In times such as these it is interesting to look back on how practitioners have survived difficult times in the past. When Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein moved to Tokyo shortly after finishing their studies at the Royal College of Art in London, the economy seemed to be soaring and Japan was seen as the epicenter of that growth. Shortly after their immigration to Tokyo the bubble burst.
Then, like now, many young practitioners found themselves in a difficult situation. However, Klein and Dytham not only survived that depression but formed a practice which is noted for its resourcefulness, humour and marketing skill. Founders of both Super Deluxe and Pecha Kucha, the pair have reached beyond the often insular architectural community to become a lightning rod for talent.
Far from being just lucky, Klein Dytham has shown the particular skill of being able to extract the most from whatever opportunity is presented to them. Mark Dytham discussed culture, practice and humor with us on a recent visit to Auckland.
When you decided to travel to Japan, what outside of architecture in Japan was drawing you?
Well the key thing about going to Japan was first of all it was the furthest place away from the UK. It was about the fact that there were no planners there, visual planners. And the fact that you could build anything it looked like from the magazines. I’m a modernist and I wanted to see pure temple architecture or where I think modernism sort of came from, so it was to see the bubble architecture but also the pure, pure base for all things. At that point I was an architectural geek in that sense, but because Astrid studied interiors and we went together, she wanted to go for Shiro Kuramata who did all the stores for Issey Miyake and so there was an interior thing going on there as well.
When you arrived in Japan, how did you find the other young architects in Japan by comparison?
We were ahead of the curve, I can remember that.
Were they more structured?
We met Ito not by chance, but we met about 10 architects we wanted to work for and Ito gave us a job, our own project in his office that we ran under our own name and we could already do that, whereas for architects in Japan, you work for somebody for eight years as an apprentice before you’re allowed out on your own. So for us to come out of college, arrive and work on our own projects was quite different I think. I’m not saying we were better, we were just different and we had the get up and go to do that and that’s changing now, young kids are coming out of college and working for a couple of years and then doing projects. So the age of anyone establishing an office has really, really dropped in Japan in 20 years, which is quite different.
Is that due to their education changing or their confidence?
I think it was to do with the economy that people couldn’t get work so they set up on their own or they found themselves in a more unstable position. When you’re in a bubble and everybody is fully employed there’s very little growth or innovation in any way, because everybody is too busy and then the whole thing collapses and the big companies don’t want any more staff but the talent is still being produced and then it comes up like shoots. It will come up in all sorts of different ways. So that’s why recessions are pretty good, they’re most interesting things.
How did you survive those years as a new practice?
Yes that was tough, I did an earner in Hong Kong, stuff that’s not really published and then in ’94 we worked on Tokyo Expo, and we were doing 15 buildings with Ito and Sejima and that was going to be our big debut onto the world stage and then it all got cancelled because of the Kobe earthquake, there was a Sarin gas poisoning and the economy was down. We did about 150 drawings, it was on site and the mayor of Tokyo decides he’s going to cancel it, so it got cancelled 18 months before it was going to open. It would be like them cancelling Shanghai just before, so that was a big blow but we were insulated because we’d seen Zaha not build anything and Peter Cook not build anything to that point. It was just normal, that’s how architects worked, nobody saw it built, so it felt okay.
So you were given some grit by seeing that.
Yeah it was just normal but we got some drawings, got foundations in the ground, that’s more than they got. And that led to ’96 when our first building got built, so that’s when it kind of started I’d say on our own.
I’ve read that you put down some of your creative insight into Japan, or into Tokyo in particular, as coming from your foreign-ness or kind of detachment from being born in Tokyo, do you see yourself as Japanese now after 22 years.
No I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be British if I went back either. It’s just interesting going to Sydney to see the Biennale and talking to David Elliot who’s the artistic director there about the notion of the whole Biennale, it’s the beauty of this distance, it’s being able to see your work from outside your skin.
It’s trying to get outside your body and see things from a different perspective. The beauty of displacement allows you to do so. We’re displaced in a different culture so you can see that culture in a different way.
That’s why we don’t do things that Japanese people do because they can’t see what we see and likewise they see Japan in a completely different way. I see London in a different way when I go back now too, so leave the cab door open because it doesn’t have the automatic closer on it and why are the subway tickets really large or why the chimneys or why the clouds are puffy and flat grained. So we say that we’re a Tokyo office and not a Japanese office and not a European or British office. We’re based in Tokyo, we live and work in Tokyo and are inspired by Tokyo, which is very different to being a Japanese inspired office. We don’t do Kendo or Judo or any of those semi-religious Zen-esque things that most German people come to Japan to do.