Suginami-ku (City of Suginami) is one of the major central-western suburban wards in Tokyo with a population more than 550,000. The area is unique in that it maintains the atmosphere of a powerful “subculture” that is very different from posh central Tokyo, which is just 20 minutes away via train. Not only has Suginami been supporting the global buoyancy of Japanese “anime” by being home to 100+ animation production houses, it’s also been attracting all kinds of creative people – musicians, artists, performers, film/theater producers and so forth – and a variety of small, independent business owners who run unique bars, vintage clothing shops and ethic restaurants. They colorfully fill crisscrossing, narrow but vibrant streets scattered across the area. It seemed a natural decision for the City of Suginami to launch a new project to create an innovative theater, when an existing building asset in Koenji – one of the subculture’s “hot spots” in Suginami – became outdated and needed to be revamped. That was in 2005.
As a city with a rich cultural background, the renewed Suginami theater project chose the format of “public theater” with an ambition to engage local communities in contemporary performing arts in much more organic way than conventional public halls that typically simply rent the venue to event producers. Named ZA-KOENJI, the new theater is funded by the city, but is run by the Creative Theatre Network (CTN), a non-profit organization comprised of a wide variety of performing arts professionals including playwrights, directors, actors/actresses, facility managers and engineers so that the venue is capable of managing both administration and creative productions. Reflecting the artist-rich demography, many of the CNT members are local Suginami residents, including the Artistic Director, Makoto Sato, a leading figure in the Japanese performing arts movements since the 60’s, who played an instrumental role in cementing the artistic identity of ZA-KOENJI.
The ZA-KOENJI was designed by Pritzker Award-laureate Toyo Ito. It is a relatively compact but vertically expansive building (3 floors + 3 additional floors under the ground) that is finished with very thin steel plates, which make it look like a very large “hut” covered by brown marquees (but the plate sandwiches the concrete to ensure that the building is sound-proof). Indeed, Ito had an old-fashioned circus theater in mind when he proposed the initial design. But why a circus theater in urban Tokyo in the 21st century?
In the book “建築の大転換 (means ‘transformation of architecture’, Chikuma Publishing, 2011)” that Ito co-authored with Japanese anthropologist Shinichi Nakazawa, he recounts his own circus experiences as a child, which used to be a big deal back then when the majority of Japanese lived in non-urban areas that had very little live entertainment. As large marquees would suddenly appear in an empty area at the end of town, all the kids were dying to find out what was going on inside. But as parents were reluctant to send them to see the performance, they would venture out to the venue without tickets and try to peek in through gaps in the tents. Ito remembers that he imagined that there was something mesmerizing, even a bit obscene, going on inside. The circus was definitely a mysterious and sensuous experience.
Ito attempted to let a circus theater emerge in the middle of the busy, urban Suginami district. He wanted to insert the mysterious and elusive “I-don’t-know-excatly-what-it-is-but-there-must-be-something-peculiar-and-exciting-going-on-inside” feeling in hyper-modern Tokyo, in which almost all entertainment has a clear target audience and is marketed accordingly.
But performing arts have the power to escape such narrow categorization, believes Makoto Sato, the Artistic Director of ZA-KOENJI. He says that a theater becomes a more exiting place if all kinds of people get together – young and old, male and female. So when he writes a play, he assumes no specific audience. But people watch and enjoy it, even small children do, says Sato, even when faced with a more challenging play. Probably the intensity of physical interactions among performers and audience is contagious enough to overcome differences in age/gender etc.
Ito summarized such excitement coming from performing arts in his design proposal for the ZA-KOENJI: “Intentionally closed in order to open.” A theater does not have to be completely open, transparent or crystal clear in explaining what’s going on in order to engage people. Rather, the semi-closed setting – like a circus tent – will help emit the mysterious energy coming from the raw collision of people and their creative passion. Our own potential is never perfectly definable, and that’s the beauty of the performing arts. At the ZA-KOENJI, it seems like the manager, director, architect, performers and local people get it.
The entrance directly leads to the main auditorium – the ZA-KOENJI 1, that occupies the 1st, 2nd and the 3rd floors. With a capacity of 233, the square hall is uniquely flexible. The ground floor is leveled evenly with the surroundings, so there are no barriers in bringing in things (and people) from outside. The stage and the seating configurations can be changed freely depending on the requirements of each performance.
“There are two meanings in ‘flexibility’ in talking about the hall design,” says Sato. One is practical flexibility, but the other is more philosophical. If a place had everything I needed with the right wiggle room to modify/edit, it would be a practically flexible hall for me. But architects like Toyo Ito look further. What he did with the ZA-KOENJI was re-question what “universality” could truly mean without being constrained by the modern mantra of “make-users-life-easy” that asks designers to respond to users’ needs as much as possible. As a result, a rudimentary, empty black box emerged, that would stir any creator’s imagination by being as neutral as possible. “I do not believe that a hall has to be easy to use for everyone,” observes Sato. “It’s not that important to respond to the needs of individual people or projects. It’s far more important to provide deeply fundamental space.”
Partly to overcome geographical limitations, the ZA-KOENJI goes deep underground. The basement levels 1 and 2 contain ZA-KOENJI 2, another hall that is configured more conventionally with a capacity of 256 – 298. (Sorry, you cannot see the hall in the pictures.)
The 2nd floor has the Cafe Henri Fabre. It has bookshelves (to the left in the picture above), which are filled with picture books. As the venue is slated to be “intentionally closed in order to open” to anyone, it’s very kids-friendly. On any weekday, you will find moms with their babies/toddlers who would otherwise have a difficult to time finding places to hang out.
And all these floors are layered surrounding the swirling staircases that make this place seem larger and more mesmerizing considering its actual size. It also makes you lose your sense of dimension since Ito designed it so that the lower floors were brighter than the higher floors, deceiving your perception. “It feels like a cave. I don’t know why, but things like underground spaces or caves keep surfacing and re-surfacing in my design,” says Ito.
Things swirl and go upwards in spirals in natural world. That is because elements are never static: there is always latent energy that keeps them moving. When elements collide or bump against something that block their way, they swirl. Swirls are the exhibition of latent potential.
At ZA-KOENJI, it is as if the mesmerizing swirls of architectural represent the potential coming from the human body. When the energy and enthusiasm coming from each individual collide, they form new forces and rise higher.
Sato once said in an interview: “Actors/actresses can rely only on their body in a performance. What they have in themselves is all that they can leverage. In order to help them unleash whatever they have, I’d rather not define/micromanage the production in details. I would like to leave a lot of blank margins…or room for the actors to overdo themselves (laugh). The thrilling part of the performing arts is that a company collectively can create something so full on stage, but it’s never something I would have anticipated. It’s like unexpected elements spontaneously bond together as we perform.”
So, its an unexpected, exciting swirl you experience here.
Tokyo is a cultural melting pot. Even if it’s becoming increasingly uniform, at least here at ZA-KOENJI, you should be able to find something unique and special. Here’s how you can get to the venue: http://za-koenji.jp/english/guide/index.html#link2
In addition to a variety of performances/events listed here, there are some unique projects happening at the ZA-KOENJI worth mentioning.
The Awaodori is a traditional Japanese festive dance that originated in Western Japan. Over the decades, Koenji has become the epicenter of Awaodori in Eastern Japan. The ZA-KOENJI has a dedicated studio available for Awaodori teams to practice. While traditional/folklore dance looks a bit far-fetched to contemporary performing arts, Sato says: “For me, the area surrounding the venue is already part of the theater. It’s good that Koenji had Awaodori, because it opens new opportunities for local people be engaged in this place.” The Koenji Awaodori festival is usually held at the last weekend of August.
The Za-Koenji／Creative Theatre Academy
Sato believes that a theater is not a mere building or place but something that people create together. Realizing his philosophy, the Academy offers a two-year curriculum that goes beyond a conventional actor’s school or drama programs at colleges. It is a unique blend of theory teaching and learning skills based on hands-on training, open to anyone who is passionate about creating theater. Students who finish the program are finding opportunities as actors/actresses, staff at other public theaters, or launching his/her own companies.
Ashita no Gekijo
According to Sato, a theater is a free playground open to anyone, including children. It is a place you can wander in to become a new person, find new friends, or experience something unexpected. As those are the things children are so good at, they are important ones that help shape the future of the ZA-KOENJI, declares Sato. Reflecting this belief, kid’s programs at the ZA-KOENJI are not the ones made easy for kids. Rather, they are geared toward unleashing children’s’ potential, which could be boundless especially in the world of performing arts.
For example, Sato wrote a play that can be enjoyed even by babies who are only several months old. No words are involved. “Children’s imagination is boundless. Despite our perception, they don’t need everything to be explained: they have the ability to adapt to even something they don’t know. They are a great and avid audience. The more we perform, the more we discover.” “They may get bored and become restless in the middle, but it’s still part of the experience, to enjoy a theater.”
建築ノート EXTRA UNITED PROJECT FILES 02. SEIBUNDO SHINKOSHA, 2009
Ito, T., & Nakazawa, S. (2012). 建築の大転換. Chikuka Publishing.