How Masaru Ito creates space by making his curiosity a public space

Happyplaces stories

Marcel Kampman
Mar 7, 2020 · 15 min read

Yukiko Nezu, a Japanese architect at in Amsterdam I met at , sent me a message if I could be in Amsterdam on a Saturday early in the morning to meet the director from in Tokyo. It had to be early in the morning, because they would fly back to Tokyo later that day. When Yukiko told me about Shibaura House, I had looked it up and fell in love with the building and the ambition of the place. I had to meet the person behind it, so I raced to Amsterdam to meet Masaru Ito and Mami Motoyuki.

illustration of various activities occurring within the building
Image © Jody Wong

Shibaura, the area where Shibaura House is located, has always been a business district, originally warehouses, later transformed into offices. In recent years, however, young families have started to move there, as numerous apartment blocks have been built. Now the area is gradually transforming to cater to two different types of people: residents who live here and business people who come here to work. There are hardly any cross-overs between them, with little opportunity to meet. Despite tens of thousands of people living or working in the area, there is hardly any chance to know what the company next door does, or who the neighbours are. Shibaura House provides this space, removing boundaries between people. The architecture of the building personifies that, it fosters interaction — not only between the office workers but also with regards to its community. Lots of glass create levels where the building joins its environment in a light and open manner. Designed by Kazuyo Sejima, the mixed-use building intends to provide a fun and exciting space for public and private use. The building’s exterior is transparent, with every floor being defined by rooms of various shapes, connected by curving staircases. The glass merges the ground floor, public space with the street outside; it includes a park with tables and chairs for everyone in the city to use for free.

We met at the Nieuwmarkt and had a lovely connection in conversation. We talked about , , their projects, my projects, putting actions into the world, the crucial role of documentation and logging to involve all stakeholders, differences, similarities. When they needed to head towards the airport, Ito said that he wanted to invite me to Tokyo, as a part for the nl/minato programme they are running. is an educational platform that aims to create a dialogue from social, political and cultural perspectives. In this programme, The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Shibaura House, as well as various groups in the Minato-ku area, collaborate to organise events to make Minato-ku and its neighbouring area a stage for study, with citizen participation and lively discussions. Shibaura House provides a safe space where people can openly and freely share their thoughts and ideas around issues like LGBT, gender, media, sports and the inclusive society. Learnings and reports from these sessions and events are catalogued into beautiful archive magazines, available for free, for anyone to learn from. But, Ito’s ambitions are beyond that. It is time to make the archive more active so that it could reach more people. We discussed that my visit to Tokyo could be a mix: to work in activating the archive, to give a talk and workshop how to communicate actions to the world, a talk about Happyplaces and to film a variety of people to add to the collection of perspectives for Happyplaces. Of course, Ito needed to be one of them too.

What followed was his story — how he created space for himself following his curiosity, giving the people around him access to new space too by inviting them into his curiosity journey to eventually make it manifest in a physical place; a place where everyone is welcome and invited to increase their spaces. Thank you Ito.

We decided not to film, but to record our conversation because Ito is not fluent in English, and I’m not in Japanese. Miho Shimizu volunteered as out interpreter. Thanks to Miho, I got to learn, understand and see more of Japan, its culture and its people than I could have wished for, because she took away the language barrier so I could experience everything in full colour.

This transcript is edited for clarity and length.

Time for something new

I’m the only son, and I don’t have any siblings. I always have had this tendency to think within myself. To think about thinks, instead of putting things into action. I’m an introvert. When I started Shibaura House, I saw that everyone was closed-minded and that we needed to open up. But that was a thought I had only for myself, within myself — it only lived inside my head. Around that time, I went to Amsterdam, and I stayed at the Lloyd Hotel, and I experienced something there that I didn’t expect.

There I met Suzanne Oxenaar, the former director of the hotel, and this encounter changed something for me. This hotel places a strong emphasis on cultural guests and visitors. Suzanne is super open-minded. We used to have this ‘big mama’ figure, back in the days in Japan. I saw this in her too. In the beginning, I was just one of the tourists. When I came back to Japan, around that time, there was an event organised by Suzanne in Tokyo. I had the chance to go there and also to be introduced by Bas Valckx from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. When Suzanne learned that I was in the printing business, she asked if I could produce all the printed matter like the catalogue for the event, for a reasonable price. I agreed, but with one condition: that she would come to Shibaura House to do a workshop for children. Well actually, at this point it was not Shibaura House yet like it is today, but there was another space before it was built where we worked, tried and tested ideas during construction. And where we had social events running as well with the idea of the current Shibaura House in mind. In the process of preparing for the workshop, we got to know each other better. We had meeting after meeting, where she started to understand the context I came from. The printing industry was in decline, so there was an opportunity to bring something new into the world.

Through this encounter, through this relationship with Suzanne, I realised that Shibaura House needed to be open, that I should follow her lead, and also to become more open.

Since then, we established a friendship. Every time I visited Amsterdam, I would stay at the Lloyd Hotel, and we also did a Shibaura House exhibition there. Suzanne brought me everywhere. She introduced me to other people in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, driving me everywhere. Suzanne even took me to the high school of her daughter, so I got to learn more about the everyday context as well. Through this encounter, through this relationship with Suzanne, I realised that Shibaura House needed to be open, that I should follow her lead, and also to become more open as she is a very sociable person.

Growing space

In the beginning, I felt really uncomfortable to participate in events, social events, parties. I felt really uncomfortable being part of such events. I had a very friendly outgoing staff to compensate for that. Because if I felt uncomfortable doing that, why not have someone here who is good at that? Today I can enjoy meeting people, and I eventually got used to it. I realised that these encounters are quite different from what I could imagine. Everything I envisioned turned out to be different from the actual physical encounters. I started to try out different ways of doing things, sometimes inspired by something I would read in a book or elsewhere. I would try out something, evaluate it, adjust, try out, to make it my way of doing things. Gradually that started to generate a diverse curiosity towards anything. I’m interested in a wide range of subjects.

The interactions with people coming visiting the House deepened and broadened my curiosity.

Since I have this building, people just come in and talk to me. ‘We have something interesting; I want to get to know you better.’ I also started to go out to visit other people’s spaces and places. Some topics got brought into the House, that made me curious and then I would go out and found something new that I then brought back to the House. These interactions deepened and broadened my curiosity. What we do today is that we, for example, invite you from the Netherlands because we want to have a conversation with you. We want to do something together, learn more about you. But instead that it is just about you and us, we want to share this with other people. This opportunity is a new connection, this access to a new or another world, which might help to create new insights, new ideas and therefore can help others too to broaden and deepen their views and knowledge. That is the direction we want to go to more with Shibaura House.

People always ask me, now that I have been doing this for nine years, what did it change? Then my answer is: I changed. I’m the one that changed. Having this open space where people come in and share their thoughts, worlds, ideas, projects and insights, I opened up.

Life changing

The work here at the House also changed my behaviour towards my family and how I relate to them. In this cycle of curiosity, my children now joined in and became part of this cycle. My wife doesn’t join that much, but occasionally she joins some events that appeal to her, like taking part in a knitting café or something else. I often bring my kids here. So for me, being in the company here or being at home is not that different anymore. People always ask me, now that I have been doing this for nine years, what did it change? Then my answer is: I changed. I’m the one that changed. Having this open space where people come in and share their thoughts, worlds, ideas, projects and insights, I opened up. That also happened with you. When we met in Amsterdam, I recognised something of myself in you.

I majored in Media Art in Kyoto. But I didn’t have a real interest in Media Art. I just wanted to leave Tokyo. I felt this pressure when I was in Tokyo, that I needed to inherit this company. And that wasn’t what I wanted. At the time, my relastionship with my father wasn’t that great. So leaving Tokyo was better for me, less stressful for both parties, and that is why I decided to leave. Even though the subject was never openly discussed, taking over the company would always be a thing. My father would argue: ‘I would never say you have to take over’, but everyone else told me that my father told them that I was going to continue the company and that I should come back. That is a part of the Japanese culture, to not to say things directly to people, but to talk around things in a way that people feel that something is expected from them. We refer to that as that you need to be able to ‘read the air’.

At the time, it was already apparent that the advertising business was in decline. And employees that had a strong opinion towards my father, the head of the company, got fired. No one within the company voiced their thoughts. They couldn’t; otherwise, they risked their jobs. Then I realised that the only one who could speak up was me. I had to come back, it was my fate, but then it had to be under my terms. I started working in the company in Tokyo, and of course, there were a lot of clashes between my father and me. Now I occasionally receive an email from him, but he is never satisfied a hundred per cent. He understands what I try to create, but of course, he is from a different era which sometimes doesn’t help. When I started to work in the company, I realised that I had to be patient since he was ageing and that at the same time, I was growing stronger. Of course, I was ageing too, but I was also learning a lot. I thought: ‘If I wait for ten years, then eventually it will be my turn to do it my way.’ But of course, even today, my father’s presence is always there in the background, that will never disappear.

Shibaura House is public space. Public space in Tokyo is not that common. Usually, only places owned by the government are public but those are not necessarily open for participation or sharing, like government buildings or squares. To use those places and spaces, there are protocols and rules that set boundaries for people. Here we try not to have those.

Public space

Shibaura House is now this public space. Public space in Tokyo is not that common. Usually, only places owned by the government are public but those are not necessarily open for participation or sharing, like government buildings or squares. To use those places and spaces, there are protocols and rules that set boundaries for people. Here we try not to have those. We’re trying, doing our best. Shibaura House as a project and as a place helped me in my personal transformation from being a shy introvert to a more open, causing and sharing introvert. I’m still an introvert, but not afraid anymore to go out, follow my curiosity and make connections. I’ve found my way in doing that. Because of that, I also helped my children and all the children coming here, to broaden their world a bit more. I’m most happy when I can have my own selection of choices and to be able to make my own choices from them. That is happiness to me. For Shibaura House, the ideal would be that people who are not from here used the space as if it is their house, home even. As if it is their own. Where they feel free, unrestricted, safe. Brave. Empowered, enabled, supported, acknowledged, seen, understood. Like a family.

Shibaura House as a project and as a place helped me in my personal transformation from being a shy introvert to a more open, causing and sharing introvert. I’m still an introvert, but not afraid anymore to go out, follow my curiosity and make connections. I’ve found my way in doing that.

Location determines space and place

The ground floor is a free space. Anyone can come in, and anyone is welcome. People can bring their lunch, or have a coffee. Some people just come once and leave again. Other people come, then participate in an event. Then maybe organise something here. The neighbourhood we’re in requires a radical open idea of free space where anyone is welcome. But when Shibaura House would have been in the rural countryside, then probably someone with a story would come in, and he instantly would be the centre of a conversation. Like in a small local café. The context plays an essential role in how you organise and what a neighbourhood requires.

The nature of a neighbourhood reflects how a place like this needs to be run. But I also feel that we miss something. Imagine that there would be several Shibaura House community spaces in this area. They would all probably be different, and that would also create the opportunity to try out new things, what we can not do right now given the place where we are at. Currently, the people that live around Shibaura House come here because of their work. It is not a neighbourhood where people come to for the rest of their lives. They have an economic reason to be here, which also makes that they are less involved with the local community. Their attachment with the community and this locality is low; they live to work. So, unless the people in the neighbourhood change, it is quite tricky to try-out things beyond that. In a way, it is mirroring and complementing what the neighbourhood is. In the beginning, I tried to address a particular idea of community to people on the ground level, who are using the free space. But I learned that it was a bit too much for the kind of people. They only think four or five years ahead, which makes it more challenging to create a sustainable community in which people also feel and take responsibility. Shibaura House exists because of its community.Waiting for them to change so that they can be inspired is one of the many possibilities, but I get bored just doing the same thing. I want to try out, update, investigate different approaches. Currently, the community space is for meeting. Meeting of people, meeting of ideas, just by being there. But that is how it is now, but there could be perhaps another phase where we can create a community in which we can address specific ideas and issues to the people, to create a different kind of relationship maybe.

I know that I can reach out to someone I met or know, I’m not afraid anymore to contact someone I never met before. This opened up the world for me. I know that I can work with anyone, from anywhere, anywhere.

The introvert space maker

I’m not sure if I am a ‘space maker’. But I start to get more and more interested in connecting people and to direct these encounters. Because I started Shibaura House, I developed this network of people that became richer and richer over time. Initially, when I introduced people to each other, I did that to help someone. This eventually led to a rich network around myself, not intentionally though, but it allows me whenever I have an idea or want to go somewhere that I always have a way to do that. I know that I can reach out to someone I met or know, I’m not afraid anymore to contact someone I never met before. This opened up the world for me. I know that I can work with anyone, from anywhere, anywhere. That’s great. Now I’m considering to maybe branch out to Taiwan because over the years I have built up a great relationship with people there. They visite us here often, and I frequently go there too for projects. This helped to build another vibrant network, but now in Taiwan. Last year we organised an exchange event in Shibaura House, where we invited a lot of people from Taiwan, to connect and exchange knowledge, insights and network.

Ehm, to answer your question, yes I probably am this introvert ‘space maker’. Introvert people are said to think a lot, and to be good listeners. That is what people say about me often.

For the ‘space maker’ part, I’m not yet sure.

is an educational platform that aims to create a dialogue from social, political and cultural perspectives. In this programme, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and , as well as various groups in the Minato-ku area, collaborate to organise events to make Minato-ku and its neighbouring area a stage for study, with citizen participation and lively discussions.

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Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project

Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project, a playful research project to better understand all dimensions of space to eventually create happy places.

Marcel Kampman

Written by

Founder of Happykamping & Happyplaces Project, author, sensemaker

Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project, a playful research project to better understand all dimensions of space to eventually create happy places.