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Monday December 3, 2012

Architecture always starts with family, says award-winning Takaharu Tezuka

‘If you don’t know how to spend quality time with your family, how can you design a house where people can be happy?’ says Takaharu Tezuka, who, together with his architect wife Yui, are behind the award-winning design firm Tezuka Architects. ‘If you don’t know how to spend quality time with your family, how can you design a house where people can be happy?’ says Takaharu Tezuka, who, together with his architect wife Yui, are behind the award-winning design firm Tezuka Architects.

ARCHITECTURE always starts with family. If you don’t understand the meaning of happiness, how can you provide happiness to others?” says Takaharu Tezuka in his opening remarks at Datum: KL 2012.

Tezuka was one of the speakers at the international architectural design conference organised by Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia earlier in the year.

“It’s a natural thing. If you don’t know how to spend (quality) time with your family, how can you design a house where people can be happy?” Tezuka, 48, elaborates during our one-on-one interview later.

Takaharu and Yui Tezuka are the husband-and-wife team behind Tokyo-based, award-winning design firm Tezuka Architects. A household name in Japan, the firm’s projects include homes, schools, a museum, a hospital and commercial buildings.

Award-wining works like the Roof House (2001) and Fuji Kindergarten (2007) illustrate their approach of using architecture “as a device that triggers the activities of people and society”.

For Roof House, each family member has access to a gently sloped wooden roof through his or her skylight. Daily life expands onto the roof where the family shares meals, bonds and plays.

The oval-shaped Fuji Kindergarten building has a roof that doubles up as a “playground” where kids climb trees, run freely and dangle their legs out of the railings. Despite the lack of play equipment, the kids run riot on the roof every day.

“We don’t want children to learn how to play, but to discover how...,” say the Tezukas in Takaharu + Yui Tezuka Architecture Catalogue 2 (TOTO Publishing, 2009)

A Tezuka building is usually characterised by wall-sized sliding glass doors, roof floor plans, glass facades that open up 360° and gigantic skylights. An antithesis to wow-factor architecture, these buildings emphasise openness and blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor living.

Drawing on insights into human behaviour within a space, the Tezukas create spaces that let their users build and nourish relationships and live in harmony with nature.

Architecture of happiness

The Tezukas graduated from Musashi Institute of Technology (now renamed Tokyo City University), then went on to further their studies separately, with Takaharu completing his Master of Architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania in America and Yui studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. The couple had stints as visiting professors at University of California, Berkeley, and in Vienna’s Salzburg Summer Academy in Austria.

But it was a four-year, life-changing stint in London that shaped the couple’s outlook on architecture.

From 1990 to 1994, Takaharu worked at the Richard Rogers Partnership, the firm started by the Pritzker Prize laureate best known for his work with Renzo Piano on the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1971). Working at the then small office, Takaharu had many opportunities to learn from his mentor, Rogers, and to work on interesting projects. Though he and Yui had to live meagrely, they have happy memories of throwing impromptu parties for friends in their cramped, 50sqm studio apartment, going on weekend cycling jaunts to Richmond Park, and savouring baked potatoes while watching the sun sink over the River Thames.

These London experiences taught them the meaning of “quality of life”.

“We think how wonderful it would be if such everyday happiness was directly transformed into architecture...,” they wrote in Takaharu+Yui Tezuka Architecture Catalogue (TOTO Ltd, 2006)

“I learned that the most important role of architecture is creating a lifestyle,” says Takaharu who set up Tezuka Architects with Yui upon their return to Tokyo in 1994.

A slight, excitable man, his eyes twinkle when he talks about his passion for architecture. A quirky trait of the couple: he is always clad in blue, his favourite colour, while Yui, 43, is always in red. Apparently, he has hundreds of the same T-shirts stashed in his wardrobe. Their daughter, 10, wears yellow and their son, seven, loves green.

Family life plays a pivotal role in the Tezuka household, something that is evident from the family portraits he proudly displayed during his presentation.

“Creating a lifestyle is not just a duty but also the most important ally in creating beautiful architecture,” he says unequivocally.

Ring Around A Tree creates spaces for play and foreign language instruction as well as providing an area where children can wait safely for their school bus. Wrapped around a 50-year-old Zelkova tree, the compressed space is free of stand-alone furniture to encourage freedom of movement. —Photo by KATSUHISA KIDA/Fototeca Ring Around A Tree creates spaces for play and foreign language instruction as well as providing an area where children can wait safely for their school bus. Wrapped around a 50-year-old Zelkova tree, the compressed space is free of stand-alone furniture to encourage freedom of movement. —Photo by KATSUHISA KIDA/Fototeca

On the roof

One of their representative works, the Roof House project drew rave reviews in architectural circles and has been written about in more than 300 publications worldwide.

“It was one of our smallest projects with a small budget but definitely one of our most important works,” says Takaharu, who visited KL alone. Yui stayed behind in Tokyo with their kids.

The Roof House project began with a revelation from the owners: The Takahashi family said they have been spending weekends on their roof for the last 10 years, hanging out and eating onigiri (rice balls) on a narrow, 6.5sqm and fairly steep space.

Taking their cue from their clients, the Tezukas designed a roof deck that doubles up as an extended living space for the Takahashis. The deck is gently inclined because the architects found that people usually enjoy sitting or sprawling out on a slope.

“When you are sitting sideways on a slope, silence is not awkward but romantic,” says Takaharu, grinning.

Pitched at a ratio of 1:10, the roof is connected to living spaces below via skylights and ladders.

“When you do something you’re not allowed to do, it feels good – like climbing a ladder and wrenching open the skylight to crawl through,” explains Takaharu. “Sticking your head through the skylight is also like entering a different world.”

A kitchen, dining table and shower were put in and a low wall feature was installed to allow for some privacy.

When the Tezukas included a roughly metre-high handrail in the drawing, Mr Takahashi said, “Surely you won’t be putting in a handrail – look around the neighbourhood, there is not a single house with a handrail on the roof.”

The project clinched many awards including the Japan Institute of Architects Prize and spawned many copycats. When these imitators submit their drawings to local planning departments, however, their plans are always disapproved because they left out the handrails.

“They made the mistake of putting people on the roof in the drawings,” Takaharu grins, as he explains how he got away with it. “And when they mention the Roof House, the officers say, ‘That’s why we can’t let you do this any more.’ This is the first and last roof without handrails ever approved in Japan!”

But critics pointed out the impracticalities of using the rooftop in the heat of summer or the cold of winter.

Mr Takahashi volunteered an explanation: In summer, his family spends time on the roof in the early mornings or late evenings when the temperature falls. In winter, they clamber up to the roof when the sun is out and the deck warms up. The roof is well utilised year round.

“People can make choices instead of trying to control their whole environment,” says Takaharu. “The Takahashis lead an unrestricted, rich lifestyle that cannot be found in environments controlled by air-conditioning and heating.”

Interestingly, the Takahashis have dubbed their home “a house without excess or deficiency”.

Transforming lives

As a counsellor at a junior high school, Mr Takahashi’s wife conducts counselling sessions on their roof occasionally. One of her students, a juvenile delinquent, once said, “I would have turned out better if I grew up on the roof.”

“He turned over a new leaf, graduated from high school and went on to a good university,” adds Takaharu.

The award-winning Fuji Kindergarten transforms the way kids learn and play. Wall-sized glass windows with timber frames wrap around the entire oval-shaped building. For eight months of the year, the windows are wide open, extending the inner spaces outside. In winter months, heating is switched on for only two hours a day; carefully calculated gaps between the timber frames allow just enough ventilation.

Stacks of block-like paulownia wood boxes serve as partitions between the classrooms and childcare rooms instead of walls. The kids’ ability to focus is enhanced because of the audible noise, as they concentrate on their teachers’ voices and listen intently.

“There are no cases of bullying in Fuji because there are no boundaries between classrooms. When we contain human beings in small spaces, they tend to create a hierarchy and, inevitably, there will be outcasts,” explains Takaharu. “Also, the kids are free to move into the next classrooms if they dislike a particular class.”

The gently-inclined oval roof and “obstacles”, like the 25m Zelkova trees, 30 skylights and six exhaust fans, relieve the monotony of running around a track and give the kids a lot of pleasure. On the extended “playground,” they clamber onto the exhaust fans, jump into nets tied around the trees, hang from tree branches, or peer through the skylights into the classrooms below. A study found the five-year-olds at Fuji run an average of 30 laps, or almost 5km, each morning!

“The smiles on the children’s faces – this is the most important thing about architecture,” says Takaharu.

The Tezuka touch

It is easy to dismiss the Tezukas’ works as quintessentially Japanese. For instance, the Machiya House (2000) is a reinterpretation of the Japanese courtyard house. The boundary between the inside and the outside disappears with the opening of sliding doors.

“Many foreign journalists who write about our designs tend to say we are really Japanese, even if we do something modern,” says Takaharu, a Tokyo native who remembers growing up in his grandfather’s 150-year-old house.

“The house had fusuma (sliding doors) and the walls seemed to disappear.These memories are part of the unconscious that drives my designs.

“I think it’s vital to differentiate between learning from traditional architecture and imitating traditional architecture,” he asserts.

“When you say machiya (traditional townhouses), you have to understand the inclination of light, how air moves within the space, and the multi-functional uses of small spaces.”

But beyond the Japanese traces, Takaharu feels their buildings are “funny” because one can observe a myriad of goings-on in these spaces.

“It’s not just the form that makes architecture, it’s the activities. What we are trying to do is to give meaning to human beings and society,” says Takaharu who has worked on projects in Turkey, Belgium and Austria.

Reminiscent of the legendary husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames that was among the most influential designers of the last century, Takaharu and Yui’s dynamic teamwork is key to their successful practice.

“She’s me and I’m her. The difference between us doesn’t exist. If we don’t agree with each other, how can we convince others?” says Takaharu. The couple has been married for 20 years.

“But I’m stronger than her in arm-wrestling,” he quips in jest.

Takaharu has a knack for structural drawings and analysis while Yui possesses an innate sense of architecture.

“When I made the model of the Roof House, the roof inclination was the other way round so when you’re sitting on top, you can’t see the valley. She turned the roof around and the Roof House was born!”

Both husband and wife grew up with architect fathers and have been surrounded by architecture since young. Takaharu’s father taught him to paint with watercolours and exposed him to interesting buildings.

“By elementary school, I was well versed with the design of New York’s World Trade Centre,” says Takaharu. His father was part of the design team that built the new Imperial Palace in Tokyo in the 1960s. His dream was to work with renowned Modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil. But due to family commitments, his father never fulfilled his dream.

“In some ways, I’m living my father’s dream,” says Takaharu.

As a professor at Tokyo City University, Takaharu gets the inevitable question from students: How can we create good architecture?

“I tell them: Experience life! As you get older, gain more experiences, and life becomes more interesting, your architecture becomes more ‘juicy’ or interesting,” says Takaharu who also frequently presents lectures around the globe.

As for long-term plans, the Tezukas look forward to acquiring bigger projects to impact more people. To date, more than half their commissions come from private houses though these projects only contribute about one third of their revenues.

“But we will never give up designing houses because that is the base for understanding human behaviour,” asserts Takaharu. “Whether they are big or small buildings, they all start from creating a space for human beings.

“Fundamentally, it is not about what architecture is capable of doing for people but what people are capable of in architecture.”

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