Kesennuma in Miyagi prefecture is far away from pretty much everything. Kind of ‘at the end of Japan’s Earth as we know it. So, what do you do there for a living? Well, Kazushi Takahashi used to be a seventh generation shipbuilder, but when his family business Takahashi Kogyo went down (think of deep-sea tuna fishing,) he turned all of his “techy” engineering skills into another advanced field — architecture! No wonder the dynamically angular buildings he laid his hands on resemble metal space ships. But see for yourself. PingMag visited his factory in Kesennuma, and in case you were wondering, this interview was first published over at PingMag MAKE, but our instincts told us to brush it up a bit for your taste, our dear Ping reader.
Written by Takafumi Suzuki
Translated by Claire Tanaka
Shipbuilder Kazushi Takahashi.
So, you were building boats?
I’m a seventh generation shipbuilder. Ever since I was a kid, I watched my father and grandfather building boats, and I helped them out too. When I was twenty-five, I’d already designed a seventy metre boat; one big enough to go out into the Pacific, all by myself! I already had the skills. The theory came later.
Now, why on Earth did you shift from shipbuilding to architecture?
Because there was no more work in shipbuilding. (laughs) When the deep sea tuna fisheries declined [in the 80s], The Ship building Industry went with it. The first thing that came along was from the Rias Ark Museum of Art [finished in 1994]. They wanted to build the museum with a curved metal surface so I was consulted to see if I could use my shipbuilding techniques to do the job.
Sounds easier than it must have been. What happened to your family business?
Simply, the company that my father and grandfather had run went bankrupt [in the early 80's]. I was about twenty-five years old then. All that was left was an old run-down house, and at that time there were ten people in the family. Well, if someone told you to go fend for yourself, what would you do? I had to go out into the wild with nothing but a triangle ruler, a pencil, and some cardboard. There were no grand plans.
The “Irony Space 2″ in Setagaya, Tokyo. The Atelier’s iron façade is maintenance free for a hundred years…
But you turned necessity into creation! What was your first reaction when they asked you?
When I listened to what they had to say, I thought that “It’s just like a ship”, and decided to give construction a try.
Brave! Is there really no difference between construction and ship building science?
Architecture is about straight lines and structural dynamics, while ships are about curved lines and fluid dynamics. Plus, another difference is that carpenters and architects can’t make boats, but shipbuilders can make both ships and houses. However, the basic science behind it, the arithmetic and physics are the same. That is the common thread between them.
So with their knowledge, can shipbuilders easily construct houses?
The Chief Shipbuilder is the one who knows all from start to finish. From drawing up the plans and going to the work-site, it all takes shape in his head. But the site for a ship is the seven seas. If a house has a leaky roof you’ll get by, but once a ship sinks, it’s over. (laughs) A boat is a little life-form, a cosmos. You’ve got to work everything: electric, air conditioning, water–into the plans from the start, or the symmetrical balance will get disrupted. With construction building, the labour is split up: If you’ve got a company with ten guys doing all the work, you can still supervise everything. But with a company of a hundred people, at that point it’s just a bunch of clock-punchers. There’s no way one person can oversee all that. (laughs bitterly…)
But still your architectural stuff looks pretty ground-breaking and technical.
There’s nothing ground-breaking or highly technical about what we do. (laughs) Manufacturing is about building on what you already know– Fifty-year-old technology in the shipbuilding world. For example, the little windows without sills in the Lanvin Boutique Ginza storefront, it’s just a steel plate with holes punched out of it. (laughs) I’d done it with ships, so I figured it would work out. It’s a fitting technique that I drew upon for that job.
Preparing for another surface.
Fitting acrylic windows into countless holes.
Lanvin’s interior with an elegant chiaroscuro.
Which would be?
It’s a technique for making use of the swelling that occurs when the temperature of a material changes. We use it to assemble components made of two different materials. We made holes in the steel plate at the factory, then inserted the acrylic glass windows into the holes in a minus thirty degree cooler. Then when we brought it to the site, the steel and acrylic warmed up and expanded, making a water-tight seal. That’s how the technique works.
Wow! How did you come up with that?
They say, coal mining is half a year of working and half a year of working out. At my factory, we only work ten months out of the year. The other two months are for working on improving skills. That’s when we work out the knots. It’s better to think about things on simple terms, and not get too big or complicated. That’s why at the root it’s all shipbuilding techniques.
The prism-like façade of the Jinbocho Theater in Chiyoda, Tokyo…
and its futuristic interior. Sci-fi galore!
Clever concept! And all of the construction projects you’ve been involved with are quite amazing.
That’s because I don’t take on boring projects that I can’t show my own family. With the Jinbocho Theater in Tokyo, I wanted to show it to my little fifth grader. So I said, “I’d like to do it if you make it look cooler, like” Gundam [main pic above]. (laughs) But while I may have seemed silly, I was really encouraging them to change the plans so that the building couldn’t be made by anyone but my company and with our Shipbuilding Technology.
Ha! Again, a clever approach!
I suppose in order for small and medium-sized businesses out in rural areas to survive, we’ve all got to have some kind of niche, right? With big corporate construction places, even if they can do the complicated techniques that we can, they don’t bother. It’s because they can’t guarantee sufficient volume. The market economy is like the Wild Kingdom. Would a rabbit pick a fight with a wolf? No. A rabbit eats grass, so it goes to a grassy field where there are none of its enemies. It’s only natural.
Quite Darwinist, your perception of the market. We hope you can take on a ton more of these amazing projects and expand!
I don’t want to take on a ton of projects. (laughs) We only do five per year. I don’t want to work too much. (laughs) Wouldn’t you agree? People are living creatures, just like animals. Sometimes they just don’t feel like doing things. It’s not like we are dealing with a thousand customers. We’ve got ten customers who spend about a thousand customers’ worth of money. In the Wild Kingdom, animals don’t hunt when their stomachs are full. Humans are logical and have the ability to stockpile. But I think it’s undignified to stockpile too much, like some IT company president. That kind of behavior just doesn’t work in the long-term.