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Klein Dytham architecture: ‘We don’t need any more grey boxes’

Klein dytham sin den

From PechaKucha to Home-for-All, Klein and Dytham’s work is to the point, self-explanatory and, above all, fun

Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham don’t beat about the bush. The founders of Klein Dytham architecture (KDa) have an infectious enthusiasm that galvanises everything from their architecture, to our Skype conversation, to their most unexpected creation: PechaKucha. This presentation format, in which speakers are invited to present using just 20 images with 20 seconds per image, was devised by the duo in 2003 and first held in SuperDeluxe, their multi-functional cultural centre in Tokyo, as a reaction against rambling architecture lectures. Since then the format has travelled to over 900 cities worldwide, forcing architects to get to the point from Kyoto to Kingston. A sort of bottom-up TED Talk, PechaKucha (Japanese for ‘chit-chat’) is neatly synecdochic of KDa’s approach to their spatial practice: to the point, self-explanatory and, above all, fun.

The Tokyo-based duo was recognised during the AR’s second Emerging Architecture Awards, in 2000, for Pika Pika Pretzel (shown above), an installation made of the inflatable material used for hot-air balloons that adorned the hoarding around a large retail project by Tadao Ando. As Jonathan Glancey noted at the time: ‘Here was a chance to transform a basic utility into a playful architectural adventure, one that would make people smile.’ Unable to win larger commissions in a climate of deep recession in Japan, the firm, headed by Italian-born Astrid Klein and British-born Mark Dytham, took on smaller projects: hoardings, installations, interiors – much like the Assembles, Studio Weaves and Pidgin Perfects currently emerging in Britain, as Jack Self remarked on last month. Pika Pika Pretzel was, however, the last in the series of hoarding projects the then-young practice would complete – its unorthodox and ebullient approach was noticed by local retailer Laforet, who provided it with its first major commission.

‘We’re obviously quite outgoing but we don’t really have a style’, Astrid Klein tells me over Skype. ‘I think our style is not to have one.’ If not an architectural style per se, the Laforet project, with its eye-catching line of silver streetside ‘trees’, certainly set out an approach that has defined the duo’s work in the subsequent 15 years. A strong sense of play and openness pervades KDa’s work, making its projects both visually appealing for predominantly commercial clients and easily readable for those outside the profession. ‘If you see a building and then go home to tell your girlfriend or your boyfriend, “Ah! I saw this great building today, we should go there next time you’re in the neighbourhood”, I think we have achieved something,’ says Klein. ‘There are enough grey boxes around. I don’t think we need any more of those.’

Pika Pika Pretzel, winner of AR Emerging Architecture Awards in 2000

Pika Pika Pretzel, winner of AR Emerging Architecture Awards in 2000

‘We’re obviously quite outgoing but we don’t really have a style’

Projects such as Koban (a community police station in Kumamoto City completed in 2012) and Sin Den (a house/hair salon from 2007) typify this approach. The former comprises a simple box structure adorned with an oversized steel parapet and a rainbow gradation painted on its inside surface, visible from street level through circular perforations. Similarly, Sin Den is decorated with a large mural – an elaboration of the salon’s logo that came from the doodle of a KDa studio assistant (‘he was a great doodler’).

As Dytham explains, these graphic interventions emerged as part of KDa’s repertoire both by design and necessity: ‘Going back to our Royal College of Art days, we wanted our work to be read by anybody – so it didn’t need an explanation. But that got reinforced when we came here and we couldn’t explain what we wanted to do in Japanese; it all had to speak for itself.’

Unsurprisingly, cultural crossover and integration have inevitably shaped the trajectory and built portfolio of the practice. When the duo arrived in Japan in 1988 they were the first foreigners to work in Pritzker laureate Toyo Ito’s office – in an era without the aids of Google Translate, Citymapper or any other helpful tool that is commonplace today. More than 25 years later, Klein and Dytham are clearly well established in the country, but still maintain the perspective of outsiders – an appealing quality for clients looking to stir things up.

KDa’s Koban in Kumamoto City

KDa’s Koban in Kumamoto City

‘We couldn’t explain what we wanted to do in Japanese; it all had to speak for itself’

Muneaki Masuda is one of those clients. Described by Dytham as the Japanese Richard Branson, this self-made millionaire and head and founder of the Tsutaya chain of book and media stores has worked closely with KDa over several years. In 2012, the firm completed its flagship store that uses interlocking T-shapes on its facade and is arranged in three pavilions interspersed with walkways that cut through the interior and exterior spaces. 

Alongside Tsutaya, KDa’s work with leading toilet brand TOTO is emblematic of how the duo has ascended from hoarding to household name. TOTO’s Washlet, an electric toilet seat with a built-in bidet, is a veritable Japanese design icon – up there with Mario and the Walkman. The brand even opened a toilet museum last year. Thus, to rank KDa’s Japanese ‘toilet of the year’ award – presented to the firm by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism for its Gallery TOTO project, completed in 2015 – among its highest accolades is no mere (ahem) toilet humour. Installed in Tokyo’s Narita Airport, Gallery TOTO is part sanitary facility, part showroom, and features LED screens that project silhouetted figures dancing inside the washrooms to passers-by. Once again, KDa turns the everyday into a colourful, playful and humorous experience.

Klein dytham  leaf wedding chapel

Klein dytham leaf wedding chapel

Of course, KDa’s integration in its adopted homeland goes beyond commercial culture. It is closely involved with Home-for-All, a non-profit organisation founded in 2011 by Kazuyo Sejima, Toyo Ito and Riken Yamamoto to provide community spaces for the populations displaced by Japan’s frequent and highly destructive earthquakes. ‘The Japanese government was very efficient in providing 100,000 temporary homes immediately following the Tōhoku earthquake,’ explains Dytham, ‘but there were acres and acres of Portakabins and no joy in them.’ Applying urban acupuncture, 14 pavilions were designed and built by Home-for-All as non-specific community spaces to facilitate, among other activities, children’s play, memorial services and community meetings. KDa’s pavilion, resembling a straw hat, comprises a latticed wooden roof supported by tree-shaped columns. So successful were these that, after the Kumamoto earthquakes in April 2016, the local government contacted Home-for-All to incorporate similar pavilions among the 4,500 homes planned for recently displaced communities. Indeed, in an era when emergency and temporary architecture is becoming an increasingly prevalent typology, Home-for-All should be seen as a vital case study for settlement planners across the globe.

‘Klein and Dytham still maintain the perspective of outsiders – an appealing quality for clients looking to stir things up’

Building with earthquakes in mind is part and parcel of architecture in Japan. During our conversation Klein and Dytham list earthquake resilience off the cuff, as a normal building consideration alongside envelope and zoning. Yet, far from being an issue, it seems the prevalence of natural disasters leads to a strong sense of transitoriness in Japanese building culture, which facilitates both a sense of creativity and sustainability that is harder to achieve in cultures obsessed with permanence and heritage: ‘When you build something here you’re not building it for 200 or 400 years. It’s not made of brick and stone, and it hasn’t got to match the building next to it … architecture is not permanent in anybody’s minds here.’ This culture of shorter time frames accounts for the more whimsical flourishes in KDa’s work: the Vrooom! garage structured like a car; Leaf wedding chapel that lifts like a giant steel veil; interactive koi carp in the digital pond at their Google Japan office.

For Klein, the lack of visual and spatial restrictions means KDa aspires to create buildings to be enjoyed by those using and living in them, not planning authorities alone: ‘I’d like to think of that as a way of being more sustainable than a building that is built according to function, efficiency and cost savings.’ What results is an architecture that is human – not in the socio-scientific sense of the Modernists, but as one that responds to emotional impulses like humour, surprise and fun. Sustaining this amiability for more than 25 years in an oft po-faced industry should be recognised as an achievement in its own right, and one from which the emerging architects of 2016 could do well to learn.

Klein Dytham architecture’s AR Emerging Architecture Award

Pika Pika Pretzel, Tokyo Japan, Winner 2000