In Japan, an Architect Takes a Design Lesson From the Homeless

In Japan, an Architect Takes a Design Lesson From the Homeless
"Mobie House" at Muji SOMA & Kyohei Sakaguchi
(Courtesy J-Pop Summit )

While studying architecture at Waseda University in Tokyo, Kyohei Sakaguchi’s interest in the practice of building on top of existing buildings led him into researching a graduation thesis on a different topic: the ways in which the homeless in his city were able to live on the streets. Forming relationships with a few of the people he met allowed him to learn how “mobile houses,” created using hardly any funds, can also support a relatively minimal standard of living. “How to Build a Mobile House,” a documentary that made its U.S. premier during the inaugural Japan Film Festival in San Francisco, follows Sakaguchi's process of building one of these with the guidance of a homeless person. During this event, which took place from July 27 through August 4, Sakaguchi also built a mobile house on-site over a day with the cooperation of Muji USA, which is now currently on display at Muji SOMA, San Francisco and will be sold under a silent auction.

BLOUIN ARTINFO Japan met with Kyohei Sakaguchi during the Japan Film Festival and asked him about the film and about his future plans as an artist, author, thinker, and  “architect who does not build.”

How did this documentary, “How to Build a Mobile House,” get started?

I was studying architecture because I wanted to become an architect, but I started feeling a sense of discomfort in building something new. There are so many buildings already in existence. Instead of building something new, I wanted to do something that evokes ideas like “what is a home?” New houses were being built despite having 6 million to 7 million abandoned houses. At the same time there were tens of thousands of homeless people. I started questioning that reality. That’s when I started searching for something to do without actually building new buildings.

It was around that time when I met a homeless person. He lived in a small dwelling, covered in a blue sheet with a solar panel on the roof. At first I thought it was just a decoration, but come to find out he purchased it for about 10,000 yen at Akihabara and installed it himself.  He then charged it using a battery he got at a gasoline stand for free. All the simple electronics that he owned were powered by solar energy. Usually home electronics only need 12 volts, so it’s really unnecessary to have a hundred volts, which has become a standard in regular homes. Even though it’s unnecessary to have a hundred volts in a home we tend to believe that that’s what we need due to being tied down to a fixed concept on what a “house” is. The homeless present a flexible idea which I call layers, which signifies multiple elements combined together to create a home, quite different from a fixed idea of what a “home” should be. This is what inspired me to build a mobile house and that’s how this film came to be.

Is the film being shown in other countries as well?

Yes, it’s being shown in Sweden, Slovenia, and Berlin, Germany. I built mobile houses in each location. Housing problems have become a big issue everywhere and people showed a great amount of interest.

The demonstration of building the mobile house is co-sponsored by Muji USA. How did that collaboration start?

It seems that someone from Mujirushi read my book. Also, after the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, no one said anything and many people wanted to escape but had nowhere to go. I thought to myself if the government isn’t going to do anything about it, why not make my own government? Many agreed with me and currently there are about 38,000 citizens. There isn’t a strict rule of what defines a “country” to begin with. It’s more like an illusion. Through research I found out about the Montevideo Convention, a treaty signed in 1933, which set out the definition of what a country is as an international law. According to the treaty, the four criteria of statehood consist of: a permanent population, territory, a government, and the ability to enter into relations with other countries. I fulfill these four criteria [with the “Mobile House,” so if I were to declare that it’s a country, it would become one. I created a country called Zero Public. Muji followed my activities, which lead to their co-sponsorship.

You are called an architect “who doesn’t build.” Do you have any desire to build so-called traditional buildings, like houses or some sort of facilities?

It’s not that I don’t have any desire to build traditional buildings. It’s just not my main focus. I don’t wish to deny that either. I always say, “don’t try to change the world.” I don’t feel the need to change the world. I think the present way of architecture is fine just the way it is. Rather than changing, I’d like to expand possibilities, new dimensions, and different perspectives.

You paint as well as publish books. Have you always had interest in multiple fields?

Yes, I have. When I draw it’s always on paper with ink. But in my own drawings I sense the desire to build something, even though I don’t build anything in actuality. I recently published a book titled, Gen Nen Jidai (Illusory Childhood),  which depicts a memory of my first ever 20-minute walk of a mere 400 meters from my home in a public housing to kindergarten. One can feel a certain closeness to architecture and a sense of space through the text. So although I do a lot of different things, there’s no doubt that I have interest in space.

Is there a particular artist that you were inspired by?

There was a postman in France named Cheval in the late 19th century. One day he tripped over a stone and fell down. Inspired by that stone, he began gathering stones and created a building out of them. The building is called, “Palais idéal du facteur Cheval.” I saw that building when I was 18 and was very moved by it. It’s not architecture, but it kind of is. I’m interested in something like a “nest.” I use the word “layer” a lot. I recently found out that the word “lair,” which sounds like “layer,” could mean “nest,” which seems like a coincidence that matches this interest.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m into many things and it’s impossible for me to just focus on one thing.  Another book of mine is being released next month, which is the narration of the film “How to Build a Mobile House.” I suffer from bipolar disorder and would like to do some research on that topic and publish a book that mainly consists of a diary. Also, an acquaintance of mine donated a mountain that consists of over 861,000 square feet, so I think it would be fun to create something there like a Disney Land.

The Mobile House built by Kyohei Sakaguchi will be on display at Muji SOMA (540 9th Street, San Francisco) through August 28th, 2013.

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