9,300 kilometres from home

17 oktober 2022

What is it like for a Japanese architect to work in Europe and for a European architect to work in Japan? Do the different cultures make it seem like they ended up in the film Lost in Translation, or is architecture a universal language?
Nook asked Marieke Kums, who has worked at the Japanese architectural firm SANAA, and Mayu Takasugi, co-founder of SUGIBERRY in Brussels, to share their experience.

Studio MAKS – Park Vijversburg - Photo: Iwan Baan

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Marieke Kums (Rotterdam)

Marieke Kums started her own office, Studio MAKS, in Rotterdam in 2010, after previously working at OMA and spending four years with SANAA in Tokyo. She collaborated with Junya Ishigami on a new visitor centre for Park Vijversburg in Friesland that was shortlisted for the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award in 2019. The experience she gained designing spaces with a small footprint in Japan was very useful for her first residential commission, a small house in Deventer.


What was the reason you moved to Japan?

During my studies, I got a scholarship to study global architecture. I selected ten cities and spent ten days in each city. One of them was Tokyo. I was very impressed by Japanese architecture. I loved my time in Japan and wanted to go back. OMA and SANAA share an interest in how people use a building in terms of programming, functionality, freedom of use, and defining new typologies of space. When I applied at SANAA after my graduation I was, to my surprise, working there a week later. In the middle of a big project deadline, I entered the office with my suitcase – my flight had been delayed – and didn’t leave for the next 48 hours.


Why did they hire you?

They believe they liked my portfolio and they’re always looking for foreign staff, as they have many projects outside of Japan. And I believe it helped too that a Japanese friend of mine put in a good word for me at SANAA.


What was it like working in a culture which is foreign to you?

Fortunately, most people at SANAA speak English, but from my experiences of working in international architectural offices I noticed there are some commonalities in the way the work is done. Architecture is a very visual and practical job, it has its very own language. I took the opportunity to discover and explore Japanese culture with both hands, and adapting didn’t feel difficult to me.


The Japanese are known for working long hours. Did you do that as well?

I did, but I didn’t mind as I went to Japan to work in the first place. Most of my projects were outside of Japan in various time zones, resulting in long days. At some point I had projects in Hong Kong, Europe, and Mexico. It was intense but also very exciting. And when you’re tired, you just take a nap in the office, which is totally accepted in Japan. That’s very different, compared with Dutch culture. We’re really proud that we are efficient, functional, and get things done on time. In Japan, your loyalty to the team and being physically present at the office are valued.


Why did you invite Junya Ishigami to work with you on the pavilion of Park Vijversburg?

I had just returned from Japan and started my own firm. In Japan, Junya and I had successfully collaborated on a project for SANAA in the Middle East. I knew that he wanted to work on projects outside of Japan and I was looking for new projects for my office. By collaborating we could meet all requirements for the tender for Vijversburg. We submitted our bid and we won the competition for a new visitor centre that functions as a meeting and exhibition space.


What idea did you come up with?

The idea from the very beginning was to design architecture as a landscape, not as a building. This goes beyond blending interior and exterior: the interior becomes part of the exterior landscape. We wanted the pavilion to be part of the landscape and connected it with three existing natural elements in the park: a pond, a tree line, and the villa garden. That’s why it consists of three curved lines. We made the pavilion using thin glass facades and set the axis of the building one metre below ground level in order to blend the pavilion into the landscape even further. The facades have been made as transparent as possible. At the same time, depending on the angle of light, these glass facades also reflect the surrounding landscape from time to time. The materialisation of the building is very minimalistic: the colours are neutral, building details appear very simple. This is in contrast to the organic and colourful nature that surrounds the building.


What do you think makes Japanese architecture so special?

Everyone would agree that the aesthetic part of design in Japan is extremely important, and people are very sensitive to it. Even when you buy a little snack at a night store, the staff always wraps it up beautifully. Everything in Japan is done with a lot of care, and that sets the country very much apart. In the Netherlands, it is not always easy or evident to discuss beauty; we rather talk about if a design is functional and not too expensive. In Japan, people care a lot about the design of their house. That’s why there are so many exceptional and beautiful little houses, because the architects have imaginative clients who share an appreciation for the aesthetic part of the design. What makes Japanese architecture particularly interesting to me is that it is designed as an open system. It goes back to the pure question of what space is. What is a space for living, for working, for coming together? It is more intuitive and a more fluid way of designing space, which leads to a unique design process and unique way of thinking about and creating architectural space.


Did you appropriate this open design process in your own projects?

Yes, perhaps a little bit too much [laughs]. In Japanese culture, people are not so decisive out of respect and politeness for the other person. You basically never say no. If you want to say no, you say maybe not. I like the Japanese idea that your design process remains open for new ideas and that the building isn’t finished until it is completed. If you leave it open, you create room for surprises to happen and achieve the best result, instead of deciding something when you’re not ready to make a decision yet. The disadvantage of keeping things open until the end is that you develop a lot of things in parallel, which is much more work.


Is it difficult to maintain an open design process here in the Netherlands, where there is more emphasis on completion and closure?

Unfortunately, architects in the Netherlands are very much involved in the concept and design phase, but don’t always have the opportunity to be deeply involved in the construction of their projects. Fortunately this way of working is slowly changing now. My generation of architects in the Netherlands are committed to making better and sustainable buildings, and want to be involved until completion. More and more clients acknowledge the added value that the architect conducts the executional drawings instead of the construction firm. It increases the opportunity for architects to develop their design ideas from the first concept stages until the completion of the construction works. I believe it is really this aspect of freeing architectural space from preset conditions: to try to start a new project with the most open mind and to develop the design in an iterative process. To allow the future users to navigate freely through these newly designed spaces and decide their own courses of action. I also try to focus more on the non-built aspects of the site, such as light, sound, movement, and the environment around a building. There is much awareness of this in Japanese architecture. [TS]

Mayu Takasugi (Tokyo)

After living and working in Japan, Finland, and Belgium, Mayu Takasugi moved to Brussels to start her own firm, SUGIBERRY, together with her South African husband, Johannes Berry. The name is a combination of their surnames. The ideas in their projects come from their interactions with the site and materials, as well as construction techniques like those in Pine Concrete House, for which they were nominated for the Brussels Architecture Prize last year. If their projects end up having elements that seem Japanese, it’s not intentional.


Which Japanese architectural firm did you work for before moving to Belgium?

I worked at Field Four Design Office in Tokyo for about four years. They often collaborate with their parent company, which is one of the biggest construction firms in Japan. They also have many clients other than corporate, such as schools, hospitality industry, and private sector.


Did you find it difficult to adapt to Belgium?

Not really. I had lived in Finland for five years before moving to Belgium, so I was already used to adapting to a new place.


What differences in work culture did you experience between Belgium and Japan?

As a student in Finland, I chose to do an internship with the Belgian architect Eddy François. He became more of a friend, and we spent more time at restaurants or site visits than actually doing hard work at his office. When I moved back to Belgium to start my own office with Johannes, I had never really experienced work culture in Belgium. In Japan, at Field Four Design Office, I enjoyed the freedom and potential of working for a big corporate office who generally have a stable organisational and financial systems. That makes it easier to only concentrate on the design part of projects, and not lose time on administration and other things. It also allows time and space for research without being forced to rush things and juggle too many balls in the air, like at a small firm. In Belgium, I experience a different freedom and potential working for my own office. There is no duty nor expectation to fulfil. We just follow our interests. That is why our office name, SUGIBERRY, carries no reference to architecture. Some people perceive our projects as architectural, whereas others don’t. Either way, we do not want to limit ourselves to such discussions.


What do you think makes Japanese architecture so special?

Architecture is culture, so Japanese architecture shows a lot about cultural uniqueness and customs. Our culture was passed down through many generations over thousands of years. Everyday customs are innate in people, and how people see and find things in architecture affects what architecture means to the world. We believe good architecture will grow good people. This mutual interaction strongly works in Japan because of geographical background and influence from nature and climate.


What are the contrasts between Japanese and Belgian architecture?

Belgium is located in Europe, whereas Japan is geographically isolated and much more affected by the climate. Compared with Belgium, Japan is impacted by natural disasters, extreme weather, and has a wider range of climates as a result of its wider range of latitude. All these factors have an effect on the lifespan of buildings. They are more temporary and require more maintenance. More maintenance means more action, and this leads to refinement and rituals. Japan’s culture is closely related to its climate.


Do you implement Japanese design concepts in your interior architecture projects?

The ideas in our projects come from our interactions with the site, materials, and construction technique in order to ‘find’ architecture. In this way, some projects may end up having elements that look Japanese, but these are not intentional. I think in all of our projects you can sense something universal, maybe because of the way the projects refer to themselves, such as site, material, and construction. Beyond that, people will always look for meaning, which refers to their own frame of reference. We understand that we also do that ourselves, so we try to allow for that space that can inspire external ideas in our projects.


How was the innovative interior design of Pine Concrete House in South Africa conceived?

This house was made by casting concrete in timber formwork and then reusing the formwork to enclose the envelope of the building. The exposed concrete and timber formwork are both visible in their exposed state as finishing on the inside, but also on the outside. We do not distinguish between the exterior and interior; for us, the idea and expression for both comes from the same process, which is an approach to construction.


For the exhibition Cardboard Paper Scenography you transformed the interior of the National Bank of Belgium into something like a Christo-inspired artwork. How did the idea come about?

We did the exhibition design at the national bank of Belgium for the French statuary and ornamental sculpture by Georges Houtstont, who designed the ornamentation of the building. The space was filled with display boxes, benches, and tables. As these items were too big to remove, we decided to use these elements. We wrapped everything with paper and covered the floor with cardboard, only exposing the building’s ornaments. This formed a neutral background to display works and also highlight the existing ornaments of the interior. The shapes making up the composition of the scenography are thus the result of the furniture and objects that were present in the bank.


In the exhibition Meaning at the Flanders Architecture Institute, you seek out the architectural relationship between Japan and Flanders by exhibiting your own work alongside that of others. You wanted to demonstrate how an idea that adapts itself to a changed context led to new connections and fresh layers of meaning. Can you explain something about this?

We worked on this exhibition the same way we normally work. In this case, because of a limited budget we looked for what we could reuse and tried to find potential in that. We could use materials from previous exhibitions, which were kept in archive storage. We didn’t alter the material to suit an idea but rather used the potential of how the material is. The result was a pavilion in the garden of deSingel in Antwerp that, through our interaction with the site, materials, and construction, we could not have imagined in the beginning. I think this exhibition showed that focusing on the potential of a set of conditions has a bigger capacity to inspire new architecture than focusing on its meaning and trying to define what it should. [TS]