— Frame Magazine —

Jo Nagasaka of Schemata Architects reflects on what gave him a distinctive edge

‘My first work wasn’t architecture; it was furniture. After I graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts with an architecture degree in 1998, a friend I’d had since high school asked me to “make something”. He didn’t specify more than that. Having just left university, without any experience of real-world design, I was at a loss when it came to a carte blanche assignment. Like a detective, I began probing him for clues. What kind of apartment did he live in? How big was it? How did he use it? During those dialogues with my first client, I came to understand that he wanted storage for everything – from home appliances to clothes. He also needed storage that was transportable, in case he should move house. It was difficult, because there wasn’t a specific order to the process, but by studying my client’s daily habits I arrived at a solution for making something that would improve his comfort.’

‘I didn’t intend to open a design firm. But when I started working on my first furniture project – together with a friend from university – we needed a company name and a supplier of business cards. I happened upon a word in a book, “schema”, which in Japanese means “space in between”. We named ourselves Studio Schema.’

‘Another friend from university joined the studio, and we became Schemata Architects. Things were difficult back then. We had no work. We had no connections. Nobody approaches young graduates who haven’t completed any physical projects. In Japan, architects typically train for five to ten years in an established firm, harnessing their skills and making contacts in the field before opening their own offices. Architects such as Junya Ishigami, Ryuji Nakamura and Yuko Nagayama – peers and friends from my university years – went on to work under the likes of Kazuyo Sejima and Jun Aoki before starting their own practices. I had been working part time for less than a year when I took the leap, without judiciously thinking about my career. After becoming self-employed – and with no work in sight – I was in serious trouble. Then Yuko Nagayama, who was working at Jun Aoki’s atelier at the time, called upon me to help with a residential project at their office. This slowly paved the way for my work.’

‘When I was young, I felt rushed and frustrated at seeing my peers realize works and build up their careers while I had no portfolio to speak of. But there are different ways of looking at it. Architects who train at famous firms are faced with being labelled as someone from the Kazuyo Sejima school, or the Jun Aoki school, and are expected to live up to that standard or style. Such expectations put a lot of pressure on young aspiring architects. Since I had no experience in the industry, and no one knew who I was, I wasn’t expected to have a certain style. I was free to be radical and progressive.’

‘Because I hadn’t been influenced by a specific style, I started off by mimicking other architects, always realizing that I was copying the ideas of other people. I struggled with not being able to come up with something I felt satisfied with.’



‘Renovating the Sayama apartment block in 2008 was a turning point. Until then, I’d viewed architectural design as the creation of something new: from zero to ten. I had a certain image of how a house or interior would be used. But in working on the Sayama Flats, I didn’t create anything; I subtracted. I tore away existing walls and floors – almost brutally – to reveal a fresh look. Maybe because I didn’t make anything new, I wasn’t obsessed with how the owners would use the space. Nowadays, you see a number of these types of renovations, but back then it changed my entire attitude towards architectural design.’

‘One of my first moments of inspiration came when I discovered reggae music as a schoolboy. My cousin took me to an event where people were dancing to a reggae tune. I couldn’t understand the English lyrics, but the rhythm was unlike anything I thought of as music. I asked my cousin who the musician was and eventually ended up at a record store, requesting something by Bob Marley. I loved visiting that store. The staff knew so much about reggae and told me things about Bob Marley I would have never known otherwise. Our conversations brought me closer to the man and the music. Sometimes, after a long chat, I’d buy one record. I didn’t have much money as a teenager. It wasn’t a lot of revenue for the store, but I think the staff enjoyed telling stories rather than simply selling merchandise. When people with similar interests gather at a shop, sharing their hobbies, the space becomes like a magnet. A community forms. Maybe people stay for three hours and leave with only one item, but the experience makes them return, time and time again.’

‘I think people need a sense of belonging to feel connected to a shop. Personally, I don’t like shopping. I’m a bit shy, and I feel awkward choosing clothes while the staff wait for me. There are very few stores I go to, and I go to those because I feel at home. That’s why I design retail spaces that make people feel comfortable. Where they can talk to the staff. I want to create environments in which, even if you’re alone, you don’t feel lonely.’ 

Schemata 
Architechts 

Photos Tada (Yukai)