Penguin Environment Designs



Conversation with Architectural Designers Yoko Kawai and Takaya Kurimoto

Kawai and Kurimoto use spatial concepts drawn from traditional Japanese architecture and gardens to create a better, healthier, and perhaps more enlightened environment for living and for work. Erasing boundaries between what is “outside” and “inside.” And between “work” and “home” and “play.”

They describe themselves as serving the community- not imposing their ideas from above but working with the community’s own idea of itself and its needs. They want their architecture to foster new, positive relationships between the environment and its inhabitants – to aid people’s health.

Kawai’s idea of this new view via architecture is drawn from the tea ceremony: “To enter the tea ceremony hut, guests must humble themselves, on hands and knees, crouching low, like a cat, through “the crawling door.” Once inside, the first thing they will see, is something beautiful- calligraphy, or a flower which they wouldn’t have seen had they just walked in.”

Kurimoto summarizes: “This is a feature of landscape design: we ‘expect the unexpected.’ Nothing is absolute. So when we design we imagine nature’s soul.”

Our conversation at the Japan Society on New York on May 31, 2018, has been edited only for content, is below.

Your company is named PED for Penguin Environment Designs – can you tell me, why did you choose “penguins” as your corporate name?

We like that animal, that bird- the penguin!

But the real reason we chose that name is the abbreviation, PED. Which stands for “pedes” – feet, in Latin. Buildings we design must appeal to people on foot, rather than be viewed solely from afar from a car or an airplane. That’s the only hidden meaning to the name.

And Japanese people love penguins too!

The central goal for PED seems to be that the space you construct should convey “mindfulness.” What do you mean by that?

Yes. For us, it means that mindfulness should be a part of the space we construct. At work it’s good to be mindful always but it’s not always necessary.

The office space should include space that makes you feel mindful- by relaxing- not necessarily concentrating. Space supposedly created only for efficiency is not actually efficient at all. People can’t function that way. They need a little time off, in order to be really efficient, and that’s what scientific studies have started to find. When you bring more nature into the working space, designing the space in a different way, actually you produce a lot more.

You mean that you produce more because you’re happy, living in a combined work/life environment, all the time?

Yes. If you’re a writer, for example, you can’t just write all the time, and keep quiet, with your head down. You want to look outside as well- you need windows, a landscape.

So mindfulness is actually a very important element, in each office. If you’re saying that each office should include mindfulness, yes. But we shouldn’t define space as being all for relaxation – we need concentration too. Some active stimulation.

I’ve noticed that in my inbox every third message has to do with mindfulness or happiness! And you’re touching on both states as they relate to architecture. Can you discuss further?

The two are related! It’s a good question, because I don’t know what happiness is! All that research – they talk about the image of happiness, it varies from person to person.

(Penguin Environment Designs)

But at least if the minimum condition of happiness is defined as “not feeling sadness” – if the condition of happiness is for you to know how to deal with things that are not making you happy, then mindfulness is very close to that of happiness. Isn’t it?

I think that at least for me being mindful means that if something is not making you happy then you have to take notice of that and know how to live with it. And if mindfulness is helping that condition then it is the way to bring you closer to happiness. But it may not be happiness for other people!

You comment about creating a good work environment, with multiple organizations sharing office space. What has been your experience with this?

People are people, aren’t they? Even if you’re working all for the same company, what makes you mindful should be the ingredients to make the space for mindfulness. It should work for one company and also for multiple companies.

And also, again, mindfulness is not the only thing that we design – in creating the working space we have to make a space for collaboration within the building and in the communication with people outside the building too.

Your blogs – which by the way are very fresh and lively also mentions your ideas about cats in relation to architecture. Are you a fan of Natsume Soseki’s book, I am a Cat? Do you have cats?

Yes, two cats, and we love them! They too are sensitive to architecture. Our cats tend to walk on the roof, savoring the cool slightly humid tiles in the heat of summer. Through their paws.

Is this point of view re: the relationship between cats and architecture unusual?

Maybe. If we look at the cat s/he helps us to have a different view of space. Usually cats jump up to the roof, to the high points, where they can play and live comfortably. Animals and humans have different views of space.

I never thought about this idea – as unusual. It is usual for me! It may have something to with the fact that I am putting myself in the body of the cat as I am talking and writing.

So if you have questions about what the cat sees and experiences, you can also ask your cat!

I’d like to ask you about your ideas about “designing from the outside in” and “focusing on spaces for well-being.” Can you discuss?

In our architecture we connect the two ideas – “outside in” and “spaces for well-being.” You could say we want to erase the boundary between inside and outside. We don’t want to stop people from going outside. In our buildings they will encounter the outside, from inside the living and working space, as well as in the outside.

“Bringing the outside in” to a space, suggests also that in this kind of space you tend to notice the elements of nature. Like the air. And green things. And water. These elements will come in to be a part of your life whether you are actually sitting inside or outside.

When we are given an architecture project my partner, a landscape gardener, has kind of invaded my ideas about what should go on with the inside- with his ideas about designing the outside.

When we are working together on a landscape project we do the opposite. I invade his territory! And advise him about how people look from the outside in, and the opposite. Another element of “outside in.”

You suggest that in your architecture there is a seamless flow from ideas of traditional Japanese architecture, to the present. In your blogs you often refer to elements of traditional Japan architecture.

Both my partner and I write the blog, taking turns. Thank you for reading it!

Regarding the tea ceremony hut.

To enter, guests must humble themselves, on hands and knees, crouching low, like a cat, through “the crawling door.” And inside the hut the first thing they will see, is something beautiful- calligraphy, or a flower. But they wouldn’t have seen them if they had just walked in. This new view is part of what we want architecture to do for people.

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Also, you comment on architecture as impermanent, like the red leaves of Japanese maple trees, and pink cherry blossoms. It’s so different from Western ideas.

Yes. We don’t think of architecture as something that sticks to a specific time. It can change, according to the times and to the history of society. Architecture can be on a different scale. Like us humans. It can reflect a changing environment, changing ways of living.

Are you saying also that if you sit correctly – in a healthy building – you feel better?

Yes! It is so important to maintain good posture! Don’t slouch! If you do slouch you convey to people that you are not interested in what they say. But if you change the way you are sitting, you are no longer closed inside yourself but looking out. And up. A positive change.

And if you sit correctly you become medically correct too. Maintaining good posture in good buildings sends information to your brain that you are happier and healthier in your environment.

Buildings also can provide us with space for well-being. And help us to be healthier and happier. That is my passion: to learn how we can use buildings for people to become healthy.

Even though we don’t talk about this so much in architectural school. In the spaces we have designed, you have to sense that you are a part of that space. When placing a chair in a room we are designing that combination – but it’s you who have to sit there. You who look up and enjoy the view. And become healthier. And happier. We need the help of the body.

You have said that spatial design should reinforce value among workers so that when they’re working, they feel as though they are still at home. Can you speak a little about work and life, and healthy buildings?

The younger generation of architects have started to embody this idea of merged work and life- that they should not be separated. You pursue the things that you love and your living /residential conditions should reinforce this. Work, life and play should be combined together in one’s life style as well as in the space.

For my PhD, I explored how urban residential space relationships have changed since people began to do telework (working remotely). But the idea is- in order to be healthy and happy, you have to choose the place where you like to be. And work in the way that you like.

In Japan and in the States, spatial design and distribution for residences and offices makes it very hard for people to do what they really like. You may live in a residential area, in a typical suburban environment (USA) or in a typical super-urban condominium in Japan. You commute to the city to work in a building that was designed only for work. But having one space just for work and another place just for living– is not making us healthier. Or happier.

The distribution is wrong. The spatial design is wrong. Because our typical house does not have a space to work. And our office does not have space to relax. When you are spending 8 to 10 hours in the office every day it’s a very long day. Even though you are working you still need to relax. To eat. To get some sun. For your body to function. And the current design of the office is not helping.

It sounds as though you’re really talking about a completely different model for work – for what constitutes “work.” And as though you construct buildings and gardens that help to create a better work environment. Embodying space for mindfulness as well as for collaboration and concentration.

Yes, by using the spatial concepts that we discovered by studying Japanese architecture and gardens. Because it’s not a uniquely ethnic Japanese concept- it is a concept that could be used in a universal way.

And you’re right; there is a lot of talk these days about the need for mindfulness, happiness, and healthiness. And so far, when we see studies about healthy space and the healthy mind it is more about the elements of nature because you can quantify. You can measure the air, what degree of humidity we should have, and how much of what we see should be green, but we don’t always know how to put them all together. To create a space that is good for health. And good for your mind.

In the list of your major work projects, I saw that you had done a proposal for a Tohoku town project. Can you tell me more about that?

Yes. The title is “Expect the Unexpected.” It is quite a different project for us. We are doing it with structural engineers in Japan. What we have tried to do was to keep our intervention minimal. Are you familiar with the geography of Tohoku area? They have very high mountains close to the ocean, with very steep slopes, and people used to live in a tiny flatland close to the ocean. The people are fishermen.

After the Tohoku disasters what happened was that the government thought it should cut down the mountains to make them flat- to make flat land so that people living close to the water can climb up to the flat land and build a new town.

And we thought that this idea: It’s not very sustainable, changing the geography and it’s quite different from what the people want to do in their lives and also what they are used to, living in a small area very close to each other. And they want to be closer to the ocean where they work. By cutting down the mountain you have a quite different sphere- water area, flat area- it’s so remote.

Instead, we thought we should cut into the mountain in a very minimum way and introduce the streets which are very narrow and might be passable by the tiny Japanese cars, and then introduce the special structures that our structural engineer designed.

That’s the combination – it’s basically wooden cubes. You just combine them. They’re very strong. It’s a square box but it has one direction – you just stick them together to each other to create this box that is completely open. It’s not really solid but you have a narrower space in between them this way. Because it’s so small and made out of wood people can build in a conventional Japanese carpenter way at the site using trees, the lumber. Because it’s so easy to build you can combine them.

So the idea is that when the disaster hit nobody has any money, but you can start with this tiny set of units. Over the years when things have settled down you can make an addition. In that way the community that used to be downstairs near the ocean can be maintained in proximity, it’s just a steep zig zag path. The structure is small. It can track into the mountains. It’s not invading.

How has it been for you here, serving the community as architects?

Kurimoto: This is a feature of landscape design: we “expect the unexpected.” Nothing is absolute. So when we design we imagine nature’s soul. We are providing lots of choices. We don’t know the community. So the community needs to think about these issues by themselves. We are just helping.

Kawai: We are not dumping money on them. Or ordering them to go into the building that we have designed. And also, that tiny square box construction has proved to be very strong. At the structural level the experiment worked not only for the earthquake but also for the landslide.

This has been a wonderful interview for me because you are so excited yourselves about your work. I want to thank you!