Drab, repetitive, formulaic, plain: some of the more polite adjectives that might be applied to most condominium design in Japan.
Welcome to the exception: Maison AoAo, completed in March in Tokyo’s Kichijoji district, is a collection of 13 condominiums built around a central courtyard and featuring an unusual series of graceful steel rings that protrude from its concrete facade. The building is the result of a collaboration between one of the nation’s most sought-after architects, 53-year-old Jun Aoki, and one of its most respected sculptors, Noe Aoki, who is two years his junior. What brought these two unrelated Aokis together was a client with particularly artistic tastes: Michiko Fukui.
“I wanted an architect who could create a building in which a good relationship could develop between the building and any works of art you put inside it,” Fukui told The Japan Times last month in describing how the project began.
When Fukui’s mother passed away, she was given the opportunity to rebuild on a sizeable, 934-sq.-meter block of land in Kichijoji that had been the site of the family home, her doctor-father’s former clinic and a block of one-bedroom apartments.
“In 2008 I decided that instead of just renovating the buildings to make them last longer, it would be best to build something new that would last,” Fukui said.
The initial search for an architect who would create a building suitable for showing artworks — Fukui is a collector of both classical and contemporary pieces — led her to Aomori Prefecture in the far north of Honshu, where in 2006 Jun Aoki had built the Aomori Museum of Art.
“The museum and the art were in harmony — one wasn’t competing with the other,” Fukui said.
Aoki, whose other works included many single-occupancy residences and retail spaces (such as Louis Vuitton shops in central Tokyo’s prime Ginza and Roppongi shopping districts, and in New York), had never done a residential property of this size.
“Chances to rebuild on such a large area of land in Tokyo are rare,” Aoki said. “Unless you do it carefully, there’s a risk you will detract from what is a very nice, unique residential area.”
In deference to some of the old redbrick houses that still exist in the area, Aoki clad all the walls facing the internal courtyard with brick, though the core structure itself is concrete.
True to his client’s wishes, he gave each of the 13 condominiums — and a 14th residence for the owner — generous wall space for hanging paintings. The rooms are also uniformly bright, with pale-colored polished wooden floorboards and windows facing both the courtyard and the street.
But the real artistry of the project came to fruition when Jun Aoki asked the sculptor Noe Aoki to come on board.
“Because the street frontage is so long, I wanted to have something to mediate between the concrete wall and the street,” he explained.
“It occurred to me that an sculptor such as Noe Aoki could create forms in steel that would form a kind of psychological buffer.”
The client liked the idea, and so the plans and models were delivered to Noe’s studio.
Known for her large steel sculptures — generally involving simple compositions of rough geometric shapes — Noe interpreted the offer as a chance to escape the usual forums of artistic presentation.
“When my works are shown in a gallery, people look at them as works of art,” she said. “In a way I am protected by that. But here people wouldn’t realize that. They would be starting from the question: What are those round things?”
And, sure enough, it appears she is right.
“I guess they’re some kind of decoration,” said one female passerby in her 50s last month. Looking up at the various steel protrusions loosely clustered around each window, she continued, “It’s different from the usual type of house, so that’s interesting.”
Fukui ended up so happy with the sculptures mounted on the external walls that she asked Noe to make one for inside. The amenable artist duly whipped up a piece for her kitchen that would double as a utensil rack.
Fukui declined to reveal the overall budget for the apartments but noted that the architectural and artist’s fees had considerably inflated the overall cost.
Nevertheless, she’s sure it was worth it. “Artworks are things that you can actually have a dialogue with,” she said. “They’re a reminder that there are people who can make such wonderful things.”