People and Buildings and Yoshi and Martha and Interboro


Last Tuesday, Interboro was invited to moderate a discussion between Atelier Bow Wow’s Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Martha Cooper. The event, which was part of CUP’s “People and Buildings” lecture series, took place at the nice, newish Maysles Institute in Harlem.

Interboro was excited about this because it had always admired Atelier Bow Wow’s work. Interboro recalls the first time it ever saw Made in Tokyo. Some GSD students in Peter Rowe’s 2001 Tokyo Studio picked it up over there on a site visit, and brought it back for all to see. Interboro recalls it being quite a phenomenon, especially those who—like Interboro—were enrolled in Roger Sherman’s studio “Under the Influence: Negotiating the Complex Logic of Urban Property,” which was interested in some of the same themes. Interboro has always been inspired by Atelier Bow Wow’s engagement with the city as it exists, and has always admired the way their reading of the city has informed their built projects.

Interboro was also eager to see Martha Cooper’s Manhattan Vernacular, which hasn’t been published yet. Martha is most famous for her earlier subway and street photography, but her more recent work is arguably more interesting. Manhattan Vernacular looks at the cleaver ways in which Manhattanites use space, with an emphasis on deCerteauian retail tactics. Very fun!


Pairing the two together was a great idea (unfortunately, not Interboro’s). Interboro introduced the event by saying as much, beginning with Koolhaas’s quote that “sometimes you have to know what the city is, rather than what it was or should be.” This sounds like a truism, but in some ways, it’s a plea; it’s a plea to listen to the city, to take it on its own terms. It’s an acknowledgement that as architects, artists, activists, it’s a good idea to engage the richness and complexity that is represented by what’s happening outside the window at any given time.

One thing that can be said about both speakers is that they engage the city very well, delighting in the richness and complexity of the city. They both delight in observing the city, not naively, of course, but not overly critically, either. And they both are interested in the city not as an artifact, but as a practice, as something that is alive, of something that is transitive.


Interboro wonders:


Yoshiharu Tsukamoto: Obviously, a lot of your work makes lemonade with lemons. Flag sites: building on these is difficult, but this can be evaluated affirmatively. I think in order to evaluate these conditions affirmatively, we have to understand that creativity is sometimes most effective when it is constrained. There’s an obvious reference here to Oulipo, and the author Georges Perec, who famously wrote a novel without using the letter e. An even more famous example, although it‘s not recognized as an example of making lemonade with lemons, is Fenway Park, a great field that is great because it is so compromised.


This suggests that sometimes, the ideal is the compromised situation, where you‘re free, but not too free. There are things that you have to negotiate with, things you have to take into account: site restraints, zoning codes, unconventional programs (and, I should add, non-physical things such as constituents: preservationists, activists, in the case of the WTC, families of victims). This is, by the way, at the heart of the work of Roger Sherman, who again taught at the GSD in 2001.


It seems that in Tokyo, you often inherit this situation of being free but not too free. Rarely, that is, do you have too much freedom: rarely do you have a blank site. On the other hand, rarely do you have too little freedom, a situation we encounter in NYC sometimes, where form almost always amounts to maximizing the zoning envelope.


The first question I have is: how would having too much and too little freedom affect your practice? Could it thrive? Would you even be interested in building on a blank site? Or on a site where financial concerns cripple the building’s form? For example, I know rhe Izu House and Black Dog House are not in Tokyo.

. .


My second question is: are there examples of projects you have done that respond to non-physical things (constituents) in the same way that your projects respond to physical things?