— Tezuka-san, when you work on a new project, as an architect you probably have to find a certain balance between, for instance, the desire to try some new, beautiful and original form and the need to make it functional and easy to use. How do you personally find this balance and what do you usually rely on?
Because I’m an architect, of course I always have a desire to make something new. This does not mean that we can do whatever we want, but if I don’t have this sort of thinking, then I will be repeating the same forms and the same ideas all the time. For instance, the Fuji Kindergarten we have designed resembles a donut, but if I keep selling those kinds of «donuts», I will stop being an architect, I will stop thinking as an architect. Architecture should be customer-oriented, so each new project has to be idiosyncratic, it must have some unique features that distinguish it from other projects. On the whole it’s not that difficult to do something new each time — after all, you can even design a chair in the shape of a triangle or in the shape of a ball. But such a chair is not going to be comfortable for sitting, which is why we always try to rely on some already existing forms, we try to do things that look like something that came before at least a little bit. And that, by the way, is an important difference between architecture and sculpture.
Any design, any architectural idea comes to an architect intuitively. So, in the beginning you just follow your instincts, and only then you start providing rationalization for your idea. You have a certain situation, and you ask yourself a question — what do you need to do in this situation, what is the right way? And when you find this way, you know for sure that it’s the right one, only you can’t prove it yet. Only after that you start using your logical thinking and try to find rational arguments why the idea you have chosen is the right one for this situation. Because you need to explain it to the other people that will be engaged in this project. When we designed Fuji Kindergarten, I can’t say that I knew from the start how we were going to build it up to the smallest detail, but I had the general idea in my head, and I understood that this idea was the right one, that I was moving in the right direction. The idea of this kindergarten oval in shape came from my own family: I noticed that my children really enjoy walking in circles, or run around in circles playing and chasing each other. So all I had to do after that is think of how to make all of this work.
© tezuka architects
— As far as we know, in your projects you are very committed to the idea of creating buildings that would be in harmony with the landscape. Could you tell us about this specific feature of your approach?
To answer your question I will tell you about several projects that we did recently. The first project I want to mention is Asahi Kindergarten in the town of Minamisanriku. There was a kindergarten in this town before but in 2011 it was destroyed by a terrible tsunami, which resulted in about 10 thousand people having gone missing. So when were designing the new kindergarten, we used large trees called machilus thunbergii trees a lot of which were destroyed during this natural disaster, and we did it because these trees have a symbolic meaning. The thing is, these trees were planted by the local residents about four hundred years ago to revive the land ravaged by the previous, and no less terryfying, tsunami. Besides, these trees grow near the ancient temple in that town. This temple is located on a high hill, so it’s well-protected against the giant waves. A lot of local people were saved by hiding in this temple. What I mean by this is that the natural landscape of some land is not just the natural environment but also the cultural environment. The idea of this project is to build a kindergarten on a high ground near this ancient temple, and this is a message to the future generations, sort of a look into 400 years from now, when another tsunami may happen.
The second project is another kindergarten that is very well-known and that I have already mentioned — the Fuji Kindergarten. The idea of making it in the form of a donut was also related to the idea of creating a certain space inside the building, an empty oval-shaped space. According to the Zen Buddhism philosophy, if some space or environment is empty, you can bring something to it. This is why the ring shape of this kindergarten does not mean that everything is limited by this ring. On the contrary, this environment implies that it will be complemented by something else, that both children and grown-ups will bring something of their own to this environment, and this environment will get more and more varied and interesting. The owner of this kindergarten had one interesting idea, and we made it come true: we organized some sort of a beach with sand. It’s a giant sandbox that’s 40 meters long and with no barriers. And the owner scattered some very small precious stones in this sand. They are not real of course, they’re made of plastic, but they’re pretty and shiny and kids love them. And they walk around the sand and try to find these gems. When some kid finds a particularly nice-looking stone amidst a lot of more plain-looking ones, they bring it to their mother. On the one hand you could say it’s a manifestation of such a human trait as greed. But, in order to learn about the world, you need some desires of that sort: the desire to find something, to get something. And this kindergarten has a lot of interesting and fun little things like that, which help children to grow and develop.
© tezuka architects
© tezuka architects
Finally, the third project I’m going to tell you about is a hospital for women with the fertility problem. We built it on Okinawa island, which is a beautiful place in terms of its nature, although there aren’t much trees and plants there now, because during WWII the American army burnt down almost all of the island’s forests. But we set a goal of making the architectural complex of this hospital a part of the natural environment and started thinking about how to create a place that would remind people what Okinawa’s nature used to look like before that war. And in the end we designed the entire hospital almost entirely from wood, according to a traditional method. With the exception of a very modern quarantine zone (where doctors work with embryos, which is why there are special requirements to sterility), the hospital looks like a bungalow or a resort hotel. And it works, because human body feels the unity with nature, the proximity to it, and starts functioning in a special way.
Human beings feel much more comfortable outdoors, in an open-air environment, so what we are trying to do is to restore the traditional ideas and remind people about how human beings were originally supposed to be. People are not born to sit in modern high-tech buildings with air conditioning but to be in the wild, to be one with nature. In this regard I was very impressed by the research of philosopher and scientist Prof. Tsutomu Ohashi, who studies sounds and noise, specifically ones that cannot be caught by human ears, like ultrasound, high frequency noises and so on. And he found that if a person is in the environment that doesn’t have any sounds with the frequency higher than 20 kHz, then this person becomes nervous, because in terms of evolution we are not accommodated to these environments. Modern high-tech offices don’t have these sounds, which is why a lot of people that work there often feel anxious and dispirited, and they want to go outside, to escape those buildings all the time. They usually say that they just want to breathe some fresh air, but there is air inside the building too. So what they really lack is those sounds and noises that they are used to in a natural environment. We are made to live in this ever-changing, natural environment filled with noises, sounds and bacteria. And if architectural solutions help us to recreate such environment inside buildings or at least provide the people who work in these buildings with access to this natural environment, then the efficiency of these people’s work increases. Lately there has been an increasing amount of studies that prove the importance of these things, and if you look at how the buildings of large technological companies are designed, you will see that most of them have the access to natural environment. The idea is actually quite simple: the comfort of human life is not just in controlling the temperature or the humidity but in putting people in the very environment they are supposed to live in. This, in my opinion, is the key to making the work and life of human beings as productive as possible.
© tezuka architects
— In order to understand these things, an architect probably needs to have a good knowledge of a lot of fields: to understand business processes of production companies, modern methods of educating children, be an expert in interpersonal relationships, medicine, etc., depending on the specific features of the project they are working on. Is this so?
I always say that a good architect needs to be like a good composer, who doesn’t usually play the music but acts as a conductor instead. One of the key skills of an architect is being able to talk to a lot of people, to communicate. People actually often think that I have a lot of knowledge in different subjects, and they get really surprised: «How can you do all of this?» And yes, I have certain knowledge about a broad variety of subjects but that doesn’t mean that I am an expert on these subjects. It is impossible to collect all the knowledge in the world inside our tiny brain, but if you want to be a good architect you need to have an access to many knowledgeable people. You can draw an interesting analogy with a computer. It also has a limited hard disk space, but if it also has a USB port then you can connect anything you like to it, any external resources. So, an architect also needs a USB port. I think that I have about 30-40 good USB ports, so I connect everything I need to them. But if you disconnect all the external devices from these ports, I will not be able to function as an architect.
— In the photos and videos from Fuji Kindergarten we have seen how actively and passionately the children behave there. And we never noticed anyone who would just sit there staring into their gadget, which today is not typical of either children or adults. How can you explain this? Is the use of gadgets specifically prohibited in this kindergarten, or due to its unusual format the children are simply more interested in interacting with each other than with their smartphones?
To be honest, the children are not allowed to bring smartphones or tablets to the kindergarten, but they still don’t feel bored: here they have a lot of possibilities which they can’t get elsewhere. The kindergarten is designed in such a way that the children live there just as people were supposed to live. I think that any person can always find how to keep busy in any sort of properly organized space. A lot of kindergarten teachers say: «I can’t teach children experience. They can only gain it by themselves, by interacting with the environment.» This is called ‘spontaneous learning’. If you give a child some object such as a wristwatch, you expect them to use this object in a certain way, because there are not that many ways to use a wristwatch. But if you give them a branch of a tree or a stick, they suddenly have a thousand different ways of interacting with it. And that is the key differenc between natural objects and technological devices. Nature gives children unlimited possibilities for development, and if they interact with the natural environment or natural objects, they develop their creativity and imagination, and they can think of a thousand different games and ways of interaction with these objects.
© tezuka architects
© tezuka architects
— Were there any unexpected things in this project, maybe anything related to the behavior and possibilities for children’s education?
The most unexpected thing was that the architecture of this kindergarten gave birth to some sort of a philosophy. Moreover, this philosophy did not just remain inside Japan but spread all over the world. Now we know that the architecture of this building changes the lives not only of the people who work there and of the children that attend that kindergarten and the families that send their children there. It so happened that Fuji Kindergarten promotes an interesting philosophy, and I feel that we are actually changing the world in some way with this. I could have never imagined that the knowledge and wisdom that opened up in this kindergarten would become so popular and would travel so far outside the country.
— Do you follow the goings-on in this kindergarten after several years have passed since you built it? Life today is very dynamic, and the children change too. How long will this project remain relevant, in your opinion?
Of course, in the future there will probably be some new, more effectively designed kindergartens, but you need to start with something, and we started with this. Nothing comes out of nothing, and everything eventually evolves into something bigger. Life goes on and the world develops all the time, and I hope that we have contributed to this progress. But I also don’t think that we should compare Fuji Kindergarten with any other kindergartens or schools. It’s not better or worse than other kindergartens, it’s just unique, just as any person living on this planet is unique. The most beautiful thing about Fuji Kindergarten, in my opinion, is that they are not trying to compete with other kindergartens, they are just trying to be themselves. So I think that for as long as they remain themselves and don’t lose their individuality, something that makes them unique, they will be relevant. And this sort of uniqueness is absolutely timeless.
I visit this kindergarten almost every month. We continue working with them, we have already completed 5 projects with them. Now we are working with their administration to design and build a children’s museum, and after that we are planning to design and build a middle school. Because when the children attending Fuji Kindergarten now will soon grow up, and then they will be very confused if they have to attend a normal school with 4 walls, closed spaces and generally a completely different environment. This is why they need a special school, too, and we want to create it.
Usually when some company opens educational institutions, they start with a university, then they build a high school, then a middle school and only then a kindergarten. But here the owners took a different approach: they started with the kindergarten, and now they are raising investments for the construction of the middle school. I think that this is a more natural way, because it is intended for following human development for an extended period of time. Without false modesty I’ll tell you that if this school project is successful it is going to be something extraordinary, something that this planet has not yet seen.
© tezuka architects
© tezuka architects
“Ring around a Tree” - an annex building to the Fuji Kindergarten. The building height is no more than 5m, but there are seven floors. It is a space for English-language classrooms.
— In conclusion, what projects do you work on today?
Now we are designing a very interesting dental clinic for children. These days parents understand the risks of teeth diseases very well, and modern technology in dentistry is very advanced, so medical treatment of teeth today is very different from what it used to be, and it’s often preventive. This means that instead of treating cavities or other teeth diseases when they have already appeared, dentists are trying to prevent them. This is why a dental center has to be different, too: it should be more like a teeth health center. So our idea is to make the attendance of such a teeth center a part of children’s everyday lives, so that they would really love going there, and the doctors would talk to them about their teeth and interact with them as if they were their friends or family members. This is going to be some sort of a place where people can meet and interact with each other: children and other children, children and doctors, children and parents, etc. So we need to design this clinic in such a way that it would be fun for kids. For example, we are planning to make a lot of rooms with low ceilings in this center, and the rooms will connect with each other like a giant maze, so that children can walk around this maze and explore it.
Another idea we have is connected to old people’s health. We have a famous bodybuilder in Japan, who is also a university professor. And he is about 80 years old. He is a great example of how senior citizens can do sports and physical exercises, and even withstand heavy loads. I think that at least half of the reasons why elderly people have health problems are related to the fact that they don’t have the possibility to do sports, there are no special places for them to do it. And now we are designing a building that is going to be some sort of a sports and fitness center for the elderly.