People | 20 QUESTIONS

Mieko Watanabe is ready for any challenge

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Name: Mieko Watanabe
Age: 46
Nationality: Japanese American
Occupation: Director at wAtelier LLC (www.wa-telier.com) and college instructor
Likes: Long leisurely brunches, coffee, traveling, dogs
Dislikes: Airplane seats


1. You grew up in New York. What brought you to Japan? I was born in New York, but grew up in Yokohama as well. My father worked at Mitsubishi Corporation and was sent to the U.S. I’m a so-called returnee.

2. What first inspired you to pursue a degree in architecture? Architecture was the only subject that didn’t drain my focus. It’s a vast and demanding field, but I always wanted to learn more and create better, no matter how tough it got.

3. How would you describe your architectural style? Right now, I try to play with the variable of time. How the built environment evolves throughout the day, or even seasons, due to the sunlight or the weather, and from varying uses of space and flow of people throughout the day. I’m interested in the temporal and the ever-evolving.

4. Japan is known for its tiny and unusually shaped plots of land. What’s the most restrictive condition you’ve worked with? One is that the Japanese worship the southern building orientation. One time my former boss did something different by designing big apartment windows facing north. Then the owner of the empty adjacent plot demanded those windows be removed, since they would look into his future units facing south. Disagreements ensued and delays occurred.

5. In 2016, you set up your own architectural firm. Any challenges getting it off the ground? I’ve always aspired to launch my own firm, so I’ve been happy to take on most of the challenges I’ve faced. One thing I can say, though, is that being a woman in this industry in Asia is sometimes still difficult, especially if you try to be on your own. But that shouldn’t hold back any woman at all.

6. Which architects would you cite as influences? I’ve always admired Kenzo Tange, especially his ability to integrate narratives throughout a building in all scales with close attention to each site’s urban context. Tokyo is also blessed with great no-name works and sensibilities in everyday settings, and living here is a treat in that regard.

7. What project are you most proud of? I’m hoping my two hotel projects in Ho Chi Minh City, which will be completed in 2020. They are a testament to great crosscultural teamwork and everyone’s willingness to experiment, especially the clients who gave us latitude to test new ideas.

8. How do you make a hotel inviting? Hotels are challenging since they must foster a sense of privacy while serving a public function. For some of my recent projects, the challenge was to find a compromise by resolving the often monotonous arrangement of modular guest room units, choosing a facade design that echoes with the interior, using visual motifs that give the place character and finding ways to carve the building volume to engage the hotel’s public areas with its neighborhood.

9. What’s the most iconic building in Japan? Misty pagodas of all types seem to govern the standard tourist literature.

10. How should the average homeowner to make their residence more eco-friendly? Personally, I try to cut down on air conditioner use. In the winter I go to bed with no heater on and super insulate myself with a thick futon and yutanpo (hot-water bottle), Showa Era (1926-89) style.

Architect Mieko Watanabe (right) with her mother, Taeko Okamoto
Mieko Watanabe, founding director at wAtelier LLC (right), with her mother, Taeko Okamoto

11. If you could live or work in any other city in the world, where would it be? Somewhere along the Mediterranean, maybe. The sun and good wine. All the sporadic ancient remains.

12. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten? No pain, no gain.

13. Do you collect anything? Ponta Points. I go to Natural Lawson religiously.

14. You’ve got full authority to solve Japan’s akiya (empty house) problem. How would you do it? I would consolidate the scattered plots and create nice open public spaces in varying sizes and with cool outdoor furniture pieces, follies and landscaping.

15. What’s your favorite Japanese snack? Kuzumochi (chilled starch cakes). It’s a simple, summery treat.

16. What’s a formative book you read in your teen years? Back then I tried to be a grownup and read a lot of Yukio Mishima thinking I understood his works.

17. Do you have any guilty pleasures? Probably online horoscopes.

18. What’s one industry millennials should actually “kill”? French fries. They are so horrible and globally omnipresent. There must be cooler alternatives.

19. Who’s your favorite Disney villain? I don’t remember any. Do people usually?!

20. Any favorite proverbs? Ichigo ichie (one time, one meeting). This proverb tells me to cherish every moment and encounter. If my mother’s sudden and recent passing has reminded me of anything, life is so short and precious.

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