Tetsuo Kondo creates space by architecting relationships

Happyplaces stories (video)

Marcel Kampman
Aug 22, 2020 · 10 min read

When I told Ito, the founder of Shibaura House that I wanted to talk to as many people as possible during my stay in Tokyo, Tetsuo Kondo was one of the people he proposed to me to meet. We met in SHIBAURA HOUSE, with the city as a perfect backdrop. Tetsuo is a Japanese architect, but his projects and practice are not limited to Japan only. We started off by going through a variety of projects, where he explained the backgrounds and the intentions of each project. Fascinating — because the architecture of Tetsuo Kondo is not limited to orchestrating spaces, but really starts from what relationships spaces can have, evoke, create or sustain. When necessary, his spaces also incorporate other disciplines to create the right atmosphere or intended effect on people. Which could be comfort, flexibility or wonder. Like for example, the ‘Cloudscapes’ he created in Venice, where you could satisfy your fantasy of touching, feeling, and walking through the clouds. Gazing out of aeroplane windows, high above the earth, we often daydream of what it might be like to live in this ethereal world of fluffy vapour. He made this fantasy a reality in Venice. Another example is ‘A Path in the Forest’ in Tallin, where you can wander through the canopies over the lingering walkway through the forest. Fascinating projects and a greta clear perspective on space and architecture.

Architecture is relationships

How to create space? I never thought about that. I also want to know how to create space. It actually really depends on the project, but I always try to create a relationship between many different things. Like for example, a link between the interior and the exterior. Or the property or neighbourhood and the history, culture, the climate — a lot of things. It is difficult to explain. But I believe that good architecture or a beautiful place is a place that has many relationships. The more relationships a place has, the better.

Cloudscapes, Venice, Italy

Take, for example, the climate. Good architecture has a good relationship with its climate. In Tokyo, in the Netherlands of Africa, the climate is different. That makes that architecture can never be similar in shape, for example, because the climates are different. In.a hot country architecture needs to have a relationship with the warm temperature, the high humidity. The relationship with the users is directly linked to the programme. How the architecture will be used and to what kind of space they need.

For a private house, I always start with the human first. How do they cook? How do they eat? How do they sleep? What do they feel? Private houses really show how people live their lives and how they behave. There, space and human are directly linked.

Nakade House, private house, Ishikawa, Japan

A living house

I created a so-called two generations house, for a young couple and their parents. When they asked me to design their home and shared about their lives, I assumed that shortly they might want to have kids too. The parents were still very mobile, but already achieved a significant age, so I thought that they would stay in the house more over time. I accommodated to a potential life change every three to five years, which is quite a short timespan. As a result, I didn’t make a concrete plan for the house, because it would have to be adjusted again on reasonably short notice. Thus far, architecture had forced them how to live their lives and affected their lifestyles. That is what I wanted to avoid for their new house. I wanted to create this working relationship between the inhabitants and the architecture. The human influences the architecture, and the architecture influences the people’s lifestyle. They always mutually influence each other. It had to be a living space and decided to build the space with the father who is a carpenter, step by step which allowed the space to change over time to fit their present and their future lives.

The human influences the architecture, and the architecture influences the people’s lifestyle. They always mutually influence each other.

This house is a two-family home in Tsurugi, a town in Ishikawa-prefecture, near Mount Haku. It is located in a quiet neighborhood, where people have known each other for generations. The owners are a young couple and parents but one can easily imagine how their life style will shortly change dramatically as the young couple are planning to become parents. A father is a hard-working carpenter, but as he is reaching retirement he will be spending more and more time at home, and the mother has plans to set up a variety store in a part of the new house.

We wanted the house to be able to incorporate all these changes, in addition to the normally expected variations we consider when building a house; such as weather and seasons, and the ever-changing townscapes. We wanted a house that could respond and integrate these variations, instead of separating or isolating them. The idea was to design an “open” house, which could reflect the changes in both life-style and the environment.

We made a two-story house incorporating only the essential elements, namely the kitchen and the bathroom. The building itself does not contain walls that define individual rooms. All other elements were made together with the carpenter father. Whereas we used steel frame to resist heavy snow this area often receives, we have built it as an efficient one-module in order to make it resemble a wooden house as closely as possible. We thought that would fit better with the neighborhood, where there are many wooden houses, as well as with the wooden furniture the father will make. The interior structure of the house will keep changing to accommodate the change in their life-style and in the environment. All of the outside walls were built as wooden sliding doors. Wooden fittings, furniture, curtains, plants or any objects inside of the house will contribute to further define the fuzzy nature of the interior of the house. Having multiple layers composed of veranda (“engawa”) and sliding doors (“shoji”), this is in many ways similar to a traditional Japanese house.

The nature consists of various factors. Each component in the environment is inseparable from the others. Each individual component has its own character, and as the environment around the component changes, each of these defined components shows at the same time enough strength to maintain its character but also enough flexibility to accommodate the changes. I always aim to design architecture that stands powerfully and distinctively, but is yet capable of integrating into the surrounding environment and become a part of it. Our lives in the architectures are also parts of this environment, and it is these lives that produce culture and history in the long run. I hope this house will help the life of its inhabitant to be free and prosperous while at the same time stay connected to its surrounding nature, culture, and history.

Three years ago, I completed the house. I have visited the house for or five times. Every time I visited it, it had changed a little bit. Which is great, because their lives will also always change. The carpenter and the son changed some spaces, took away some walls or added some somewhere else. Or applied plants as room dividers. They are in constant relationship with their house, testing and adjusting it according to their current requirements, finding better ways to live. That’s nice. Because now their house is a direct reflection of their life.

A Path in the Forest, Kadriorg Park, Tallinn, Estonia

Fuzzy boundaries

I’m not a historian, so I can’t precisely speak from the Japanese tradition. But I guess a reason why typical Japanese look a certain way has to do with with the climate. We have a sweltering and humid summer. That’s why it is essential to let the wind in for comfort. But we also need wind, because traditional Japanese houses have wooden structures. Wood is sensitive to humidity, wind helps to keep it dry. A traditional Japanese house has a lot of openings, which is also to connect to the surroundings. The border between the house and the surroundings is not so clear. With a brick or stone house, they build the border first by putting up the walls and then divide the space into smaller spaces. Even the courtyard is inside of the house. In Japan, we don’t have a clear border of the house. There are many layers to create a sense of security, to create shelter for rain and sun, but they are all different lines — there is not one strict border. That blurs what the inside and outside of a house are. This is a similar way of thinking to the house I designed.

As an architect, I feel that we should live in spaces that have enough space. How much space is enough? I’m not sure. But I often feel that in Tokyo many people are living in too small spaces to live a good life as a human being.

Need for space and connection

When you go to the countryside, you’ll see that the houses are not to small as in Tokyo. You will find those small houses only in the cities of Japan. Maybe they are a little bit extreme compared to other countries. Many people are living in small spaces here, but it is not their ambition to do so. If it would be possible, most people want to live in bigger spaces. As an architect, I feel that we should live in spaces that have enough space. How much space is enough? I’m not sure. But I often feel that in Tokyo many people are living in too small spaces to live a good life as a human being. How big it should be in size, I don’t know. But when you live in a big city like Tokyo, you should live comfortable. That is about a relationship too. No one can live alone, I think people need other people. People need other space too. It is all connected. That is a society or a community. If you don’t have that, people can not live. To make a healthy community, society or family requires a certain amount of space. Which is bigger than a bedroom-sized room. It should not belong to one person, but it should be part of a larger amount of people.

Storing people instead of healthy spaces

Tokyo is too dense now. There are many reasons, and there are many relationships. It depends on what is your business, for example. If you are a novelist, you can choose to live anywhere you want. But when you work for a bank, you have to work in the city. And when we then think about how we want to live in the centre of Tokyo, then we can not have large properties with a lot of nature. There is no real freedom to think about how it could be different. Current day Tokyo is too concentrated, and that made it into a somehow extreme city. Not a lot of people in Tokyo consider sunlight, for example. If I was a farmer, it is crucial to think about the weather and the natural light to grow the vegetables. But here in Tokyo, people don’t really think about natural light. Some people even see it as a bad thing, because it heats up the interior or it is too bright to be able to work. Maybe it is an extreme example, but it makes that it is possible to make more money from buildings when natural light is not considered. That is not healthy. Like you said, then it is like that buildings become more storage for people. When I think about it from an opposite perspective, it is also impossible to leave everything behind, forget everything and collectively move to the countryside. That is also impossible. We have to work to earn money, and we need to have relationships with other people. It is complicated, and it is becoming more and more complicated than before. Because we’re now connected to the entire world. Our work, our lives and or our places keep changing — to the complicated side.

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.

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.