Defined by a clash of Danish and Japanese cultures, Copenhagen-based architecture duo Hiroshi Kato and Victoria Diemer Bennetzen weave elements of art, architecture and design into their approach to the built world, proving that cross cultural collaboration and ‘misunderstandings’ can be a rich source of inspiration.
On a recent European stint, Melbourne based architect Andy Yu met with Hiroshi Kato in Copenhagen to hear more about the work and partnership behind KATO x Victoria.
We started collaborating based on ‘rich misunderstandings’ when we were both working for [Japanese architecture firm] Sou Fujimoto. A conversation about an idea would echo and grow quickly, but when Victoria returned with a model, I would find that I had a completely different image of the idea, and this ‘misunderstanding’ always brought a sense of surprise and depth to the project. It made the process of working together quite unique.
Lucky House in 2011 was our first project, a typical Danish garden pavilion. In a recent trend, houses in Copenhagen that are fortunate enough to have a yard renovate their old cottages into luxury summerhouses. For this project, we decided that our job was not to over indulge and re-invent the wheel. Our idea was to redistribute the existing in the sense of spatiality and materials to retain the feeling of a rustic garden.
We chopped the existing barn into a colony of four spaces – the re-organisation of spaces gives the sense that one is embraced by the cottage itself. We think this ‘richness of smallness’ was very appropriate for the cottage. With parts of the cottage pivoting, you can open an entire facade to create areas of shades or sunlight, which you can open up during the summer and close during the winter. It creates little courtyards for eating, gathering or reading. We like to call this ‘nostalgic sustainability’, where you find an old section of the cottage in a new place, or the terrace catching the same sunrise, but connecting to a new room.
Model of Lucky House
We borrowed the idea of ‘richness of smallness’ from the Lucky House project for the Osaka University Pavilion [submission to the Under 30 Young Architects Japan Exhibition]. The Osaka Garden Tower is a three dimensional reinterpretation of Lucky House. It spans several stories, intertwined with breezy gardens, sunny terraces and hanging plants. The multiplication of these small moments of happiness – gardens and terraces – creates a spacious tower where everybody’s roof is somebody else’s garden.
Prototype of the Osaka University Pavilion, Osaka
We think that sharing is very important, and we’re not the type of architects that think architecture will fix everything – especially selfishness. Wi-Fi is the perfect example, in that it is not a spatial intervention. With proper regulations, Wi-Fi has the potential to make an impact on the behaviour of people – provide incentives to cooperate with each other, and change how spaces are used. Ultimately that is an outcome that we as architects are seeking. In big cities like Tokyo these ideas were unfamiliar until the Fukushima earthquake. The U30 Exhibition gave us the chance to observe that the catastrophe really has forced the Japanese society to be bound together as a community.
In Copenhagen, most people live in very large apartment blocks. With a shared internal courtyard, a cooperative body becomes essential to manage and represent everyone’s interest. The sharing of living spaces is a display of altruism, in that by diminishing the possessiveness of the individuals, the community gains. Our focus is in the small spaces that are abundant and often overlooked – hence the name ‘richness of the smallness’. It was an opening for us to think about a new city dwelling typology.
This year we won second prize at the European 14, the biggest annual architecture competition in Europe for speculative project called ‘Sprouting Citiblocks’ which asked the question, “What can one person share with others?” We examined the floor plans of a typical Copenhagen city block built in the 1800s and found that, aside from the main access stairways, there are many tight service stairways littered throughout the building. The project proposed to transform these stairways into an outdoor space as an extension of the inner courtyard. This gesture also opens up the cramped courtyard and visually connects the public spaces, creating high impact vertical green spaces and a sense of shared responsibility and ownership. By the end of the project, we began to reinterpret the question, “What can one person share with others?” as, “What is owned by everyone?”
Digaram of the Europan 2013 Second Prize Winning Submissionn, The Sprouting Citiblocks
Model of the Europan 2013 Second Prize Winning Submissionn, The Sprouting Citiblocks
We won a competition organised by the Asahi Glass, which was a call to design a pavilion that expands the possibilities of glass architecture. We thought of the intangible space of the forest and how the mysterious fluid nature of glass could crystalise into something spacious. Our idea was to express the balance between the two. We wanted to combine glass with something very organic, and to express the fragile nature of glass. Our proposal was to insert panes of glass into the spaces between trees in a forest, to create architecture within nature. The result was a teahouse that was showcased in a gallery space in Kyobashi, Tokyo.
1:1 mock-up of the Glass in Nature pavilion in Kyobashi, Tokyo
Our biggest work to date is Superstreet, a playground in Langerrup. It began as a call-out for ideas hosted by the Danish Broadcasting Company for temporary architecture that involved the general public, with the process filmed and aired on national Danish television in the Summer of 2013. The official project was to design and build new playgrounds at a junior high school. Our proposal drew on Matsui, the Japanese festival usually comprising a central pavilion where traditional music is played. For us, this captured the happiness of people co-existing with a fleeting moment of space and architecture. It’s quite a comic situation to design playground for children. They love to hang out at spots where they aren’t supposed to – corners, spaces between buildings – not where teachers can watch them. We wanted to work with that by making something that would mix function and environment together. In the case of the skate ramp, the addition of steps were intended to attract kids to skate or simply sit and hang out, and the Monkey bars suit younger kids, and also teenagers to practice their parkour skills.
The monkey bars at the Superstreet, a new playground for the primary school in Slangerup, Copenhagen
In our first meeting, we proposed our ideas to the entire school and held a workshop with the students to propose their own ideas. They actually told us that our kitchen garden idea was lame! One student suggested surrounding the basketball courts with low walls to create a sense of an intimate valley which would also double as spectator seating. Knowing we had too small a budget to do that, we divided the wall into smaller sections and put them up for auction. Eventually we made seven of these stands without using any of the budget, they were all sponsored from the local carpenter, the painter, the masons and other local businesses – which made sense because they had kids enrolled in the school.
Basketball spectator stand at the Superstreet
Copenhagen has a huge influence on Denmark, and working in Copenhagen as an architect often carries the responsibility beyond the shaping this city. Tokyo on the other hand would be the reverse; the hugeness of the city muffles the voices of young architects. In the eyes of the Japanese public, architects are often regarded as artists or craftsmen, and for that reason their opinions on politics, economy and the society are not valued. The average European would regard architects as having responsibilities in shaping society and culture, not merely as cosmetic beauticians of the city. Danish and Japanese architects regard themselves differently too. On one hand Japanese architects are comfortable speaking about their buildings as a piece of art, seldom referring to its impact on the city overall. On the other hand, Danish architects introduce their buildings as a mechanism to stimulate urban life, rarely focussing on how they look. You get the feeling that the Japanese architects are focused on one side of the coin, and the Danish architects on another. Vicky and I like to consider both sides of the coin.
We think Copenhagen, as a more conservative part of Europe, could do with some quirkiness. In that sense we do feel very comfortable working in Copenhagen. In Denmark, I play the role of a Japanese artist who seldom speaks in public, and Vicky becomes the professional front for the office. Vicky has an extremely outgoing, fun loving personality, and I’m really a square kind of guy. We think there is an existing connection between Japanese and Danish Architecture that we’d like to explore and strengthen. Ultimately we’d like to make architecture that resonates with both the Japanese and Danish culture. We believe they possess beautiful traits and sensitivities that are similar and also different in the same time. We want to create work that connects with people of different backgrounds; we simply want to be human about our architecture.
My favourite piece of architecture is in Copenhagen: the Rundetårn in the city centre. It’s an astronomical observatory
tower built by King Christian IV in the 17th century. It’s the only tower where visitors use a spiral ramp to ascend to the top instead of stairs. The story is that the lazy king ordered his master masons to build a tower that allowed him to reach the top of the tower on horseback. I like that a misunderstanding, or a stupidity, allows new types of space and beauty to flourish. Bastard ideas and bastard architecture are special.
The Rundetårn of Copenhagen
In an average working week, I get in at 11am and stay until midnight, a habit I developed while working at Sou Fujimoto. The late nights alone give me the sense of afterschool hours as a teenager; I like to work when rules can be momentarily lifted. Some mornings Vicky will text me while I am still in bed to tell me that what I did the night before was beautiful and free. That makes me very happy, and I enjoy this freedom in my secret base. Vicky is very talented in her observations of things, and I’m very fortunate to be on her team. It is often in this particular situation that our ‘misunderstandings’ would flourish into good designs.
A diagram of the Glass in Nature pavilion
Model of the Glass in Nature pavilion
Interview by Andy Yu