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 thick “subculture” atmosphere 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 the Japanese “anime” by being home for more than 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 might have been 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innovative theater, when an existing building asset in Koenji – one of the subculture “hot spots” in Suginami – became outdated and needed to be revamped. It was 2005.
As a city with rich cultural background, the renewed Suginami theater project chose a 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 play writers, directors, actors/actresses, facility managers and engineers so that the venue is capable of managing both administrations and creative productions. Reflecting artist-rich demography, many of the CNT members are local Suginami residents, including the Artistic Director Makoto Sato, a leading figure in 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 (3 floors + 3 additional floors under the ground) building that is finished with very thin steel plates, which make it look like a very large “hut” covered by brown marquees. 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 he co-authored with Japanese anthropologist Shinichi Nakazawa, Ito 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 few live entertainments. As large marquees would suddenly emerge in an empty area at the end of town, all the kids were dying to find out what’s 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 the gap of the tents. Ito remembers that he imagined that there was something mesmerizing, even a bit obscene things going on inside. Circus was definitely a sensuous experience.
Ito attempted to let a circus theater emerge in the middle of a busy, urban Suginami district. But it had nothing to do with nostalgia. Rather, it was that mysterious and elusive “there-must-be-something-peculiar-and-excitiging-going-on-inside” feeling that he wanted to insert in the hyper-modern Tokyo, in which almost every entertainment is commercially packaged and explicitly advertised based on well-targeted marketing strategies. Before you launch, you pretty much know if your audience would be young women, families or nerds.
But unlike other forms of entertainment, the excitement of performing arts, as old-fashioned circus wildly exhibited, directly comes from the body/actions of the performers. It is inherently unpredictable and indefinable. Makoto Sato, the Artistic Director of ZA-KOENJI, says that a theater becomes more exiting place if all kinds of people get together – young and old, male and female. Rather than targeting “kids” or “adults” or certain segments of the market, he writes his play assuming no specific audience. But people get it and enjoy it, even small children do, says Sato, when faced with presumably difficult piece of play. Probably the intensity of physical interactions among performers and audience is contagious enough to overcome differences in age/gender etc.
The entrance directly leads to the main auditriaum – the ZA-KOENJI 1, that occupies the 1st, 2nd and the 3rd floor. 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 the re-questioning of what “universality” could truly mean without being constrained by modern mantra of “make-users-life-easy” that asks designers to respond to users’ needs as much as possible. As a result, 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 indivisual 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 level 1 and 2 has ZA-KOENJI 2, another hall that is configured more conventionally with the capacity of 256 – 298.
The 2nd floor has Cafe Henri Fabre. It is filled with picture books – as the venue is slated to be “open” to anyone, it’s very kids-friendly. On any weekdays, you will find moms with their babies who would otherwise have had difficult to time to finding places to hang out.
And all those floors are layered surrounding the swirling staircases that make look this place larger and mesmerizing for its actual size. It also makes you lose your sense of dimension since Ito designed it so that the lower floors were brighter than higher floors, deceiving the law of nature.
Things swirl and go upwards spirally in natural world. That is because elements are never static: they keep moving even when humans cannot see them. And when their potential collide and bump against something that block their way, they swirl. Swirls are the exhibition of latent potential.
It is as if the potential coming from humans’ body is limitless, and when the energy coming from each individual collide they form new force and keep going upward.
Makoto Sato, the Artistic Director of ZA-KOENJI once said in an interview: “actors/actresses can rely only on their body in a performance. What they have in themselves is all what they can leverage. In order to help them unleash whatever they have, I’d rather not define/micromanage my plays 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 performing arts is that a company collectively create something so full on stage, but it’s never something I anticipated. It’s like unexpected things suddenly bond together as we perform.
As a place to unleash humans potential, the ZA-KOENJI implements many unique projects.
Awa orodi is traditional Japanese festive dance that originated in Western Japan. Over the decades, Koenji has become the epicenter of Awa odori in Eastern Japan. The ZA-KOENJI has a dedicated studio available for Awa orori team to practice. While traditional dance looks a bit far-fetched from contemporary performing arts, Sato says “I consider the area surrounding the venue is all theater. It’s good that Koenji had Awa odori, because it opens new opportunities for local people be engaged in this place.”
Geijutsu Sozo Academy
Ashita no Gekijo