The Koshirakura ritual

Can architecture help fight rural exodus?

Resting amidst the narrow valley of the Shibumi River, Koshirakura is a small hamlet located in the Niigata prefecture on the Western coast of Japan.

Reduced to a third of its population in less than 15 years - like many villages in the so-called hilly regions - Koshirakura well illustrates the rural exodus which has been hitting Japan since the late 1960s and that has dangerously threatened the survival of rural communities. Back in 1996, when Japanese architect Shin Egashira established the first Koshirakura Landscape Workshop as part of the AA School of Architecture summer programme, the village counted only a hundred inhabitants. The initiative of Egashira aimed at giving a new lease of life to the village while proposing to international students an alternative to their theoretical architecture training. Turning the entire village into an open air laboratory, the various workshop sessions - which took place in the hamlet’s abandoned school - challenged the students with real life case studies and hands on work whilst providing the village with a series of new in-common facilities such as a bus shelter, an oven, a children playground and a flexible summer pavilion.

Would this be the answer to the village exodus? As Shin Egashira himself acknowledged: “the village does not need new buildings - it needs residents. (...) Making beautiful buildings or improving the facilities are not the answer to the forces of erasures”[1].

Yet, Japanese researcher Tokumi Odagiri underlines that “exchange activities between rural and urban areas” are “the first step towards rural regeneration”. According to him, these initiatives - which he calls “studies of locality” - enable rural communities to “see the value of their area through the eyes of urban people” and therefore learn to “re-appreciate [their area’s] value”. [2] A theory that seems to match Koshirakura Landscape Workshop’s approach. The workshop was in fact designed as an intercultural exchange supposed to guarantee social sustainability to the village. Using the annual Maple Cutting Festival* as a pretext for integration, Shin Egashira encourages each one of the workshop participants to take an active part in the event. By doing so, the participants become not just visitors but almost inhabitants - even though temporary ones - “with all the duties” that come with this position. This mutually shared and highly ritualised process or collective effervescence eases the dialogue between locals and participants. And the newly established social cohesion marks a fundamental step towards a mutual understanding, meaningful new constructions and hopefully the slow recovery of the landscape and its community.

*The Maple Cutting Festival is a traditional ritual during which a sacred maple tree is cut and carried through the village, from house to house, to celebrate all the happy events of the past year.

01_Slow window and overpass; 02_The bus shelter designed in 1997 aimed at being functional all year long; 03_Drawings of the Azumaya summer pavilion, designed in 1999; All images © Koshirakura

[1] Shin Egashira, “In Search of Context”, in “Construction - An Experimental Approach to Intensely Local Architecture”, Architectural Design March - April 2015, pp. 58-63;
[2] Tokumi Odagiri, “Rural Regeneration in Japan”, Centre for Rural Economy Research Report, University for rural economy, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne;

Published: 15 Dec. 2016

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Antoine Bruy’s Scrublands

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