How Ryo Abe creates space by adding God in the details

Happyplaces stories

Marcel Kampman
Mar 18, 2020 · 11 min read

Ryo Abe, founder of Architects Atelier Ryo Abe combines original ideas and forms with traditional Japanese techniques and materials to create a new international style. It is in stark contrast to the minimalist ‘white box’ aesthetic that most people associate with contemporary Japanese architecture. The appearance and inner space of the atelier’s buildings use very spontaneous forms and gestures to create a dialogue with the surrounding environment and its inhabitants.

In their approach, the buildings are a part of the environment , a part of nature, just like we all are. It is a reflection of the Japanese idea of ‘animism’ that is deeply rooted in the Shinto philosophy in which every object, space, and phenomenon has a soul. Each project is intrinsically connected to its surroundings, considering its local history and traditions, using local materials and craftsmanship. Ryo believes that, without being overtly so, it makes their methodology naturally and inherently sustainable without regard to trends or public convention.

We talked about spaces and places and what makes them Japanese, and discussed the ‘spirit of places’ or ‘genius loci’ that refers to the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place. The conversation took place in Ryo’s studio in Shibuya-ku, the area most known for its famous intersection where, with every green light, 2,500 people cross the street.

This transcript is edited for clarity and length by Kitty Leering

God is in the building

Maybe it is something Japanese, but frequently when I visit a place, I feel that there is a ‘God’ there. That it is ‘holy’ there, calm. Most of the time this happens when I’m inside a shrine. A kind of peacefulness. Some places always have that sensation, this very peaceful, quiet feeling. When I ask preachers what that feeling is, they usually say: ‘There is a lot of God here today’, or something like that.

I’m not the only one who has that experience. Others feel it too. It is not a private experience, a private impression. It is also experienced by others. It exists. Japanese people call it ‘God’. In Japanese culture this feeling is something very intimate. It is not like a God in Christianity — I am a Christian. In Japan you will find churches and temples next to each other. We like to have our gods around us in our daily lives. What is different compared to Europe and other Asian cultures, is that we’re not that serious about God. We think that it is fun to have God amongst us. That sometimes creates this sensation of feeling many gods in a place. But maybe it is not God, but something different that we can explain with science.

Maybe it is something Japanese, but frequently when I visit a place, I feel that there is a ‘God’ there. That it is ‘holy’ there, calm. Architecture is perhaps one of the ways we can create a similar emotion for people.

Architecture is perhaps one of the ways we can create a similar emotion for people. Japanese people collect a lot of emotions and inspiration from small discoveries in our daily lives, and we appreciate them. That is something that we call ‘animism’. Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Potentially, animism perceives all things — animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handywork and perhaps even words — as animated and alive. Animism, using an English word, is probably the best way to explain the Japanese relation to places.

The oddness and imperfection of humans

That is one of the things that I consider when I create something. When I design something, I do lots and lots of little things to try and give people who experience the space many small surprises. Take for example this table. I painted it like this. It looks used, but it is not because of its ‘nature’. This is just plywood, a very industrial wood. And I used thinner with paint to make the paint maybe a hundred times thinner than it is supposed to be. I added lots and lots of thin layers to create the right roughness with this as a result.

Machines can create evenly painted surfaces. But we’re not machines. Because humans do the work it needs to have some oddness or imperfection. It will then reveal the limits of humans, which will give you a certain feeling. Then you will know someone was there who did the work.

When I use a painting technique like this with a project, I ask the painter to create this roughness as evenly as possible. Then they are usually in conflict because it coincides with everything they have learned. They are used to apply paint in its original thickness because the paint was produced to create an evenly painted surface and they’re supposed to follow the instructions. But when we apply it differently, thinner and in layers, we will reach this level of roughness that adds character. Machines can create evenly painted surfaces. But we’re not machines. Because humans did the work it needs to have some oddness or imperfection. It will then reveal the limits of humans, which will give you a certain feeling. Then you will know someone was there who did the work.

I also apply that idea to my architecture, spaces or things that I try to develop. I try to add many of those small things that will reveal themselves to its users over time, or give you this feeling of a presence when you visit such a project. I try not to make it perfect. When it becomes too perfect then I should break something to open it up for people, to allow the future in. Open it up to time and change. When you try to make something perfect, it will never be perfect. One minute later, ten minutes or ten years later, it will not be perfect anymore, because the world is continuously changing and nothing stays the same. It is a philosophy: I try not to do ‘perfect’ and be ‘the best’. I try to do something different.

I try not to make it perfect. When it becomes too perfect then I should break something to open it up for people, to allow the future in. Open it up to time and change. When you try to make something perfect, it will never be perfect.

A sense of belonging

The current situation in Tokyo and Japan is that the population is decreasing and growing older. Which has an impact on how people live in and relate to cities and nature. When you go to the countryside, people still want to connect to the village or city. There are a lot of foreigners and tourists from Europe visiting Japan. They are backpacking, visiting the countryside, the villages and trying to blend in. They want to meet the people and feel part of them. Many immigrants are living in the Japanese countryside today.

When you visit Kyoto, you will see more people there wearing a kimono — maybe even two or three times more — than three years ago. This looks very traditional and linked to the history of the city. But when you look closer, you will discover within 5 minutes that they are mostly tourists. Asian people, Chinese people and even European people, all wearing a kimono and enjoying it. Maybe they appreciate Japanese culture more than Japanese people. But it is kind of lovely when I visit Kyoto for work, and then I feel Kyoto looks more like Kyoto then it used to. Because of the coronavirus there are almost no tourists in Kyoto anymore, and you won’t see people there wearing kimonos now. Then I feel like: ‘Where is Kyoto?’ An influx of tourists can harm a city, but if it is more like a movement, then it may bring a new dimension of a forgotten lifestyle to live. Then it is not bad, just different.

Is it possible to find a place where you belong beyond the borders of your own country? I think that is a uniqueness that all human beings have. Even if it does not relate to your original nationality or background, you can still feel this sense of belonging in places where you have never been.

I also travel all over the world, backpacking, visiting the countryside of Europe and try to find places where I really feel that I belong. Maybe I’m looking for some place to move to, but I still haven’t found it. But is it possible to find a place where you belong beyond the borders of your own country? I think that is a uniqueness that all human beings have. Even if it does not relate to your original nationality or background, you can still feel this sense of belonging in places where you have never been. Most people are looking for a place where they feel they belong, that can be anywhere, in the countryside or a city. I want to go to a place with stones and wind myself, but I still haven’t found the right place.

Tourism and localism create a new reality

In Venice, Barcelona or elsewhere, a lot of the land and buildings are owned by the Chinese people. The same goes for an old city like Granada in Spain. There too, the most important places have Chinese owners. There is nothing wrong with having this Chinese ownership and Chinese people everywhere in the world, because it is not only the Chinese. In a way, it has always been like that. The Europeans also travelled the world and started settlements everywhere. But because travel is so affordable now, it has become challenging to manage the number of people that visit places. And all these people bring spores and seeds through their travels from across the world. All the vegetation all over the world is dynamically changing even more so in the coming years, which is also confirmed by botanists everywhere. We can not stop that from happening.

I can imagine that we might not need to stay at one location. We might need to have a couple of satellite home towns and move around. This could also change the meaning of a city, the meaning of home and the meaning of identity.

So, I feel that it does not make any sense to keep the original vegetation of a specific area because it is something you can’t control. How does that translate to nationalities? Do we still need to have different nationalities? Maybe it should all be mixed, including the lifestyles of people. That can all be exchanged. The Kyoto culture is not the culture for the Japanese people anymore. It now has become a worldwide culture. Kyoto culture is now heritage. Tourism and localism are mixing and creating a new reality. So, I can imagine that we might not need to stay at one location. We might need to have a couple of satellite home towns and move around. This could also change the meaning of a city, the meaning of home and the meaning of identity. Maybe the meaning of identity and home grow stronger when people are moving around. But the use of cities will change, just like the appreciation of its culture.

Maybe we need to find new ways to travel without movement. Imagine that you can go anywhere, while staying in one place. That you can experience Paris or Rio, get a sense of the local feeling, and in the meantime stay connected with where you are. We invented all kinds of ways to move from one place to another. Maybe a next invention allows that we don’t need to move around anymore, allows us to stay where we are, where we belong. That would be interesting. Would solve a lot of issues too. But quite likely, that is not going to happen.

nl/minato 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.

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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.