The Infinity of Limited Space | Tokyo-Kanto

Tod’s Omotesando par Toyo Ito. Photo: © Roland Hagenberg

Visitors to a mega-city like Tokyo are always fascinated how buildings fit into the most unlikely places, with a high rise structure next to a three-story family home next to a designer shop or a shrine. Just walk along the Omotesando shopping avenue with its narrow side streets, and you understand why space management is one of the biggest challenges for any contemporary architect in Japan. How can they design an appealing structure on a plot of land confined to a small corner, and how can tiny rooms project largeness and individuality? Does nature even have a chance within these confines?

Makoto Tanijiri. Photo: © Roland Hagenberg

“I concluded that spaciousness is not so much a matter of how far you put walls apart. More important is to provoke new and unfamiliar feelings,” says Makoto Tanijiri, one of Japan’s successful new-generation architects, whose practice suppose design office has branches in Tokyo and Hiroshima. “As if you suddenly see a pink or purple apple falling from a tree!” That’s why Tanijiri designs rooms boxed into each other to form a maze of surprises where floor levels and ceilings often overlap.

SunnyHills at Minami-Aoyama, exterior. Photo: © Said Karlsson; SunnyHills at Minami-Aoyama, interior. Photo: © Roland Hagenberg

A case in point is SunnyHills by Kengo Kuma, which looks like a giant fabric of chopsticks, or perhaps a wooden porcupine. The rooms inside appear bigger with the help of elaborate design patterns and witty surprises like the microscopic garden sneaking into the entrance area. Translucent paper walls give way to alcoves where one can catch a view of Tokyo’s skyline; packed but spacious. Kuma decided to become an architect in 1964 at age 10. “The way Kenzo Tange had designed the gymnasium for the Tokyo Olympics, and how he explained it on TV, convinced me to choose his profession,” remembers the famous architect. The irony of history would have it that, half a century later, Kuma himself is giving shape to the stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Tod’s Omotesando; Hugo Boss Keyaki Building. Photos: © Roland Hagenberg

And then there’s the flagship store of Italian shoe manufacturer Tod’s, with its skin of criss-crossed concrete braces that mimic the zelkova trees lining Omotesando. Toyo Ito built it on an L-shaped lot in 2004, and nine years later Norihiko Dan faced the challenge of squeezing another flagship store into the space inside Ito’s “L” – the Hugo Boss Keyaki Building. The two structures, with the eight-story Keyaki building slightly higher, seem only centimeters apart as if hugging each other. “Competing for attention, they nevertheless had to project synergy,” says Dan. “Otherwise both would look awkward.” Dan’s solution was to let multiple leaf-shaped columns form a funnel that breaks out from the “L” towards the sky. It is space management at its best: practical and compromising, vying for attention, and breaking out of norms. Summed up, it defines Tokyo’s sophistication.

Split Machiya by Atelier Bow-Wow. Photos: © Roland Hagenberg

Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima represented Japan at the 2010 Venice Biennale under the name Atelier Bow-Wow. Their architecture is often compared to M.C. Escher’s drawings, where everything starts and nothing ends – always in the service of space illusion. In Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, the couple built a family residence that’s only three meters wide, called Split Machiya (split townhouse). “For every design detail, we took the building’s three-meter-width into consideration,” explains Tsukamoto. “The furniture is slightly lower and the restroom under the stairway. Copper partially covers walls to reflect the garden outside.” Multifunctionality is an effective architectural tool, as also demonstrated in the entrance area, where the wardrobe serves as a piano room. As for their source of inspiration, Tsukamoto and Kaijima refer to a meditation room on top of their studio building not far from Split Machiya, a room just big enough for a person to sit down and absorb the never-ending horizon of Tokyo and its endless possibilities of limited space. Roland Hagenberg

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