Changing the climate of architecture

by Jae Lee and Mike Hamilton

Staff Writers

Hokkaido-born architect Jun Igarashi seems to be a bit out of his comfort zone in the stultifying humidity of Tokyo. As he chats in the Toto Gallery, where he is holding his first solo exhibition, he explains that he’s accustomed to the cooler and more temperate climate of his northern prefecture, which many of his designs are testament to. His buildings protect against the heavy snowfall and bitter winds of the Hokkaido winter and yet are still comfortably cool in summer.

Though much of Igarashi’s work is in Hokkaido, the number of recent accolades he has garnered since the creation of his independent company 15 years ago is putting the 40-year old’s work on the map. His award-winning designs include a temporary theater in Osaka made entirely from soft, vinyl tubes of air, and a conceptual design for a lifelong learning center in Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture. It is clear that Igarashi prefers to focus on projects that have a social emphasis, often taking designs back to the raw basics and then utilizing materials to improve the buildings’ natural ventilation and lighting.

His insistence on using natural materials and utilizing structure and design for energy efficiency are also pertinent as Japan continues to struggle after the March 11 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. Many in the Japanese and international architectural industry have begun to look into how they can help rebuild the devastated coastal communities.

Igarashi explains the influence of his roots in Hokkaido and how, as a member of ArchiAid, a nonprofit network of architects that actively supports earthquake reconstruction efforts, he thinks his work could help.

Why do you think your designs differ from those of your peers?

I was raised in Hokkaido, so the cold climate as well as the large and open landscape there has had a major influence on my work as an architect. I find Tokyo a very attractive city, but as a Hokkaido native, I believe my approach to design is quiet and different compared to my more urban counterparts.

Does your life in Hokkaido present itself in your designs?

My concept of vitality is shaped by Hokkaido’s harsh winters, and although Tokyo is not as cold as Hokkaido, I find it beneficial for my clients to understand and apply the same concept. It is better to enhance a building’s ability to survive in all sorts of climates.

A more specific example is the traditional Japanese engawa (a type of terrace) design, which creates a space that is something between being outdoors and indoors. In old Japanese buildings this usually comes in the form of a nice sitting area that acts as a buffer between the garden and indoor space. The engawa plays a very important role in my designs, providing a smooth transition between the two spaces. I developed this idea from a need to create a comfortable living space for a climate that is extremely cold in the winter and pleasantly cool in the summer.

Do you have any construction material preferences?

I use lots of wooden materials. My grandfather, who encouraged me to become an architect, was a carpenter and he had a significant influence on my designs. I guess using wood was a habit I picked up from practicing in Hokkaido, as concrete and steel don’t retain heat so well.

How did you become involved with ArchiAid?

After going to volunteer in the devastated region in Tohoku, I felt helpless. Though I have the knowledge and skill, I realized there is a limit to what one person can do for Tohoku as an individual architect. We can be much more effective when we act as a group, which is why I decided to become involved in ArchiAid. It is a charitable organization started by an architecture professor in the United States to help the quake and tsunami victims.

What kind of emergency housing do you think should be created for the earthquake and tsunami victims?

Emergency houses are usually like lightweight model houses, which is unavoidable. But the houses also need to be strong and capable of withstanding whatever the weather throws at them.

Right now, it would be beneficial if the structures could reflect heat, in order to make them cooler and more energy efficient. Obviously, there’s no need to consider aesthetics — the functionality of the building should be the priority.

Do you think the Tohoku crisis will have a wide impact on the future of Japanese architecture?

There is nothing architecture could have done to withstand such a huge tsunami. For earthquakes, though, Japanese buildings are already built to quite a high standard of quake-resistance.

With the energy shortages brought about by the problems at the Fukushima nuclear crisis, I think it is inevitable that energy-efficient buildings will become ever more important. This could be done through designs to suit the climate of a building’s location.

For example, in Hokkaido it is warm inside most buildings during the winter, whereas it is still cold indoors in Tokyo because of the way the buildings are built. If architectural designs put greater emphasis on the functional efficiency of the building, it would cut their energy usage.

It is easy to change the designs of future buildings; the problem lies with improving the efficiency of existing buildings. When we manage to overcome that issue, perhaps Japan can survive without nuclear energy.

“Jun Igarashi: The Construction of a State” at Toto Gallery Ma runs till July 9; admission free; open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m., closed Sun. and Mon.). For more information, visit www.toto.co.jp/gallerma/about/index_e.htm.