Friday, 23 July 2010

The atelier and the park

Just some thoughts on Miyashita Park in Shibuya. For those who need a re-cap, Nike has bought the naming rights to the park, which will be renamed Miyashita Nike Park. Equipped with new sports facilities, the new park will charge an entrance fee from visitors and evict the homeless who live there. The firm hired for this outrageous reconstruction is the famous Atelier Bow-Wow (Atorie Wan).

There's a glaring irony here which I think deserves to be more widely known.

Atelier Bow Wow was founded in 1992 by the architects Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima. This is how they are introduced in the advertisement for their new book, Behaviorology, which was released earlier this year: "Achieving near cult status among architectural students around the world, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima of Atelier Bow-Wow have built a career confronting the challenges posed by dense urban environments. Their city houses—enclosed in vibrant, idiosyncratic forms—are distinguished by their capacity to accommodate the changing needs of the occupants" (Amazon). In various sites on the web (here for instance), they are also said to be inspired by Lefebvre and striving for a more "responsive urbanism through the adaptability and mutative qualities of architecture".

Their 1998 Made in Tokyo is a good illustration of their approach to architecture. It is a collection of anonymous Tokyo buildings which "give priority to efficiency and utility" but which are "quite strange when viewed closely". They are "sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes too serious". They are mostly the result of honest attempt to fulfil the needs of their users without being bothered by thoughts of beauty, cultural worth or history. Among them one finds narrow department stores meandering like snakes under a strech of railroad, apartments combined with horse stables, big shrine precincts on the rooftop of shopping areas, car schools on top of super markets, factories built on top of abandoned railways, and so on. Listed among their objects is also Miyashita Park, since it is built on top of a parking house.
They appear out of greedy utilitarianism; 'there's some space left over here, so let's use it for something else'; 'wouldn't it be useful to put this here, and put that over there'. So these samples mix together the building and the surrounding elements, and make up an unexpected significant whole. For example, they might merge together railway, roadway, retaining walls and other civil works to become something where the limit of the building is ill defined. Or they might mix functions which are just a bit unbelievable, simply because of similarity in length or expanse required for two particular functions, or because that thin crack of space seems wasted. As a result, people and vehicles, people and objects co-exist without hierarchy in the same space and form, and strange organisms of urbanism are packaged together. 
Usually, these strange buildings are regarded as lacking in artistic worth or even as grotesque failures. What attracts the authors to them is that they represent an architecture from below, an architecture which adapts itself to the needs of users. It creates what a "lively space" which willingly lets itself be infected with the accidents of the site instead of trying to control or neutralize them. In an interview, Tsukamoto talks of the need use the "fragmented energy" of the city for what he, following Lefebvre, calls a "meaningful production of urban space".

Another example of the firm's fondness for unplanned or unexpected uses of urban space is their 2002 book Pet Architecture. "Pet architecture is a term for the buildings that have been squeezed into left over urban spaces. Curious shapes and inventive solutions for drainage, windows and air conditioning abound. Most of all, it is the extraordinary miniature size of these shacks, store rooms, sushi bars and bike shops which makes this project so fresh" (from the Amazon ad). Some funny examples can be seen here. Common to them all is that they are the result, not of large scale planning, but of people making use of left-over space in a seemingly improvised or ad hoc fashion according to their needs.

To me this sounds very much like Aoki Jun, another Tokyo architect who advocates spaces without pre-given functions which users can change according to their needs and wishes. Last year I read his 2004 book Harappa to yûenchi. Here he distinguishes between two kinds of environment. On the one hand there are "wildernesses" (harappa, literally wild field), in which you don't know in advance what will happen and where it is up to users how they want to use it. An “amusement park” (yûenchi) by contrast is a space designed for a specific purpose in which proper use is already decided in advance. The task of the architect, he thinks, is to encourage the feeling of ”wilderness”.

What's interesting is how clearly Aoki links his distinction to the problem of human empowerment. When spaces are used in unplanned ways - for instance when a closed down school is used for an exhibition -then something resembling ”nature” occurs. He writes that it’s like when a seed is blown haphazardly by the wind on a field (Aoki 2004:10). Such "natural" environments are not designed to make us feel in any particular way. It is all up to us how we want to use it. They call forth the feeling that we can change our environment with our own power. What Aoki writes here resembles what I've been writing about ruins and wastelands and he seems to have made the same associations. "The wilderness is in other words a wasteland", he writes (ibid 11). He compares it to the empty lot of land in the anime Doraemon, where the children gather to play. In gathering there, the children have no pre-ordained purpose. They just gather there and then decide together what to do. ”The wilderness is not fun in itself. Almost daily, one has to invent new ways of playing” (ibid 12).

Here I think of the artists, activists and homeless who since March this year have been staging a sit-in in Miyashita Park to protest against and prevent its reconstruction. Under the name AIR (Artists In Residence) they use it for a variety of imaginative artistic activities. The park today is filled with funny dolls, placards, sculptures and objects made up of shoes, umbrellas, pieces of cloth, garbage and other things available. They cook food together and arrange rock concerts, film screenings, rave parties, outdoor karaoke, poetry readings, workshops and play soccer. There's a park library and a community garden where they plant herbs and vegetables.

What's happening in the park is that they're inventing new ways of playing, just as in a "wilderness". They're acting together to invent ways of having fun, doing the opposite of what you do in an "amusement park" where it’s already decided in advance how you are supposed to enjoy yourself. One of the artists, Ogawa Tetsuo, writes in an essay that he likes Miyashita Park “since it is more like a wasteland than a park”. It is because it's a wasteland that the homeless have been able to live there, and “culture and art are born out of wastelands” (Ogawa 2009). What's so good with a wasteland is precisely that they're unregulated and neglected by the authorities, thus creating a breathing space where users themselves can reshape space according to their needs, desires and whims.

Using Aoki's terminology, we can say that the planned Nike-fication of Miyashita Park is a clear example of a wilderness being turned into an amusement park. The construction will turn it into a space for consumers, part and parcel of the already thoroughly commercialized surroundings of Shibuya.

In view of this, it is ironic to read what Atelier Bow-Wow's Tsukamoto himself states in an interview ("Atelier Bow-Wow: Tokyo Anatomy", Archinect, 22 May 2007). Asked what he thinks makes a good public space, he answers:
The quality of public space is up to the peoples' participation. If all the participants are just a customer it is not a real public space. For example, in a shopping mall there are many people gathering and talking. It looks like public space, but they are just customers. They are all guests. They don't have any responsibilities to maintain the space. I think that just being in a gathering space is different from participating in the shared space with someone.
Sadly, the atelier appears to be turning a blind eye to its participation in the destruction of public space - whether out of cynicism, ignorance or lack of courage. This irony has not been lost on the artists defending the park, who in October last year issued an open letter to the atelier. Stating their agreement with the atelier's appreciation of grassroot users being able to participate in the production of urban space, they end the letter by asking it a series of questions, such as: What was its stance regarding the huts and tents built by the homeless in the park? Why did it accept the task of reconstructing the park? As far as I can tell, the atelier never replied.

Siegfried Kracauer once wrote that "the value of cities is determined according to the number of places in which improvisation is permitted". The Nike-fication of Miyashita Park will diminsh that number if it is carried out. There is indeed much one would like to ask the atelier. What's wrong with the "pet architecture" of the blue-sheet tents of the homeless? Why contribute to crushing the improvised and empowering use of urban space you claim to be championing? Don't you realize how silly your books will read if you go through with it?

The atelier now faces three options. To lose its reputation, to pull out of the project, or to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of a constructing an amusement park which is simulteneously a wilderness. Meanwhile, AIR is offering its own version of an architecture from below, of a "lively space" in which users decide on what to do in an improvised fashion, reclaiming and détourning urban space and using it in unplanned ways.


Aoki, Jun (2004) Harappa to yûenchi, Matsudo: Ôkokusha.

Ogawa, Tetsuo (2009) “Motto akichi o! Miyashita kôen ga naiki kôen ni” (More empty land! Miyashita Park will become Niki Park), Impaction 170 (August).


  1. Thank you for give us your opinion.
    I am standing at the chopping board, and imagine that MIyashita park.

  2. Gee, thanks! I've never seen anyone quote me this big before. Hope you enjoyed your dinner :)


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