Make It New: Aaron Betsky on Atelier Bow-Wow

Article excerpt

"TO CHANGE the Japanese government, you could begin by altering the seating arrangement in parliament," says Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, one of the partners, with Momoyo Kaijima, behind the Tokyo-based Atelier Bow-Wow. Linking grand ambition to small-scale gesture marks the ideology of these architects who, like many of their colleagues, move through the realms of art and politics with as much relish as when they build houses. For them, architecture is about rearranging the ordinary so that moments of epiphany, strangeness, and beauty can slip into a home or museum like an uninvited but welcome guest. It is also their craft to allow such surplus to arise through an obsessive engagement with the most basic levels of architectural experience. "Even right now, the fact that we are able to keep on talking like this is due to the desks and chairs," continues Tsukamoto in a dialogue the firm printed in its new monograph, Bow-Wow from Post Bubble City (2006). "If there were no furniture, we would become distracted by lying down or standing up. By fixing the orientation and posture, people can concentrate on work."

A similar attitude may be attributed to a whole multigenerational collection of "slash" makers working today--architects whose practice suggests that of artists or performers--the most famous of whom in the United States is undoubtedly Diller + Scofidio (now, as the firm is more serious and designing large structures to house art as well as making art, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with more than thirty people in the office), but whose ranks include up-and-coming stars like David Adjaye in London and Jurgen Mayer H. in Germany. While the work of these architects is diverse, their scientific or semantically derived approach distinguishes their output from artists' installations and site-specific projects. To generalize, one might say that artists view the potential for inserting their art into everyday life as magicians, in the sense employed by Claude Levi-Strauss: They collect and assemble found objects, teasing out implied but unarticulated relationships among them to arrive at complete, self-sufficient worlds. Architects such as Atelier Bow-Wow, however, start not from observation and representation but analysis and documentation: They seek the hidden structures lurking behind the sensible world, breaking down different environments into abstract elements, and then assemble things that are self-consciously new, even if still clothed in familiar forms. Indeed, Kaijima, who trained at the Tokyo Institute of Technology's architecture school, did her thesis work on the syntax of architecture, and both partners have been heavily influenced by semiotic analyses by the likes of Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It is the application of such theory to the assembly and analysis of buildings and spaces that first brought them notoriety. Two of their books, Pet Architecture and Made in Tokyo (both published in 2001), are wonderfully wry catalogues of the strange constructions filling their native city, redrawn and described in such a way that they resemble insects under glass. Pet Architecture is concerned with structures appearing in the city's leftover spaces--odd triangles and deep curbs where anything from a line of soda machines to an impossibly small building might appear. These adorable little buildings, which Bow-Wow documented in photographs and axonometric drawings, show all the aspects of their grown-up counterparts, but in a somewhat undeveloped, often contorted manner--and they prompted Bow-Wow to investigate the adoption and adaptation of inventive solutions for tight and unusually shaped sites, a handy skill to have in dealing with the small commissions they were receiving as a young design office. It allowed them to create forms that employed a familiar Japanese architectural vernacular, but one that was adjusted to accommodate rapid urban growth and technological artifacts that surround one in Tokyo--and any other major city. …