Conversation: Between Kazuyo Sejima and Masaru Ito (president of SHIBAURA HOUSE)
Reflecting on how many of its initial aims SHIBAURA HOUSE has reached.
Masaru Ito (I):
There were two reasons for building SHIBAURA HOUSE. One of our aims was to boost the potential for our business as a way to strengthen the company’s sustainability. Our second aim was to build a relationship with the local area through the process of making a public space, while still operating as a company. Three years after our inauguration, I want to see how much of the initial vision has been accomplished, through a conversation with you, Ms. Sejima.
Regarding the first aim, I feel that the project is now starting to find its feet. I sometimes think that if we had continued working in the previous building, we might have had to close the business after two or three years. The thing is, we were only working within the narrow field of Seihan (creating screens and proofing for print jobs), and our business relationship with the outside world was limited to existing clients. Directly after the earthquake there was a time when we had no work at all. For a company working with a very limited selection of clients and existing management resources, this building brought us a lot of potential.
The biggest change is the incomparable number of relationships being made. Not only on a business level - we also have growing contact with the general public, freelancers, designers and architects. As the network expands, I feel that my own sense of value and behavior is changing. In terms of business, we see an increase in inquiries for our rental services. This may be something of an exaggeration, but I think, even when we lose the kind of work we have been dealing with in the past, I can see possibilities in moving forward by altering our form.
Our second aim was to do something for the neighborhood. This was very difficult to begin with and unpredictable, given that we are located in the middle of an office district. Now, It has turned out that we have more mothers than office workers using the space.
At the beginning, we brainstormed the ways to bring in the business community. But we gradually decided not to be too forceful, to let it be, so that the people who want to use the space come naturally.
Ms. Kazuyo Sejima (S):You might soon have local mothers setting up businesses, based in SHIBAURA HOUSE?
I: Right now, we are in fact thinking of ways to support such activities. On the 1st floor free space, we often see mothers sitting in chairs discussing work, while their children play next to them. I think it would be nice if our neighbors could use the space as they wish, just like that. When the building was completed, I remember you saying that it would be nice if children could use the space. Recently, a three-year-old boy who often comes to SHIBAURA HOUSE said he wants to live in SHIBAURA HOUSE. For small children, I believe spending time in a space like SHIBAURA HOUSE can be a formative experience. It is not like any other place, but somewhere where anyone can spend their time relaxing and following their own inclinations.
S: If a child comes to a place like this, I bet they would feel like an active player in a larger society. Children living in the countryside can go out and explore. But in a city, there are not many places where children can play freely, simply because of the fear they might get hurt, and so on.
I: What I really like, is the mix of people using the space during their lunch hours. Over here businessmen are having meetings, over there mothers convene, and in another areas you find employees like us. It is wonderful to see all these things happening in one space, and I think it is great that we have managed to create that in the middle of the city.
S: What about growing rice on the 2nd floor?
I: Actually, the other day we planted rice on the 2nd floor terrace, although on a small scale. Neighbors brought some seeds for Komatsuna and strawberries, and once in a while they come to water the plants.
S: When I heard your vision before starting the design, I was impressed with how you made such a decision. I was also impressed with your father, the previous president of Kohkoku Seihan Inc., who agreed to it.
I: As the initial vision starts to take form, we are constantly considering how we can use the space most effectively, and how to run it as a business. We must keep it going, organizing events and generating content.
S: I understood your desire to expand your existing business back then, but it wasn’t so easy to get grasp when you talked about the necessity for the company to connect with the local area in the future. You were trying to shift from your father’s business model with big cooperate clients, towards quite a new direction. The company had been building up a good track record of business, but you were introducing something totally different.
I: Yes. But by chance, the work we do with those clients started to change as well. Clients who have been delegating their work to external agencies became interested in incorporating their customers, like directly engaging with mothers and reflecting their feedback into the product making. It might be interesting if we could prepare an environment where mothers can take initiatives and run businesses.
S: I can see that people have started to adopt these approaches, but when the idea of SHIBAURA HOUSE was conceived, I think it was ahead of its time. And I am impressed with how you could predict that this would be the way forward. Your ideas prior to the building of SHIBAURA HOUSE are now taking form, as well as things you couldn’t foresee. And you are closely observing and keeping your focus, continuously.
I: I dont think there should be a fixed approach to this kind of business. In fact, many companies that have been running for a long time in the same industry are closing down.