AR BnB 2016 Commended: Unplan turns a transient space into a forum for social and cultural connection
As a type, hostels tend to follow a strict formula. With a constant set of requirements and a limited architectural vocabulary, they can become stiflingly standardised. Universally tight budgets exacerbate the problem, as cheapness is the programme’s organising principle. Unplan, a new hostel in Tokyo, attempts to upend these expectations.
Unplan was started by Hiroki Fukuyama, a former tech executive who decided to apply his entrepreneurial talent to creating a new brand of hostel. The move seems to have been prompted as much by economic conditions as personal conviction; demand for hotels is booming ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Fukuyama sees potential far beyond the first hostel; Unplan should be seen as a brand rather than a discrete location he says, but the first hostel is important in setting the direction for the company.
Unplan site plan
Architect Tomoro Aida, head of Tokyo-based Aida Atelier, was tasked with giving this new venture concrete form. Becoming involved early on, he was instrumental in bringing the project to his home neighbourhood of Kagurazaka. The area’s traditional atmosphere contrasts strongly with the entertainment centres of Tokyo, packed with revellers and bathed in LED light. Kagurazaka is defined by steep topography, crisscrossed with intimate residential alleys. The neighbourhood is also the centre of Tokyo’s French community, adding to a cosmopolitan milieu that seems well suited to the guests at Unplan.
Rather than build ground up, the team negotiated to become the sole tenant of a building already under construction. The structure was erected by Phil Co, an urban developer that typically builds tenant space floating above parking lots on thin piloti. The Kagurazaka project, however, includes ground floor retail, a major draw for Unplan. Phil Co created the structural frame and left a brand new but completely raw interior space for Aida to shape. He apparently relished the restraints imposed by the existing structure, and vowed to ‘change the skeleton as little as possible’.
‘Aida characterises Kagurazaka as ‘wanderable’, and the organisation of the ground floor reflects this trait’
Aida, who lives and works in Kagurazaka, is proud of the local character, which he tried to incorporate into the design. Certain materials reference those found in the area, most notably the silver-painted cedar and black oxidised steel on the ground floor. The combination subtly recalls the sombre gates and fences of the older houses nearby.
The arrangement of the space itself is the more effective gesture to the neighbourhood. It is an ‘extension of Kagurazaka into the ground floor’, Aida says, while describing how he shaped the plan to mimic the surrounding urban form. He characterises Kagurazaka as ‘wanderable’, and the organisation of the ground floor reflects this trait. The reception desk is pulled away from the wall and made into an extended multifunctional bar. At one end is a check-in area, at the other a bookshelf and desk space for guests. The reception space fades into a café and bar, an entry space and street-side terrace. ‘Openness is very important,’ Aida explains.
The strategy is effective, and the ground floor is easily the most dynamic space in the hostel. The variety of activity is on full display as Mika White, the creative director at Unplan, shows me around. Some guests read quietly on seats along the wall while others ferry drinks from the bar to their friends on the terrace. A local has reappropriated the reception desk, typing rapidly on his laptop. ‘It’s completely open’, White says, adding that anyone is welcome on the ground floor. This distinction is reflected by her language, and each time I refer to space as the lobby, she gently corrects me: ‘lounge’.
The space can be reconfigured for different events, including dance and cookery classes. ‘I think the guests really appreciate the atmosphere’, White says, adding that they also respond positively to Kagurazaka at large. This pairing of opinion suggests the integration of lounge and neighbourhood was a success. Still, there are moments when this radical lack of definition is less convincing. Opening the area behind the reception desk is a bold gesture but, as I walk behind it, I feel out of place; staring at the electronic safe below the counter is particularly unnerving. I am put somewhat at ease by guests sipping coffee next to a utility room and wonder if it is my preconceptions of a hotel lobby that need to change.
The ground floor of Unplan deserves commendation for creating a challenging architectural statement with limited means, though some elements remain unresolved. I ask White about a work table near the back piled with luggage and empty boxes. She hesitates before answering. ‘We’re still figuring that out.’
‘I am put somewhat at ease by guests sipping coffee next to a utility room and wonder if it is my preconceptions of a hotel lobby that need to change’
The upper floors are organised much more clearly. They contain the bulk of the hostel’s 78 beds, which are arranged more or less according to convention. The bed units themselves are reminiscent of a capsule hotel: self-contained, stacked two levels high. Groupings of beds are separated by linear aisles and divided into larger rooms of around 20 units. Aida’s scheme provides some intrigue by breaking these groupings into masses separated from structural walls. ‘I wanted to express this as a tenant building’, he says, explaining that he treated each bed capsule as a unit of architecture in itself. This division between larger structure and individual mass expresses ‘infillness’, a term Aida tailored to this project.
Aside from any conceptual content, the separation of exterior structure and interior mass has concrete benefits. The units are set back from the glass curtain wall to the south and punched windows to the north, allowing air and light to penetrate. The brighter south facade is tempered by a gossamer floor-to-ceiling curtain, a collaboration with fabric designer Yoko Ando. Large opaque patches reference the apertures on the bed capsules inside, but Aida stresses that the proportions ‘are not taken directly from the architecture’. The patchwork of curtain, bed capsules and window mullions forms a rhythmic composition on the main facade, which Aida suggests can be read as a kind of advertisement from the street.
Other than the calculated presence of the south facade, the upper floors are less conceptual and more practical than those in the lounge below. The transition might be jarring if the logic behind it were not so clear. There simply is not the literal or figurative space to experiment. Instead of concept, Aida focused on craft, selecting materials for their tactile qualities and carefully managing details.
The bed units, though small, easily achieve Aida’s goal of ‘hotel quality’. The lighting scheme is particularly sophisticated: light from a single source is cast indirectly onto the ceiling and channelled through a diffuser to the surface of the bed, softening it so it’s ideal for reading. Outlets and a lock box are also built into the lighting enclosure. Curtains are positioned to make hooks and rails invisible, keeping the visual noise within the confined space at a minimum.
The upper floors also contain the expected showers, changing rooms and laundry areas, which are logical and attractive, neither generous nor wanting. An exception is a luxurious bath, which would never have been included had it not been mandated by an arcane local regulation. Functionally, it offers little more than the modest shower stalls, but Aida says it is ‘important as an image’, an honest assessment of the bath’s real value. Most guests reserve online after scrolling through a few pictures so a luxury bathroom gives a good impression, even if it is the exception rather than the rule.
Three private guest rooms, a third-floor lounge and kitchenette, and a public terrace round out the enormous programme squeezed into the hostel’s 570m2 floor area. ‘Hostels have everything’, Aida says, ‘they’ve become my specialty’. His genuine interest in the typology is evident in Unplan, but the sheer number of spaces and requirements also hampers the design at times. The number of materials is overwhelming, in part because the appropriate and the affordable are not always the same. Fortunately, they are managed such that only a handful are visible in any given space.
Aida’s passion for hostels extends beyond the formal to the social. ‘I hope that Japanese people will come in to socialise with foreigners,’ he says over a beer from the bar. He himself frequents the lounge, recently staging a reunion there for his classmates from an international high school in Tokyo – 50 per cent of whom are foreign born. ‘I’ve always been interested in the relationship between Japanese and foreigners,’ he says.
Unplan is a success as a hostel, and the guests I speak to are universally satisfied. Occupancy is ‘almost 70 per cent on weekdays, 90 at the weekends’, White points out. ‘Business is good.’ Delivering a workable product for the fledgling firm is part of Aida’s achievement, but more significant is his proposal for a new kind of hostel – one that integrates into its surroundings by inviting the community in. Unplan inverts our expectations by turning a traditionally transient space into a forum for social and cultural connection.
Interior architect: Tomoro Aida / Aida Atelier
MEP engineer: Ryoichi Sakurazawa / RS Setsubi Kikaku
Lighting design: Izumi Okayasu Lighting Design
Photographs: Martin Holtkamp