Moonlighting is not a new thing in the architecture profession. Often side projects and after hours work is sought as a way of experimenting and designing outside of the constraints of conventional practice, which, burdened with unadventurous clients and hamstrung by regulatory control, lacks the shimmering quality of a good non-profit job.

It’s more than that though. Side projects occasionally open the designer’s eyes to something new – something that they may not have stumbled upon otherwise and this helps to enliven their day-to-day practice. Such was the situation when Andrew Barrie, now Professor at the University of Auckland’s National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries, asked if I would join a team of students and recent graduates to build paper models called “okoshi-ezu” for an exhibition of Japanese architecture. That was two years ago and since then I have become obsessed with what paper is capable of.

Okoshi-ezu are an ancient and almost forgotten form of Japanese paper architectural model, in which construction information is communicated to the craftsman through a model which folds flat.

These models can be thought of as a sort of traditional pop-up, being erected and held together using an elaborate system of tabs, hooks and inserts. Notes on the drawing indicate materials, dimensions, and textures. Their portability and legibility to the layman are in stark contrast to modern day construction documentation.

Okoshi-ezu, which appeared in 16th century Japan, were most often employed for the documentation of teahouses, a highly refined building type which emerged at that time. More ordinary construction was so systematised and carpenters so well trained that most buildings could be constructed just from a simple plan. Built for the ruling elite, however, teahouses were carefully designed and custom made, and recording such specific design intentions required the development of a new drawing type – the okoshi-ezu. This method of documentation speaks to the level of trust in the craftsman’s skill, but also to the type of buildings that are generated from it. Often these designs reflect a spatial complexity that is subtly resolved in seemingly simple formal elements.

The manufacture of an okoshi-ezu model is an exercise in deconstructive origami. The building design is rationalised to its most characteristic features and then a specific folding method is designed to exploit the inherent geometry of the building. Once this folding method has been designed, the model elements are drawn to provide for logical construction of the model, complete with the tabs and slots which hold the model together. Complex elements such as staircases, the bane of any model maker’s life, are designed to self-erect when the model is opened. Assembly is also representative of the Japanese acceptance of Yes and No together. It is just as important for an okoshi-ezu to fold into a recognisable building, as it is to fold flat. As such, when it comes time to prepare the model, each mode of operation has to be considered, with care being taken to avoid elevating one at the expense of the other. The resultant object is balanced between the abstraction of architectural representation and a physical form of the building.

These models are not only concerned with the rigour of construction documentation. They also offer an alternative way to approach architectural models and architecture in general. Western architectural models are often cold, sterile and ubiquitously static – touching them inevitably causes damage. Okoshi-ezu, in contrast, are characterised by a childlike air of playfulness in their assembly.

As if harking back to our collective experience of pop-up books as children, the models manage to squeeze a grin from even the most battle-hardened practitioner.

The small set of these models were shown in New Zealand and Japan as part of a travelling exhibition on the famous Kumamoto Artpolis program. This exhibition showed contemporary architecture in the Kumamoto prefecture by architects such as Jun Aoki and Kazuo Shinohara. The mixture of the traditional model making practice and contemporary buildings is representative of the juxtaposition of new and old that exists in Japanese culture. The constant search for the new and the novel often characterises the Western view of Japanese architectural practice. It is, however, tempered by a respect for the traditional. It is fitting then, that these models present the contemporary as a re-invention of the traditional.

With the help of a number of model making enthusiasts, a much larger set of models has been created for a dedicated okoshi-ezu exhibition in Australia and New Zealand. The new exhibition presents the contemporary work of such masters as Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando and Kengo Kuma, along with the designs of a new generation of Japanese Architects. The exhibition is in part a result of Professor Barrie’s time in Japan completing his PhD and working in Toyo Ito’s office. His connection to that scene has allowed for an influx of Japanese-flavoured architectural treats in the form of visits from Shigeru Ban, Mark Dytham and Akihisa Hirata among others.