocks after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Within weeks of its destruction, the Tokamachi City Government, International Culture Appreciation and Interchange Society, Inc., the Australia-Japan Foundation and the Australian Embassy,Tokyo, called for architects to design a new Australia House — something that would not only continue to foster a cultural exchange between Australia and Japan, but also symbolize a recovery from March 11.

The Japan Times talked to Andrew Burns about his winning design, and to artist Brook Andrew, whose “earth house” will be a permanent installation within the new Australia House.

Why is the new building triangular?

Andrew Burns: The triangle actually responds to the shape of the site, which narrows to a point. When you stand in front of the building it appears as a more conventional square building, but that’s challenged once you enter it.

The triangle also creates a very long dimension within a small floor area, so it expands the sense of space of the gallery. The long (windowed) edge of the triangle faces the landscape, so local scenery becomes the third wall of the gallery — and that creates many possibilities for curation and art installation.

Does the design borrow from local traditions or culture?

We followed traditional Japanese construction techniques to make a simple building extraordinary. The building also references the daikoku-bashira, a traditional central pillar common to the many minkas (traditional Japanese housing) of the Urada region. During construction, the contractor, Tetsuro Iizuka, offered us a tree from his nearby land to be Australia House’s daikoku-bashira, so the design was completed by generosity — a gift. This is a wonderful aspect of the project.

How does your design respond to its surrounding environment?

The main view from within the gallery is not the expanse of the valley but the embankment at the side of the site. That may sound very ordinary — a local landscape of grasses — but the building reveals it as something wonderful. It’s more than a backdrop to the gallery, it’s a work itself. The line between the building and artwork is unclear and Brook Andrew’s work is also a part of the architecture.

Brook, how did you involve the Urada locals in your “earth house”?

Brook Andrew: I asked local community members questions like “What are your favorite and most important community or ancestral traditions of Urada?” And I had conversations about ancestors, changes in local culture, modernization and capitalism. I also discussed similar issues that occur in some Aboriginal communities in Australia.

The patterned wall is derived from a long tradition of ceremony in Wiradjuri country (my Aboriginal background) and it’s an expression of the collaboration and connection to the importance of ceremony and other diminishing aspects of local society.

Can you tell us about the poem?

The interviews with locals inspired many poems and the final selection was made through discussions with locals. It’s a deep reflection on Urada itself — its struggle with snow, diminishing youth, and the importance of ancestors and mountains for spirituality and crops.

Why is it reflected in a mirror?

The poem aims to place you into the artwork as implicit with Urada, and the mirror amplifies that. It’s written in reverse on the patterned wall, so when you read it as a reflection, you are also looking at yourself, and you absolutely engage in the nature that is reflected (from behind you).