Interview with architect Yuko Saito (director of Atelier SITE, director of ARUKITECT, and former team member of Atelier U)
Tokyo, 24 September and 12 October 2018 (excerpt; translated by Norie Fukuda)
Please describe the establishment and concept of the Seminar House.
The Inter-University Seminar House was founded in 1965. At that time, there was a significant increase in student population at universities in Japan, but the adverse effects of production-line education were becoming widely evident nationwide. In response, education reformist Iida Soichiro proposed an overnight accommodation facility for teachers and students free of affiliation with any single institution to gather for learning in the form of a Seminar House in Hachioji, a pastoral region of Western Tokyo. The Seminar House was designed by architect, Yosizaka Takamasa. One of the key concepts for the Seminar House was rooted in its location among the Tama Hills, where the students and teachers could be surrounded by and become intimate with nature. Founder Iida established it as a place for the synthesis of architecture, humans, and ideas. Currently, there exist many seminar house facilities around the country, but this was the first time such a concept was proposed and realized, and it is the success of this facility that led to the popularity of such facilities nationwide.
Please explain how the site for the Seminar House was found and Yosizaka’s vision and process for its design.
Seminar House founder Iida discovered the site among an old village in the Tama Hills, known as Kinu-ga-oka or “Silk Hills,” where sericulture farmers lived in farmhouses with thatched roofs of kaya grass among mulberry trees. Iida found its natural environment without immediate views of the city a perfect location.
Determined to preserve the topography to the extent possible, architect Yosizaka explored the design of the buildings based on his proposal for use by 200 students and teachers. His idea was to build clusters or villages, comprised of two-person guestroom units as a base to develop one-on-one encounters. Sequentially, people would come together in the 50-person seminar hall, then meet in the 100-person assembly hall (built at a later phase), and finally would dine together in an informal 200-person dining hall in the top floor of the Main Building. In this way, interpersonal encounters would begin at the two-person unit level before expanding into large groups; this composition of community is reflected in the architectural forms of the Seminar House.
The Main Building contains the 200-person dining hall, administrative offices and overnight accommodations at the lower levels, and a lounge and reception desk on the first level, forming an inversed pyramid with the largest space at the top and the smallest space at the bottom. The design was discovered through discussions at Yosizaka’s atelier (Atelier U) among the design team by taking the pyramid form of the Chuo House (Central Seminar Building) and flipping it upside down. The resulting form automatically generated space around its perimeter. These ideas of creating a large gathering space at the top and an outdoor plaza below were generated purely through the functional approach to its design. Yosizaka referred to this structure as “a stake driven into the hill” in pursuit of the ideal of university education, and it is emblematic of the social role of the Seminar House in the larger landscape of education at that time.
Can you explain your involvement in the Seminar House project? When did you join Atelier U and were you the only woman working there?
Yosizaka’s atelier, Atelier U, was housed in a structure built in the vast garden of his home. It had no fence or gate or any other boundaries, and so children from the neighborhood would come and play there and older children would often come for visits, making it a very free and open learning environment. It was there that he manifested his real intent in his theory of Discontinuous Unity in the relationship between individual and group, architecture and city, and form and space. He encouraged those who were newly hired and those inexperienced in expressing their opinions and ideas as much as those who had been there since its founding; he felt that since architecture was used by the common layperson, we, as his staff, should also “always be novices.” It was a very free, supportive environment for developing ideas, but also a very strict one.
In the 1960s, there were a few female architects who worked at Atelier U. Tomita Reiko and Okamoto Chikako were in charge of the design for the unique Extended-Stay House. The women staff pulled all-nighters just as the others on the team and in fact were the ones with the most energy during competition projects, and so were highly valued members of the team.
When I joined in the mid ‘70s at age 22, I was immediately assigned to design the mural on the roof of the International Building (Kokusai-kan). Yosizaka instructed that since there was no body of water on the site of the Seminar House, he wanted to create a lake on top of the building. But because it would have been technically challenging to make a real lake, he handed me a rough sketch of the Arakawa and Sumida Rivers (of Tokyo) and I recall being given three months to study the motif for the roof design. In our atelier, we were expected to do the actual manual labor in-situ, and not leave it all up to contractors, so a grid was prepared on the roof and a ladder was propped against the building for me to climb, and I spent about a month painting the mural, viewing it from the rooftops of surrounding buildings and making adjustments. In the end, the water from the roof itself was collected into a small pond at the base of the building. It is in this way that not only the topography, but in the expressions of water, light, and wind that nature became form.
English translation by Norie Fukuda
full interview text published in the LP booklet
Excerpts from conversations between Shizuko and Toshio Orimo, Norie Fukuda and Heidrun Holzfeind
at the Orimos Home in Kawasaki, January and October, 2018.
Toshio: If there’s a genre to place us in, it’s shamanic dancing and spiritual music. Our music is a mixture of ethnic music, punk rock, and free jazz. We deal with ecological, political, and practical issues—like the nuclear and environmental problems in Fukushima and Okinawa—and also those in the invisible world. Our activities also relate to the peace and hippie movement—love, peace, and freedom. We are connected to aboriginal and ethnic minorities around the world, like New Zealand’s Maori, the Hopi, the Mayas, the Incas, and minorities in Tibet and the South Pacific. In Japan, we deal with Shinto and the Jomon world.
We think about how to relate the messages of ancient and indigenous cultures to the present and future. Celtic traditions, rituals like sun worship… Here in Japan, long ago, the Sun Goddess was worshipped just like in Europe and the Eurasian continent. Shamans—primarily female—were central to these societies, including the Ainu (in Hokkaido) and the Okinawan people.
We think if we returned to matriarchy, to cultures that value femininity, there would be more peace in the world; we need this kind of energy. We gain inspiration from the Venus von Willendorf, one of the most emblematic symbols of matriarchy in the world. She’s very impressive; even from a worldly perspective, she has great power. But instead of returning to old ways [of matriarchal rule], we can go forward, as if continuing something that had been stopped.
Music has the power to move—all of our lives. Our theme, “tamafuri,” or “shaking the soul,” means to shake up something powerful, in order to revive the strength of archaic civilizations with new sensibility, through punk, hip-hop, and new-age to create something that overcomes traditional music and culture.
In Fukushima and Okinawa we’re facing real and practical issues right now. The US military is forcing people from their land in Okinawa. It’s the third most pristine area in the world and it’s threatened by the US military bases…
Shizuko: If we can save Henoko from destruction, we can save Okinawa, and if we can save Okinawa, we can save Japan, and if we can save Japan, we can save the world. This is urgent because the world is in danger.
Heidrun: Do you go to rallies and demonstrations a lot?
Toshio: Yes. Most people at protests use “anti” this, “no” that, but Shizuko’s core message is “Love.” Often she just holds a sign with a heart… But we have dozens of signs we bring with us. For example: “Article 9 (the Peace Constitution) is My Pride.”
Shizuko: They’re easy messages to understand. We make new ones each time we go to protests.
T: While I was too shy and stayed home praying, Shizuko went to the train station and held this sign, trying to get people to vote: “Shall We Vote?” (playing on the movie title “Shall We Dance?”). She stood on her own at the train station in silence…
S: It was a little scary. Not knowing if people will react negatively.
T: This one, “NO WAR, ABSOLUTELY NONE!” played on the theme of the no bullying song by Baby Metal “Ijime dame, Zetai dame.” (“No Bullying, Absolutely None.”)
S: It was a popular song, so we thought it was catchy. We pick up on whatever’s popular at the time.
T: Instead of using tired slogans, we use catchy phrases and nice colors to draw attention, and we dance around.
S: We have fun. Even if no one else gets it, as long as we’re having fun, that’s what matters.
T: Everybody gets it.
S: We always run into someone we know…
T: Then there is “STOP THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE LAW OF NATURE (Signed by the Whole of Creation),” a satire on the conspiracy law that was created by the government against the masses conspiring against the government. The dots represent microbes and insects—rising up.
T: Every time I go to protests I also wear this ‘tag’ saying “I am not part of any organization.” It’s my symbol mark, to show that I am an independent thinker. I am free.
Heidrun: Do you have any training in classical music?
Toshio: We picked up music ourselves… As a junior in high school, I was inspired by the free jazz of Ornette Coleman I heard on the radio. I bought a used trumpet and taught myself how to improvise…
Shizuko: Our origin is punk music.
T: We were punk rockers and covered bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols, etc.
S: We even made our own outfits and punk accessories and sold them from our home to support our music. But we stopped playing punk music when the Chernobyl accident happened. Before Chernobyl, we used electric instruments, but we changed to acoustic after that.
T: We started dancing with masks and playing flutes, making our own instruments. Chernobyl was the catalyst for change.
S: But our core hasn’t changed.
T: After Chernobyl, we had our first ‘Kagura Punk’ performance at a shrine associated with Shozo Tanaka, who advocated for ecology. ["kagura" is an animistic ritual dance dedicated to the Shinto dieties.]
S: Tanaka played a central role in socialist efforts during the Ashio Copper Mine incident. [Shozo Tanaka (1841 –1913) was a Japanese politician and social activist, was well known for his defense of the right of workers victims of the Ashio Copper Mine Incident, and is considered to be Japan's "first conservationist.]
Norie: That explains why IRO is described as making “energy-free music.”
English translation by Norie Fukuda
full interview text published in the LP booklet