April 2018

Published in




Against the Onslaught

After the publication of Tokyo Olympic Odyssey, Rethink Tokyo interviewed Florian Busch.
What follows is the transcript of the interview.

Olympic Stadium

Lily Crossley-Baxter: How did the concept of the project first come to you?

Florian Busch: The first draft of the story was written within a few days of the announcement of the results of the second “competition”, when it sank in that something incredulously insane was becoming an embarrassing reality. How could a nation like Japan completely miss this opportunity? Where were we as a society, sheepishly allowing brazen mediocrity to win? I was also blaming myself: Had I been too passive about this? What, on the other hand, would have been the alternatives?
Out of all of the gross mistakes that were made with regards to a stadium for the 2020 Olympics, one stood out from the beginning: the choice of the site. The only sensible (and a very beautiful at that) response here would have been to use the existing stadium… But if a new stadium was inevitable (which of course it wasn’t), then surely not there?
What would be the most consequential choice for a site? So my thoughts began to drift, until they were on water.

LCB: The idea of floating spaces has appeared in your Guggenheim Helsinki design and developed into a completely un-anchored space in the Odyssey Stadium - why does this appeal and would you ever want to attempt something like this?

FB: In my work I constantly move between stability and instability, rigid and fluid, defined and undefined, stasis and motion. As a discipline of building, architecture always tends to emphasise the former, whereas the latter is just as —if not more— important part of it, and inarguably more intriguing. Projects like the Guggenheim Helsinki proposal are trying to question the rigid and therefore set free the full potential of a dynamic experience of space. And in this sense are perhaps even more “un-anchored” than the Floating Stadium.

LCB: The Tokyo Olympic Odyssey was playful and creative, but also highlighted some of the perceived failings in the system - do you think this is something Japan could ever impact alone or would it take an international movement?

FB: Remembering what happened in the years before and after the 1964 Olympics would make one think that Japan is one of the nations that could pull something like this off. And exactly this is what makes the entire thing so tragic: Having to come to terms with the fact that the same nation that was able to —in an era of collective aspirations— ignite a movement, has aged into a behemoth grinding to standstill is a cruel perspective. Despite all the flaws and failures, the time around the 1964 Olympics set the tone for a forward-looking spirit not only in Japan but around the globe. That it was less than two decades after Japan had decisively contributed to the destruction of the world was even more commending of Olympic power. The same would happen eight years later, when Germany (Munich) hosted the summer, Japan (Sapporo) the winter Olympics: The Olympics allowed the two former world-war instigators to show that sports had reconciliatory powers helping the world to grow closer together. The open-ended, polyvalent Munich Olympic Stadium and the surrounding park (one of Germany’s best post-war architectural projects) is a beautiful undoing of the Fascists’ blunt attempt at intimidation of the 1936 Berlin Games.

LCB: Why did you decide to present the Odyssey concept as retrospective from a post-2020 world?

FB: To set the story into the future allowed to be both unmistakably fictitious and extremely realistic at the same time. The absurdity (a package arrives from the future) provided the freedom to voice criticism and lay out the glaring mistakes and missed opportunities by suggesting (simply “reporting the facts”) what could have been.

LCB: How do you think the Olympics will change Tokyo and will it be for better or worse? Alternatively, do you think Tokyo could change the Olympics or the Olympic community?

FB: Fortunately, Tokyo is too vast to be feeling a major impact through the Olympics. On the one hand, replacing the existing stadium with a helplessly overblown new one was a disastrous decision. And it is disenchanting to see that none of the other new facilities are architectural revelations either. But for the city on the whole, on the other hand, the impact of the Olympic buildings is just a small drop in the continuously flowing river that is Tokyo; which, of course, does not mitigate the fact that it is a blatant loss of opportunity.
I had high hopes that Tokyo would rise to the occasion and make a case for a very different kind of Olympics. Instead, everything we are seeing is nonchalant acceptance of —or even desperate clinging to— the status quo.

LCB: Using the stadium as a portable community and culture-based space seemed key - do you think that in a world as fractured as today’s, architecture could build bridges?

FB: Yes, absolutely. This is exactly a point that the Story of the Floating Stadium tries to bring across. It’s not about the “ship” per se. As you are sharply suggesting: It is a much wider issue than the hardly pervasive building type “stadium”. We are witnessing a global tendency to replace public space with the insidious pseudo-public. Instead of “bridges” that connect and leave room for the unexpected and spontaneous —what you call “culture-based space”, in other words space of and for diversity and difference— the preferred building type today is the controllable “island” which can be sealed off at any time, space of conditioned homogeneity.

Residential Architecture in Tokyo

LCB: Your residential designs are some of the most unique in the architectural world, how do you balance creative design and livability? (Examples like the L house, the House that Opens up Inside, and the House in Takadanobaba)

FB: The creative process is all about responding to very specific ideas of “livability”, which is the essence of residential architecture—and very subjective. A house should allow the persons that inhabit it to live their uniqueness.
Take the House in Takadanobaba: The choice of the site (a narrow, 22m-deep and merely 4.7m-wide intriguing piece of leftover land in central Tokyo) suggests that the clients may have had a rather differentiated idea of “livability” to begin with. While the main criteria were something out of a modernist textbook —generous spaces filled with light and air—, the constraints of the site made such ideas seem so illusive that they immediately took on a very special meaning. The constraints expanded the possibilities.
The project was all about rethinking the limits of living in an urban gap. To overcome the extreme narrowness, the conventional perception of regulatory site boundaries needed to be challenged. How could light and air be brought into this urban gorge? Was it possible to extend the perceived space all the way to the neighbouring buildings’ walls?
Instead of the conventional idea of a house enclosed by walls and roof, we proposed living on both sides of a plane folding its way upwards, and in doing so were no longer opposing outside and inside, but created a feeling of being both inside and outside at the same time. The house is one continuous, fluid space without partitioned rooms, which works precisely because the floor-wall-ceiling-… sequence of the folded plate creates an alternating play of enclosed versus open, balancing privacy with light and air, structuring the life in the house. The amazing proportion of the site remains perceivable on each of the three levels. It turned out to be an extremely “livable” house for these particular clients, and a for this site perhaps hard to rival sense of luxury.
The “House that Opens up to its Inside” began with the exact opposite situation: Instead of a leftover cramped between existing context, this project was a prototype for suburbia, where context needs to, and easily can be anticipated. My office was commissioned by a small developer eagerly competing with the big house-makers’ low-budget homes. On the first visit, I was driven through an endless stretch of the usual pursuits of the theme “home with a garden”: People are moving to the outskirts of Tokyo only to find a land simply too small to leave anything else than an interstitial space of clutter between their own and their neighbours’ houses. It’s hard not to find this condition tragic: Under the illusion of a “garden” which invariably becomes a meagre junk space, we are, on an insanely large scale, accepting the systematic destruction of the unbuilt environment.
When we arrived at the site, there were no immediate neighbours yet, but it was clear that the next generation of the same horde of houses were about to occupy all the plots already laid out around us.
So instead of succumbing to the inevitable, the strategy was to shield against the exterior onslaught and focus inwards instead. We reduced the interstitial zone to the absolute minimum by building as close to the site boundaries as regulations would allow and thereby, as the maximum buildable footprint is a fixed ratio of the plot size, open up a space for a pristine garden in the centre. Life in the house revolves around this inner void as views of the garden and the sky define the rhythm of the day and the seasons.
Both projects might seem to give the opposite answers from what one would expect: The House in Takadanobaba is the extroverted embracing of the urban gap as environment. The House that Opens up to its Inside avoids the “obvious” surrounding by creating its own inner sanctum. And perhaps exactly through this, they both enable a much more profound way of living — something I try to achieve with all my residential projects.

LCB: Do you think the briefs from Japanese clients are different to those you might receive elsewhere in the world?

FB: Once we leave all the fundamental similarities between humans aside, yes. But perhaps more influential than the clients’ nationality is their cultural identity and self-conception in combination with the specific location of each project.
In general, I feel very fortunate to again and again be faced with situations and requests outside of the norm. When you talk with clients and preconceptions begin to dissolve on both sides, you are expanding the realm of possibilities in a typology often limited by conventional ideas of living.

LCB: Have you had any [requests] that are too impractical?

FB: Rather than thinking something might be too impractical, I prefer to find the reasoning behind it, to try and understand its very specific logic of practicality. Yes, some requests might border on what could be regarded as “charmingly weird”, but they almost always have an underlying logic. Or, to come back to your question about the balance between “creative design” and “livability”. The unfortunate notion that “beautiful design” equals “impractical” is an often-heard misconception. Practicality makes design beautiful.

LCB: Do you think Tokyo’s housing situation (eels nest houses, zoning restrictions, minimalist housing culture etc) lends itself to a unique design space for architects? Do you find your style and ideas have changed since working in Japan compared to Germany?

FB: Yes, but this “unique design space” of course encompasses much more than housing. Tokyo’s degree of diversity is absolutely remarkable. The unusual is so ubiquitous that it indeed becomes categorisable as new typologies emerge. Tokyo’s intensity and speed are that of a constantly changing organism. Pair that with the pragmatic lack of nostalgia and you have the perfect drivers for an incredibly rapid evolution. To stay with the example of small houses: On average, a single-family house is demolished after 26 years. For many parents, the understanding that the house will not be bequeathed to one’s children and grandchildren must be liberating: When you know that the house is nothing more than a fashionable jacket, which you can dispose of because your kids won’t want to wear it anyway, crazy things can be tried.
On a whole, it strikes me time and again to witness that, in Tokyo, buildings are merely the fuel that keeps the city running. To architects this means both challenge and opportunity. Instead of considering context as permanent, architects have to deal with (and can count on) the presence of (lingering) absence. Design can adapt at a much quicker rate than elsewhere.
Compare this to a place like Germany: To respond to built context is a central part of the architectural repertoire in the West, where permanence is ingrained in the culture of architecture. Opportunity for change and adaptation comes only in much longer intervals.
Impermanence, on the other hand, is inherently Japanese. To be able to play an active role in often several cycles of evolution during one’s lifetime is of course an extremely interesting challenge for architects.

LCB: Do you expect the architectural scene to change in Tokyo in the near future?

FB: It’s widely anticipated that the single most influential change for Tokyo will come with the gradually declining yet ageing population. A few years ago, statistics indicated that 2020 would be the population peak for Tokyo and by 2100, 50% of its inhabitants would be over 65 years. Given the still steadily increasing net influx, Tokyo’s population peak may be pushed back a few years, but the general trend of Japan will eventually reach Tokyo. What architects will likely be faced with soon is a dramatic shift in the real-estate market. While an increase of average space use will probably offset much of the increase in empty property, usage patterns will change. Architectural responses will, if not anticipate and thereby accelerate such changes, then adapt. I am anxious to see how Tokyo will deal with this. On the one hand, you would expect the repurposing of existing buildings (something still almost unheard-of here but which has been normal practice in Europe for ages) to increase in scale. On the other hand, Tokyo’s history suggests otherwise. I do think that Tokyo will continue to be a proving ground for cutting-edge technology, not only in buildings but also, and perhaps even more so, in infrastructure. Tokyo has always been enjoying one of the world’s largest mass transit system. Extremely efficient on the one hand, helplessly underdeveloped when it comes to spatial design on the other; a huge (and unfortunately hardly tapped into) potential for architects.


LCB: Working for Toyo Ito must have shaped your development, do you still take some of his influence into your designs?

FB: What left a huge impression on me were his youth and admirable down-to-earth-ness with which he was able to communicate and channel energy into the teams without imposing unshakeable ideas. Decades of experience had not satiated this wonderful hunger for the new. The refusal to settle for something where there could be more was driving projects to always higher levels. It was inspiring to see again and again how setbacks (which come in the course of any architectural project) were used to make the projects even better.

LCB: You have always valued youth and new visions in the field - do you think there is already a new generation of architects ready to change the landscape?

FB: When it comes to materials and manufacturing processes, the building industry is finally catching up to other disciplines. We are on the cusp of an era-defining revolution, and I think the new generation of architects is more equipped than ever to play a leading role. Where we were, as students, and the generation just before me, like any child given new toys, testing whatever was possible for possibility’s sake, the new generation seems to soberly make use of a vastly expanded set of tools. As a consequence, there is more and more of a refocussing on content in schools world-wide. In Japan, however, the architectural education just does not seem willing to adjust to a fundamentally changing building environment. Considering that, it is always pleasantly surprising to see quite a few very talented young architects emerging from this rigid educational system.
On a different note, the way Japan treats its architects in general, the young generation in particular, is tragically myopic and detrimental. To go back to the Olympics: Except for the stadium with its own unpleasant story, the entirety of new facilities for 2020 is design-built by what has become the usual list of general contractors. Requested are the un-adventurous, calculable, controllable. Vision is not on the agenda. Architects are considered a risky nuisance. To put this in perspective: In the 1950s, Katayama designed the original stadium when he was in his 30s. The metabolists were a group of young visionaries who worked closely together with equally visionary bureaucrats. Today, instead of collaborating towards the future, we are, as a society, losing the edge when it comes to vision; which is such an unnecessary stupidity, given the amount of talent there is in this country.

LCB: Do you look forward to mentoring as you were mentored yourself? (Or are you already?)

FB: I have been fortunate to see several very talented aspiring architects go through my office and hopefully some of the things they learned will have shaped them in a good way. Although it is too early to think of myself as a “mentor”, I believe in the evolution of mankind, and, in this sense, have no doubts that the next generations will surpass me and my generation — a step in this evolution to which I hope I can contribute a little.