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SHIBAURA HOUSE, President, Masaru Ito

The photograph shows the building prior to SHIBAURA HOUSE.

(Parts of this article describes SHIBAURA HOUSE with the former company name, Kohkoku Seihan Inc.)

Kohkoku Seihan Inc. was established in 1952. As the company name in Japanese suggests, for a long time, the majority of our work has been Seihan -the production of printing plates and color correction for newspaper and magazine advertisements. However, nowadays we also work in packaging design and adverts, image editing and illustration, as well as 3D work.

Seihan, the word our company derived its name from, is the work that bridges design and printing. In fact, it points to the process of making Han (a screen) that is set in the printing machine when printing advertisements. Perhaps, if you can imagine the engraving process, it might be easier for you to understand what I mean. Now, the work is done with computers (DTP), but previously it was manually operated by printing technicians.

Growth and decline (1950s-1990s)

The work of Seihan is part of an advertisement industry. Since its establishment, Kohkoku Seihan Inc. boosted its profits in tandem with rapid economic growth in Japan. In tandem with economic growth, the demand for advertising increased, leading to company growth. In its prime, it held several offices in Tokyo and had more than 200 employees. Especially from the late 80s to 90s, the bubble economy gave a boost to the company’s growth.

This picture shows the 1st floor of the building back then. Here, we used to have two large German printers for checking the quality of the prints. 

However, that did not last long. Soon after the bubble economy burst it was followed by the Lehman Brothers’ Collapse. The advertising industry is vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy. As economic activities generally stagnated, the entire industry faced a difficult phase. The final blow was a change in the working environment of advertising, a shift from analog to digital. The company structure was in need of a radical transformation, including employees and facilities.

Structural reform (1990-2000)

Every year, our profit declined and there were many issues we needed to tackle. It was obvious that we would be in a serious trouble, if we had continued on this path. Without any alternative choice, we took a management decision and proceeded with a step by step corporate downsizing and changed the organizational structure. This brought a gradual improvement to the company. However, in terms of the profits and the number of employees, the scale of the company became about a third of what it was at its peak.

Apartment blocks are constructed one after another, and the number of children living in the area is increasing.

Once the situation had settled, we could think about the future of the company. The reality was that the current business was in decline, but at the same time some new work started to come our way, such as packaging design and 3D image making. Also, more than half of our employees are now female, which brought some changes in the office atmosphere.

While thinking about our potential future, we started to feel that the 40-year-old aging building was no longer fit for purpose as our office. A dark and closed space, with frequent roof leakage and divided areas, each dedicated to their own section. I started to develop a bold idea, to rebuild the office building, as an attempt to solve all these issues.

Office building to platform (2001-2007)

In order to develop the idea further, I applied a set of conditions. It must not be as simple as making a new office building, but should generate future possibilities for the company and increase its significance in society.

One point was to build the creative potential of the existing work force from the bottom up and improve our sustainability as a company. An example would be to create an open environment where an in-house designer can have the freedom to collaborate with a client or a creative person from outside of the company. My belief was that solely working within the company’s resources could not bring a brighter future for our business. Also, if we had an attractive space, it would generate a new business and could be rented out externally in various ways.

Another point was to create a meeting point with the local community. This Shibaura area started as a typical office district and we scarcely have contact with each other. We even don’t know what the company next door do, and who works there. Furthermore, many high-rise apartments started to appear, bringing a large number of families with small children to the area. Vaguely, I saw a new potential in the local community by connecting these people. This brought me to the idea for our new office building which not only our employees, but also the neighboring community can use.

As the industry’s climate is unpredictable, it was clear to me that there is no future if we were obsessed with the area of the business we already held. Also, by thinking out-of-the-box of the typical office building, my focus was on making a space that satisfies not only our employees, but also a variety of other people. For several years, I did some thinking and started to prepare, including the financial planning.

SHIBAURA HOUSE, concept to completion (2008-2011)

Once the prospect of rebuilding the company building seemed realistic, the name of the architect Kazuyo Sejima sprung to my mind as the designer. In 1996, I visited IAMAS (Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences) Multimedia Studio, which blew me away. It was, architecture like no other, sunk half way into the ground. It made a great impression on me, where the architecture and landscape were unified as one piece.

I learnt later that the designer behind this architecture was the architect unit, SANNA, and I was deeply attracted to their work. Later, SANAA continued to create cutting-edge architecture such as hhstyle at Harajuku and 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. SANNA became an architectural firm who open up a new era of architecture, unmissable in the scene.

In 2008, I first met Kazuyo Sejima and talked about my request in person. What I asked for was a design for our new office building. Though with the condition that the office itself should occupy the minimum space possible, and that the remaining space would be for anyone to use as they wish. In a way, it is a house for our employees and the public to share. I explained how I came up with that concept and a sense of our values, and we exchanged ideas. Fortunately, she seemed to be interested in it and agreed to take on the design work.

For one year, we spent our time solidifying the basic concept. Our single request was rather abstract: A space like a house, that connects the floors below and above, where we can feel each other’s presence. However, shortly after, when the concrete plan was provided, we were stunned. We could clearly see our abstract request taking form, and this was already the prototype for the final architectural plan.

It took another year to finalize the architectural plan. We had a meeting every month and it was an exciting process as the idea accumulated pace. The management style was formed alongside with the architectural design process. At last, we agreed on a final plan and they showed me the model, I thought how wonderful it would be if this was realized.

From the time of construction. (5F) Advanced structural calculation was required in order to achieve complex layered floor arrangements.

Completion and management (2011-)

In July 2011, SHIBAURA HOUSE was completed. The open-house event gathered more than 1000 visitors, mainly students and professionals in the field of architecture. Since then, we have been organizing numerous events ranging from workshops for local residents to programs with invited guest creators from abroad. Neighbors gather in the 1st floor free space and it is used like a park. 

We heard that the architecture was designed to match the height of the adjoining apartment, in consideration to the cityscape.
(Photograph below: ©Iwan Baan)

Also we have many visitors from all over the world to see a building designed by Kazuyo Sejima. New encounters among people occur, which is something that was unimaginable from our previous building.

Design and managementKazuyo Sejima and Associates
Structural designSasaki and Partners
BuilderShimizu Corporation
Completion DateJune 2011
Structure and scaleSRC structure, 5 floors
Total floor area950m2
LocationMinato-ku Shibaura, Tokyo

*Photographs by Forward Stroke.