Renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma lives in Kagurazaka, Tokyo. Located in the heart of central Tokyo, Kagurazaka has so far managed to escape the large-scale, modern developments that have turned the rest of the city into a dense labyrinth of high-rise concrete buildings. You might think of Kagurazaka as a mini-Kyoto, only with one caveat: whereas planning in Kyoto is committed to preserving its heritage intact, Kagurazaka is more pragmatic and allows new constructions to invade old areas. As a result, different types of architecture/culture/business collide spontaneously and accidentally. And it is this kind of haphazard serendipity, says Kuma, that makes towns like Kagurazaka unique and intriguing.
Kuma has designed two pieces of architecture in the middle of Kagurazaka which convey the unique atmosphere of the area. The first one is 赤城神社 (Akagi Jinija, or Akagi Shrine) and the adjacent Park Court Kagurazaka, a high-end apartment complex. The second is La Kagu, a mid-sized shopping mall that houses several specialty stores. In addition, there is also “Trailer,” a temporary “yatai (food truck)” designed by Kuma’s son, Taichi Kuma.
Akagi-jinja (Akagi Shrine) and Park Court Kagurazaka
Kagurazaka is an old neighborhood. Several major temples and shrines have been constructed there over the last several centuries and the local community developed around them. For example, the Akagi Shrine was built in 1555.
Whereas shrines have a long history, they often struggle to survive in today’s highly modernized environment. When it was time for the Akagi Shrine to renovate its old buildings in 2009, it did not have enough funding. So they came up with the idea of leasing its property to a real estate developer. Mitsui Fudosan Residential won a 70-year lease contract to build a residential complex so that the shrine could use the profits to maintain its operation. The land is expected to be returned to the Akagi Shrine once the lease contract expires.
Local resident Kengo Kuma led the design of renovation project. As you may imagine, the key to this project was to balance the shrine’s tradition/heritage with modern day economic realities.
For more than a thousand years, shrines played a unique role in Japanese communities. Many of them were built to celebrate imperial families (both real and mythological), but they also functioned as a device to connect the human world with nature – sacred nature where the deities live. The shrines are therefore surrounded by thick wood, and have an orange gate called 鳥居 (torii) that marks the boundary between our world and the “other world,” which contains the deities in its depths.
Although it sits on a small site, the new Akagi Shrine manages to preserve the “stage effect” created by the torii and the trees. The torii shields the entire shrine from the busy, desire-ridden outside world (although it’s an open architecture), and impressive trees provide a serene atmosphere. It’s interesting to observe that some trees have an unique aura, though probably many of them had to be cut down in the process of renovation. The ancient Japanese believed that deities lived in large, long-standing trees.
The shrine shares the site with the apartment complex. In a sense, the residents of the apartment live in a shrine courtyard. It is amazing how close they are built to each other. But thanks to Kuma’s decision to use thin aluminum columns for the surface of the building, the sense of closeness is obscured. Since their angles face different directions and reflect the sun rather randomly, the high-rising walls of the apartment, standing so close to the shrine, do not crowd the space, and Kuma manages to preserve a peaceful atmosphere.
I did have a question about the shrine buildings. They are designed in a very light and transparent way by eliminating traditional architectural details. For example, traditional shrines/temples have various decorative/structural details surrounding roofing, which are not seen here. The main facility even uses glass doors, which are probably very rare. In my memory, shrines were always a mysterious place in the thick of wood. They were closed, silent and a bit scary, because you couldn’t tell what was inside. And there were many reasons why shrines were preserved that way. New buildings don’t seem to inherit those mysterious, dark characteristics of a shrine, but maybe this is how they will survive in a modern world which demands clarity, certainty and efficiency for everything. If Kagurazaka is torn between old and modern, this is exactly where you can witness the tension. It gives us a lot to think about.
If Kagurazaka is where the old and modern collides, it’s also where different cultures collide. For a variety of reasons, French people frequent Kagurazaka, and it’s sometimes called “Little Paris.” The name “La Kagu” derives from the French nickname for Kagurazaka.
La Kagu is a renovation project. It opened in 2014, by re-purposing an old warehouse for Shincho-sha, one of Japan’s major publishing companies. It houses specialty stores focused on living, eating and clothes AND a passion for knowledge. Kagurazaka has long been a center for the knowledge industry. In addition to being home to a major publishing company, there are various educational institutions in the area, including some French language academies. (And that is one of the reasons why Kagurazaka became “Little Paris.”)
It looks like Kagurazaka-ism is also reflected in a commercial facility like “La Kagu.” Products sold here are selected so that they will stimulate aesthetic and intellectual curiosity.
Kuma designed this place with the belief that we are finally entering the era where it’s more important to devote resources and creativity to extending the lives of existing things, rather than constructing new ones. So he preserved the parts of the old book warehouse to the extent that he could. He is hoping that this place will become a venue for people to learn from history so they can pass it on to the next generation. The stairs outside could be used as benches – an open space where people can sit, relax and communicate.
Even though Kagurazaka retains the old heritage, the majority of the area is modern Tokyo, and it is occupied by high-rise concrete buildings. “Trailer” suddenly appeared on a small open plot in the middle of these structures. This piece of land is actually owned by Kuma, who is planning on building a “share house” there. But due to unexpected circumstances, the project has been postponed. So his son, Taichi Kuma, took advantage of it and opened a temporary restaurant focused on steaks, hot dogs and wine. (An interesting combination indeed!)
Unfortunately, it was closed on the day I visited (you cannot really know if it’s open until the last minute), so there is no actual eating or drinking going on (unfortunately for me) in the pictures above. Despite its makeshift, casual appearance, the chef is from a major restaurant in Tokyo, and the menu is rather pricey. The haphazard encounter with authenticity and temporariness makes this place thrilling.
The restaurant uses the format of 屋台 (yatai), a traditional food truck or mobile restaurant. Yatai has been part of people’s daily lives in Japan for centuries. People would pull a hooded, table-sized restaurant on wheels and go around the neighborhood to sell noodles, sushi or sake.
Although the yatai is crude as a piece of architecture, Japanese architects have been re-discovering its potential lately, and it’s becoming a buzzword. They see the yatai as an alternative to permanent, costly architecture that is bound to many restrictions that hamper architects from thinking/trying outside the box, in order to give architecture chance to become a more organic, personal and interactive vehicle in a community.
There will be more yatai-like designs and ideas coming from Japanese architects soon. Stay tuned!