Interviewed in Zagreb, May 10th 2008
ORIS: In this interview, we would like to talk about a few issues relating to your work, first of all your drawings as your hallmark, and your published research, and on the other hand your built work, especially on the micro-scale of single family houses, the hypercontextuality of that architecture and site specifics. Maybe we should start with you last book, Graphic Anatomy. There is an interesting thing in the foreword, some kind of parallel between your architectural drawings and illustrations in biology and natural history. We could say that your drawings are, in an objective kind of representation and very precise way of drawing, quite similar to a botanist’s or anatomist’s illustrations. It is also interesting that this kind of representation changes from project to project, from scale to scale. You have one kind of architectural drawing in Pet Architecture and Made in Tokyo and quite another here, very precise and advanced. Can you tell us something about your ways of using drawings as architectural tools?
Bow-Wow: We always try to find a unique presentation on what we want to show. In our first book, Made in Tokyo, we wanted to show a very normal environment, not only for Japanese people, but also for foreigners. For people, from another city, from another culture, a photograph may not be comprehensive enough. Then we start to draw what we saw, and to explain what is special in each case. For example, Super Car School from Made in Tokyo is just a supermarket, but it also has a driving school on the roof. It has a driving course; streetlights, cars, slopes for brake training. Also in the Pet Architecture Guide Book, the elements spilling over from inside are quite important to understand the spatial practice by each individual. We call this spatial quality ‘customization’ when the building is at a very similar scale to an air conditioner or vending machine.
ORIS: In your second book, Pet Architecture Guide Book you picture a man with a dog, which is quite nice to get an impression of the size of a building which is actually quite small.
Bow-Wow: The building itself is very small so the elements lately added around the building, such as vending machines or air conditioning exterior units, have a very strong impact on the building’s appearance. Made in Tokyo and Pet Architecture Guide Book help you understand the city of Tokyo through its architecture. So the architecture can be read by people, or can be analyzed or observed as part of the urban landscape. In the fourth book, Graphic Anatomy, we also tried to show our architectural detail and human behaviour with daily objects. The relationship between people’s behaviour and building elements and spatial organization is drawn in it. For example, a window becomes very important in such small houses. These drawings were initially drawn by Bow-Wow’s staff as the technical detail drawings for the construction, then added perspectives by students with daily objects and human behaviour such like how to sit in the house, how to enjoy the surrounding environment from inside the house. Windows also gather life skills on controlling the relationship between inside and outside. The book was published as the catalogue of our exhibition in Tokyo for the better understanding of the 1/20 models exhibited in the gallery. Visitors brought this book to the exhibition space and could compare our drawings and the 1/20 models.
This book is also our response to the previous detail books, such as Maki’s, Ando’s, etc, that we learned when we were students.
ORIS: So, studying the way of drawing details, and also the way of representing architectural thinking in this drawing is very useful and educational. Publication of these drawings can show your way of thinking and working to wider audiences.
Bow-Wow: Publication is very important for us, because we are very interested in the framework of the architecture. If the framework of the project is not good, we just waste our energy and the result is not efficient. Finding the proper framework of each project is one of the most important roles of architects today in an era without a strong social, architectural canon. Until the 1960s, the architectural language of modernism was a powerful canon and was shared by society, but today architectural language can be redefined and invented by each architect. In order to make this language convincing, the framework of the project must be well considered. The first two books were important for us, because they established a certain framework for architectural works in Tokyo through observation of the existing environment.
Another motivation was to create a style of drawing. Since Made in Tokyo is about the hybrid condition of different programmes in the city, then the drawing is enough with a single line like a comic strip to show different programmatic elements. A simple drawing method is also very important when we work with students. We killed the difference between each individual by this drawing method in order to optimize the collection of the building, and make our study more scientific. In Pet Architecture Guide Book, unless they were not designed by architects, we needed to draw more detail since it talks about the assembly of daily objects. In Graphic Anatomy, it was a time when we wanted to compile our details already applied on previous projects. We wanted to make a sort of archive to continue our practice in a similar but better way. Then we realized that 1/20 drawings of the main section of most of our house projects could be in the format 31 x 62 cm when it opens. A 100-metre-high office building cannot be drawn in 1/20 in this format. But we can show the details of the building and the spatial configuration because of their smallness.
ORIS: Looking at the drawing of houses in your book Graphic Anatomy, all these houses seem very dense, and very body related, almost anthropometric. We could make a parallel with handmade sushi. It is something very compact with flavours of all kinds, metaphorically speaking, very intense and interesting.
Bow-Wow: Extreme adjacency of daily objects such as furniture, electronics is one of the crucial conditions of the Japanese contemporary house. We are very careful on furniture arrangement, especially on the direction of the furniture. If the furniture is facing itself, it is uncomfortable in a small space. Windows are also rediscovered in the same context of ‘direction’, and finally the human body as well. A small house can be now discussed as the collection of different directions by different means. The synthesis of these different directions becomes the operable architectural order, Un Art Contextuel, Flammarion, 2002. Furnicycle is the reflection of this thought on the scale of an installation. In this case we made a tricycle with chairs, a bed, a table attached in the opposite direction. When they are driving along the street, they are a tricycle, but when they are sitting on their backside, they are furniture and form an instant living room on the street. Dog Chair was also designed by the same method. The direction of the dog and the chair were combined based on the similarity of the four legs of a dog and a chair.
ORIS: It is also very fascinating to me if you look at this kind of book, like Made in Tokyo, which is about an urban scale and then Graphic Anatomy which is about this very small scale, isn’t it somehow related like the outer and inner sides of a glove. It’s very different, but in some way it is very much related to each other. It seems to me that some kind of methodology is always in question, trying to establish a way of architectural solutions, or understanding a difficult situation.
Bow-Wow: It is called a guidebook because at that moment we didn’t have a precise conclusion of our research. Urban phenomena make themselves diverse. We thought it better not to be too close like a piece of academic research. The guidebook format is open enough and allows us to add anything new, anything more interesting, and then the group of certain buildings starts telling you something. At that moment we didn’t use the word ‘framework’, but I think we can call it a ‘framework’. If you see the city through this framework, many things start to seem very different....
ORIS: The question you raise now is about the city as architecture. So you somehow stroll through the city capturing all these kinds of models, all these different typologies and trying to put them into practice in individual houses. You are going from a large scale to a small scale, and when we invert the process, do you do the opposite? Do you try to practise the experience of the scale of the house and then apply it to the city? If we could see in your work on houses some kind of zooming in, is there also some zooming out?
Bow-Wow: Yes, this is something we are trying to do now. We observe urban phenomena and understand their mechanism (=induction) and change the relationship a little bit between the elements in order to make this mechanism produce different urban phenomena (=deduction). This process of combining induction and deduction is called transduction. We have tested this process with Furnicycle and several projects we call ‘micro public space’ in art exhibitions.
In the same sense, we focus on architectural language when we work on a small house. In history, urban forms have been characterised and visualised by the geometrical order such as axis, symmetry, golden section, etc, or by the uniformity of type and style of buildings. This kind of visual unity is missing in Tokyo. Especially during the 1980s, the word ‘chaos’ was often used to describe this aspect of the Tokyo landscape. But if we see the buildings themselves, the types are limited under their varied appearance. The discipline of the Tokyo landscape is the random juxtaposition of these different types and each streetscape is the result of the proportional appearance of these types. Our interest is to produce a new generation type on redefining local specific architectural language. Then Bow-Wow’s houses are somehow similar to their neighbours but also different by broadening the architectural behavioural capacity. We think this is the way to intervene in the urban landscape.
ORIS: Is it an architectural language like an architectural code, or is it not trying to become a code? It’s more influencing the definition of discrimination.
Bow-Wow: Of course we are influenced by the work of Christopher Alexander and Aldo Rossi. We did some typological research on Kanazawa, an old castle city. Kanazawa has not been bombed, was not destroyed by any earthquake during the 20th century, so it still has its old urban structure. One street was focused on in this research, the one designated for merchants. The zone along this street, painted in pink on this map, is for the merchant area, the yellow for samurai, the purple for temples and shrines. Merchants developed a shop/house typology, which has a very narrow frontage and a very deep profile. We found that today’s streetscape is the random juxtaposition of varied types which are transformations from this original type. Several environmental pressures can be observed by following the transformation of type. Fire proofing standards, anti-seismic structure standards with higher FAR for commercial zones make it difficult to keep the two-storey, wooden original type. The need for parking spaces had a huge impact on the treatment of street frontage. If the original type is the first generation, then second, third and fourth generations could be defined by the degree of transformation. The second generation is characterised by its adaptation to the new environmental pressure on keeping the wooden structure. One opened the ground floor for parking, another covered the entire frontage by a brick patterned false façade like a mask. The fourth generation looks very different from the original type then people think that it’s not a town house anymore. But it still is a town house if you see it in the sequence of transformation. We examined every building (over 1300 buildings) along the street and mapped them with different colours. This map shows the proportional appearance of different types on each street. One part is mostly occupied by the first generation, and another is occupied by the second, or mixed.
ORIS: You are mapping the changes of society and economy through the building typology all the time, defining the cityscape through these changes.
Bow-Wow: Sure. It is not something we see directly with our eyes, but it is something constructed in our mind by walking along this street. We can now propose the fifth generation of town house in this context of typological transformation. In Kanazawa, the trajectory of transformation is clear because we still see the original type in the city, but in Tokyo it is more difficult. But we need to discuss this kind of framework for architectural creation.
ORIS: Are you trying to somehow to bottom-up define urban tissue? So this is the process with which you can think you can define city structure?
Bow-Wow: This research makes us able to see varieties of town house in a line of succession. New, different propositions by architects without this kind of framework can easily fall into poor newness. It is not interesting for us. New propositions should be delightful and meaningful, and activate the potential of existing local architectural resources. If not, it won’t be sustainable.
ORIS: It also reminds me a little bit of genealogy. Can you apply this sort of architectural linguistics to the void metabolism of the suburban tissue?
Bow-Wow: The houses designed by contemporary Japanese architects are the most interesting. We work independently and individually, but somehow we are trying to achieve something similar. I started to call this framework ‘void metabolism’. I think it is good because architects need to say something about the city, about the urban landscape collectively. If architects are just individually different each other, we architects won’t get any power in society. The characteristic of the ‘void metabolism’ is the interdependent relationship between volume and void produced between buildings. Building volumes are examined through their impact on the quality of void space, and void spaces are also examined from their impact on the quality of space inside the volumes. A series of feedback until it finds the stable, balanced condition between voids and volumes, is the peculiar process of ‘void metabolism’. Any physical characteristic such as narrow or dark, high and bright, long and short, are well integrated in the spatial organisation and given its own value. No space is abused. The feedback study on interdependence between building volumes and voids is the process to establish a better framework to treat every different spatial quality as valuable.
ORIS: So we are talking about environmental units. Do you believe that an architect in Japan can work as an urban curator on a larger scale?
Bow-Wow: I think so. You know the phrase ‘environmental unit’!
ORIS: I think this idea of ‘environmental unit’ is very interesting. It’s a kind of thinking which sees the city as an organism. Things which do not seem related obviously are somehow related to this ecosystem of urbanism. I think that this point is quite different from some kind of contextualism or vernacularism, or some other form of relating to ‘build environment’ in architecture.
Bow-Wow: The idea of ‘Environmental Unit’ is very much influenced by the ‘Environmental World’ by Uexküll. It tries to utilise existing elements on site to form a meaningful set of environment. Architecture acts as a kind of glue to connect different things on using its organic property of nature. It is the environment formed through the theory of usability rather through the theory of construction. Our interest is in the ecosystem produced by this thought and same time on the mutation of architectural form in this setting of ‘Environmental Unit.’.
ORIS: So you think the future of architectural practice is related more towards outer practices, becoming more open in terms of coordination of other disciplines and everything together, meaning in the terms of planning and design?
Bow-Wow: Yes, and we believe that individual character can still appear in this process. Until the 1980s, the architectural design in Japan was too oriented to a self-orientated approach, what I am, what you are, what my architecture is. It could happen because of the closeness of domestic conditions in Japan at that moment. Now it’s the time of globalization and I think that closeness in a smaller community loses its reliability so I think we have to open architecture more to play with everything existing in this world.