The Bow-Wow factor

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With a population of nearly 13 million living in an area of just 2,187 square kilometres, Tokyo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Architecturally speaking, Tokyo is a young development with few buildings pre-dating the 1960s, a result of two devastating events of the twentieth-century: the Kanto earthquake in 1923 and the Allied bombing raids of the Second World War. This has made the city one of the most intriguing architectural and urban “laboratories” of the past 50 years. Rather than embodying the utopian high-tech megastructures of the 1960s tradition of young architects known as the Metabolists, Tokyo has instead been continuously and haphazardly rebuilt with few building and planning regulations in place and often without the aid of an architect. The urban fabric of Tokyo is developed mainly through the repetition of detached family houses served by extremely narrow streets.

The desire of its residents to dwell in private houses rather than apartment blocks, coupled with the constant threat of earthquakes, has restricted the building of high-rises in Tokyo; consequently putting a huge stress on the precious amount of buildable land area in the city and leading to ingenious spatial and architectural solutions. Every little bit of extra space can and will be considered suitable for development.

Unlike their predecessors of the mid-20th century who were interested in creating machine-like grandiose structures for living, Atelier Bow-Wow are more concerned with how the tiniest of interventions can influence the city through the innovative use of land area and the creative vertical stacking of uses. They have defined these “amazingly small buildings between streets, along widened roads and in the spaces between tracks and streets” as Pet Architecture. The Tokyo-based architecture practice claims that “if decent buildings standing in decent spaces are to be considered ‘human beings’, small buildings standing with all their might in odd spaces would seem to be like pets in urban spaces”.

Established in 1992 by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima, Atelier Bow-Wow seized the recession of the 1990s as an opportunity to concentrate on the surveying and documentation of the architectural and spatial conditions of their city. The results would be published in 2001 in the form of two, now cult, books Made in Tokyo and the Pet Architecture Guidebook.

The lack of available land and the obsession with constantly modernising the city by demolition of the existing urban fabric is rife throughout Tokyo making the ‘recycling’ of urban sites a key concern for the sustainability of the city. Atelier Bow-Wow has put its extensive urban research to use through a series of interventions, or its own version of Pet Architecture, on small, awkward, and almost inaccessible “recycled” brown field sites. Beginning in 1999 with the 90-square metre MINI House, a steel frame structure resembling stacked shipping containers, for which Atelier Bow-Wow was awarded the Tokyo Architect Society’s Gold prize in housing architecture, Atelier Bow-Wow has gone on to completely redefine the way we see potential space. Their own house and atelier, for example, is predictably only accessible to the street through a narrow gap between neighbouring houses.

In addition to the ‘recycling’ of sites, the prominent themes of Atelier Bow-Wow’s work include flexible living spaces, inhabitable stairs, carefully controlled views to the outside, and a strong relationship between the private interior world and public exterior. By adhering to Japanese tradition where rooms are not defined by a particular use but rather change function and character throughout the day, Atelier Bow-Wow has created hybrid living spaces within the tiny houses allowing the spaces to accommodate the residents’ fluctuating needs.

This flexibility, according to Tsukamoto, needs to extend to the outdoor space “to create more opportunity for people to stay outside the house by redefining the gap between buildings as part of the living room space or as part of the street space. We are also very interested in the power of the users in these buildings. In many cases, architectural design done by architects overwhelms the people who are living there. What we see is the architect’s performance rather than the user’s or inhabitant’s performance. There must be a balance between architectural form and the performance of the people. Our buildings in Tokyo are the result of a sensitive and careful interaction or interplay with the existing context, with the existing behaviour of the people”.

With the futuristic ideals of the Metabolists literally coming crashing down as the Nakagin Capsule Tower, a key Metabolist building built in 1972 by Kisho Kurokawa, is set for demolition, can the answer to the future of Tokyo be found further in the past? Tsukamoto seems to think so. Having spent the majority of their early career in filling the gaps created by Tokyo’s chaotic planning system and its dependency on the demolition of its historic and not-sohistoric structures, Atelier Bow-Wow is now looking towards more flexible and therefore more sustainable building models which, by avoiding regular demolition, could save money, energy, and building waste and can protect the built legacy of the city.

With an eye on social, economic, and environmental sustainability and an interest in the historic engagement between architecture and the city, it should come as no surprise that Tsukamoto’s ideal project is a palazzo. “I’m really fond of the palazzo. It is the most urban type of building. It could be anything at all. It could be housing, it could be apartments, it could be a museum, it could be a school, it could be anything. I think it is one of the most sustainable types of buildings.” The palazzo, or Italian palace, once the large urban residences of wealthy Renaissance families as well as their place of business, is still a key building type in the city of Florence. Like traditional Japanese houses, the rooms were historically multi-functional allowing for various uses and users throughout the day and year.

In addition, the palazzo also provided accessible private external space, through courtyards and gardens, protected from the hustle and bustle of the city and often fronted onto a public piazza. Tsukamoto is particularly fascinated by the 14th century Palazzo Davanzati in Florence, an early model that was formed by the joining together of several mediaeval family towers not dissimilar in style or function to the House Tower built by Atelier Bow-Wow in Tokyo in 2006. “I would really like to design a palazzo in Tokyo,” Tsukamoto states. “Unfortunately, there is no framework to make a palazzo in Tokyo today … I’m wondering who can be our Medici, who can be the people who made the palazzos and the villas in the city of Firenze…There are some very wealthy and powerful people who can do that but they don’t know what a palazzo is so even if they want to create a building, a palazzo is not an option for them.”

In the decades since the fall of the Metabolists in the 1970s we have seen the rise of a new group of Japanese architecture heavyweights including Tadao Ando, Toyo Ito and this year’s Pritzker Prize (the Nobel Prize of architecture), winners SANAA, each with their distinctive and easily recognisable style. Unlike these starchitects, the work of Atelier Bow-Wow does not adhere to the principles of iconic architecture and “branding” but rather seeks out the uniqueness of each possibility, site and context while looking to historical precedents to create a new, dynamic and sustainable response. Despite a near cult-like status among students, the work of Atelier Bow-Wow, from the research of the existing urban fabric to the re-addressing the role of the house within the city, surprisingly remains unaffected and humble.

Like their houses, Atelier Bow-Wow, aim to manifest intelligent design, sometimes barely discernible amongst the vast and cluttered backdrop of Tokyo, but confidently and quietly changing the city one building at a time. With teaching positions at world-renowned design universities including the Tokyo Institute of Technology, University of Tsukuba Art and Design School, Harvard GSD, ETHZ, and UCLA, Tsukamoto and Kaijima are fast influencing a new generation of international architects.

by Karin Templin

From the Glass Archive – Issue Two – Rapture