Book Review: Almost, Not—The Architecture of Atelier Nishikata
Vancouver-based architecture professor Leslie Van Duzer draws on her background as an educator and onetime magician’s assistant to conjure up a book aptly described as “a hybrid between an architectural monograph and a magic instruction book.”
What sleight of hand is required to create a richly comprehensive book, when the subject is just four small projects? Meticulous writing, excellent documentation, and a magician’s mindset. In Almost, Not: The Architecture of Atelier Nishikata, author Leslie Van Duzer is as adroit with the written word as a magician is with deceptive banter. The Vancouver-based architecture professor (and former director of UBC’s SALA) draws on her background as an educator and onetime magician’s assistant to conjure up a book aptly described as “a hybrid between an architectural monograph and a magic instruction book.” Starting from the evocative cover, Van Duzer’s precise yet poetic text and book designer Pablo Mandel’s rhythmical graphic layout draw us in and lead us through each project.
Almost, Not. The title itself sets the scene with a bit of mystery—almost, not what? It invokes images of thwarted expectations and upended suppositions. But it also summons visions of surprise and astonishment as assumptions are turned upside-down. In the context of the book, Van Duzer defines “almost” as “a delightfully destabilizing oscillation between certainty and uncertainty, curiosity and astonishment, past and present experience, delaying any automated consumption.” In Almost, Not, the author delivers this delight not only through the precision of the text and the thoroughness of the documentation: she also reveals the designers’ techniques for developing their architectural tricks—like turning a column into a closet, or a cupboard into a door.
The book introduces the work of Atelier Nishikata, an architecture firm little known outside of Japan. Since 2000, partners Reiko Nishio and Hirohito Ono have crafted their practice with care, rigor, and intention. Their goal is not to deceive but rather to create architecture that “transcends its physical boundaries and its visual image when it fully engages the body and its spatial imagination.” Despite the limited number of built projects, the ideas, methods, and designs of Atelier Nishikata offer plenty for us to contemplate.
Almost, Not is composed of three parts. First, we are introduced to the firm’s approach to design and the processes and techniques they employ to create the desired “experiential complexity” of their projects. The author compares the architects’ methods to those of magicians and lets us in on various techniques that both use to create the desired effects of their constructions. For example, repetition-variation is used to produce the effect of déjà vu, or category-jumping creates the effect of detour. Van Duzer also reminds us of other artists and architects who also have employed similar techniques.
Descriptions and documentation of the four projects comprise the body of the book. All are small private residential buildings or renovations, and all involve the trickery of transformation, whether it is converting four rooms into five, or using a material typically found on the roof as an exterior wall finish. Each “almost-ordinary” project tests our assumptions about familiar elements and spatial configurations. Is a cabinet really a cabinet when it opens to reveal a window? Yes, but no. Is a framed opening of an adjacent building’s vent cap truly an appealing view? Well, yes, almost. With careful observation and a few hints from the author, the initial visual simplicity of Atelier Nishikata’s designs gives way to surprising spatial and experiential complexity.
The final component of the book is a conversation between the author and the architects. Nishio and Ono discuss the impetus for their partnership arising from the dissatisfaction they felt with projects earlier in their careers. Nishio was disappointed that “a transcendence of the physical realm” never materialized in the final construction, and Ono had moved from architecture into the realm of contemporary art, thinking that it would allow him to gain insight by considering architecture “from a distance.” Both designers felt “something was missing” and recognized that “thinking deeply in the design process was essential.” That recognition led them to a decades-long quest to observe rigorously, study ferociously, and design precisely.
The ending conversation includes discussion of the architects’ major influences and also broaches subjects of long-standing architectural debate, which play important roles in Atelier Nishikata’s thinking and design. On the topic of four-dimensional space (a concept akin to Henri Bergson’s “duration”), Nishio states, “You cannot exceed physical limits without physical things.” And regarding honesty in architectural expression, author Van Duzer notes, “There is often a gap between what one sees, what is expressed and what is required.” Ono responds, “We think the disclosure of tricks like this presents an honest attitude to the distance between structure and expression.” The magic of Atelier Nishikata’s designs is in the gaps between perception and reality in the physical expression of their ideas.
While Van Duzer lets us in on the magician’s process but not their actual tricks, she does reveal both the underlying strategies and the resulting effects of Atelier Nishikata’s projects—the architectural tricks that cause us to suspend belief and allow a transcendence of the physical realm, the architectural equivalent of levitation.
Is it all illusion? No, there is no real trickery in Almost, Not. The book completes what it sets out to accomplish. And like any good magic show, it leaves us asking a few questions. Are words and images truly able to present the full spatial experience intended by the architects, or are such cerebrally and spatially complex projects impossible to understand without physically being in the spaces? How does this practice fit within other architectural practices in Japan? How have other Asian architects employed similar tricks and techniques in their work? The helpful comparisons in the book primarily rely on examples from North America and Europe; understandable given the author’s expertise in the work of Adolf Loos, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Rudolph Arnheim and the architects’ stated interest in Loos, Mies, and Louis Kahn. With lingering questions and intriguing images, Almost, Not: The Architecture of Atelier Nishikata inspires us to search for the magic in other designs—the possibility for hidden windows, surprising spatial configurations, and dislodged components—and reminds us that such enigmatic architecture can be profoundly revelatory.
Mira Locher is the Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba and has worked as a professional architect in the U.S. and Japan. She is the author of four books on Japanese architecture, gardens, and design: Super Potato Design, Traditional Japanese Architecture, Zen Gardens, and Zen Garden Design.