Alchemical Devices

essay by Tom Heneghan

Contributed by Tom Heneghan
Born in London, England, Heneghan is a Professor at Architecture at Tokyo University of the Arts. From 2001-9 he was Chair of Architecture at the University of Sydney, and was Unit Master at the AA School in London from 1976 – 1989.

JA+U : Kyoai Commons by Office of Kumiko Inui © Shinkenchiku-sha

Kyoai Commons by Office of Kumiko Inui

JA+U : Kyoai Commons by Office of Kumiko Inui © Shinkenchiku-sha

Kyoai Commons by Office of Kumiko Inui

Kyoai Commons, the most recently-completed work by Kumiko Inui, and her largest, at first appears to be the most conventional and least complex of her works – a clean white rectangular box formed by five different-width strips standing parallel to each other, separated by long, narrow skylights from which daylight spills in, layering the interior space into bands of differing luminosity.

JA+U : Kyoai Commons by Office of Kumiko Inui © Shinkenchiku-sha

Kyoai Commons by Office of Kumiko Inui

JA+U : Kyoai Commons by Office of Kumiko Inui © Office of Kumiko Inui

Ground floor plan of Kyoai Commons courtesy of Office of Kumiko Inui

The systematic geometry of the plan, though, masks the building's spatial exuberance. The contrapuntal spacing of the dividing walls and voids sets the building's interior into motion - as the contrapuntal blocks of color articulate the gridded surfaces of Mondrian's paintings. It is a sophisticated architecture – rigorously geometric while simultaneously being free-form; conventional while also experimental.

JA+U : Kyoai Commons by Office of Kumiko Inui © Shinkenchiku-sha

Kyoai Commons by Office of Kumiko Inui

While college buildings typically have an authoritarian clarity of function and strict divisions of space, the ambiguously divided spaces of the Kyoai Commons building invite irregular ways of use, with students and teachers studying, teaching and relaxing wherever they feel most comfortable. Architecture, Inui explains, cannot be just an expression of rationality or functionality, but must engage with life in ways that are “more delicate and dynamic, ambiguous and multi-layered”.*1

Aside from her preference for crisp lines and elementary geometrical volumes, her works exhibit no particularly identifiable ‘Inui-aesthetic’, and nor does she appear to be interested in creating one.

JA+U : Flower Shop H by Office of Kumiko Inui © Shinkenchiku-sha

Flower Shop H by Office of Kumiko Inui

Each of her projects is unique - whether site-specific, or specific to the idiosyncratic ways of a client. She is both ‘of’ and ‘apart from’ the rising generation of Japan's younger architects.

JA+U : Apartment I by Office of Kumiko Inui © Shinkenchiku-sha

Apartment I by Office of Kumiko Inui

Her early Apartment I project – with its toilet bowls placed against the clear-glazed external walls of each micro-apartment – suggested a Duchampian sense of irony, and echoed similar confrontational moves by others. But, the willfulness of the gesture now seems incongruous in Inui's ‘oeuvre’, which is distinguished by its formal understatement. Her buildings are also often characterized by a striking ingenuity – indeed, Inui seems to relish the challenge of impossibly difficult briefs, and sites that seem barren of charm, which she, somehow, manages to alchemically transmute into places of quality. Such arduous projects seem to provoke her to her most fascinating works.

JA+U : Apartment I by Office of Kumiko Inui © Shinkenchiku-sha

Apartment I by Office of Kumiko Inui

In her Apartment I, and in her Asakusa project, for example - both of which involved the insertion of building programs into sites that were barely large enough to contain them - the architectural qualities of the rooms were made possible by the articulation of the vertical circulation cores into zig-zag multi-functional elements that framed the individual spaces. These cores were fascinating 3-dimensional puzzles – one might say‘ devised’ rather than‘ designed’. Similarly, Inui's Small House H in Gunma is‘ a device for viewing a landscape’, and her House O in Tokyo is‘ a device for appropriating the sun’. Both are experimental projects – site-specific‘ installations’ that simultaneously offer all the necessary everyday functions of a house.

JA+U : Flower Shop H by Office of Kumiko Inui © Office of Kumiko Inui

Sketch of Flower Shop H by Kumiko Inui

Inui has written, “To me, architecture is not an attempt to ‘create’ or add something to the world, but to cause a small change…to discover new meaning in the world through architecture”*2, and this approach is best seen in the Gunma house – really a pavilion - where the mute form and plain materials of the building recede visually to foreground the abandoned garden that surrounds the tiny site, its overgrown bushes and its derelict ‘objets trouvés’ – two broken rusty fences, an unkempt bamboo forest, and an old stone lantern - each of which it frames beautifully in its large windows, endowing these mundane elements with enigmatic meaning and intriguing enchantment. The house transforms a forgotten garden, with the relics of its unknown past, into something quite magical.

The textual descriptions in this monograph will give some sense of Kumiko Inui the teacher – her flexibility of thought, inventive analyses and thoroughness. While many of her contemporary designers seek the shelter of ambiguity, Inui speaks concretely. She presents and explains each project with clarity, as a case-study – its situation, its puzzles, the ideas that led her to its particular design, and even its construction. She rarely mentions a building's appearance but almost always mentions the wishes of its client, and the challenges these raised. For her House T the modest request from her modest clients was that she build for them a house for an average family, on an average site – an unusual request, requiring from the architect an enthusiasm to engage with such a goals, and the insight to be able to achieve them without the house being‘ averagely designed’.

*1・2  ‘Kumiko Inui: Episodes’ ; 2008, INAX Publishers