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INTERVIEW TO MOMOYO KAIJIMA, ATELIER BOW WOW

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07-04-2021
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The interview below was carried out by Diego Setién, after the end of the critical session of projects, developed during the Anne Lacaton´s workshop at MCH 2019, in Zurich, May 9th 2019. 

 

Architecs as Active and Conscious Agents of Urban Ecosystems

DGS: I would like to touch base on three inter-related topics: the city as your object of research and laboratory for architectural thinking, your professional practice, and your teaching experience.

We usually recommend Made in Tokyo to our students when starting studio work. It helps them to understand how complexity performs in the contemporary city and shows what type of hybrid situations and synergies you can find. It helps them to relate different layers of information which are susceptible of becoming part of a project.

In the book, you defined ‘Da-Me’ as anonymous architecture which is not designed to be beautiful, but for a very practical purpose, and stays within the margins of what is culturally accepted as ‘good architecture’.

Would you agree on the idea that industrial architecture fits this ‘Da-Me’ category?

MK: Interesting observation, what you say of our research… and yeah that is true; so Made in Tokyo includes several industrial ecosystems, referred to the production of something in an urban context. Industrial refers to certain scale of the production. This is sometimes included in our book, for example, a concrete factory building close to the highway needed for faster distribution and transportation of goods, where they also needed to have drivers, who live on top of the building itself.

In Tokyo they have no place to build, and because of this pressure, they started to hybridize on existing channels or streets, so the kind of urban context and high densification become the reason to accelerate industrial buildings. Including its ecosystem and not only the building may maximize the whole environment to bring good quality to the whole production. What we expect from ‘Da-Me architecture’ is to take the frame beyond architecture. The more you can extend the boundary of a building in such a condensed situation like Tokyo’s densification, the more and newer knowledge it gives us to think about how the architectural concept will extend or will be included in its environment. That is why we say ‘Da-Me architecture’ but it also means environmental unit or ecosystem, or new hybridization. We are trying to explain a new frame for the thinking of the building condition. That is an interesting goal, even if you consider industrial buildings. In fact, this is also part of our recent interest: in ETHZ, we are using the Actor-Network Theory (Bruno Latour) to think about buildings as actors in a surrounding. Maybe in Made in Tokyo you could say “Ah! In this case there is some sort of malfunction”, but now we are expanding this idea to know how to read and how to bring our environment into the design process. Of course, when adjacency applies it is easier to understand, but sometimes things are not attached to each other. They can be far away and still be strongly related or supported. Today’s industry or today’s production need to think about a brighter network.

DGS: After this research on the city, where architecture is shown to be related to other things in an eco-systemic way, I suppose that you have incorporated it to your design approach, and in the way you look at architecture and professional commissions. How do you apply these ideas in your practice? Can you relate it to what you are currently doing in the office?

MK: We call resources to everything that is behind a building, including the building itself.

Timber is a very interesting case, because we have so many timber buildings in Japan. Timber of course comes from the forest and creates a very popular industry in Japan.

During the World War II, many trees were cut from the mountains and when the war finished, they were left almost empty. Then the Government asked people who cared for the mountains to plant many trees, subsidizing these projects in rural areas. They planted a lot but, of course, they could not be harvested for the first 10 years, needing 60-70 years to be properly harvested. That is why, during the last 50 years, the Japanese timber market used a lot of imported timber from North America, which totally changed the market in our society, bringing a lot of struggle. Even if it was already a good time to harvest the local forests, many local timber businesses were already weak or gone and there was also an important lack of specialized labor, people who had the skills to take care of this, which made it problematic to harvest and activate the local resources.

We have been asked to work on several projects which want to reconnect this disconnected condition of local timber and local building industry. Originally, it worked in local networks, to build traditional structures like temples or shrines, but we don’t need many temples now and younger generations don’t want to have old traditional houses nowadays; it is a little bit old fashioned.

Design is now one of the items to activate or to make an entrance and lay bridges. Our role is to bring the design, but this design would consider traditional skills and also bring a new idea and open, expand the original concept. Houses in rural areas were domestic, but now we see that they need to be opened to an exchanging population. Japan wants to receive new people from abroad, like tourists and migrants, in the near future. Due to this tendency, we need a new vision for the usage of our resources. Our role is to show which are the possibilities in these contexts and to show a new way of empowering, not discouraging these nice local people. We want to encourage them by saying “You are great! Why don’t you use your skills and resources?”

But we also need to bring new commerce. Why would people be interested to come here? How can we engage them? That is why tourism and rural exchange and the hybridizations of different cultures are very interesting topics, related to the timber cultivation itself. We have a long history and a lot of knowledge. The timber itself is very interesting, it is deep…

DGS: What is interesting is that it relates to production, landscape and ecological issues. Dealing with those boundaries makes you more conscious of how far your decisions as architects reach, and what is their real impact in the community. I wanted also to ask you about your work on housing. You have said that, as ‘Da-Me architecture’ represented Tokyo’s complexity, your collection of small houses also represents the multiple ways of living of the Japanese contemporary society. How important is for architects to consider housing in the 21st century? Which are the challenges, the changes that housing sector is facing right now regarding hybridization? 

MK: We considered that we had been asked to do many single-family houses, unfortunately most of them dominated by the ‘nuclear family’ model.

Many of them wanted us to support them, to escape from the private-area-house issue. Honestly, they needed a house to live, but the house market doesn’t let you escape the heritage or private areas, only protect them. But some want it to be more meaningful and many of them want to have an innovative lifestyle, and they think that collaborating with us can bring certain answers for their future living plans.

For example, in the “Gae House” they wanted to have a living and a working space together. In the 20th century, the house and working spaces were separated, but originally, a house was the space for the family business too. A house was a complex where living and working spaces shared the same space. Nowadays, some housing projects seem just to sell the consumed surface. It is really a pity. That is why many of our clients want to escape from this situation and create an alternative answer.

Another reason we are asked to design a house, is when it was originally their former house, or the house where they grew up. It might have been kept by their parents for the last 20-30 years, and now they are empty after the parents’ deaths, and they need to think about that, because now they have two houses. How do they manage that?

Some of them are already starting to retire or starting to think about second or a third house. Maybe the secondary house could be their final house, or it could be shared with the neighbors, opening up their private house to a more social or communal use, and help creating a new network among the local society. That is why we may have many single house projects, but every case has a very different condition. Most of our clients are very creative persons who want an alternative lifestyle. This is a very important treasure for us, to think about the future, and to think about how a house can make our life rich and generous. A house is already an issue in society, so we could also set this philosophy or idea to bring more communal or public issues because I also believe that the public realm is assembled out of this communal thinking and also that the public can be also very different in each locality. We try to understand some words and not only the concept, it is more like a local practice, the individual practice or building some case, appropriate to our future thinking.

DGS: You have mentioned that architecture helps you understand what happens in every different city and society. Domestic space is always an important part of our courses, where we search new ways of living. Where are the challenges for domesticity today? Which are the unavoidable topics for contemporary architectural practice?

MK: Domesticity is a very big question. If I understand what you mean, it is a large scale concept. We still use a sort of condition: who lives? how to live? I do not think so much about domesticity, because each case is very different. We all try to open the ownership to be a little bit bigger in scale because sometimes it is the same private or public issues. Domesticity is also a direct quality of privatization. If we started a business in the space, we would need to receive a guest and sell something from inside. We would find domesticity just in living and sleeping, not more, because life happens daily not so dynamically linked to the in and out. Hybridization is acting fast and there is also an interesting coincidence happening. If we could consider how people organize their own life to be more open, to share with someone, or they started to do some business in the house, so this kind of behavior will be very helpful to extend the limits of domesticity. If we could bring in these kinds of things, it would be nice and we always try to make some threshold or some interface to be more communicative. If you’re in front of a nice window, a nice entrance, or in front of the garden, or some light coming or drying area, this kind of spaces will be also the interesting sharing spaces or interesting activating spaces. We expect always a house to be like atelier bow wow: we live there but we also do business there, so this is more complex basically, and this kind of complexity in a domesticity belongs also to the 21st century, so we need more and more of this to go back to that kind of dynamic way of living.

DGS: What would you say is your main driver when designing a house?

 

MK: Maybe production, creation at the house, not just functions. I imagine always that people need some motivation to do their business, expressing their life or their creations. This is just very fun and nice.

DGS: So, architecture stimulates a way of living?

 

MK: Yes, but more creation, creation, creation is important.

DGS: Does architecture enable and promote creativity?

 

MK: People’s creativity, including creativity in the business, or the hobby, or more inside-out… activity in a dynamic way, so it could be gardening or doing carpentry, or it could be also opening a book by the library, teaching, painting, or playing music, or practicing some skill to be shared and open to the neighbors.

DGS: Domesticity is then very related to production.

 

MK: Creation, production.

DGS: Your drawings always show the built space in use. Activated space seems very important for you.  Would you say that a sort of ‘poetic pragmatism’ could define the way you approach design?

MK: We call it narrative. Poetic is also interesting, but narrative is more of a driver to the people or the audience who try to understand our thinking not just like art, but more like starting to commit to our thinking, to adapt or react from our ideas; this is also important driving force to our design process, we need to share our ideas.

If you want to have a parking lot in front of a house in a small urban site of Tokyo, we start to ask you why, because in Tokyo you can have public transportation and you might not need to use a car every day. A small site gives you a chance to draught your imaginary lifestyle to fit your reality. On this point you could change your lifestyle by making and designing a house with us.

When the client agrees and lets us go on without the car, then… this story will be more of a narrative, the aspect of a new life or for or style of life. For me it is also very interesting not just to stick to the artistic label, you know? Like making a hypothesis: what if we can think so?

Made in Tokyo was the same: we can say: “ok hybrid might be interesting!” and then people could start thinking “oh, what kind of hybridization would be possible?”  

DGS: Now that you go back to Made in Tokyo hybrids.

What is your opinion on inverting the process? Would it be possible to design from scratch in that way, advancing those kind of hybrid situations from the beginning? Is there any lesson in industrial buildings?

MK: A very interesting part of the hybridization of the ‘Da-Me architecture’ is that there is a creative owner who found the space and thought that it could be used for a certain purpose, and this is why we find a secondary usage. Sometimes they already have some idea like a house, or a concrete factory with driving issues, and they just need to find how to connect things together in a ‘machine system’. In both cases it would be possible to maximize the building condition, including a different usage or different categories of spaces. In industrial buildings, surface could be also a resource for future tenants or future functions or uses. So, what is interesting of this case is: what is first?... the egg or the chicken? I have no answer.

DGS: Do architects have a chance to promote a complex, compact and diverse city?

Do we even need to change the way we design? Do we need to change our offices and studios?

MK: Maybe we could change, I think we could be also part of the users.

After Made in Tokyo, the younger generation of architects started more dynamic ways to negotiate with neighbors, to create and accelerate new business companies.

Architects, of course, think they are outsiders. We are a little bit like a “third person” or “third party”, but we could be also a ‘2.5 party’ and this is also maybe a decision to consider.

Recently we have started to be part of more projects. For example, we have worked with an NGO over ten years, designing for them five buildings. It always starts as a small project, and then follows with a second, a third or more. You need to be part of the business and think to collaborate.

After the tsunami disaster we had worked for them for nine years, and we thought to give them our full support for other five years because of government subsidization. Later they started thinking about a documentary and we were asked to become members. I was a little bit shocked and doubted if we should be part of the membership or not, but finally we said “yes, let’s be part of it” and became also responsible….

 

DGS: You are talking about taking active part, not only as a professional architect, of an ongoing process, making another kind of commitment with society?

MK: I also ask younger generations to do it if the can. I think there is a lot of richness for them in being part of society, to better understand the conditions, because every locality has a different dynamism. When thinking about creation as architects, if you are part of it, you can commit in a more dynamic way, even if you are just an outsider that ends after design.

Maybe 21st century architects will be more committed on projects where they are more responsible.

DGS: How important do you think education is, and how do you deal with your students?

 

MK: Education is an exchange between people to understand each other. When I teach students I really like to listen to what they think. I think it’s important because there are so many options, and they should have an agenda. It should be clear about nature, or society, or something of their interest, to be more enforced into the future, because even if they are not correct, maybe I can support them a little bit. Of course, today everybody wants to go to different fields, but they keep on thinking about making buildings. But why stop them? Maybe there is only a building. Architects need very high skills, not only one skill. I think that a good social education method makes us think about a lot of complex things.

Master in Collective Housing UPM/ETH

The Master of Advanced Studies in Collective Housing is a professional and international postgraduate programme that is developed on a full-time basis, dealing with advanced architectural design in the city and housing. It is designed and taught jointly by the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH).

 

The application period for MCH2022 is already opened, and it will remain so till 31.01.2022 or until vacancies are filled. 

 

For more information, click here!

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