Keiichiro Sako: Mr. Blunt 
Keiichiro Sako looks tired. We’re sitting on the twentieth storey of Tower 8 in the enormous Jianwai Soho complex in Beijing, designed by the Japanese architect Riken Yamamoto. Sako was the project architect and led Yamamoto’s outpost in China. The experience served to whet his appetite. In the spring of 2004 he started his own firm in Beijing, together with a translator. Now, five years on, Sako Architects has 24 Japanese and three Chinese architects and four translators.
During the interview we are joined by two translators. Although Sako speaks good English, now and again he lapses into his native tongue, Japanese. One of the translators interprets his words into Chinese and the other translates this into English. Work comes easily to him, he says. ‘It’s just fun.’ However, he tells me that a friend recently called him a workaholic, specifically because he plays down his heavy job.
Why did you want to become an architect in the first place?
Keiichiro Sako: When I was 8 years old, we lived in a house near a big lake. One day, I decided to make a ship. While I was working on my wooden model, I saw two carpenters making a two storey timber structure. It seemed huge to me. I decided right on the spot that I wanted to become a carpenter. Three years later, at the end of the school year, our teacher asked us what job we would like to do in the future. I wanted to write down ‘carpenter’. But my friend, whom I thought also wanted to become a carpenter, wrote down ‘architect’. At the time I didn’t know what an architect was, so I asked him. He explained to me that it was the same as carpenter, so I wrote down architect too. Only later it turned out that it was something completely different.
27 years have passed since then. How would you now define what an architect is?
KS: My architecture expresses who I am. To design a building, to be an architect, is my favourite occupation. I can’t think of anything else. This is my path and I just follow it.
How did you end up with Riken Yamamoto?
KS: The reason I started working for him was his building complex near Ryokuen Toshi Station. It fascinated me. In my view, it has a beautiful relation to the surrounding streets. I worked for him for eight years and was in charge of three projects: the Nishi Fire Station in Hiroshima, the Shinonome Canal Court in Tokyo (a large urban development including designs by Kengo Kuma and Toyo Ito) and Jianwai Soho. We took part in the competition, won and started to design in 2000. After that I established my own office.
Why did you decide to establish your office in Beijing and not in Tokyo?
KS:A Chinese friend introduced me to a client from Jinhua city. He asked me to build the Cube-Tube, a building for the local Transport Bureau on a site of about 10,000 m2. For a young architect this was a big opportunity, so I established my office here, as I was already familiar with the city. There is also a Tokyo branch of Sako, which is very small. There are two architects working on one or two projects at a time. I go back and forth at least once a month. Beijing is my second home.
How would you explain what Sako is about?
KS: I do not engage in profound thinking, nor do I have any long-term ambitions. If my Chinese friend hadn’t introduced me to the client in Jinhua city, I would not be here. So I take it from there and just try. I didn’t choose this way myself; it was just a coincidence.
Really? Jianwai Soho was one of the most important projects in Beijing at the turn of the century and you had an important role in it. How would you explain the basic idea of the design?
KS: There are two big ideas. The first deals with making public space in a crowded city that is accessible to the public 24 hours a day. We achieved this by putting the parking spaces underground. The second deals with our approach to the design of a large building. We pursued a minimalist design, with white columns and 500-mm-wide beams throughout the buildings. We also rotated the buildings to an angle of 25 degrees to the north-south axis. If we would have done it according to Beijing tradition, on the north-south axis, the north façade would never get sunlight in the winter. By rotating the volumes, we also avoided façades that are directly facing each other, as this is a very narrow and dense set of buildings.
And what is the basic idea of the design you did for the Romanticism project in Hangzhou?
KS: This was the first shop of the Romanticism brand, which has over 500 shops. The client asked me for a design that no one could copy. There were no other requests. My design style is that if a client has a requirement, I try to get a grip on his thinking and bring it further. As there were no requirements, I questioned the concept of the boutique, the clothes and the relationship between body and space. In the end I designed an organic net winding through the space. Clothes are our second skin, space a third skin, and my design is positioned in between the clothes and space. It’s like a piece of furniture that you can hang clothes on and it changes its shape into partition, counter, chair, furniture as well as railing.
Your Lattice project in Beijing is located in the popular Sanlitun entertainment area. Where did the idea of the lattice come from?
KS: The requirement of the client was to incorporate a sense of Chinese traditional design. The building is located in the heart of Beijing’s nightlife area, therefore the nocturnal aspect is very important. In order to deal with both requirements, the building is finished in goldcoloured mirror-finish stainless steel panels and cast iron screens decorated with traditional Chinese window patterns, to create a Chinese atmosphere with a modern touch. These mirrors can reflect the light. The idea is similar to one of my first projects in Tokyo, in which I scratched the material with a grinder myself. I like this effect a lot. It’s all about light, reflection and deflection.
In general, it seems very difficult for architects in China to guarantee the quality they want during the execution of a project. How do you deal with that?
KS: It’s true: we can’t execute the ideal quality. My strategy is just not to care too much. I am used to the quality standards in Japan, which are much higher. But in a way, it is not that bad. In Japan, if the quality is good, people automatically think the architecture itself is good. In China, people are much better at making this distinction.
Your project for the Sichuan earthquake area in China is a design where quality of execution isn’t your first concern. You asked companies in China and Japan to donate construction material. How are you setting this up?
KS: When the Sichuan earthquake happened, I read many reports about the tragedy and decided to try and help. I wondered if I should donate money. I considered this for some time. But I am also an architect. The reports stated that almost all victims were killed due to collapsing buildings. I realized that I should design strong buildings that are resistant to earthquakes.
My Japanese background was helpful in this respect: my home country has suffered immensely from earthquakes. Today, we have in advanced understanding of how to minimize the consequences. Of the 70,000 people that were killed in the Sichuan earthquake, 19,000 were children. Therefore, we decided to realize a primary school. I adopted the steel house construction system, developed by the Nippon Steel Company in Japan. It has other advantages as well: it has high-quality isolation, a very short construction period, because it is manufactured in the factory, and a high stability considering the small amount of steel in it.
You do both interiors and large-scale designs. Do you have a different approach to either?
KS: For me, the most important issue is to find a theme and express that in my design. The clue is to make sure my ideas totally make sense when the project is finished, to make the drawing reality. In the Mosaic project in Beijing for example (published in Mark #15), we applied a mosaic on a very large scale. By doing so, I believe I can give a new meaning to a design method that already exists. In the Bumps project in Beijing, a 100,000-m2 residential and commercial building, I pursued the same by stacking black and white boxes. In that way, I can create diversity in a very simple way. Of course, each design approach must consider the function of the building. In the Bumps project we did this by stacking and cantilevering the boxes in such a way that we created sheltered outside spaces, which is functional and aesthetic at the same time. I believe in one design method to solve many things. This is my attitude and approach. I want my design methods to be as simple as possible, so I can realize strong architecture.
So that’s what Sako is about. You just described something that we could call ‘your style’.
KS: No. I do not want to be fixed on any style. I want to be kaleidoscopic, diverse. I try to give each project its own unique theme.
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“Mr. Blunt | An interview with Keiichiro Sako (JP)”
Published in Mark Magazine #20 June-July 2009.
Other publications in MARK Magazine;
A Letter from Beijing | MARK Magazine #09 (July-August, 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | MARK Magazine #12 (Feb-March, 08)
Olympic Architecture | MARK Magazine #14 (June-July, 08)
Babel for Billionaires | MARK Magazine #15 (August-September, 08)
Mongolian Private Meadow Club by MAD | MARK Magazine #16 (October-November, 08)
Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | Mark Magazine #17 (Dec 2008 – Jan 2009)
Local Hero | An Interview with Wang Shu (CN) | Mark Magazine #19 (April-May 2009)
The Importance of Slowness | Wang Hui (CN) | Mark Magazine #19 (Apr-May 2009)
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