Q&A with 2014 DMSAS Fellow Patrick Riordon

One of four recipients of the DMSAS Traveling Fellowship in 2014, Patrick Riordon took his fellowship travels to Japan before beginning his 10 week internship at the firm. Before he heads back to the University of Notre Dame for his final year of under graduate studies, we caught up with Patrick to talk about his travels and his experience at DMSAS thus far. 

Why did you choose your particular destination?

I traveled to Japan because I love how the traditional vernacular buildings there are so simple, economical, and beautifully constructed using a very limited palette of natural materials. I went to nine places, ranging from some tiny mountain hamlets and seaside villages to bustling and sleepless cities, in search of well-preserved traditional towns and neighborhoods. My goal was to find examples of the various traditional town types and study how the architecture of each responded to differing natural environments and the industries of the residents.

How did the history, traditions, or politics of the place you visited influence the architecture you documented?

In innumerable ways! One thing I found particularly amusing was that in Takayama, a resource-rich city in the mountains of the Gifu Prefecture, the government restricted the use of high quality materials like the locally grown cedar to the upper classes—government officials and samurai. The townspeople, many of them involved in the logging industry, scoffed at the law and used the finest woods anyway, simply rubbing ashes into the lumber to turn it black and disguise the species of wood. The result is striking. Takayama now has gorgeous streets of black-timbered houses and shops that are able to withstand time and weather.

Ash-covered wooden shopfronts in Takayama, Japan

Ash-covered wooden shopfronts in Takayama, Japan

What was your favorite building, place or space?

My favorite place was a little mountain town called Magome. Its only street straddles the old road between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo) that the samurai often had to travel to meet with the shogun. It perfectly serves its purpose as a post town, catering to the travelers with a single row of buildings on each side of the street housing an inn, shop, or restaurant. The way it nestles in to the mountainous topography and accomplishes a unity in design without any sense of bland uniformity made it as aesthetically successful as it was charming. Watching the sun sink behind the lush mountaintops from a high point in town with some local wine in hand sealed the deal.

Sketching in Magome

Sketching in Magome

If you could have worked on the design of any building you saw, what would it have been?

One night while I was in Kyoto, I had the opportunity to stay in a machiya, which is a traditional Japanese building type for dense urban areas. They are often mixed-use, including a shop or restaurant on the narrow street frontage and residence for the owner in the rear and upper areas of the building. The one I stayed in had been renovated to include modern plumbing, appliances, and so forth, but maintained the traditional materials, organization of spaces, and aspects of function, like the naturally ventilated kitchen needed to mitigate the stifling heat of Kyoto summers. I would love to be involved in this sort of project that incorporates comfortable and desirable modern amenities while preserving the sensibilities of tradition.

Traditional elements in a thoroughly modern house

Traditional elements in a thoroughly modern house

How have you shared your experiences with your school, fellow classmates and other communities/colleagues?

I’m planning to present my research when I get back to Notre Dame this fall. I hope my study of Japanese architecture will spark some interest in non-western traditions, which is something that often gets overlooked when studying Classical Architecture. I’ll show my classmates and professors how Japanese architecture includes many familiar typologies, but has developed in different ways because of the cultural influences, building materials, and ways of life that are unique to Asia.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned during your ten week internship with DMSAS?

I’m only halfway through, but so far I’ve learned about the importance of clarity in communication and presentation of work. Before I had the opportunity to work in an architecture firm, I was baffled by the idea of so many people on a team working efficiently on the same design without the whole process becoming messy and confusing. Everything here runs smoothly because ideas are conveyed so precisely through the images, models, and drawings that are being produced.

What was your favorite souvenir of your travels, either purchased for yourself or something chosen as a gift?

I have two favorites. One is a handmade pottery coffee cup that has a rustic roughness to it that emphasizes the color and texture of the clay. The other is a totally cheesy ninja star refrigerator magnet that looks like it’s been thrown into the surface you stick it to. I’m absolutely keeping both of them.

What was your most interesting culinary experience on the trip?

Raw horse meat in little bite-sized slices (known as basashi) is a delicacy in Japan. I thought it was funny that I was eating horse while many of my friends in the US were thinking about horses in the totally different context of the Belmont Stakes. I couldn’t tell you who won the race, but the basashi was delicious.



So much of the travel fellowship is not just about documenting interesting architecture, but experiencing a different culture/cuisine/etc. What was the biggest difference in daily life between the place you visited and what you’re accustomed to at home? (Any really good or unusual dishes you wish you could find on the menu at the neighborhood pub back in the U.S.?)

Japanese breakfast is something that, try as I might, I will never get used to. I have no issues with cold rice, pickles, or smoked fish, but waking up is hard enough without facing a meal so wildly dissimilar to the American breakfast classics.

Where did you meet the nicest/happiest people?

Some of the nicest people I encountered were a group of elderly people working at a historic house I toured in the seaside town of Tomo-no-ura in the Hiroshima Prefecture. The woman who gave me the tour didn’t know English, but she read information about the house to me in English and went out of her way to ensure I understood. When I did my best to reply and ask questions in Japanese, she was very surprised and happy, telling me that my Japanese is better than I think it is. I explained to the whole group that I was there to study traditional architecture and they were delighted to recognize many of the places I documented in my sketchbook. It was great to find such friendly and encouraging people that I could make a connection with despite the language barrier.

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  1. […] ID (Submitted by 2014 Travel Fellowship recipient Patrick Riordon) A favorite vacation destination of mine is Stanley, Idaho. It’s a tiny town the foot of the […]

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