Frontoffice is a planning and design office based in Tokyo with a predilection for collaboration and exploration of fields outside of traditional architectural practice. Founded in 2006 by partners Koen Klinkers (NL) and Bill Galloway (CA), the group is particularly interested in using the conflicting needs of economics, sustainability, and construction to find new ways to live in the contemporary city.
MIRU had five questions to ask to the two passionate Frontoffice partners:
1. You both are based in Tokyo since more than a decade. How has your perception of Tokyo evolved since you arrived? Eventually, is there a neighbourhood which reflects those changes?
The largest change is in seeing the city as a landscape that is as valid as anything in the countryside. More trees would be very welcome in the city, and naturally we always make space for greenery and other kinds of landscape in our designs. However, we have come to appreciate the benefit of having a depth of space and of being connected to the city beyond our building sites, even when the view is not traditionally beautiful. Maybe this is becoming a more common view as the world urbanizes. To give a very specific example, I would point to the space under the highway that spans over Nihonbashi Bridge. It is one of the most remarkable places in the city, and locally not appreciated if my discussion with residents is any representation. The quality of that space and the particular clash of history and practicality that made it necessary is astonishing. The entire elevated road system in fact is like an artificial landscape rolling up and down through the city. I would hope that it is preserved and converted to a public space, like the Highline in NY when its usefulness as a transit corridor is past.
Finding potential in the rough city is a hard task, but the outcome can be much better than simply replacing every rough edge with generic and disconnected green space – the same as can be found in every other city in the world.
2. What made you come here and what made you stay? How comes you decided to practice in Tokyo rather than in your home countries?
We both came to Tokyo to do research at the University of Tokyo. Koen’s work led him to start a real estate management company, while mine led to a PhD thesis on the Compact City and suburbia in Japan. We stayed here because of opportunity.
To be perfectly candid, the owner of a property that Koen was buying wanted to downsize to a new home, and they offered us the project. They grew up in the city and remembered a time when the barriers between homes were considerably less pronounced, and this idea inspired us to try and build a practice that responded positively to the city. The project was the Yoyogi House, and luckily we have been able to do a few more projects in this line. The opportunity in this case is to learn to react to the city in interesting ways. As long as that potential is here for us, we definitely want to stay. We have dabbled in applying some of our working process to other countries as well, but that is for now a small start.
3. The infamous average lifespan of a Japanese house is said to be around 25 years. Abroad, architects usually design a building for an entire generation, often even several generations. Have you as well experienced to design for a specific phase of your client life, rather than for an indefinite period of time?
Yes. It is very normal to design for a specific time, with the understanding that the building will likely be unsuitable for the next person to buy the land. This is a hard thing to come to terms with sometimes. When it is possible we aim for the longer term, but so far the chance to build for generations has only come up once. Our feeling is that if a home is simple enough it can be re-inhabited in multiple ways over time. On the other hand, the constant churn offers architects the chance to build in experimental ways and to build more closely to the needs of the families we are serving. Mass customization without the theoretical ambition.
4. What would be your definition of “Japanese architecture”? Would you define your architecture as “Japanese”?
Our work is in Japan, but not quite Japanese. To escape the question somewhat I would answer that Japanese architecture is what comes of the particular freedoms of the Japanese regulatory system. The rules are performance based instead of prescriptive, and so we can make homes or office or schools look any way that we care to, as long as they meet a group of very specific requirements, including sunshine, ventilation, and enough strength to withstand a massive earthquake. The social aspect of design is maybe where architecture in Japan takes on a more Japanese feel. This is more subtle and is about lifestyle and cultural desires. Many graduates of Japanese offices are building in Europe using similar styles to the Japanese masters, but the effect is somehow not the same. Maybe Japanese architecture can only really happen in Japan. This is not a critique though. More an observation on the role of location, even when architecture is as far from the traditional forms as can be imagined.
5. Is there a building that for you represents Tokyo? A building that could not have been built or exist anywhere else.
Architecture in Japan is all pretty specific. Some of it can be exported, and certainly is, but if we must find a building that could only happen here then I find myself drawn to the elevated highway system that zips through the city (technically not a building I know, but so very spatial). Built down the middle of rivers, and spanning over some of the most historically significant places in the country, it feels like something that might not happen anywhere else. The stacking of program in places like Shibuya and Shinjuku is also impressive. In many parts of the world that kind of function mixing is so hard to achieve it needs to be mandated. Here it is ubiquitous.
When it comes to specific buildings a lot of the metabolist work remains impressively unique. The Kuwait embassy by Tange is a remarkable example from that lot. Houses are also an ever-fresh source of exploration, too many to mention even. But for the sake of an example the NA house by Sou Fujimoto, or the early work of Sejima comes to mind. Her later work of a larger scale somehow also feels tied to place in a powerful way. The Shibaura House is perhaps one of her more interesting works in Tokyo recently that really takes advantage of its location in the city.