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Text: Moe Fujisue
Photo: Rakutaro Hagiwara

Hack Our City Report Part 1: Blank Spaces/Pursuing Fields of Creativity

Hello! I'm Moe Fujisue, and I'm a freelancer in public relations and event management in the field of architecture. On December 12th, I participated in "HACK OUR CITY" to learn about bottom-up city-building. It was a five hour event filled with great input—from various case studies of projects done with the streets as a backdrop, to a panel discussion with information about Loftwork Inc.'s SHIBUYA HACK PROJECT, as well as thought-experiment workshops to inspire.

We turned public spaces with unclear ownership back into spaces where all of us belong. We found many hints on how to turn the dream of useful public spaces into reality. I've written a report on what it was like that day, so please check it out!

I was also fortunate to be given the opportunity to conduct an interview regarding the SHIBUYA HACK PROJECT, which allowed me to encounter the new "city-building" Loftwork Inc. is starting in Shibuya. It's a lengthy interview that lets you feel the thrill of the kind of chemical reaction that occurs when the spirit of craftsmanship takes root in a city. Please do check it out as well.

The Structure of a Loftwork-Style Hack that Improves our General Knowledge

HACK OUR CITY was comprised of three parts: panel discussions, case studies, and workshops. We started by having Chiaki Hayashi, representative director of Loftwork Inc., speak about the thought process behind a Loftwork-like "hack".

Chiaki Hayashi, representative director of Loftwork Inc.

At Loftwork Inc., our work always starts with "proposing the opposite of common sense". For instance, if you want to change a situation in which the Othello board is covered with black pieces, you need to aim for the corners to turn the pieces over to white. That's the spirit of a Loftwork Inc. hack—that even if something seems difficult or impossible, we aim to find the key point that matters and start from small changes that grow into major turning points.

That spirit has been pronounced in the things we've done up to this point. FabCafe, which we started in 2011, uses a model that was impossible according to the common sense of the cafe industry. It has a low turnover rate (as it is used as a working space, customers are in their seats for a long time) and a low average sales-per-customer (customers can remain for as long as they want just by buying a coffee)—yet over five years it has expanded to eight locations throughout the world.

This was a new business model, which expanded from the fact that our linchpin has been connecting the businesses and creators who gather at FabCafe with ideas, nurturing a community, and creating collaborations for product development. As you know, the bustle of FabCafe today, as well as the numerous products created there (e.g. the 360°book), has even changed the dynamics of Shibuya, all via hacking of the cafe industry.

What on earth is the driving force behind Hayashi and the people who work with her? The answer is "fun" and much more. Today, 3D printing is no longer just an experimental tool, but has come to have enough functionality to output an end product. As the core of craftsmanship is moving from businesses to individuals, its quality is continually increasing.

When everyone's respective fields of expertise and ideas are put together, fun becomes the driving force for the birth of collaborations and new creativity. Hayashi has witnessed such scenes again and again and still finds herself in the middle of them today. Her powerful words—"creativity is only born from fun"—left a strong impression.

Hayashi's real feeling that people's social roles are becoming increasingly fragmented and it is becoming difficult to see relationships without the use of money as an intermediary have caused her to take an increasing interest in how to construct new relationships of reciprocity in society. For instance, think of the latent potential when 10 elderly people filled with wisdom have gathered. This is her imagination of the future of Japan as it moves toward an extremely aged population, and also a hint for the SHIBUYA HACK PROJECT.

Finding the Empty Spaces in a City and Changing the City's Context

Next, Masataka Baba (Open A Ltd. representative, professor at the Tohoku University of Art and Design, and architect), spoke about the shift in his location from Shibuya to Kanda and the growth of his interest in public spaces.

Masataka Baba, Open A Ltd. representative

Baba set up an office in Naka-Meguro in the late 1990s (1998 - 2002) and started his activities in the outskirts of Shibuya. He says the Shibuya created by advertisements seemed electric in that period, when it was known as Bit Valley and large-scale bookshops opened one after the other. Shibuya was the perfect place to treat architecture the same as other types of culture. But he says he gradually found it harder and harder to breathe in the town as its population was dominated by younger and younger people.

The turning point came in 2003, when he traveled to Los Angeles to conduct an interview. As he witnessed how the young people there made use of empty buildings to their own tastes, he felt a desire to find the empty spaces in the new Tokyo, and turned that desire into the driving force to start Real Tokyo Estate. At the same time, he moved his office to Kanda, where the empty buildings stood out. At Central East Tokyo, an art event that made use of empty buildings in east Tokyo, he connected artists with building owners searching for tenants, and created a model in which calling people at an art event could turn into a viewing of empty buildings.

He also began actively taking part in the renovation industry. Looking at the situation at the time, one could say that it was precisely because there was room in the hardware of the city (empty buildings and rooms, things whose value could be improved through renovation) that, as he says, "it was fun to change the context of the city". Baba says that when he started thinking, "What if I move my office away from Kanda?", it felt to him like there was no more space left in Tokyo.

From Baba's materials provided at the talk "RePUBLIC: The Renovation of Common Spaces" (published by Gakugei Publishing, 2013)

The next field Baba explored was the renovation of public spaces (= REPUBLIC DESIGN). He treats the layers stretched out between public and private as blank space, and intervenes as an expert in the built environment to try to change the situation in which "public spaces are valued too much, so no one can do anything".

The value of Times Square in New York (Broadway) is said to have risen sharply because vehicles were prohibited on its roads, which were turned into pedestrian-only spaces and used like parks. If it can be done in NY, it can be done in Tokyo and in Japan. The problem is that by 2040, after the Singularity, valuable public space will be in ever more demand as humans will have more leisure time than they have ever had before and will theoretically spend more time outside of the house.

Panel Discussion - the Plan to Turn Almost All of Shibuya into a Pedestrian Paradise

What if Shibuya's public roads were opened as pedestrian spaces? Hayashi and Baba started the panel discussion from Baba's question about a plan to turn almost all of Shibuya into a pedestrian paradise.

Hayashi was shocked by the fun ways public spaces were used in Chengdu, China, which she visited on a business trip. Compared to the situation there with many people eating, talking, dancing, and treating the place as their own, she felt that Japan still had strict rules and a strong separation between public and private. If we are going to think about what a city would look like that fits society from now on, without negating all the rules that currently exist, we need ideas about how to approach this—say, by trying out turning part of the city into pedestrian streets on the weekends.

Baba too spoke about the importance of diligently taking note of the existing rules prior to calling for change. He said the goals of Real Tokyo Estate hadn't been visible right from the start, but that, via the process of trying to construct a vision, the seeds of the vision that is linked to it today were developed. This principle applies to Loftwork Inc. and its client businesses too, as they advance proposals that are extraordinarily fun but seem unfeasible, or that are too new for the results to really be imagined.

Baba had another proposal, that although businesses had thus far gained their position in society through being single, large units, if we could change our idea of businesses to assemblies of small projects, businesses would be able to be a better fit for the inner workings of society and of cities from now on—not just on the personal level.

Hayashi spoke about her experience setting up FabCafe's eight locations during its worldwide expansion, saying that in different cities where both situations and managers differed, she had needed five business schemes, five different balances regarding how to start, and a design for how to combine all these elements. The creation of a framework for global scaling has only just begun. Baba referred to this as a localization challenge, and pointed out the importance of having both a viewpoint rooted in Japan and a viewpoint extending to the world.

The plan to turn almost all of Shibuya into a pedestrian paradise might seem out of this world, but when one considers the momentum leading up to Olympics, as well as that this will happen after activities occurring as isolated dots in Shibuya become joined together and spread throughout the region, one starts to feel that this already seems like one of the cards needed to make it real. Even if some ideas make one think "What's that again?", as long as they provoke action, the future will be built. The panel discussion was really well supported by their real-life experiences.

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