PRINT Summer 2006


Atelier Bow-Wow

“TO CHANGE the Japanese government, you could begin by altering the seating arrangement in parliament,” says Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, one of the partners, with Momoyo Kaijima, behind the Tokyo-based Atelier Bow-Wow. Linking grand ambition to small-scale gesture marks the ideology of these architects who, like many of their colleagues, move through the realms of art and politics with as much relish as when they build houses. For them, architecture is about rearranging the ordinary so that moments of epiphany, strangeness, and beauty can slip into a home or museum like an uninvited but welcome guest. It is also their craft to allow such surplus to arise through an obsessive engagement with the most basic levels of architectural experience. “Even right now, the fact that we are able to keep on talking like this is due to the desks and chairs,” continues Tsukamoto in a dialogue the firm printed in its new monograph, Bow-Wow from Post Bubble City (2006). “If there were no furniture, we would become distracted by lying down or standing up. By fixing the orientation and posture, people can concentrate on work.”

A similar attitude may be attributed to a whole multigenerational collection of “slash” makers working today—architects whose practice suggests that of artists or performers—the most famous of whom in the United States is undoubtedly Diller + Scofidio (now, as the firm is more serious and designing large structures to house art as well as making art, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with more than thirty people in the office), but whose ranks include up-and-coming stars like David Adjaye in London and Jürgen Mayer H. in Germany. While the work of these architects is diverse, their scientific or semantically derived approach distinguishes their output from artists’ installations and site-specific projects. To generalize, one might say that artists view the potential for inserting their art into everyday life as magicians, in the sense employed by Claude Lévi-Strauss: They collect and assemble found objects, teasing out implied but unarticulated relationships among them to arrive at complete, self-sufficient worlds. Architects such as Atelier Bow-Wow, however, start not from observation and representation but analysis and documentation: They seek the hidden structures lurking behind the sensible world, breaking down different environments into abstract elements, and then assemble things that are self-consciously new, even if still clothed in familiar forms. Indeed, Kaijima, who trained at the Tokyo Institute of Technology’s architecture school, did her thesis work on the syntax of architecture, and both partners have been heavily influenced by semiotic analyses by the likes of Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre.

It is the application of such theory to the assembly and analysis of buildings and spaces that first brought them notoriety. Two of their books, Pet Architecture and Made in Tokyo (both published in 2001), are wonderfully wry catalogues of the strange constructions filling their native city, redrawn and described in such a way that they resemble insects under glass. Pet Architecture is concerned with structures appearing in the city’s leftover spaces—odd triangles and deep curbs where anything from a line of soda machines to an impossibly small building might appear. These adorable little buildings, which Bow-Wow documented in photographs and axonometric drawings, show all the aspects of their grown-up counterparts, but in a somewhat undeveloped, often contorted manner—and they prompted Bow-Wow to investigate the adoption and adaptation of inventive solutions for tight and unusually shaped sites, a handy skill to have in dealing with the small commissions they were receiving as a young design office. It allowed them to create forms that employed a familiar Japanese architectural vernacular, but one that was adjusted to accommodate rapid urban growth and technological artifacts that surround one in Tokyo—and any other major city.

Made in Tokyo was an altogether more ambitious effort to map Tokyo’s hybrid buildings. The city’s density necessitates unlikely combinations of programs, such as a golf course on top of a garage; a department store situated under an elevated highway and curved to follow its contours; or public housing built over a bus terminal and designed so that the length of one bus parked between the load-bearing columns and walls on the street level takes up the same amount of room as one apartment on the floors above. Conversely, related entities are simply pressed closer together. Thus a construction company also has an onsite residence for its employees, and, next to a racetrack, horses and their trainers live in the same building (the stables are on the ground floor). Not only did Atelier Bow-Wow find these places, the firm also photographed, mapped, and then drew pictures of them in a simplified manner, pointing out their various elements as if they were writing a user’s manual. As a final tour de force, they drew an imaginary Tokyo made up of just these kinds of buildings, connected by a continuous road loop: The whole city was reduced, in effect, to a child’s game, blurring the edges between Pac-Man and urban design so that the grandeur of such abstract planning is replaced by a simple rearrangement of forms.

Atelier Bow-Wow has also engaged in a similar game when constructing houses, of which the architects have built several dozen over the course of a fourteen-year practice. Most are tiny, infill boxes shoehorned into the kind of tight sites that are normal in Tokyo. Instead of trying to create a simple, logical order within these sites, the architects tend to make them more complicated than they need to be. They squeezed ten rooms into the Gak House of 2005, for example, a space barely large enough for two. Each of these rooms has a very specific function, tailored to the client’s needs, from book storage to television watching, but each is also a way into another space, so that there are no actual corridors and the whole house becomes a collage of functions. Bow-Wow never makes buildings that are neutral containers: The walls and windows are the seemingly happenstance result of arranging space so that it accommodates a particular function, site anomaly, or view. The firm reinforces this character of architecture as furniture by (more often than not) leaving the wooden studs of the interior construction exposed and using such major elements as staircases as both structural supports and room dividers. Kaijima calls this kind of architecture a “jig”: a specific design allowing for the use of a space whose contours are already determined by the site and construction costs. All the architect can (and must) do is analyze the rituals of everyday life in a particular situation and design a “piece,” or a strategy, that lets the client operate comfortably in that space.

As such, Atelier Bow-Wow has no particular interest in grand notions of space or depth (oku), preferring to concentrate on slight variations in surface, the deformation of elements, and an assembly of pieces that makes the finished house into something specific and expressive. Many of the architects’ houses look rather conventional at first glance, using standard construction elements such as sloped eaves, while their interiors are messy little boxes filled with furniture they do not bother cropping out of their documentary photographs. It is the slight movement away from what is normal, vernacular, or usual that turns their work from the mere (re)construction of standard building practices into something more specific and also difficult to grasp—something one might call architecture. Recently, however, Bow-Wow has had a chance to work in freer situations and at larger scales, designing beautiful country homes such as the cliffside Izu House, built in 2004, and obtaining public commissions such as the Hanamidori Cultural Center in Tokyo, completed in 2005. Here the group plays more explicitly with an architecture prompting an awareness of form, scale, and light, framing views with great precision and using structural elements (as in the cultural center) to focus and create rhythm in large spaces.

But it is in the group’s “art” work that Atelier Bow-Wow has, in the last few years, expanded on its early research and—aspiring to rejig public and social situations—contributed to a wider discussion of the role of architecture in both the public realm and our attempts to frame and give meaning to private life. For instance, the firm’s Furnicycle, designed for the 2002 Shanghai Biennale, consists of several rickshawlike devices, put together as simply as possible, that can be pulled up to form a virtual space for drinking tea or just socializing. Their most eloquent social jig is the White Limousine Yatai, produced the following year for an arts festival in Niigata, on the Japanese coast: Noticing that the yatai structure—a food stall around which people sit—produced an active social space (one can recall the importance of such a yatai in the movie Blade Runner to understand how it works), Atelier Bow-Wow created one more than thirty feet long. The monumentalized vehicle has trouble maneuvering through the streets, but this very ceremony creates a spectacle in which, according to Bow-Wow, one’s perception of the street space is heightened. While installed in Niigata, the pristine structure served only white food, both to minimize its presence and to remind users of the heavy snows that blanket the area in the winter.

Just as the firm’s homes come out of an analysis of the domestic environment, the aforementioned pieces started with an analysis of public behavior. In presentations of their work, Kaijima and Tsukamoto often show a video of a spontaneous demonstration at the insanely busy Roppongi Crossing in the heart of Tokyo, after the victory of a national soccer team. Crowds surged onto the sidewalks, chanting and waving banners—but also waited for stoplights, conforming to the existing urban behavior and movements determined by the streets and buildings, as well as by traffic police. The architects propose that the task of architecture might be to understand, articulate, and open up this constricted realm. They continued this exploration in the various versions of an origami arch they have been producing during the past two years. The folded paper piece, large enough for a small group of people to stand under, almost resembles an architecture of shelter in the traditional sense, though Kaijima is more interested in “the hours of folding that it takes to make the arch, that is the real work of architecture, everybody doing it together.”

Yet Atelier Bow-Wow also seems lately to be trying to hide the elements of architecture altogether. In a 2004 temporary installation for a Stockholm hotel, the architects covered every surface with the same pattern as that of the traditional Japanese bathrobe, or yukata, which they also provided to visitors. For the Mito Art Fair in the same year, they advanced their assault on traditional architecture and its determinism by partially dismantling a house, Gordon Matta-Clark–style, and planting weeds in its former interior. In an ironic reference to Japanese Zen gardens, they subsequently made counters along the windowsills looking onto the newly opened up courtyard where viewers could contemplate the meaning of these weeds sprouting in the artificially constructed (or deconstructed) ruin. The project brought them full circle, back to their first investigation of the leftover and transitory spaces of the city: The house was scheduled for demolition and Bow-Wow invented a new use for it. Within a transitory structure, the architects found a moment of depth, both physical and mental, but it was a coy and knowing one—a “depth of shallowness,” as they term it. The point is then not to construct spaces of habitation, or to comment on social conditions through the means of construction, but rather to diligently come up with tools with which we may navigate environments, recognizing possibilities we never would have seen there otherwise. Whether cataloging, building shelter, or making art, Atelier Bow-Wow creates the jig by which we can install ourselves within existing constructs. That insertion is, whether it takes the form of a building or an installation, a way of both physically and experientially reorganizing reality. Because of the revelations their knowledge and skills provide, the city has been revealed, and we can begin the work of reconstruction with the tools they offer us.

Aaron Betsky is director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam.