Observing, Finding, and Relating: Le Preesitenze Ambientali
  1. Le preesitenze Ambientali (surrounding pre-existence)
During the 1950s, Ernest Rogers wrote editorials for Casabella Continuita. He considered architecture to be a dialogue with its surroundings not only in the immediate physical sense, but also as a historical continuum. The term used by Rogers to express this was gLe preesistenze ambientalih (surrounding pre-existence). (Quoted from Adrian Fortyfs gWords and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architectureh London 2000).
The reason why I quoted the words of an Italian person 60 years ago is because I think that his arrangement is useful from the aspect of enabling us to relate design to history in the 21st century.
We carry out dialogue between architecture and two kinds of history, as indicated by Rogers. The first kind is history in the physical context, and the second kind is history in a semasiological context. As Rogers points out, these kinds of history are always hidden in the surrounding pre-existence. A surrounding pre-existence which has a physical meaning is something that literally surrounds the site on which a building is to be designed and constructed. On the other hand, a surrounding pre-existence that is a historical continuum can be briefly described in somewhat rough language as a collection of stories about that place. These stories cover a wide range from stories of historical events that occurred at that place, to episodes based on the recollections of a single resident.
I think that in cases where the two historical elements mentioned by Rogers are viewed as opportunities for design, many elements can probably be discovered there, forcing the designer to select whether or not to adopt these elements. I think that there are two criteria concerning the selection. The first criterion is whether or not the existence of these elements in a design can be understood visually, and the second criterion is whether or not an understanding of these elements awakens the imagination of the viewer rather than being a simple visual commonality. These two criteria contain connotations that appear at first glance to be contradictory. The former says gbe easy to understand,h while the latter says gbut donft be too easy to understand because you must adequately stimulate the mind of the viewerh.
Generally, a physical context is visible to the eye and easy to understand, so the first condition is easy to meet. On the other hand, the second condition cannot be met with only the visual commonality of existing designs. In contrast, a semasiological context has difficulty in meeting the first condition because there are many cases of invisible stories. Also, if there is excessive dependence on stories, it will be difficult to gauge what the resulting design is related to. If it is very difficult to gauge what a design is related to, the design will end up being merely self-indulgent, which is not a desirable state of affairs.

The foregoing can be summarized as follows. Concerning a design that takes history into account, (1) the surrounding pre-existence is observed, (2) it forms a visible relationship with physical surrounding pre-existence, (3) evokes memories of invisible surrounding pre-existence, and (4) awakens the imagination of the viewer regarding both (2) and (3).

Next, it is necessary to touch upon the problem of different standards when considering history. This is goldnessh. Generally, it is considered that historical value is increased by oldness. One of the judgment criteria of a cultural asset is oldness. However, history as a reference item for designing a building may not necessarily follow these criteria. If excessively importance is placed on these criteria, it is also highly likely that the resulting design will depend upon a past that is difficult to see. In other words, it is likely to become a self-indulgent design. Even if a design has an intimate relationship with history, it must be of a form such that can be understood by ordinary people. In this context, designs of 100 years ago should be set out equivalently alongside designs of 10 years ago, and both studied. This is particularly the case in Tokyo where many historical building have been destroyed.

From the foregoing viewpoint, first I will describe actual practice in finding the continuity between history and design through a studio topic that I have assigned to third year students at Tokyo University of Science.