“Sometimes I'm pleasantly shocked to discover I'm working in more of a nightclub than an office.”

Florian Busch's work is in many ways, the perfect introduction to Japanese design and architecture; his perspective both a variable and a control in the social experiment of a country whose aesthetics and mores fascinate the rest of the world even in the 21st century. Paperhouses talked to him about what it means to be an outsider, and discuss perspective and the future of housing in Japan.

House in Hirafu

Paperhouses: We have a very international group of designers but what makes you fascinating is that you're a German expatriate in Japan. Can you tell me how you ended up in Japan?

As you know I was born in Germany, in Munich, actually. At the time it was still West Germany and I won't go into the details of my (entire life), but I was going to study abroad, and this was 1994 shortly after unification, so East Germany was still fresh. I found Weimar, where the Bauhaus originated, an interesting town with some sixty thousand inhabitants; such an important role in culture. So I started studying there, and two years later I had the opportunity to go to Japan during the Summer for a few months. I had a great interest in the spatiality of light, of Japanese architecture. It was quite intense. Several years later with a scholarship I went to London for a masters in architecture. I was quite comfortably in London and enjoyed living there and then a year later I met Toyo Ito. Coincidentally, I had planned to go to Japan two weeks later, so I asked him if I could come by his office. I wasn't really there to have an interview but we spent an hour and a half talking. Then he called his manager and offered me work. It took me by surprise but I said “I'll do it.” I planned on two years and it's been nine that I've been in Japan. I've worked with Ito-san for about five years and opened up my office in 2009.

Ph: You mentioned the spatiality of light but could you give me an example of what you mean by that?

It seems… there are so many more shades than what I knew from my own experiences. To be able to express with light such depth both spatially, and not to sound cheesy but spiritually, was amazing. I found that it actually has so much to do with layering. Spaces are not so centrally organized. The layering of space was so much more important than what my own culture had shown me before. I found that this is directly linked with how light is felt here.

Ph: I agree with you about the quality of the light being spiritually moving, which is interesting because (and I also don't want to sound cheesy) the thing that perturbs me the most in Tokyo is there isn't much human spirituality. Are you spiritual?

Probably not. (laughter) I find it quite striking when you said human spirituality… I would continue that there isn’t human spirituality, but would you say there’s machinic or urban spirituality? Because that may be true. All of us have this junk around us; it becomes a kind of spiritual encounter.

Ph: To what extent you feel you are either in or outside of the culture of Japan?

That’s very difficult. It’s probably natural, but the farther away you are from the forest the better you can see what the forest is actually about. In a way the farther I go from my own culture for me, the stronger I feel related to it. At the same time, when I go back to Germany, especially Germany now, it only takes 3 days to get really fed up with it. And yet being here it's very important for me to stake out my own territory. It's very easy to be dropped as a foreigner. They say “he's a foreigner he doesn't understand this.” You have to be able to take advantage of that. Make your own asset. Sometimes it's very frustrating, but you know very well how nice the Japanese people are in general, and how polite everything is…

Ph: Since we’re talking about the different sort of work cultures, particularly of Germany and Japan, what's your office like? What’s the process of design projects there? Do you have any office rituals or…

In a culture with such an emphasis on rituals, I'm afraid my office is under-ritualized. I won't bore you with the daily tea routine. Sometimes I am shocked to find that I work in something more like a nightclub than an office. But I think it's good when you want to achieve something like architecture that requires such long hours of concentration, to have an office atmosphere where people are relaxed.

You spoke about processes…

Ph: The process of going into ideation, getting started.

I think it's always about making a reduction of a complex set of variables.  When you cook something and make a reduction of it, for example. It's such a huge amount of constraints and variables you have to deal with. At the end of the day you have to change that complexity into something very simple. Simple doesn’t mean a loss of complexity, just a reduction of the complexity that tastes very good.

Ph: How would you say in relation to Paperhouses, which is trying to create a common denominator with schematics that can be translated globally… how did you approach that idea of the reduction process as it were.

That was the main problem on my table in deciding to join Paperhouses. I see a chance in open source to close the gap between the generic and the specific. Generic, in terms of the sales claim of universality that we saw in the International Style of the 20th century. They had an almost hubristic approach to “we have this design and this design can be built no matter where,” and you see the failures. With Paperhouses I think we can achieve a specificity. Going open source in this way is about setting up an area of choices, and these choices become more and more specific as the user becomes involved with the project.

Ph: That's a beautiful way of putting it. Kind of changing the tempo a little here but thinking about Japan in the bigger picture and maybe Tokyo specifically, but what do you think is the future of residential housing in Japan?

I think we'll see a lot happening. It's surprisingly slow-starting but there’s a lot of change. These houses have not changed at all for twenty years. A lot of what will happen will be in terms of the approach to ecology and multi-generational living environments. What I hope to see and what I partially saw after the Disaster of March 11 was a moment of stimulus. People started to tell themselves, “we have to rethink how we live.” Everything has become sober now. We need to rethink an entire business, a business that has ruled over 80% of the residential market for decades. Even the March 11 Disaster wasn’t enough to shake that monster. We're going to see the same shit happening over and over again. But! Change is taking place now, and I hope I get a chance to contribute to it. People will become more sensitive in terms of how we live ecologically, environmentally, sustainably. Not in terms of what's being done in countries like Germany, where everything about environmental design is about increasing the insulation layer.
House in Takadanobaba, Florian Busch (House in Takadanobaba)
I'm from the completely opposite side. If we humans recognize that we're part of nature, you can actually just be clever. If you build a house that is as comfortable as being under a shaded tree, then what do we need 40-50 centimeters of insulation for? It's not about shutting nature away. That's not proper. It’s about engaging with nature. That’s the real challenge and opportunity of environmental design.

Housing spanning many generations, too. I think Japan is involuntarily at the forefront of what's going to happen all over the planet. Japan, Germany, have huge problems in terms of population pyramid. How do we deal with it? Everybody says 70 is the new 60 but I was surprised to learn there's a housing shortage in Germany. Everyone was thinking “the population’s shrinking what do you mean there's a shortage?” Where there used to be four people in a house there's only one now. That one person is 65, 70, and through tragic circumstances their partner has deceased; their children have moved out. We have a strange housing shortage and that's very interesting.

Ph: That's an interesting problem unique to Japan because as you mentioned there's this aging pyramid but also in Japan of course, multi-generational houses are not uncommon. How do you address that as an architect when you're designing a home with consideration for several generations of residents? Is there a design solution?

No specific solution but are we talking about a one family house that spans multiple generations, or is it a multi-family space with a hundred people living together? What's crucially important is that we find a way to get away from the nursing home. The 20th century obasuteyama (folkloric mountain where old women were taken out to pasture). It's very tragic. When you see people put in those nursing homes, it’s like potting a very old tree that's going to die very shortly. I think we could have a situation where it's possible to integrate living at a much earlier stage. When they're 60, for example. They voluntarily live there. They take care of people that are 5 when they are 60, but they’re 15 when they're 75 right?

Ph: Do you believe making architectural and structural changes can affect change in society and the way it operates?

I think it's almost ironic how non-present architecture or space is in the overall curriculum of education and the surface of people's awareness. I want to say it's everywhere around us but it's not taught at school. It's just there. I think especially when I look at Tokyo, architecture in the built environment is very conservative and very mediocre. I think with a few subtle changes, you could really provoke something different. People will be smiling a lot more. These things are… I wouldn’t really call it the power of architecture but I think it's something you can do and unfortunately the people who are in power, in control of the building industry, aren't interested in anything that might pose a risk to the business model.

Ph: It's all bottom line for them.
Is there a piece of architecture you're fond of, architecture that makes you smile?

FB: There is, but what's always bothered me is the absence of humor. I'm not interested in postmodern sort of strange humor but I think it's very difficult in the architecture field to have a good sense of humor.

Ph: I can't agree more. Architecture is very serious. There is a lot of humorless architecture.

FB: And the people who represent it. Architects themselves. Seriously, we really lack humor. I don't know why. The only humor on a larger scale is the postmodern movement. I think a lot of that is slapstick humor. It's not humor, right?

Ph: Maybe it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

FB: (Laughter) Probably.

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Previously: Interview with Tatiana Bilbao