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When he visits the remote Japanese island of Omishima, world-famous architect Toyo Ito often gets asked what he’s doing “out in the sticks, doing something that’s not even architecture.”

In fact, Ito, who also teaches at Tama Art University in Tokyo, is trying to bring some energy and commerce to the place, and perhaps recharge his soul a bit at the same time, through some ad-hoc building and planning. Far away from his usual work and the grind of the big city, “You are free to do whatever you like,” the Pritzker Architecture Prize winner says, “and so you can maybe reset things a bit.”

Those words come in Islands and Villages, a short documentary produced by the Canadian Centre for Architecture. It’s one manifestation of CCA c/o, a long-term research program run by the Montreal institution. “We are an international centre, and the question for us is how we can have a global reach,” CCA’s chief curator Giovanna Borasi said during a conversation in Toronto. “We do that by engaging with issues of global importance.”

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Many of the results are documented on CCA’s website, what the institution’s director Mirko Zardini refers to as its “second building.” Online programming has become a priority for the institution. While CCA mounts several exhibitions a year at its Montreal headquarters – and they tend to be extremely well curated – the institution is aware that much of its audience is elsewhere. CCA’s archives and its exhibitions are not predominantly Canadian; it pursues long-term research themes that are inherently global.

Accordingly, CCA c/o has seen the institution hiring curators in different places – first Lisbon in 2016-17, now Tokyo – and engaging in conversations on local issues that also resonate abroad. “These are places where there is already an interesting architecture discussion going on, which also will feed us with things we would not be aware of,” Borasi said. In Tokyo, the conduit is Kayoko Ota, a distinguished curator. Along with a string of events in Montreal and Toronto, she has contributed an essay and the Islands and Villages documentary. The latter features a group of intellectually ambitious architects including Ito, Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, Atelier Bow-Wow, Toshikatsu Ienari and Hajime Ishikawa.

A still from Islands and Villages, a documentary series on the posturban phenomenon in rural Japan.

Islands and Villages was produced by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

The documentary is a manifestation of CCA c/o, a long-term research program run by the Montreal institution.

Ota, who curated the Japanese pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale, is curious about the interactions between these thought leaders and people in rural areas. She suggests that it represents a change in emphasis: Where 20 years ago the high-design world was obsessed with the status of cities, particularly in Asia, and their seemingly infinite complexity and density, the picture now is very different. “These people are on the front lines of a consciousness that architecture needs to change,”Ota said. “In the past, architects were expected to have their own individual signature. Now it’s seen negatively. They are asked, ‘Why are you not solving the real problems of society?’”

Among those, she cites the need to reconstruct after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Then there is Japan’s aging population. In Tokyo by 2035, a quarter of the metropolis’ people will be senior citizens, many of them living alone. Already, there is a visible thinning of the population in the city, Ota said.

There is also a lessening of architects’ influence within cities, thanks to what she (in that online essay) calls “the monopolization of the planning and design of urban developments by major corporate design firms and the design arms of general contractors, developers, and housing companies.” On major projects in Japanese cities, independent architects “are brought in just to consult on the glass on the outside of the towers,” she writes.

And this sounds familiar all the way over in Canada. Increasingly this country, too, has a real estate industry dominated by massive asset management firms; and the design industry itself is increasingly ruled by consolidation, as small businesses are bought up by conglomerates. Public institutions tend to favour the big fish, too, through so-called public-private partnerships that have all sorts of negative effects on design.

The result is a double alienation, with harried designers and a lack of engagement from their clients. By contrast, the architects featured in Islands and Villages take pleasure from working with locals on low-key projects of landscape, building and cultural development. “The results are small, so everyone can understand them,” Sejima said of her work on the tiny island of Inujima.

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And it’s fascinating to watch these urbanites struggle to reinvent themselves. Ito, while on the island of Omishima, talks about his status as an outsider. “We have a very quiet relationship with the local government,” he says in the film, “but they don’t commission us to do anything either.”

The result: an informal community centre and cafe, in an old house fixed up with the help of his students, and then an agenda toward a plan for the island’s future. “This is such a peaceful place, so different from Tokyo,” he says. “I thought perhaps I could do something here.” That message travels.

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