The Emperor’s Castle – Thomas Hillier

This weekend I finally managed to got to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Among the works, I was pleased to see Thomas Hillier (whose The Migration of Mel & Judith was my favourite piece from 2010’s exhibition) back with his sketchbook, The Emperor’s Castle.

The Emperor's Castle - Thomas Hillier

The Emperor's Castle - Thomas Hillier

Hillier lives and breathes architecture but, as you can tell from his projects, his interests reach beyond traditional building and extend into unexpected areas such as classical Japanese art. I’m not sure how best to describe him – perhaps as a fantasy architect?

The Emperor’s Castle is a project from his time at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, and one which netted the architect the Hamilton Prize for Best Design Process within the Bartlett Diploma. The book takes inspiration from a woodblock print by Japanese Ukiyo-e printmaker, Ando Hiroshige which tells the legend of the weaving princess and the cowherd. The story tells of a cowherd (named Cowherd) who wins the love of one of the Jade Emperor of Heaven’s daughters. After a while the couple begin to neglect their responsibilities – the weaving Princess no longer creates the celestial cloth and presumably the cowherd neglects his cows. There are many different versions of the legend but basically, parental fury separates the couple setting them on either side of an unassailable river – in some cases the  is the Milky Way – but on the seventh day of the seventh month of each lunar year, a flock of magpies form a bridge and allow the couple to meet.

The Emperor's Castle - Thomas Hillier

The Emperor's Castle - Thomas Hillier

Hillier says of his work:

These characters have been replaced and transformed into architectonic metaphors creating an Urban Theatre within the grounds of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo. The Princess, a flexible, diaphanous knitted membrane, envelopes the spaces below and is fabricated using the surrounding Igusa rush to knit itself ever larger in aim to reach the grass parkland perimeter representing the Cowherd. Linked within this skin is a series of enormous folded plate lung structures. These origami lungs of the Emperor expand and contract creating the sensation of life. The lungs, deployed around the site act as physical barriers that manipulate the knitted skin as it extends towards the outer parkland, these manipulations are controlled and articulated by the Emperor’s army using a series of complex pulley systems which pull back the lungs and the surrounding skin.

The Emperor's Castle - Thomas Hillier

The Emperor's Castle - Thomas Hillier

This piece of narrative architecture was the vehicle to examine current day cultural and social issues in Japan such as unconditional piety, relentless work ethic, and conservative attitudes of love.

The way the work was represented throughout was key in illustrating my precise architectural ambition for the project. Tokyo is looked upon as the city of ‘bright – lights and fast moving technology, yet within its underbelly still exists the idea of ‘exquisite craft’ that has defined Japan over the centuries, I wanted my work to compliment these ideals. The work is represented through the medium of precise and meticulously crafted hand cut paper collage along with pencil work, thread work and even hand knitting.

The aim of The Emperor’s Castle was to provoke thought but never patronise or attempt to solve all the world’s problems.

The Emperor’s Castle is in a glass case at the Summer Exhibition with only one double page spread on show so take a look at a selection from the work in this slide show:

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