The Emperor’s Castle

June 6, 2011

This tale of conflict is created (and not necessarily solved) by a story that exists between its three main protagonists, The Emperor, his daughter the Princess, and her lover the Cowherd. The Emperor’s Castle is a thought-provoking tale that aims to never patronize or attempt to solve all the world’s problems.


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Act 1. © Thomas Hillier.

The Emperor’s Castle—A Fairy Tale Conflict

The Emperor’s castle originates from a mythical and ancient tale hidden within a woodblock landscape scene created by Japanese Ukiyo-e printmaker Ando Hiroshige. This tale charts the tempestuous relationship between two star-crossed lovers, the weaving Princess and the Cowherd, who have been separated by the Princess’s father, the Emperor. These characters have been replaced by architectonic metaphors that create an urban theatre of conflict within the grounds of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo.

Seeking, extrapolating or even creating these narrative mythologies upon which to draw opens a world of limitless exploration, limitless cities with their own unique identities and without boundaries, only that of your imagination. Here is my city, a city that’s more than a city; it’s a narrative world illustrating how literature can be directly translated into urban, architectural space.

The first two images are two acts from a series of five that illustrate and explore the narrative structure of the tale, creating a series of clues that inform the future architectural proposition. These hand-cut, hand-stitched paper assemblages are cut directly into the sketchbooks, creating a two and a half dimension research “storybook.”

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Act 2. © Thomas Hillier.

Eternal Punishment

Illustrating his anger over the Princess’ relationship with a humble cowherd, her father the Emperor separates the couple, placing them back in their original locations. To be sure they would never meet again, he closes the castle and opens the heavens. Rain falls, causing the moat to flood and creating an island of the castle surrounded by a deep and swift lake unassailable by any man. Rain has fallen on this land ever since.

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Act 3. © Thomas Hillier.

The Last Meeting

Seeing the sadness of their friend the Princess, the birds and animals come together to decide how to stop her torrent of tears. The sky becomes black as all the magpies and crows, with their wings spread wide, form a bridge across the lake. When the Princess realizes what the birds have done, she stops crying and rushes across the feathered bridge to embrace the Cowherder and renew their pledge of eternal love.

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Act 5. © Thomas Hillier.

The next two images are hand-cut paper collages that explore the architectonic transition that form this architectural proposition.

The Emperor’s Origami Lungs

The Emperor’s lungs come alive through differing gestures and surface transformations based on geometrical tessellations adopted from origami crease patterns. The lungs imitate the motion of breathing through expansion and contraction, creating a bellowing volume that allows the Emperor to project his emotions both visually and audibly. They rise and fall creating a bobbing motion that produces a rippling effect onto the surrounding skin. The severity of these ripples will depend on the anger of the Emperor and can cause the newly knitted areas of skin to become loose and break, stopping the Princess from ever reaching her beloved cowherd.

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The Emperor’s Origami Lungs. © Thomas Hillier.

The Princess’s Knitted Canopy

The Princess, a flexible, diaphanous knitted membrane, envelopes the spaces below and is fabricated using the surrounding ‘Igusa,’ a natural rush material used in the fabrication of tatami mats. Igusa expels a soothing scent as the skin undulates, which is said to calm body and mind. This scent acts as a perfume of remembrance to the Cowherder and drifts out over the city, calming the minds of its many inhabitants.

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The Princess’s Knitted Canopy. © Thomas Hillier.

This city is motivated by the dramatic actions of these architectonic props when placed within the urban context. Relationships form between them and the people of the city that in turn create the landscape, form weather patters and all the natural elements that surround us. These props interact with one another, creating this narrative piece of architecture that slowly unfolds before ones eyes in the centre of Tokyo city.

The Princess’s membrane knits itself ever larger in aim to reach the grass parkland perimeter representing the Cowherd, thus recreating the connection lost. Linked within this skin is a series of enormous folded plate lung structures; these origami lungs of the Emperor expand and contract blooming like flowers 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, manipulations controlled and articulated by the Emperor’s army using a series of complex pulley systems which pull back the lungs and surrounding skin, forcing the knitting to begin again.

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 conflicting attitudes of love.

How 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 ever-evolving technology, yet within its underbelly exists the ideal 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 paired with pencil work, thread work and even large-scale hand knitting.

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Final model. Scale: as big as your imagination! © Thomas Hillier.

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The contoured landscape underneath the knitted canopy exposes a series of interconnecting walkways that allow the Emperor’s army to scramble from one lung to another. © Thomas Hillier.

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The Emperor’s Origami Lungs. © Thomas Hillier.

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The lung movements generate a bellowing volume of air, which is forced upwards sending the woven lung collars into a thrashing frenzy, visually increasing the impact of the Emperor’s anger. © Thomas Hillier.

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The grass band of the Cowherd is the park the public uses to view the unfolding spectacle. This band hovers above the “Potemkin” mechanical waves that represent the deep and swift lake. These waves are interspersed with the “Igusa” rush meadows that are cut and dispatched to the Princess for knitting. © Thomas Hillier.

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The final triptych, a section through this urban theatre illustrating the frenetic “life” of the building. This 1.8m x 0.8m piece is the culmination of the research and design synthesis previously shown. © Thomas Hillier.