I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
For the last twenty-five years, Atelier Bow-Wow has occupied a place in Japanese architectural culture that is simultaneously central and unique. Their encyclopedic body of residential work has been instrumental in reframing the relationship between dwelling and the city, and has contributed to an international fascination with the Japanese house. However, its founders Momoyo Kaijima and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto are unusual in that they are also anthropological interrogators of the city and, now in more recent work, of the countryside as well.
Seen from afar, Japanese aesthetics is often essentialized into a set of tropes—precision, elegance, and simplicity—that all rely on distance to maintain their purity. By contrast, Atelier Bow-Wow’s research and work revels in the materiality of life. It is direct and engaging, celebrating the surprising complexity that can arise from modesty. It is hard to imagine Atelier Bow-Wow designing a sleek sushi bar, but a lively basement izakaya space would certainly be within their purview. Architecture, like eating, should be unprogrammed and informal—a stage where the social only heightens sensation.
Following the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, Atelier Bow-Wow became a founding member of the architectural consortium ArchiAid, which has worked with municipalities to rebuild community structures in destroyed regions of the Tohoku prefecture. I consequently invited Momoyo to the Yale School of Architecture in April of 2019 as part of the symposium “Clouds, Bubbles, and Waves,” which looked at the intertwining of calamity and invention in Japanese architecture and visual culture. The following conversation picks up from there and leads to the latest chapter of the Atelier’s research into urban morphology—the exhibition Made in Tokyo: Architecture and Living, 1964/2020, opening in New York at the Japan Society this October.
Sunil Bald You brought up some really interesting points at the “Clouds, Bubbles, and Waves” symposium. The theme was architecture following disaster, and you spoke about obvious calamities—like earthquakes, tsunamis, and other sudden, unexpected events that cause great damage in a short period of time. But you also spoke of troubles that occur over longer periods, such as the plight of the countryside, the decline of its population’s livelihood. I’m fascinated by how you can use architecture to engage with the “slow disaster” happening in rural Japan.
Momoyo Kaijima I’m not so sure we can rightfully call this phenomenon a disaster, though.
SB More of a condition?
MK Right. The overall industrialization and urbanization that took place over the last hundred years or more, from the Meiji period to the Heisei, has just totally changed Japanese society. Catastrophic or not, these pressures and transformations put new themes into play, affecting how people live. So now there are two major modes of habitation: urban and rural, with each hard to sustain.
And of course there’s the aging population and decreasing birth rate too. Now the country could go backward, or maybe the government could have a real policy discussion about immigration and diversity.
SB But immigration is on the rise in Japan, no? On my last trip I noticed that many people at Uniqlo, Loft, Tokyu Hands, and the other big stores were from elsewhere in Asia.
MK They’re seldom really immigrants, though. They seldom stay. The government is trying to encourage more tourism, inviting foreigners to enjoy the culture for a while. And over the last ten or twenty years they’ve been testing out ways to make our universities more international as well. Japan used to be very Far East, a world apart, quite strange, but with the reach of the Internet and new media, everyone starts to think: Oh, it may not be such a difficult place after all.
SB Many of my students here in New Haven know Miyazaki better than Disney. Japanese culture has become so global.
MK But there are also strange cultural details that aren’t so easily adopted—especially with the food, which can be quite small, even razor thin and fragile, totally different from the States.
SB You often mention food in your lectures, and it comes up in your work too. I remember a project from years ago, White Limousine Yatai (2002)—a kind of table-on-wheels that you all pushed around and had meals on. Why is food important to architecture, and to your work in particular?
MK Food is an everyday, direct mode of communication, even between cultures. As compared to Europe and America, Japan privileges simplicity in cuisine and in a great many other things as well. We don’t wear shoes inside. We sit on the floor, which means that we don’t need furniture, just the elemental actions of sitting, eating, and sleeping, which receive a lot of consideration and care. This means that our architecture is more closely related to the body, at least comparatively. With stone or brick cultures, you don’t need to touch the materials around you so much.
SB True, they’re mostly there to keep the weather out.
MK In a wood culture like Japan’s we can value the surface texture and temperature by way of touch, by the foot and hand. There’s also smell; all the senses play a part in the culture’s architecture. Before going global, we must remember that Japan was an isolated country for a long time, a chain of islands, and it developed some rather specific sensibilities and behaviors in response to the local conditions. Its people express or manage these traditions within different layers of the culture. Of course, the American occupation after WWII influenced things, and now younger generations might admire and emulate the US. Despite this, the Japanese still have a pretty distinct approach—if not sophisticated then unique—which might even be helpful to other countries as they deal with urban density and shortages of space.
SB Yes, we already see this influence in how municipalities are thinking about development. Now cities like New York are changing zoning laws to allow for microunits.
But can we talk more about this connection between food, the body, and materials? It makes me think about the experience of staying in a ryo¯kan [a traditional Japanese inn], where you’re given an empty room; you sit on the floor; your food is served on the floor; then you sleep on the floor. Sometimes these bare rooms can be very expensive, but you’re actually paying for the meal, the bath, the ritual—in short, all the sensuality of that material and cultural experience. It’s this connection between the material and cultural that, for me, distinguishes your work from your Japanese contemporaries, such as Sou Fujimoto or SANAA, who embrace the abstract both spatially and materially. Would you agree with this distinction?
MK I think so, since we appreciate the experience of touching architecture so much. Of course we’re happy to see beautiful imagery and forms, but what’s most important to us is to experience through architecture and how we might attract people via the configuration of space. I can appreciate Fujimoto and SANAA’s intention to develop a strong visual structure. But we’re cultivating something light, a certain living condition that shifts meaning in order to encourage changes in the surroundings. For us, design means crafting an interesting distance between what we make and the preexisting context, one that can promote some type of betterment. Like with our book Made in Tokyo (2001), which is formatted as a guide to the city’s urban oddities, we’re interested in discovering and extending meanings already contained in what exists. In Japanese architecture there’s a lot of denial or rejection of preexisting conditions, of history, but we want to dig up and expand on these things. Does the architecture sometimes look boring to some people? Maybe, but we can work with an original meaning and enhance it, salvage it, make it more appealing.
SB What’s always been amazing about your work is how you weave together the life of architecture with such inventive representations. I remember the Behaviorology lecture, some ten years ago now, that consisted of videos of you and Yoshi visiting your clients’ homes after they had been living in them. Then of course there’s Pet Architecture Guide Book (2001), which mixes representation and research by playfully using graphic documentation to cute-ify your objects of study. And finally your book Graphic Anatomy (2007), where the excess of stuff included in the section drawings presents architecture as a vessel for the messiness of life. My students never have physical books anymore, yet that one is always on their desks.
For the upcoming Made in Tokyo exhibition at the Japan Society, is there any particular way you’ve been thinking about using representation and research together? Will it be similar to what you’ve done in projects of the past or a new exploration?
MK It might be more “lifestyle” oriented. As a young person I liked hearing my grandfather’s stories and was happy to listen to all sorts of people explain their jobs and enthusiasms. I was curious about buildings too, but especially interested in what happens around and inside them—that is, with what people were doing. So my core attitude, what’s always on my mind, is reading every environment for resources that point toward some alternate future lifestyle.
But the process differs from project to project, since we’re trying to test out what kind of eye or regard might be applied to the local conditions. What’s being noticed here? How can we translate this information? Perhaps as an event, as Rem Koolhaas suggests—something that almost makes a journalistic or historical point? This is also a part of our interest in making books.
The Made in Tokyo exhibition focuses on the city, of course, but we’ve also visited the countryside and learned about their issues. We studied the coast and worked with fishermen, going deep into their culture. Also, in the interior, we began to work on the issue of timber. While the urban context in Japan is very extreme, we’ve found it interesting to explore its connection with the country’s natural resources—not just in terms of how we utilize these resources, but in how their cultivation has created communities with highly particular cultural practices, which are reflected in the spaces they inhabit. Historically, the development of architecture has always been tied to industrial development. We’re interested in how changes happening in rural Japan can be both reflected and supported by architecture, so that “progress” isn’t an idea antithetical to rural life.
So that’s why we investigate history, agriculture, and so on. Everything can be read as a spatial condition, as a design issue. So maybe our work can be a reaction—one legible to the people living in that location.
SB Work like this is so tied to place, and it engages anthropological study and oral history. Does it surprise you that Atelier Bow-Wow is so well received internationally? Even in this conversation, we’re talking much more about context than architecture itself.
MK Maybe an observational approach can help the current generation of architects with their own concerns. The effort is not just focused on Japan, but also on promoting a learning context to further actual issues. This approach is healthy—and more fun.
SB I was just reading an old Arata Isozaki article about ma [a foundational conception of space in Japanese aesthetics]. Isozaki was a very internationally known figure for his time, and someone who spoke about Japan in a profound but abstract and essentialist manner. What I admire about Atelier Bow-Wow is that the work comes, in a strong way, not from the top down but from the environment up.
MK Architects like Fumihiko Maki lived overseas and thought of Japan in an international context. The generation that immediately precedes us, like Kazuyo Sejima or Kengo Kuma, are international but without spending a long time abroad. They certainly have meetings overseas, but it’s more of an invitation to visit, not a direct connection, somehow more theatrical, like the back of a screen where people just come and listen. Abroad or at home, Maki tried to generate discourse because he wanted more Japanese reach into the greater discussion. Isozaki had the idea to invite people to Japan for conferences, to express or publish their ideas, and to get directly involved with offices and architects. I feel this model really succeeds as an exchange; it’s convincing. There’s an ocean between us that affects the conversation, often in interesting ways. I’m doing some teaching in Switzerland now, negotiating how we might understand one another, and I really enjoy the differences and misunderstandings.
SB There are a lot of rather well-known Japanese architects who have professorships and labs at universities, but you and Yoshi seem to be the most openly tied to academia, maybe because your projects are so much about place and research. Do you negotiate that space between practice and teaching in a more close-knit way than others?
MK We teach and work; this is the arrangement we like because we both studied at Tokyo Tech, where professors Kazuo Shinohara and Kazunari Sakamoto kept up a dialogue between research and practice, foregrounding the social aspects of architecture. Atelier Bow-Wow might be positioned to integrate these activities even more. We test ideas to see how they fit into society. Or our projects become a catch-point for two or three things, with the transduction of different media encouraging each element’s development in a feedback loop.
Also, teaching affords us contact with younger generations. These students might not have much skill yet, but they do have great ideas and perspectives. Right now I’m learning about dairy and agriculture from a student whose family runs a farm in Hokkaido.
SB Amazing. So the scope of the Made in Tokyo exhibition is bounded by the years 1964 and 2020, the period between the two Olympic Games hosted by the city. What’s the significance of this?
MK Yukie Kamiya, the director of the Japan Society, got us very interested in issues surrounding the Olympic Games. Footage from 1964 shows peace in Tokyo, a recovery from WWII and American military occupation. I was born a few years later and can recall from childhood that there was still some significant struggle between these cultures, so this strikes a chord. And at the time Japanese architects were making twenty-story housing projects instead of the traditional two or three. What happened? Some people were scared of these new buildings, as they stood for the push toward modernization. It was a moment of rapid transformation when the country still had a lot of rural zones and traditional sites. There was a strong ambivalence between urban and rural, even as projects in and around Tokyo were proposing new building techniques and forms. So we’re trying to select some interesting building types and compare them in the show.
SB So works that are contemporary, and then some that were done around 1964?
MK It’s not so flat or generic a view as that. It’s more just our preferences.
SB My office, Studio SUMO, has done work for a university in Saitama that was founded right around 1964. I learned that there were many private universities started in the northern part of Tokyo, almost to educate a wholly new urban population and service its economy.
MK And also student demonstrations were growing stronger then, with actions in the square.
SB Do you see protests now in Tokyo?
MK Sometimes, like around issues related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. That’s great to see but also complicated because we can’t easily switch to green energy without major redevelopment.
SB Right. Also, there’s a shift from municipal to private-sector efforts. Looking at the new Olympic stadium itself, the work seems led more by construction companies than architects.
MK During the ’60s, the Japanese government made and operated most large-scale public developments. Now with the population decreasing and a lack of tax revenue, some rural areas are worried about how to keep their public buildings running. That’s why the big projects are managed by private-public partnerships today. The Atelier doesn’t concentrate so much on that part of things, though, but rather on changes in lifestyle.
SB Do these changes tend to be global in scope, less particularly Japanese?
MK With the Olympics coming here soon, there’s a new and pointed pressure on Japanese architecture. But this desire for more development is tempered by Japan’s environmental and demographic challenges. In 1964, every Olympic building was to be brand new. For 2020, there’s the feeling that many should be utilized again, or rebuilt in light of current concerns. Many find the idea of making a massive building disturbing, given the country’s economic obstacles. So in terms of this changing of society, of this twenty-first-century situation, I think some architects are questioning the field’s embrace of the “new,” and instead starting to do more with what already exists—and going out to the countryside, not having an office in Tokyo. We want to highlight these movements and attitudes.
SB I guess this might include some of your own renovation projects, which is a new thing in Japan perhaps? When Studio SUMO did a renovation project there in a ’70s-era building, it was pretty challenging due to all the earthquake codes and such. But things like this happen at your office.
MK All over, actually, and Japan has many aging buildings. There are two choices: demolish them to make way for new construction, or increase the quality of what’s already there. Renovation isn’t just technical, though. In the case of traditional, wooden Japanese homes, the craftsmanship is really good. That quality just isn’t feasible now.
SB Too expensive.
MK Yes, that’s part of why we want to keep it, along with a concentration of meaning in the materials. There’s originality in there that can be retained and granted new life. A hybrid of old and new makes tremendous sense. It’s more fun to consider too, and nothing goes to waste.
Sunil Bald is an associate dean and professor of architecture at Yale University. He is a partner at the New York–based Studio SUMO. His firm’s work, which ranges from installations to institutional buildings, has been exhibited in the National Building Museum, MoMA, the Venice Biennale, the Field Museum, GA Gallery, and the Urban Center.
Theory + Practice is a series supported in part by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee