Interview: Jan Vranovsky

Jan Vranovsky is an architect, designer, photographer and current University of Tokyo Architecture and Urban Studies Graduate student. Jan explores the culture patterns, spaces and organisational forms within East Asian cities and urban environments through his on-going photo series, “Parallel World.” We were recently able to talk to Jan about his creative lens, his inspirations, and the intertwining of his several mediums of work.

Parallel World often seems to have a presence of depth, translucency, grid lines, or varying amounts of emptiness in either the form of space or whiteness. Can you touch upon how/why these things interest you or what they mean?

All these things have to do with specific Japanese understanding and treatment of space. Sense of depth (or certain lack of it) articulated through layers of “filters”, that is to say, semi-transparent or transparent walls, known as Oku is one thing that interests me, idea of flatness or “2.5D” in architecture somewhat blurring the edge between spatial and graphic design another. The whole idea of using filters rather than impenetrable barriers with intention to translate or regulate (sunlight, visual perception, wind etc.) leads to quite fascinating array of spatial conditions, often unique to Japan. Emptiness together with wrapping is in my opinion core concept behind Japanese culture and society in general (as explained by Joy Hendry in Wrapping Culture or by Roland Barthes in Empire of Signs for example). And finally grids and lines are ubiquitous elements populating Japanese urban environment and help me form simple visual system that ties different topics together.

Parallel World often portrays buildings with tile facades or corrugated steel facades. Beyond the formal grid patterns and the textures, do you have a deeper connection with these materials?

In both cases I see visual connection to traditional Japanese lattice patterns and grids used as exterior or interior surfaces in traditional architecture. This position may be somewhat controversial as many will argue that these materials are simply an outcome of technologic advancement, prefabrication and globalization, but looking at them through specific context of Japanese culture opens interesting questions and topics I enjoy to explore.

You must end up in some pretty interesting places when shooting. What is that like? Do you have any interesting stories about trying to get a shot off?

As I’m really interested in Japanese public space and elements that affect it, I didn’t have any strong tendencies to leave this relatively safe zone so far. In context of Japan, I felt really uncomfortable only once: when randomly passing through pretty much derelict neighborhood in Osaka inhabited almost solely by homeless people. I took several quite unsettling shots but haven’t publish them yet as I don’t want to distract focus of Parallel World from architecture to social issues (even if these are often related). One more adrenalin-saturated shooting took place in southern Taiwan where I’ve been trying to photograph wind materialized through plastic foil-covered orchards while strong typhoon was approaching the country. Things got nasty just minutes after we got back to safety, but the images turned out quite nice.

What do you think about the prefabricated building industry in Japan? Some of your images capture contemporary or modernist structures that follow the current prefabricated lifespan, whereas  other images are of traditional structures that are still standing after many decades. What do you think of this juxtaposition in terms of intentions for Parallel World?

First of all, I don’t think prefabrication has direct impact on life span. Current extremely short life span of buildings in Japan (and in Tokyo particularly) has more to do with economic and cultural phenomena than actual physical deterioration of the buildings: among many other things, an economic theory known as Market for Lemons (framed by George Akerlof) is often mentioned as an explanation of the situation. That being said, traditional structures standing after many decades are in most cases outcome of multiple reconstructions or complete rebuilds during past centuries: their form outlasts through preservation of knowledge needed to construct it rather than preservation of the material substance (of course, there are exceptions). At the end it’s really question of significance of the particular structure to the society rather than its physical life span (which is a healthy state in my opinion). As for the juxtaposition of such structures within the urban fabric: I see it as a question of balance between memory and change. Both of these are important features of any city, each for its own reasons. As someone born and raised in a city saturated with memory and concentrating mainly on its preservation rather than updating it, I’m naturally interested in the opposite situation we can observe in Tokyo: city which lost vast amount of its tangible memory and constant change became its main form-generating logic. What we observe in the streets is, thus, not only certain distribution of new, old and traditional, but mainly the persistent change itself, bringing in element of uncertainty as well as number of typologies connected to the change, such as construction sites.

There was an image of a vacuum-packed squid on your Instagram. It was really interesting to me because the photograph carried a very similar quality to your images of the city. You have referred to your work as “capturing cultural patterns occurring in mundane, often neglected or less known urban areas.” Is this a moment of the same culture patterns happening but in a different context? Where do these “cultural patterns” appear other than the urban scale?

I do see connection on level of both visual appearance and meaning, but this might be simply because I’m actively searching or even creating this connection through visual interpretation. The patterns appear literally everywhere: in the society, language,  ethics,  customs, even cuisine and form complex network of links between things and ideas which, in the end, form the culture. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to understand any concrete phenomenon without seeing the wide context, but once the connection is identified, it can be highlighted and communicated. Parallel World is an attempt to communicate these “pre-digested”, that is identified and interpreted patterns occurring in cites and architecture of Japan and East Asia.

Parallel World features some Metabolist structures that have adopted certain modernist qualities. Does this movement inspire you?

I was quite obsessed with the movement after arriving to Tokyo two years ago, finding myself at the very same school that produced most of the Metabolists, including Kenzō Tange. It was a brave, new, futuristic approach to architecture, recognizing relevance of time and process, connecting modernism with technology, biology and Japanese architectural tradition: it’s difficult not to fall in love with it. All the naivety and idealism pervading their designs and effectively killing the movement in late seventies makes it a fascinating relict of its time and as amount of the remaining buildings is getting thinner, there’s also an element of urgency to exploring, experiencing and documenting them.

As someone studying to be a practicing architect, does your lens for Parallel World have a role in your personal design work?

I’d say definitely yes: there’s an influence loop happening between photography, architecture and graphic design projects, each having impact on the rest. Parallel World triggered my personal interest in various behaviors taking place in urban fabric of Tokyo and so far concluded into a theoretical research project. How will all this translate into my architectural design praxis in the future is yet a question to be answered, all I can say at the moment is that it highlighted significance of relationship between single unit and whole for me.

Can you talk a little bit about your project Sameness?

The project is still under development and haven’t been published yet (aside from a small teaser on Instagram) so I’d rather not talk about it too much. But I can say it’s a side product of my graduation thesis and touches issues of distribution of information embedded in the face of the city.

What ideas or things inspire you outside of design and architecture?

I guess literally everything and anything is interesting once you begin exploring it more seriously and start seeing connecting links. When working on projects, there are several fields that seem to be touched more often than others, such as cultural anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, biology, history or issues connected to complexity theories and emergence. When tired of linking, I like to travel, mountain bike, snowboard and photograph – the usual stuff people do to escape. 

Read more about Jan Vranovsky's here.

Stephen Hopkins