An Interview with architect Keith Little

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Paul McInnes (PM): Can you tell me about your background and experience?

Keith Little (KL): Well, I began in political theory actually. And then I moved into architecture after that, in the States. I worked in interior design and furniture for a while, before applying to graduate school here in Tokyo.

I was interested in the way that Tokyo had the urban fabric problem figured out. I mean I come from Minneapolis which is a pretty common American city. It has a grid plan, it has a lot of failed transport. We used to have streetcars which were bought out by the car companies so that was all destroyed. You can’t take a bus or bike anywhere. But when I came to Tokyo I was shocked by how well it functioned as a place to live. So I was really interested in how that happened. And also how all this remarkable architecture came about in one place. So I decided I would study architecture in Tokyo and I went to the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

PM: How long was the course?

KL: It was a two year Master’s degree. I was especially interested in going there because the architect Tsukamoto Yoshiharu from Atelier Bow-Wow is there. I really liked his take on urbanism and especially his studies on small pet spaces, as he calls them, pocket parks, tiny houses and how major changes like the Olympics can result in these very odd micro scale urban spaces.

PM: You said before that you work as an architect but you aren’t licensed. How does that work in Japan?

KL: Well, the first thing is you’re not allowed to take the test for licensure for a year or two after graduating university, so you have to have some work experience before you take the test. Because I have a Master’s degree and because I’ve worked for as long as I have I’m eligible, but the work that I do doesn’t require a license because I’m not physically stamping plans and saying – yes submit these to the government, Keith says it’s ok. I think that’s the situation for about 95% of foreign architects working in Japan. A Japanese person is stamping the drawings and they’re doing some other part of the work. Usually that’s design work. But it could be any of the other jobs that happen in any architectural office.

PM: You work for Toda, Keith. Can you tell me more about what they do?

KL: Toda is a large sized general contractor – maybe the sixth or seventh biggest in Japan. Like all general contractors they have a design department, a construction department, a real estate department and they have other minor companies like pre-cast concrete factories and building maintenance companies. All of the major companies have these things.

Toda’s specialty is the production of small to medium sized high design buildings. They built the Tokyo International Forum. They also do high risk projects which are artistic and haven’t necessarily been done before but they take them on anyway. They did a bunch on the Tokyo Institute of Technology campus actually. They do a lot of work with design offices.

In Japan, the kinds of design offices they put in magazines - like SANAA, Kengo Kuma or Atelier Bow-Wow - design to a very low level of detail. Unlike in the States or Europe, they give relatively little information to the companies that actually build the building. And the companies that make the building have to fill in a lot of blanks. And that comes to us. So we may get a model or drawing which may not be physically possible to build because there are mistakes or errors or it’s just not specified enough and we make it possible. And then we contract the building out to subcontractors.

PM: Shigeru Ban has just won the Pritzker Architecture Prize. It’s funny how many of the top architects in the world are Japanese but Tokyo, it can be said, isn’t the prettiest of cities.

KL: Well my take is that the ownership of land here is a little bit special. In the past the general size of a lot was much bigger. Especially in areas like Setagaya, Shibuya and Meguro. It tended to be larger owners. You can imagine that the shrines have a lot of land, the daimyo – the kind of military politicians had a lot of land and there was a lot of farmland. And as the land became more valuable it was chopped up, especially, I believe in the 60s the government made a big push to increase the available housing in Tokyo. They did this through taxation. Especially on people who had big lots and forcing them to chop up their sites in tiny pieces.

Tokyo had a relatively hands off approach compared to other cities. The government has generally created these building envelopes and then left them alone. And other things like buildings next to large roads need to have fire proofing levels. So because of this hands off approach, and unlike some countries like China for example, the government will not say "we think you should build this kind of building here" or "this does not fit with the neighborhood so you can’t build it." They don’t have this kind of power. The land ownership rights in Japan are extremely strong, actually, almost ridiculously strong. So there is no one person in charge of how Tokyo looks. For better or worse there is no bureaucrat sitting there saying you can’t make this because this neighborhood is brick or wood so it doesn’t fit.

This has allowed individual buildings to take on an idiosyncratic look. But this means that every architect, when they go to design in a small to medium sized site, their scope of work is strictly related to that size.

They have urban planning but I see it more as an emergent system in which they create a series of rules and the rules have created Tokyo. But there was no particular end result they were going for. And the other important thing to keep in mind is that Tokyo has been burned down, struck by earthquakes over and over again. There’s a great book called “Tokyo Metabolizing” by Koh Kitayama, Ryue Nishizawa and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto. They talk of how the city itself has a kind of modularly, piece by piece revitalizing character to it.

PM: Is it connected in any way to the Metabolism group of Japanese architects?

KL: It was not inspired by it, no. The book was more observational. It was saying this is what we’ve seen; the average life of a house in Tokyo is 30 years. This is the actual character of Tokyo. Whereas the Metabolists had more of a manifesto approach to architecture. Another point about the Metabolists is that they were talking about metabolism within a building. The unit bathroom was an idea of the Metabolists, the plug in and play system. There are actually some houses in Setagaya that are metabolism houses where they're like odd plastic containers. They look like corny 1970s moon base Lego sets.

The view of Tokyo as a city which is constantly reforming and revitalizing is important only in so much as it erases the idea that you only need to have one building technique, one look, one character to the city all the time. That’s what counts for Tokyo’s mishmash look in the end. Nobody’s in charge of anything, everyone wants to maximize their building envelope to the legal limits, so you have buildings built within 500 mm of each other or sometimes less - in violation of the law. It doesn’t look pretty because no one is managing the final result. It looks interesting in my opinion because people are managing the initial rules. I see Tokyo as a laboratory for architecture. It’s just experiment next to experiment. And you can see what it looks like when you build a Dior shopping mall next to a completely shitty old wooden two story house. It has every possible architectural combination side by side. You can find it here and I love that.

PM: How do you think the Olympic Games will change the face of Tokyo?

KL: Well, when the 1964 Olympics came the government used it as an excuse to do a lot of infrastructure projects they had been meaning to get out of their way. Things like widening the roads, creating fire barriers. This time around they don’t seem to have anything like that on their agenda. And they’re choosing to have the Olympics focused on the bay area actually. Whereas last time it was places like Komazawa Park near my house, where I go to work out. It’s an Olympic stadium built for the 1964 Olympics. It was made by my company in fact. It’s quaint and old but it’s still infrastructure that’s still in use. I have a concern that this time around there’s not a lot of thought about the future. There’s also been this big controversy about the Zaha Hadid stadium. I think it’s a terrible idea to tear down the Kenzo Tange building. It’s a real landmark building.

Tange represents the move from Japanese architects doing Japanese architecture the way it’s always been and taking Western influence and making that into their own thing. I think it would have been more fitting to choose someone like SANAA but I hear they are scaling the Hadid building back. But it’s really bureaucrats making architectural decisions. Who knows why? Maybe for political reasons, they want the big brand, maybe they want to seem international by choosing an international architect over Japanese – who knows?

The real work, of course will be done by Japanese – by Nikken Sekkei in fact, in the end. I think the Olympics as an infrastructural investment are dodgy to begin with, but if you’re going to take the Olympics and use it as a kind of urban planning mechanism, which is how most countries approach it – Tokyo could have done a better job.

When I came to Tokyo I thought they really had the urban fabric figured out. Walkable neighborhoods that are charming and small, streets which are diverting and you can get lost in and explore forever. Now, when I see a place like Toyosu, which is just tower upon tower with shopping malls, I realize there is no special magic to Japanese urban planning. They’re not geniuses at it. Tokyo was an historical accident which came about with an odd mixture of laws, social reasons and taxes. Not purely architectural. When you just let some Japanese bureaucrats plan a city from zero you get the same thing you get everywhere else, which is the easiest possible thing you can do. The easiest, most profitable thing. Put it in an excel spreadsheet and you get Toyosu. And I think it’s a real shame that they’re expanding there for the Olympics.

PM: I was reading about the new Harukas building in Osaka and about Hikarie in Shibuya and the Maru and Shin-Maru buildings. Essentially they’re the same thing. They have the same brands, same layout. What do you think of this kind of uniformity?

KL: They do it because it’s relatively easy to make money. Japan has a funny mechanism for urban planning. There’s an area of Nishi-Shinjuku, for example, which is being slowly bought up by Sumitomo and other big companies. And house by house they’ll buy up these lots until they get to the very last one, and they’ll turn them into parking lots in the meantime just to have some profit, but when they get the last one – there’s a law in Japan which allows the owners of a certain size of neighborhood to change height restrictions on their own neighborhood. So if you get 100% of voters in this little block to vote you can change the height restriction from three or four stories to much, much higher. And generally speaking, the way this law is used, is developers will buy up everything and then they’ll vote. But there’s only one voter then. So they always win. And they change the height restriction to some tower.

So what you’ll see is some parking lot for fifteen years which gradually increases in size and then suddenly a tower. It’s a long term game but when they get it they do the same thing every time. And there’s no malice in it. It’s just simple to plan, simple to understand, it’s an Excel spreadsheet. First floor retail, second floor something else and the third floor to the top floor is area times average rent times whatever period you expect it to stand. Then you do some depreciation like after ten years and the rents will go down a little bit. This is what they’re doing but what I think the “tragedy of the commons" is, to use an economics term, is that if every place did this nobody would want to live in Tokyo. If every place in Tokyo was just these towers with a Tokyu shopping mall on the first floor Tokyo would become an unlivable city. So the thing is these people are profiting from the fact that there’s a nice little walkable, charming neighborhood around them but they’re fucking it up in the meantime by doing this terrible strategy. If everybody followed that pattern the property prices everywhere would collapse and nobody would want to come to Tokyo to live. I think it’s a self-destructive policy to allow this to go on in the first place. And neighborhoods need to find a more profitable but also sustainable way to move forward that does not involve giant towers.

PM: Which Japanese architects are doing the most interesting work now?

KL: Truthfully I’m more interested in the firms and people who are doing things like shared offices, spaces for working mothers, shared houses. Companies like UDC who is really trying to reuse buildings in Japan. This is a way of understanding design not just in the kind of material choices and the placement of interior walls, but how the building is used, and the programming and function of it. This has really accelerated here in the past four or five years.

What we can do with materials has been understood up to a point. And people now are trying to work out what we can do with social innovations and programs. This is the most interesting new vanguard in Tokyo architecture.

Written by
Paul McInnes
Photography
Austin Rea