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Co-creators who shape their visions and transform them into value.
Vol.1

Rie Azuma

Rie Azuma

Architect
President, Azuma Architect & Associates

Don't tip-toe around each other if you want to produce interesting things.

Rie Azuma of Azuma Architect & Associates has designed for Hoshino Resorts for many years. “It’s important to be able to have discussions together if you want to create things that everyone is truly happy with, without compromising,” she says. “Sometimes no one will bend what they think is best, and the discussions can get really heated.” This very attitude of refusing to bend her principles is what so many partners trust about her. We spoke to her about her philosophy toward work.

Superficial debate will not generate interesting things.

In architectural design, there is a discipline called “architectural planning,” with guidelines compiled for various types of facilities. For hotels, these would include restaurants suited to the number of guestrooms, or the ratios of shared spaces, such as corridors, within the whole. Usually, when designing a hotel, you would use these guidelines to make architectural decisions, with additional consideration to management, profitability, and so on. But that’s not our approach. We don’t work from the numbers that architectural planning tells us to use; instead, at the very first stages of planning, we think of what would please and satisfy the guest, how we want the guests to spend their time, and we work from there. The Hoshinoya project may be a deviation from architectural planning as it is generally known. That’s because approaching a project from the perspective of budget and architectural planning makes you calculate backward when you make scale and content decisions, so it’s less likely to generate interesting concepts.

The Hoshinoya project design team consists of multiple designers specializing in different fields. There are architects and interior designers like us, plus experts in landscaping, lighting, and so on. We work especially closely with the Hoshino Resorts and onsite landscaping people, starting our discussions with them from the inception stage of the concept. You can imagine how this may not necessarily result in peace and harmony for all (laughs). We begin by working together to decide on the overarching direction and concept, to which each individual then comes up with various proposals. Given our strong, assertive personalities and opinions, our debates can get quite intense, and there are times we don’t manage to arrive at a decision, in which case the final judge may have to be the client. But if the client can take a holistic, long-term view, I think we can avoid getting tied up in short-term gains and losses, so that we can steer the project toward lasting maximization of the facility’s distinctiveness and appeal to achieve profitability over the long term. Instead of just fragmented discussions on architecture or design, I go one step further and deeper in my discussions with the client. That’s the way I work.

Because the design team has both “soft” and “hard” elements, we architects must also adopt a broad perspective encompassing the “soft” operational dimensions. For instance, when we’re working on a lodging facility, we reach out and ask for feedback if it looks like our design might increase the operational load. The operation people will tell us whether they can handle the increase, or if they need us to make some adjustments for them to be able to manage. It really feels like we’re learning from each other, creating as a team. That’s why our meetings aren’t superficial; they’re about debating seriously to think seriously. You can’t generate interesting things if the client-designer relationship is one that tip-toes around each other, where the designer shows a proposal and the client just oohs and aahs and politely points out the things he or she wants fixed. No, you have to be able to discuss whether you’re really going in the right direction and to make sure you’re not deviating from the concept. Sometimes, when none of us is willing to bend what we believe in, the discussion can get pretty heated (laughs), but friction can be necessary sometimes. It’s a loss for the client if we compromise and make something we’re not happy with. When we’re unable to reach consensus, we’ll change course and try to find something that we all like. Idea A might turn into wonderful idea A, or if neither A nor B works, idea C might appear out of nowhere. Basically, the important thing is to steer toward reaching unanimous approval, and away from creating or facilitating compromises. So sometimes I’ll refuse to listen to orders (laughs). Of course, this doesn’t go for everything. For instance, we won’t dictate how to use the kitchen. That’s for the restaurant and cooking experts to decide, because no matter how detailed an architect’s planning might be, it’ll all in the realm of theory. If there are requests about space and specifications in terms of the overall concept, we’ll talk things through until both parties are happy with the decision.

Photograph: Hoshino Resorts’ Hoshinoya Kyoto, one of many Hoshinoya properties designed by Azuma over the years.

Start from the context.
That way, everyone can think in the same direction, whether design or service.

Lodging facilities are similar to residential buildings in many ways, but you can do certain things with them because visitors only stay a few nights. Something that wouldn’t work in an “everyday space” where you spend 365 days a year might morph into a special, appealing experience in a hotel. I think this kind of transformation of added value is a uniquely precious and fascinating aspect of lodging facilities. After all, residential properties are built for people to live in, so depending on the client’s lifestyle or family composition, you sometimes have to go for livability over design. By contrast, lodging facilities are partly about selling the dream life, so our designs emphasize distinctiveness and personality. Take interior walls for example. In houses, they are often white. This is because people can tire of flamboyant colors year-round, and you probably shouldn’t chase after trends for a house that’s to be lived in for many years. But with lodging facilities, you are offering guests something out of the ordinary, and it’s fun to use colors and materials that guests “do not usually encounter but wish they could” and “have always wanted to experience a little.” Still, many hotels use white, probably because large hotels want to avoid choosing anything that anyone may find annoying. But if your target guests have some distinctive characteristics, then you should be able to choose something other than white. Even if there are elements perceived as negative, you can offset the negativity by maximizing the overall appeal. In my architectural course at the university , students often come up with ideas to correct or mitigate things they don’t like about a construction site. I tell them no matter how much you fix a minus, you'll only get it up to zero at the most, so it’s better to identify what's positive about the land and design your work to highlight those elements. After all, it’s no fun if everything cancels out to zero. If there’s a compelling plus, that’s the only thing people will see.

We’re also careful to align our buildings to the local culture. In traditional town districts in Europe, there is emphasis on how buildings are designed. There is an architectural philosophy called contextualism. I took the Graduate Architectural Program at Cornell University, which was at the center of contextualism, in which design is based on an analysis of the surrounding environment including cultural and historic background. That is why, even with small houses, I make sure I read the context of the place where it’s going to be built.

When a facility has a presence in multiple regions, there needs to be a shared concept. After designing Hoshinoya Karuizawa, we took on Hoshinoya Kyoto, but we couldn’t find any cultural threads in common between the two locations. However, they both have distinct cultures and historic backgrounds which we felt could serve as the personalities of the respective facilities. Our engagement in Kyoto got us thinking about contextual personality, and our third assignment, Hoshinoya Taketomi Island, presented us with even more intense context. This further highlighted the concept of “inherent culture.” Once you get to that point, you can start choosing locations systematically, and sharing strategies with design team members. The “inherent culture” starting point also gives the service team a means to come up with methods and ideas for services and hospitality, making it easier to share concepts.

Azuma Architect & Associates also designs residences. Photo: House & apartment complex “Kikkoshin” in Setagaya, Tokyo.
©Nacása & Partners Inc.

We retain traditional materials and incorporate the latest technology as we see fit.

While we sometimes finish our buildings with mass-produced products, I prefer to leave as much evidence of human hands as I can. Architecture is, on balance, a low-tech culture, but I feel a sense of crisis about how certain materials are beginning to disappear due to mismatch with the times. Kyoto karakami paper is one such example. To make this paper, the karakami maker delivers woodblocks to the woodblock printer for printing. But we are seeing a decline in the manufacture of karakami requiring such complicated procedures. When we were designing Hoshinoya Kyoto, there was only one person left who could print large sheets of paper. The printer judges the temperature and humidity against his own skin and formulates the dye accordingly. And all of the karakami to be used in a given room must be printed all at once, on the same day, because it is affected by subtle changes in conditions. Successors take many long years to train in such fine, nuanced skills and cannot be fostered in a day. I yearn to retain these techniques as part of our culture, but to do so, it is up to us to place orders for them continuously or they will go extinct.

Architectural facilities and equipment are more advanced and convenient now, but we also need to discern whether a given item is in a transitional phase of development. Smart keys, controllers, and digital sound equipment evolve very quickly and may become antiquated in a couple of years. When LEDs for buildings first emerged, they were made in the shape of incandescent bulbs. This was because, despite the very fast technological development of LEDs, energy conservation led the way, resulting in the initial dissemination of the light bulb shape. However, LED lights are highly directional and call for configurations and technologies more suited to this property, and after a slight time lag, such products are now beginning to appear. This is also true of how we create architecture, with rapid advances in IT and computation. In the future, we may even have large 3-D printers making buildings all at once, straight from what we see on the screen. But it is an open question as to whether that is the right direction for technological advances to take in regard to architecture, and whether such directions are fun or interesting.
At the end of the 19th century, when mass production enabled the distribution of industrial products, various anti-industrial impulses such as Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement called for a renaissance of handcrafting. I believe design will continue to progress between new technologies and heritage techniques, and I intend to continue choosing carefully from both new technologies and those which retain the traces of human hands.

There are many challenges I want to take on going forward. Designing lodging facilities always entails some kind of challenge, so it’s exciting to wonder what it will be every time. In addition, I sometimes come across challenges in everyday life. Right now, it’s about creating a comfortable place to sleep. I recently moved and designed the renovation myself. It’s functionally planned, with the bedroom close to the waterworks and plumbing, a sheet of glass separating the bath and toilet, and a wash basin adjacent to the bed. So it’s a livable bedroom, but I still find myself spending most of my time in the living room. It seems just having a comfortable bed isn’t enough to keep people from going straight to their living rooms when they aren’t sleeping. I wondered how to make it so people stay longer in their bedrooms, and then I thought of lodging facilities and it occurred to me that it’s a way to deepen my pursuit of spaces to sleep in.
I’m figuring out how to create bedrooms that are as pleasant and comfortable as living rooms, that are more than just places to sleep. So this is just a small challenge that happened to pop into my mind in my everyday life, but I believe these things may sometimes develop into new projects and new products. I intend to keep questioning things we take for granted, devising ways to advance the buildings we design.

Seapal-Pier Onagawa, a tenant-type commercial facility built in 2015 in Onagawa, Oshika-gun, Miyagi Prefecture.
©Nacása & Partners Inc.

Profile

Born in Osaka in 1959. Studied architecture at Japan Women’s University, Graduate School of Architecture at Tokyo University, and Graduate School of Architecture at Cornell University. Partnered with her father, architect Takamitsu Azuma. Currently serves as CEO of Azuma Architect & Associates. Has designed Hoshinoya and other lodging facilities as well as many residential properties.

Major works
Hoshinoya, Hotel Bleston Court, Seapal-Pier Onagawa, Kikkoshin
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