Japanese architecture firm DDAA’s design for an incubator in Tokyo redefines how we think about the concept of both the agile office and the client-architect relationship. By drawing on a culture of impermanence to create a space that evolves with its users, the firm has defined a new philosophy of workplace design that overturns the failing model set by its counterparts across the Pacific.

Taizo Son isn’t your average client. As founder of venture capital firm Mistletoe, he’s invested hundreds of millions of dollars in early-stage start-ups looking to transform a broad spectrum of contemporary challenges, from how we use the bathroom to how we collect space debris. The one constant is that they are all aggressively future-facing, upturning established thinking in their respective sectors. Little wonder then that when DDAA was asked to work on a new Mistletoe incubator in Tokyo, Son’s brief didn’t correlate with the standard office concept. Rather than provisioning desk space, he wanted the practice to instead engineer an environment that would foster ‘serendipitous’ connections among the VC’s resident innovators.

Of course, serendipity has long been an aspiration of modern office design, especially for those working for tech-inflected businesses. However, DDAA’s proposal offered a radical new take on what form such so-called agile workplaces might take, one that would come to redefine the relationship not only of user to building, but also of client to architect. ‘Our suggestion was to create something that would be a perpetual ‘β version’ of an office,’ explains principal Daisuke Motogi. ‘A typical building has a clear moment of completion: design precedes construction precedes completion precedes use.’

As Motogi explains it, beta architecture is never truly completed, so use can precede design and construction and on and on as the cast of tenants changes. ‘What we offered was to be involved in the metabolism of the place. The space will continue to change as we, the architects, continue to design. In fact, when I signed the contract, Mr Son questioned whether we could create a new type of agreement that would reflect this form of perpetual collaboration.’

In turn, this feedback prompted the practice to create a new organization – DDAA LAB – to manage their ongoing partnership. This will adopt the same sort of ‘move fast and break things’ attitude as the start-ups that inhabit the Mistletoe office, resulting in what DDAA loosely terms as an ‘experimental future living space’. Some of the earliest evidence of this will be the nomadic kitchen and shower units it is developing in conjunction with the start-up WOTA, which will help free the office space from the infrastructural tyranny of the service core.

Another case in point was a recent event that required Mistletoe to provide seating for 100 participants. Rather than buying 100 regular stools, the architects set up a workshop to consider the particular functions that guests would require, such as the ability to store luggage, a range of sitting heights, space to place a drink or a laptop or a note pad. What they came up with was a system for adapting Finnish brand Artek’s Alvar Aalto-designed Stool 60, using a range of new parts. Ideas for some 100 upgrades were developed.

The space will continue to change as we, the architects, continue to design

But how do you translate such an attitude of irregularity into an aesthetic that doesn’t end up reading as merely ‘unfinished’? For DDAA, the solution lay in taking base elements that are usually fixed by finishes and presenting them, frankly but elegantly, in a manner that celebrates their own unique qualities: metal-stud framing gleams, taped and filled plasterboard creates a soft interplay of tones, rough-edged concrete aggregate sculpts thresholds. Throughout the space, in what’s becoming something of a DDAA signature, data cables add pops of acid-rich colour. Rather than unfinished, a better word might be inchoate, which translates as ‘just begun’ or ‘being only partly in existence’. Altering this space would never feel like an act of destruction, but a natural evolution. The building achieves a sense of forward energy or emergence that’s entirely in keeping with Mistletoe’s mission to incubate the next world-changing innovation.

And while the investor’s ambitions are clearly global, the design ethos of the space is very much local. It’s consequential that Motogi used the term ‘metabolism’ to describe his involvement with this project, a term that also titled Japan's most significant architecture movement of the last century. Borrowing from the biochemical process by which an organism’s cells generate energy and new components, Metabolists conceived of architecture as an exercise in continuous self-renewal.

Altering this space would never feel like an act of destruction, but a natural evolution

DDAA’s design operates on a very different scale to the city-sized megastructures proposed by predecessors such as Kiyonori Kikutake and Kisho Kurokawa, which were too complex to ever successfully be implemented. In applying that philosophy of impermanence to a more manageable ecosystem such as the workplace, and devising the sorts of relational and contractual devices necessary to keep its biology functioning, DDAA has found a viable new habitat for such ideas. Perhaps more importantly, it’s using them to breathe life into a sector that’s also desperately lacking in vitality. The Mistletoe office sits in stark contrast to the pseudo-fun interiors that Silicon Valley has long been exporting internationally, which offer freedom of expression only within tightly controlled parameters and have become symbolic of that industry’s increasing lack of diversity in thinking. That’s the death of innovation. For Son, investing in design might be his shrewdest bet yet.

Architectural innovation isn’t confined to the building itself. In fact, the success of the project may rely on innovation further up the production chain, such as in the nature of the contract – and thus the terms of the relationship – forged between client and architect.

This piece will be featured in our forthcoming November-December issue, Frame 131.