When “bad” architecture is “cute”

Ken Ohyama is mad about “danchi”, the Japanese government housing complexes built en masse in the Fifties to help house the burgeoning population.

Danchi still exist, though they were overtaken by the (literal) rise of the “mansion” (condominium) in later years.

Ping Mag first met with Ken Ohyama in 2008, back when he was a real pioneer, essentially the only person interested in this kind of so-called “bad architecture” (yaba kei) and the charms of things we “do not see” in the landscape. He has published photography books, created exhibitions and events, and is a member of the Danchi-dan, a group of like-minded danchi cultural activists.

In 2008 he said that danchi were under-appreciated. Since then there has been a big “danchi boom” with music videos, films and more. He has also created a special one-off danchi exhibit with Nanoblock and even made a danchi iPhone cover.

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Junction, danchi, and factory iPhone covers by Ken Ohyama

How was the response after Ping Mag first interviewed you?

I got messages on Flickr from some people in America and Europe. Everyone saw Japan’s danchi and then recalled their own country’s residential buildings. That was really interesting and I’m looking forward to what response I get next.

Your approach is quite different to a regular “art project”. It feels more like a database than straightforward photography or art. All the photos are taken from the front and you often focus on quirky architectural points.

It wasn’t that I was suggesting that people should live in these places. I just felt that it was really interesting how there were these buildings in the city. I was joking around. I think they are “funny” but then everyone came to take them very seriously. These days if you just say they are “funny” people will call you impudent.

Everyone is taking places like danchi more seriously now?

More people are changing the way they view danchi, so you can’t joke around anymore. It’s actually become harder to do my work!

Has the 2011 Tohoku earthquake changed people’s attitudes towards danchi? Are the residences being considered more as what previously called “infrastructure”?

What we saw through the earthquake was that danchi are actually quite sturdy. The quality of the concrete seems to be much better than the concrete used today. The attitude towards danchi has totally changed. People are saying, “Oh, danchi aren’t so bad, are they?” Right now we are in an economic slump, so rather than always building more and more new buildings, people have started to see that this kind of sturdy “infrastructure” can be used for a longer time – and isn’t it cute?

But smaller danchi are being torn down and replaced by other buildings. Do you think danchi are an endangered species?

I’ve asked UR [Urban Renaissance Agency, an organization which administers public housing] about this before. I think that at some point the four- and five-storey danchi will indeed go. But the tall ones will never go. For economic reasons they will be around for a long time.

This year there are several films being released in Japan set in danchi, including ‘Minna-san, sayonara’ (Goodbye Everyone) in January.

Old films usually portrayed danchi in a bad light but ‘Minna-san, sayonara’ is really neutral.

But is there a possibility of it all becoming too nostalgic about Showa-era Japan?

That’s a thorny issue. I hate nostalgia. My generation doesn’t need it. It should be more neutral, like satoyama [a type of traditional Japanese small-scale farming] and natural landscapes; it already existed when we were born and still does today.

Overseas there are many similar public housing projects to danchi, such as in America or Europe, or Asia. And yet they are different to Japan’s. In certain places, there is often a bad image associated with these places: They are seen as “Soviet” or “slums”.

Danchi are different to the “danchi” in America or Britain. It’s hard to translate danchi.

I really want to go to Poland or East Germany. The danchi in those kinds of [former] socialist states are close to Japanese danchi in terms of the form. In the messages I got [from overseas] before, the image of danchi was a darker one, a place where poor people live. Yet in the former Soviet Bloc countries it wasn’t simply for the poor, but for a working class, which is closer to Japan.

Yes, the word for danchi is really just “danchi”. Japanese government housing is also pretty unique in its look and reputation. Is that the appeal?

If you find a “good” limitation, it leads to good design. What seems cute to me is discovering good methods for solving problems [of space], a good restriction. Right now I am interested most of all in terrain. It’s the biggest restriction. But through technology we’ve become able to ignore restrictions. If you want to build a beautiful building, you can do it. Twenty years ago this wasn’t possible.

If you had to choose a danchi to “recommend”, which would it be?

That’s a tough one! There is a danchi that, well, it’s not that I “like” it but I would recommend it as one people should notice more — the Shirahige Danchi, a 1km-long danchi that stands alongside the Sumidagawa river. It’s a fire wall. They made a park by the Sumidagawa river as a place where people can take refuge if a big earthquake hit. This danchi then transforms, the shutters all coming down and turning the building into a fire wall. It even has water cannons too. Tokyo people don’t know these things exist. This fire wall is one of the answers for what danchi can do as infrastructure in land-strapped Tokyo. There should be more things like this.


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Another is Kawaramachi Danchi in Kawasaki. Its shape is just really interesting. It’s a reversed letter Y and was made by a famous architect.

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Kawaramachi Danchi in Kawasaki

But you’re not just interested in danchi, right? You have also for a long time photographed and done work promoting other forms of infrastructure and architecture, such as junctions, railway bridges and factories. You also conduct special tours of factories for other enthusiasts. Even your home is a renovated bread factory.

I do tours in places where there are lots of factories, Kitakyushu, Kawasaki and so on. I want to do things where people actually go to see places. A danchi is someone’s home so you can’t do a tour, but with factories, you can go and see it. With junctions, we hire a bus and sometimes do tours where you can look at it from underneath. With photography, it’s not that I want to show photographic artwork, rather than these kinds of places exist in Tokyo and Japan, but people aren’t looking. If you do look, it’s really interesting – I take photographs as a method for making people realize this. Being able to do tours is the really right way to achieve this goal.

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Factory photography by Ken Ohyama

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“Bad” infrastructure like junctions can be beautiful!

Do you have any future plans?

Next I’m doing a photography exhibition in Osaka. Also, now I want to make a book of all the places that people call “bad architecture” but I think are interesting. If we look at them we can see “real Japan”. It should be released this year. And there must be people around the world who think the same as me, so please contact me!

Thank you very much, Ken Ohyama!

Ken Ohyama’s exhibition will be shown at 31th March – 20th April in Osaka in digmeout ART & DINER.

Learn more about Ken Ohyama’s work via his website.

Read Ping Mag’s first interview with Ken Ohyama from 2008.

  • Nova Adams

    Thanks for great post…!!

  • Digory

    oh my daaaaayyzzzz pingmag came BACK!

    okaeri!! :)

    i hope you are all well!