2. Reflection on the past 9 years from the perspective of an architect and management, with Kazuyo Sejima

Reflection on the past 9 years from the perspective of an architect and management, with Kazuyo Sejima

◎Dialog: Kazuyo Sejima (Architect) x Masaru Ito (CEO of SHIBAURA HOUSE)

We took the opportunity to invite architect Kazuyo Sejima for a conversation with our CEO Masaru Ito when we were redesigning our website.

Looking back on nine years from the perspective of an architect and management
How to respond to changes in society
Architecture that responds to the surrounding environment and time
Designing a landscape that changes everyone, starting with one building
We can change where we live, how we want

▲ Space that connects directly with the city. We, the management, as well as the passersby, both change our mindset gradually.
Looking back on nine years from the perspective of architecture and management 

Masaru Ito (I): SHIBAURA HOUSE was built in 2011, after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Now, the coronavirus is spreading around the world. As society and the world of work are undergoing enormous change, I want to hear your reflections as we go through what has happened until now. 

Your words back when we completed SHIBAURA HOUSE are burned into my memory: “If it lasts for three years, then it’ll do six. If it lasts six years, then it’ll do 12 years.” In 2020, it will be nine years, but to be honest, rather than feeling like a big success, it feels more like we simply continued to take small steps.

I think I just continued to be positive and to think about all the various things that we could do with this building. Because the whole building is covered in glass, and it feels as if the outside world is streaming in, I am constantly stimulated to think, “We have to adapt” in my daily work.

Kazuyo Sejima (S): I think when I said that, it came from a friend telling me, “If it lasts for one year, then you’ll manage three,” when I started my own architectural office, and that really encouraged me. Lots of things have happened in the past nine years. And of course, coronavirus has been a really huge phenomenon within that. 

I: Yes. People have disappeared from the city. The number of people who drop by to use the free space have dwindled, to about a third of what it was before. I’ve been struggling to work out what to do with SHIBAURA HOUSE for about six months, but now I’m thinking about creating an initiative that supports people’s everyday lives in some way.

For example, grocery shopping continues to be an essential part of people’s lives, so we started selling vegetables on the ground floor. It’s not just a standard store; we’re also doing in a zero-waste way. Also, the other day I met a farmer in Tokyo, and he told me that we could actually grow quite a lot of fruits and vegetables in our own building. 

▲ We have recently started selling vegetables in our free space.

S: That’s interesting. Since we moved to our new office, we have started growing a few different vegetables. We’ve started growing bitter gourd and passionfruit because these leaves create a green canopy that shields from the intense summer sunlight. 

What the people in the area truly want

I: We’re thinking about making the floors above the second floor into a farm. Like a local farmer’s market, we’d have people come in freely, pick what they like, pay for it on the lower floor, and then consume it locally. Just like the vegetable store we started last week, it might encourage people who have so far not been coming to visit a little more. And whatever we don’t sell, we can cook up to make a meal for our neighbors on Fridays. I think it would be really good to create this kind of cycle.

S: There’s a lot of young families in Shibaura, so I’m sure there’s a lot of people interested in having this kind of farmers market, maybe organic produce. 

I: Yes. Also, Minato-ku has asked us if we could do a revitalization project around the Shibaura Canal, and at the moment we’re proposing to them that we make a vegetable patch and a composting area. We’re thinking of making our own building a kind of laboratory, a place to communicate information and our thoughts, that would maybe connect to other initiatives.

S: I think it’s really important to have a visible and tangible space to show what you’re doing, rather than simply doing the activity just by yourselves. For example, by the canal, it would be great if it could become a space for people to gather and to achieve something together.

I: When we finished the building, and I asked you what kind of people you wanted to use the building, I remember that you told me, ‘Children’. You said that you wanted children to understand that it’s possible to do all these kinds of things, and that has finally become a familiar idea to us as the time passed by.

S: When I was designing the building, I understood your plans and what you were saying, but I was also wondering if we could do something really ambitious, really out of the box. There was a time when we talked about increasing the floor area, but in the end we went with the original concept and design. However, if you thought it possible, it would be nice if we could extend the terrace out into the surrounding area more. If we could have a staircase outside the first floor, perhaps we could make it so that it will allow people to go straight up to the terrace.

I: Oh, you mean to have an outdoor staircase? I hadn’t thought of that. But people with a good imagination want to do all kinds of things when they come here. Actually, that’s why it still feels new to me. People who weren’t involved wouldn’t think that this building was created a whole nine years ago, and I also feel the same. 

S: Well, it’s being used with care, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops, depending on how it’s used. I’m able to see that it’s finally becoming what we wanted to see, after nine years. One thing we wanted was that it wouldn’t be an ordinary office, and that it would be connected to the local area. Another was that it should be made ‘open’ in various ways, and so lots of new things can be born from it. 

Current system that binds our sensibility and our ways of thinking 

I: Maybe because of that, we are able to accept the situations we find ourselves in simply as the circumstances, and somehow turn it into a positive opportunity. There’s not many buildings that can do that. If we were a normal office, what we could do would be limited, and realistically, we might have thought about selling it to someone or making it into a rental building.

But I think we can still use this building in a different way. In a positive sense, this building is a good plaything: it’s not just somewhere you work, but actually a space we can play around with while connecting it to our work.

S: If you try and do it with the same kind of redevelopment, or if you try and apply the same logic to do it efficiently, I think the balance will be lost. When it comes to trying to guarantee a predetermined outcome with a limited amount of money, and the construction method has been decided, and you have to take out insurance… I feel completely in a bind. I think when people feel trapped like this they feel like they just have to get through.

However, even though disasters happen, I think it’s really nature giving us a warning that things are out of balance. I think our sense and ways of thinking have become too restricted, and things are getting worse.

If I wanted to do SHIBAURA HOUSE in the most efficient way possible, I would have increased the floor area to the very maximum possible, and would have increased the size of the rental rooms. And maybe not have created a garden, because doing so not only reduces the floor area, but also increases the work of waterproofing and maintaining the outer walls, and it costs extra money. But by making a garden, you enable people who are living quite ordinary lives to gather together in a different kind of space.

You could think, with coronavirus, ‘Oh no, is this the new normal?’, but even a little while ago, it was impossible to imagine that the whole world would come to a standstill so quickly. When I was designing I was just doing it in a fragmented way, like, oh, it would be nice to be able to walk up to the top instead of using an elevator, and oh, it would be nice to have a garden, that kind of thing. Little by little I have begun to see what each of these decisions have come to mean. And now, we are seeing a new way of gathering.