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Torafu Architects — Architecture Inside Out
Koichi Suzuno and Shinya Kamuro, the masterminds behind Torafu, are architects in the broadest possible sense.
Torafu Architects — Architecture Inside Out

Koichi Suzuno and Shinya Kamuro, the masterminds behind Torafu, are architects in the broadest possible sense. Buildings are but one part in the vast spectrum of their design work; however, architectural concepts penetrate deep into all their creations.

Although often concealed by formal purity, human affairs are at the heart of Torafu’s approach. Lifecycles, lifestyles, traditions and habits all feed into their projects alongside more abstract phenomena, such as the never-ending negotiation between the ins and the outs of spatial forms. There’s an element of reinvention there, too, but it has nothing to do with reinventing the wheel. The wheel is an example of an end product. Torafu reinvent the process.

What made you two choose to become architects? How did you decide to work together and start Torafu Architects?

Suzuno: When I was a child, I didn’t know that there was a profession called “architecture.” I did love arts and crafts, though. My private tutor was an architecture student, and he sometimes brought his models with him. It was thanks to him that I realized that there is an academic course in this field. I made a model of my house from foam board and submitted it to my teacher at school as my summer holiday homework. When the time came to choose what to study at university, I knew that I liked mathematics and physics, but I loved art even more. I chose architecture because it combined the two.

I was born and raised in a temple in Shimane prefecture. Shimane is located in the countryside where many families run their own businesses. I had a friend whose father was an architect, and somehow I developed an interest in the field. In Shimane, there is a library and a Budokan (martial arts studio) designed by Kiyonori Kikutake whose work made a great impression on me. I even had dreams about it. I studied architecture at university and then, after graduation, I worked at the architecture studio of Jun Aoki. His work is not restricted by academic concepts, and I appreciated his ability to talk about architecture with simple, non-technical language. He had a rule that all employees had to leave the studio after they had worked there for four years. During those four years, I participated in a design competition for a Louis Vuitton boutique and brought it to completion.  

During my studies, I was scared of creating shapes freely because the professors always required us to thoroughly explain the meaning of the forms we designed. Through working on Template in Claska, I learnt that shapes and colors have a power that cannot be explained theoretically.

S: I worked at an architecture studio called Coelacanth K&H. Then, from 2002 to 2003, I worked at a studio in Australia. Just after coming back to Tokyo, I participated in a project called Template in Claska, which was about designing three rooms in the Claska Hotel. I needed some help with the project, so I contacted Kamuro, who had just become a freelance architect. At the time, we didn’t discuss the objectives or visions of our collaborative work. We simply worked together because there was a lot of work to do. But since then, our working relationship has continued for eleven years. When I reflect on Template in Claska now, I realize it was indeed a crucial project for us. While at university, I always questioned the hierarchy of the related disciplines: urban planning, architecture, interior design and furniture design. For architects, urban planning is usually the most important thing to consider, whereas furniture and interior design are treated with disregard. Template in Claska, on the other hand, was all about designing the internal surfaces and conceptualizing the furniture. We designed niches in the walls, which served as storage space for personal belongings and hotel equipment, and the shapes of those niches became really important. During my studies, I was scared of creating shapes freely because the professors always required us to thoroughly explain the meaning of the forms we designed. Through working on Template in Claska, I learnt that shapes and colors have a power that cannot be explained theoretically.

After Claska, what was your next turning point?

S: For me, it was NIKE 1 LOVE in 2006. This project was about designing a shop, which was open only for one year to sell just one design: the Air Force 1. We designed cylindrical glass furniture and put 300 pairs of Air Force 1s in it as if they were a flock of migrating fish. This glass structure was made by Mihoya, and constructed by Ishimaru. Both are groups of craftsmen who worked with the legendary designer Shiro Kuramata for a long time. After the Nike project, we collaborated with them on many other occasions. I can feel the “Kuramata-ism” in their work, and I draw a lot of inspiration from them.

K: Kuramata understood materials such as acryl and glass very well, and he tried to use those to their limits, but always in accordance with their qualities. We also have a great interest in materials and admire his knowledgeable approach.

S: Another turning point was the airvase. It was our first mass-produced product. The design was born out of our participation in the Tokushokushikou exhibition. It showcased paper-made products by several designers, which were inspired by different color themes and used special colored papers. We had to design a green product. (Green happens to be the corporate color of Torafu Architects too.) We decided to create the illusion of green by mixing yellow and blue. We made a double-sided sheet by sticking yellow and blue papers together, and then cut small slits in the sheet in a radial pattern so that a vase shape was formed as the sheet was extruded. If you look at it from an angle, you can see the colors mix into green. We think that a two-dimensional object transforming into a three-dimensional one is a very architectural concept. We developed this technique further to create a variety of airvases in collaboration with several artists and brands. I imagine more people have heard about the airvase than about Torafu Architects.

It’s quite interesting how an architectural concept can be applied to a small object such as the airvase. You said earlier that you question the hierarchy among architecture and product design. I believe that you succeed in implementing architectural concepts in products because you value these disciplines equally. Another example of such an approach is the House in Ookayama, where architecture becomes furniture.

S: In the case of House in Ookayama, the site was long and narrow. We decided to utilize the limited space as much as possible. We designed bay windows to create extended windowsills, which can be used as benches or shelves. There is a child’s room suspended over the first floor bedroom as if it was a big table. Simultaneously, the floor of the living room extends into this bedroom and you can use it as a desk. It really is a conceptual residential space. The house serves two generations: the clients live on the first floor, and their parents live on the ground floor. In order to reduce the parents’ discomforts towards the new house built by their children, we decided to recreate some details from their old house, such as the arched entrances to each room.

K: The first residential project we did as Torafu Architects, House in Kohoku, was a residence for an elderly couple. They asked us to incorporate the wooden entrance door from their previous house into the new design. I believe that people feel more at home in their new house if it borrows some features from their previous one and isn’t constructed with new elements only.

Limited space, like in the house in Ookayama, must be a common problem architects face in Tokyo. How do you approach these constraints?

S: We embrace constrains positively as challenges. If the space is narrow, some functions of the residence have to be compromised. We think that both houses and shops should open up to the city. We once worked on a bookshop specializing in architecture books and designed the bookshelves to be attached to the exterior wall of the shop. In general, walls in the city are perceived as private property, and there is this common view that they shouldn’t be touched. We don’t think this is the case. When we displayed the books on the exterior wall of the shop, it attracted people’s attention and drew them inside. As online retailing takes over, bookshops are becoming a thing of the past. In order for them to remain relevant, visiting a bookshop needs to be an experience in itself.

In Tokyo, there is the trend of opening architecture to the outside on one hand, and staying inside on the other hand. I feel that both contradictions are colliding. I personally support the trend of opening architecture to the city like Torafu Architects do.

S: When I was at university, I felt that the architects and scholars tried to make architecture technical. It seems to me that architects quarrel about small things, when in fact, there are few residences designed by architects in the city fabric. I doubt that the theoretical discourse of architects really influences anything. I studied theories of city planning at the university as well, but I feel that it’s quite difficult to apply these concepts to Japan. If you go to Hong Kong, you’ll see laundry hanging on a rope between the buildings or plants overflowing in the city. Those small sights give a better impression of the city than the city planning. The city itself would change if people changed their mindset and their lifestyle.

At the Japanese universities, architecture tutors give their students assignments like designing a 1000sqm library. The students work on the assignment without doubting its legitimacy, but what they should examine first is whether the city really needs a library. If the purpose of building a library is to revive the city, the goal may be achieved more effectively by printing and distributing local papers.

S: After the Great East Japan earthquake, we designed furniture for Ishinomaki Laboratory. The city of Ishinomaki suffered severely from the tsunami. However, local shopping arcades were already lifeless even before the catastrophe. Keiji Ashizawa, an architect who wanted to restore the city, pushed forward the idea of designing self-made wooden furniture and created a workshop for the local people. We designed the AA stool, which is a combination of two A-shaped stools that can be shared by two people. It has a good reputation abroad and sells well. Ishinomaki Laboratory started with producing this one product. This product created a need for a workshop, which then created jobs and now influences the city. Once the new café and showroom are ready, more and more people from Tokyo will visit Ishinomaki. Other tsunami-affected areas were approached by architects as cases that needed a solution in the scale of city planning, but there is no real progress there. Of course, Ashizawa and I are architects and we both wonder about planning an ideal city, too. However, we have both micro and macro points of view. —

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