Makoto Tanijiri is always busy, yet he never seems to be in a rush. Suppose Design Office, the architecture practice he started in Hiroshima with Ai Yoshida, has been relentlessly productive since 2000. Both partners were just 26 years old when it all began, but, even factoring in their early start, a flip through the practice’s completed projects online gives you a kind of professional vertigo. They’ve done lots of everything, from the smallest houses on the most difficult plots, to exhibition pavilions, retail and the recently opened Airbnb offices in Shinjuku.
I meet Makoto at their new Tokyo studio in Yoyogi-Uehara. It strikes me as an unusually posh neighbourhood for a young architecture practice, especially one with a progressive business model and a healthy habit of creating beauty in ugly places. He explains that one of the main benefits of the location is its connection with neighbouring Yoyogi Park and the magically quiet back streets that belie their position at the centre of the world’s biggest city; “our design often explores the relationship between the natural and the man-made, and those two forces are never far apart in this neighbourhood. Also, it’s quiet so we can get more work done!”
“The design process is a like chemistry. We separate out all the elements and then recombine them to create new ideas.”
The new studio sits below street level at the foot of a 1980s apartment block. It looks unremarkable from the outside, but stepping in off the busy road your gears shift down immediately. Suppose have included a café and small library of design books into their open-plan tenancy, meaning the public can look right into the workings of the studio: folders piled up high, drawings spread on tables, staff working hard. I ask if this experiment in meshing different uses is working. “It makes us keep our desks neat”, Makoto answers with a grin. “The design process is a like chemistry. We separate out all the elements and then recombine them to create new ideas. Now we have an attractive place for our clients and other architects who we meet in the café” (an occurrence that Makoto charmingly calls a “coincidence party”).
“I prefer no desk, no office and no switch”
The café, and its Suppose-branded coffee, is emblematic of the practice’s growing appetite for doing and not just drawing. Makoto is as much an entrepreneur as an architect and his new real-estate company, Vantage Point Property, will help identify new sites for Suppose, moving them from design into development as well. They already have a property under construction in his hometown Hiroshima: a hotel, gallery and restaurant all in one. Makoto explains: “In architecture you have to study history, but it also important to make history through your own ideas that you bring to life in a city.”
On our walk around the block, I learn less about the neighbourhood than I do about Makoto’s style of leadership. He’s cut from the same cloth as Muneaki Masuda, the CEO of legendary Japanese book retailer Tsutaya, who seldom sits still and draws his ideas on the run for staff to pick-up and translate. “I prefer no desk, no office, no switch between places”, Makoto explains as we head out the door towards Yoyogi-Uehara Station.
“their work is a constant conversation between opposing ideas: the country and the city, the artificial and the natural, the new and the old, scarcity and abundance”
As we walk, he is simultaneously handling phone calls, greeting locals, pointing out his favourite places and explaining a bit more about how Suppose see the world. In simple terms, it seems like their work is a constant conversation between opposing ideas: the country and the city, the artificial and the natural, the new and the old, scarcity and abundance, and even the idea that a small practice can’t produce a large amount of work. These same tensions are visible everywhere around the neighbourhood as he points out his favourite places: in the restaurant and ceramics store Aelu that specialises in natural wines and sells Walter Gropius–designed wine glasses. In the petite Bar Nakagawa where staff dispense social advice for long-standing locals. In the general care that people take on the street, reflecting the needs of a population that by necessity lives in close quarters. I ask if it is frustrating to always work with such small sites in Japan, but Makoto politely laughs at the question. “What I have learned through architecture is that limitations are also the strengths of good design.”
Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development.
Photography by Keith Ng