Within three weeks of stepping off the plane at Narita, 26-year-old Astrid Klein and 24-year-old Mark Dytham found themselves holed up in an Ikebukuro love hotel, using hastily acquired T-squares to draw up plans for a hair salon in Ginza — one of the most expensive strips of real estate in the world.

Move the clock forward 20 years and the same pair, now the principals at Klein Dytham architecture, are sitting in the offices of Gallery Ma in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, telling The Japan Times about the prestigious venue’s current retrospective of their two-decades-long careers in Japan. Not surprisingly, they are in the mood for a little nostalgia.

Dytham, who hails from the Mies van der Rohe-inspired “new town” of Milton Keynes north of London, grew up with a fascination for Modernist architecture.

“I really wanted to come to Japan to look at the roots of Modernism,” he says of his late 1988 migration.

The Italian born-and-raised Klein, who studied alongside Dytham at London’s Royal College of Art (they were a couple at the time, though now each has their own family), was attracted more to the freedom that Japan seemed to offer.

“You had all these rules that you had to abide by in London,” she says. “Window heights had to line up, and there was color-coding for certain areas.”

“Anything seemed possible in Japan,” Dytham says.

Even, it turned out, landing a commission in three weeks and setting up an office in a love hotel.

“Before we arrived in Japan, we had sent portfolios to all the big names — Kenzo Tange, Tadao Ando, Arata Isozaki,” Dytham says. One took the bait: the then-fast-rising star Toyo Ito. Reached by phone, Ito explains that Klein and Dytham’s portfolios were so “beautifully presented” that he decided to recommend them to a friend who had asked him to design a hair salon.

“I said I would take responsibility if anything went wrong,” recalls Ito. Nothing went wrong. Klein and Dytham, who had mistakenly checked into the love hotel (“We soon realized why they were so busy at night,” says Klein), took up the work with an enthusiasm that greatly impressed Makiko Ueno, their new client. Ueno, then president of the Sanae Ozeki hair-salon chain, says she used to “wonder when they had time to sleep! They came and spent days in the (existing) salon, watching the way the staff moved, asking questions.”

Among the innovations the architects introduced were moveable stools with side-carriages for storing scissors and a hyperclean, futuristic atmosphere. The salon is still in the Nishi Ginza Five Department Store, looking as modern today as it did 20 years ago.

Klein and Dytham’s talent for presentation, noted all those years ago by Ito, is on full display at the current exhibition. Each of their major jobs is presented as a photo in a backlit sign board — the kind used in front of video shops or strip parlors, complete with garish flashing arrows.

“We didn’t want to just have the usual array of drawings and models,” explains Klein.

One work that benefits most from this presentation is their building for Sin Den, which was completed in 2007 in Tokyo’s Jingumae. A three-story hair dressing salon and residence, the building is well known for its bold black facade with a stark line-graphic in white.

“The idea was that because the building was located in such a dense residential neighborhood, we wanted to turn the whole thing into a sign,” explains Dytham.

The current graphic — a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec-like portrait of a woman — can be replaced with any image the tenant desires. The idea that architecture should have an element that the owner can adjust to suit their mood recurs in Klein and Dytham’s work.

“The typical example is designing a house for a family,” explains Klein. “I might suggest we have a nice colored wallpaper in one part of the house. Yes, you might be bored with it in five years’ time. So what? You don’t wear the same shirt for 20 years. When your mood changes, rewallpaper it.

“But in the meantime, that single wallpaper is going to make you feel better every day, because it makes you aware of the architecture.”

To complement the backlit signs on the first floor of the Gallery Ma exhibition, the second floor has three-dimensional models, although not the usual plastic or balsa-wood variety. These are “printed” inside chunks of crystal, making them seem like tiny holograms. One of the most attractive is the architects’ Leaf Chapel, from 2004. Commissioned to help revitalize an ailing resort in Yamanashi, Klein and Dytham created a clam-shell- like wedding chapel, which in the middle of a ceremony can be opened to reveal the sky. Another example of “adaptable architecture,” the chapel has now become the resort’s strongest selling point and is featured in Tokyo subway ads to this day.

Toyo Ito, with whom Klein and Dytham worked for two years (after the love hotel and before setting up their own office in 1991), sums up his former foreign charges by saying, “They seem to really believe in enjoying every day of life. That is palpable in their design.”

Still, incorporating elements of fun — or “twists,” as they like to say — in architecture requires an endless supply of fresh ideas. Klein and Dytham credit Ito for showing them how to run an office so that such ideas arise naturally.

“In Ito’s office, there wasn’t this top-down approach to design,” Dytham explains. “All the staff put their ideas on the table. It is very stimulating.”

Klein and Dytham’s other source of inspiration is Pecha Kucha (meaning “casual conversation” in Japanese), the series of open-mic talks they started in Tokyo six years ago. The format, in which each presenter shows a series of 20 slides, each for 20 seconds, has proven so popular it is now held in 190 cities.

“I saw one (presentation) on the Internet recently by a guy who only takes photos of billboards with nothing on them,” marvels Dytham. “All those little stories you hear at Pecha Kucha go into a kind of data bank in your subconscious and, when you need them, they come back to you,” Klein says.

The runaway success of Pecha Kucha has been a mixed blessing for the pair. In a country with a tendency to pigeonhole people, many Japanese weren’t sure what to make of these multitalented and ever-cheerful foreigners.

“We do a bit of architecture, interiors, Pecha Kucha and everything else,” reels off Klein. That’s why it is so significant that they have been invited to show at Gallery Ma — a venue with a well-known architecture-only focus.

“We’ve been taken seriously, believe it or not,” quips Dytham.

Still, cheerfulness and adaptability have also served the pair well in their adopted home. When you work in Japan, Dytham says, “you learn not to be confrontational, not to force people into a corner they can’t escape from.”

Recently, they took on some work overseas: a series of boutiques for Selfridges & Co. department store in London. “It was incredible; everybody was getting upset and yelling on the site,” recalls Dytham.

The contrast couldn’t have been greater. “In Japan, if anything goes wrong, if there is some disaster, then you just smile. A smile will always get you through.”

“20: Klein Dytham Architecture” is at Gallery Ma till June 6; open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (closed holidays). For more information, call (03) 3402-1010 or visit www.toto.co.jp/gallerma/

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