November 20, 2017
by Canadian Architect
Takaharu Tezuka. Photo via Tezuka Architects
When Fuji Kindergarten in Tokyo was awarded the Moriyama RAIC International Prize in September, it marked an affirmation of the building’s innate ability to teach and inspire at both the local and international scale. The Kindergarten, designed by Tokyo-based Tezuka Architects, is one of the firm’s many projects that sensitively blend building and landscape in such a way that the spaces become unimagineable without one another. Following the awarding of the Moriyama Prize on September 19th, a telephone interview with Takaharu Tezuka was conducted by Jeremy Schipper, a Master of Architecture student at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Schipper has studied in Tokyo and visited the Kindergarten in person. The following text is excerpted from their conversation.
CA: A feeling of openness to the surroundings may be common in Japanese architecture, but it’s deployed very specifically in Fuji Kindergarten, as the windows open around circular tracks that look like tree rings on the ground. How did you want the inhabitants of the building to feel about this openness, and what have been its effects?
Fuji Kindergarten. Photo by Katsuhisa Kida / Fototeca
Tezuka: That idea is not from me–it’s older. Fuji Kindergarten teaches Montessori education, where children of different age groups are together so that they learn how to help each other, like a family. So in this education, that openness is quite important. It wasn’t easy, because we had to in some way control the acoustic conditions. If we make just one big open room and there is a noise from next door, it can stop all kind of class activities. But we worked with an acoustical engineer, and also we talked with the owner about how we should run and structure the classes.
CA: It’s clear how much joy the building has brought to the children who use the space since it was built ten years ago. But the building has also inspired so much joy in adults around the world. How does one design with a space for play that appeals to both adults and children alike?
Concept Diagram. Image courtesy of Tezuka Architects
Tezuka: When we were designing Fuji Kindergarten, we went to see Gaudi’s Casa Milà in Barcelona. It’s an apartment house with a beautiful rooftop with many statues where our small kids enjoyed running around, and grown-ups were also running around. I was surprised how both kids and grown-ups were enjoying the space. When you’re designing following a rule-book, usually you’ll have to make a choice: either grown-ups can have fun, or kids will have fun. But when you go to a house like Casa Milà, or a natural environment like a nice hilly park or a stream, there is no rule-book in these joyful spaces, so you have to find a way to have fun. That is how we designed Fuji Kindergarten. The rooftop inclination brings movement and endless circulation.
The skylight you can look down from, and trees you can climb up. We knew that all grown-ups and kids would enjoy it, because we saw what worked in daily life.
CA: When you were designing the Kindergarten, and picking the dimensions and finishes for its spaces, what were you hoping that children would learn from the building?
Tezuka: We can’t predict what they’re going to learn. We can give them opportunity, but everything is up to them to figure out. These days, a child cannot be like a child. Sometimes we want kids to learn mathematics too early, or they are inside a building playing Nintendo games. It’s not human. In this kindergarten, I want them to learn what human beings are supposed to be like. The kindergarten is a kind of ring without a centre. It’s just like sitting around a fire, and you cannot stand in the middle, but everyone is equal around the ring.
Concept sketch illustrating low ceiling height and sightlines. Drawing courtesy of Tezuka Architects
CA: The acoustic designing of the space embraces the idea of white noise over silence. How does this type of noise affect the children?
Tezuka: I must say that noise is very important for children. People think it is better to put kids in quiet environments to study or to sleep. We should know that it is actually quite the opposite: when you have a baby, you find out that babies sleep quite well in noisy restaurants — as long as they are with their parents. And as soon as you put a child in a quiet environment, they start screaming. It’s quite natural to be in noise rather than to be in a quiet environment. In Fuji Kindergarten, children are treated as a part of the environment, and as a part of its noise. In environments with noise, children listen to their teachers better, and autistic children feel safer with background noise. So it’s working extremely well.
CA: Children learn not just through sight and sound, but through smell, taste, and touch as well. I’m curious as to how you took all five senses into account when designing the kindergarten, and how those decisions manifested in the built form.
Tezuka: When I was lecturing at Harvard, one of the students asked: “How do you know about kids so well, and how can I learn about kids?” And then I said: “It’s quite simple. Ask your girlfriend to get married, have children, and then you’ll understand what I’m talking about. All parents understand it.” Always we have too much information; we don’t know what the truth is. You read books and they tell you that this is how many square metres you need for each kid—but if you have a kid, you know how much space you need from experience. When we design, it’s not just with our five senses; it’s like a sixth sense.
The design allows children to run along an endless loop. Photo by Katsuhisa Kida / Fototeca
CA: In your text Nostalgic Futures, you say that people live among all kinds of noises, and that the more one attempts to make a pure perfect world, the more distant that ideal becomes. This statement is difficult to accept, especially for architects who wish to create that perfect world. How, then, do you see the role of the architect?
Tezuka: The role of the architect is to be a part of society. In many cases, we actually don’t need to be perfect. We make mistakes, but we have to accept that as human beings. Making architecture is just like raising kids. Your kids are not perfect, and there are so many things that go wrong—but you still love them. Your architecture can imperfect, but still be adored by people.
CA: With the openness of the building, there is a heightened sensitivity to any natural change in its surrounding. How did you prepare this building to transition from day to night, from season to season, and into the many years to come?
Tezuka: It’s very important to know the elements that never change. If we give them a nice roof, one that keeps the heat in and gives endless circulation for kids to run around, that’s timeless, because kids will always love to run around. As long as you are following human instincts, you don’t need to worry about being timeless. If the basic elements of human needs are in the building design, you will be okay.
CA: Much of the interior ambience of this building is created by objects belonging to the children: their drawings, shoes, coats and hats. But it’s also created by a more intentionally designed element: the wooden blocks that are scattered through the space.
Tezuka: We made blocks because we knew the kids were capable of creating space with them. They’re quite simple, and we made many of these, though we needed to make sure of safety. These boxes are made of quite a soft and light wood known as kiri. We made this furniture light so that the children can pick them up and move around with them. We also rounded the corners, so that while we’re having fun with these blocks, this material also allows for safety.
With its large central open area, the structure offers safe, instant access to the outdoors. Photo by Katsuhisa Kida / Fototeca
CA: This is something that can be said of the materiality throughout the building. The timber blocks rest upon wooden floors surrounding trees embedded within the building.
Tezuka: Exactly. It’s also worth mentioning that the kiri timber is quite environmentally friendly, because it grows quickly and provides good insulation. It’s also locally grown, so it’s a very good material to use.
CA: This award in Canada is about looking outward, which is also something your building is about. What do you hope that we as architects will learn from it?
Tezuka: I don’t like to say I’m capable of enlightening other people, because I am also learning. But I want more people to understand what we have been doing. I am quite aware of the peculiarity in our work. It’s strange—especially in Japan. But when architects start understanding that it’s very important to design things for normal people, maybe that’s the time when architects have a bigger role in society. I can’t say anything more than that.