Intern of the Month: “In Japan, It’s All in the Details”

Anton Kotlyarov told Strelka Magazine about his internship in one of Japan’s most famous practices, Kengo Kuma & Associates, why it is okay to sleep at work and how a manager gains the respect of their employees in Asia.

Photo: personal archive

BACKGROUND

Before doing his internship at Kengo Kuma & Associates, Anton studied architecture at MArchI between 2005 and 2010. After graduating, Anton worked for one year at the Praktika architectural bureau in Moscow. In 2012 he enrolled in a master’s program at the Polytechnic University of Milan, completing the program with a perfect academic record. During his studies in Milan, Anton also interned at local practice Argot ou La Maison. Between September 2014 and March 2015 Anton underwent an internship at the Munich office of Henning Larsen Architects.

After completing his master’s and returning from Munich, Anton made the decision to pursue another internship. He sent his portfolio to the practices whose work he admired. Within a week he got a response from Kengo Kuma inviting him to undergo a three-month paid internship at their Tokyo office. Upon his return from Japan, Anton joined Sergey Skuratov Architects and started developing his own practice, Momentum, together with a friend.


INTERNSHIP TERMS

Japanese architect Kengo Kuma graduated from Tokyo University in 1979, later continuing his studies at Columbia University in New York. In 1990 Kuma established Kengo Kuma & Associates in Tokyo, and since then opened another office in Paris in 2008. The list of Kengo Kuma’s most famous works includes the aluminum-clad Wuxi Vanke art and entertainment gallery in Wuxi, Jiangsu province in China, the Komatsu Seiren Fabric Laboratory [fa-bo] in Ishikawa, Japan, where the practice used carbon fiber strands, and the wooden Sunny Hills cake shop and Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center in Tokyo, Japan.

Internship duration: from two months to one year
Application deadline: open all year round
Internship compensation (exact compensation negotiated on a case-by-case basis): 45,000 Yen (420 USD) during the first month, 90,000 Yen (840 USD) monthly for the rest of the internship.


INSIDE THE OFFICE

The office is located in Tokyo’s Minato business ward and occupies three floors of an office building and an entire three-story house nearby. The small house accommodates Kengo Kuma himself together with several other employees, while the rest of the team works inside the business center. The first thing that I noticed when I stepped inside the office was lots of architects and a long meeting table. Usually, meeting rooms are separated from the rest of the office, but here it was placed in the middle of open space.

Kengo Kuma & Associates / photo: personal archive
Kengo Kuma & Associates / photo: personal archive
Kengo Kuma & Associates / photo: personal archive
Kengo Kuma & Associates / photo: personal archive

During my internship there were nearly 30 interns from all around the world among the 250 people working at the studio. I’m sure that now the number of employees is even higher, as Kengo Kuma expands very rapidly. The office is a creative and chaotic space divided by shelfs, books, models and boxes. Each architect has their own personal working space, while the interns have to share a single narrow desk. We sat so close together that we would often bump knees with the person sitting on the opposite side.

DAILY SCHEDULE

The work schedule was challenging. We worked six days a week, starting at 10:00 each day except Saturday, when we started at 13:00. Although our workday was officially over at 18:00, everyone stayed in the office at least until 22:00–23:00. In Japan, employees traditionally do not leave work before their manager, but I did not follow that rule too strictly. I generally departed at about 23:00, one hour before my supervisor.

I usually had my lunch at a café, but sometimes stayed for a meal in the office. There was no kitchen at the practice, so eating, as well as taking a break, could only be done at one’s workplace. With that many people at the office, any non-work related actions would disrupt the normal workflow, so eating and personal meetings were usually done outside the office. In Japan, sleeping at the workplace is considered acceptable: it highlights the fact that one is working a lot. A sleeping employee is a sign to the manager that he is working hard and is doing a great job. At Kengo Kuma, most members of the team took a 30-40 minute daily nap. Of course, that does not apply to the entire country, but at the practice people spend a couple years of their lives just to gain experience. I personally think that sleeping enough is a must. During my workweek I woke up, had breakfast, took a 15-minute walk to the office, worked, returned back home and dropped to sleep almost immediately. I barely had any free time.

Doing anything besides working was only possible on Saturdays before noon and on Sundays. I started exploring Tokyo a few days prior to the start of my internship. The entire city is an open museum of modern architecture. In Tokyo, you can find a larger number of famous buildings in one hour than anywhere else, anything from Aldo Rossi and Frank Lloyd Wright to Herzog & De Meuron.

ON THE KENGO KUMA PHILOSOPHY

The office philosophy is defined by the direction set by Kengo Kuma himself. Customers come to the practice because they want their product to have Kengo Kuma’s signature style. Kengo Kuma started his architectural career as a postmodernist, later incorporating Japanese natural materials and building techniques into his works. In his projects Kuma often uses a wood and Chidori building technique named after the Japanese Chidori construction set toy, where the materials are fit together using small holes and sockets. This technique was showcased in the construction of the SunnyHills cake shop. The warm-coloured space this technique helps create is very comforting. The Kengo Kuma architecture team aims to create a feeling of a light, semi-transparent shell, which establishes a barely-felt border between the exterior and the interior, emphasizing its conventionality. This work with traditional elements in a modern setting helps Kengo Kuma stand out among other Japanese architects, most of whom are heavily influenced by European modernism and who use lots of concrete. One of the first things my supervisor told me was: “Avoid the concrete, Kuma does not like it.” The practice only uses concrete for framework construction, later cladding it with wood.

ON THE COMPANY HIERARCHY

Kengo Kuma is very tall, about 190 cm. He is a cosmopolitan; he is fond of novelties and discoveries, but he values Japanese traditions all the same. At the practice, they refer to him as Kuma-san. During my internship he visited the tower office once a week, spent five minutes curating each project and left straight after. Once he made his visit at midnight: the office, which was nearly empty, was full again almost in no time. Kuma sat in a chair with everyone standing around him in circle, waiting for their turn to present their project. In that moment, Kengo reminded me of a Japanese emperor. And every one of Kengo’s visit was like that. Over my three months at the practice we had a single conversation. There was a distance between us; that’s how the Japanese hierarchy works. At the same time his own workplace inside the small house is just a simple desk, identical to the desk of any other architect working there. He doesn’t have a personal office. The Japanese hierarchy does not proclaim itself in material things. Inside the house, walls are decorated with promotional posters for his lectures all over the world. I even found a poster announcing his lecture at Strelka.

PROJECTS I TOOK PART IN

At Kengo Kuma the interns are divided between Japanese and European teams and you can’t really predict which one you will be joining. I was selected for the Japanese team. Some point out that this is not a good approach, as interns who do not speak Japanese immediately get disconnected from the process. I experienced that first-hand. Our two-hour meetings were in Japanese, and I was listening without understanding a word. However, working with architecture means that sometimes you understand everything without realizing what is being said. The rest of the team knew English, but they did not use it during the meetings. It was very different from Germany where I had my previous internship. There the architects would speak English just so I could understand them. At Kengo Kuma, I was initially invited to the meetings, but later I was allowed to skip them as I did not speak Japanese anyway. The interns who get into the European team get invited to all the meetings and get to present their projects to the chief architect and the partners of the company.

Kadokawa project / Kengo Kuma & Associates
Kadokawa project / Kengo Kuma & Associates
Toyo University / Kengo Kuma & Associates
Toyo University / Kengo Kuma & Associates
Yokohama City Hall / Kengo Kuma & Associates
Yokohama City Hall / Kengo Kuma & Associates
Yokohama City Hall / Kengo Kuma & Associates
Kadokawa project / Kengo Kuma & Associates

During my internship at Kengo Kuma I participated in three projects and was part of two groups. The first project involved developing a municipal building in Yokohama. My team included a supervisor, two architects and a project leader. Sometimes the meetings were joined by our curator, one of the company partners. My supervisor was the only person I directly communicated with. By that time I was already an experienced intern, so my responsibilities included developing a concept for the stylobate portion of the building and its façades. My supervisor usually advised me on how to approach making a model and asked me to create several variations of it. After that he evaluated the results and asked me to create a few more options. Each day I made nearly 10 models with different textures and solutions. I stayed with the first team for a month and a half. After that I was transitioned to the second Japanese team, where I worked on two more projects. The work process was very similar: everyone was communicating in Japanese, I spoke with my supervisor once a day and together we worked out the solutions. My second project was a multifunctional building designed for the Kadokawa publishing house. The shape of the building has already been decided upon, so I was mainly working on fine details and the interior and façade visualization. After that I joined the project for Tokyo University. The building was already under construction, so I was involved in designing interiors and small architectural details. I strived to understand the work process at the practice where the vision of one star architect defines the entire style. I was often told: “Go to the website and take a look at how Kuma does it.” We all complied with the style set by the master.

ON JAPANESE CULTURE

Because of the earthquake threat, Tokyo is dominated by low-rise development. For wealthy Japanese citizens, their house is not a building that their grandkids will inherit at some point in the future; instead, it’s seen as something temporary, transient. In Russia, their homes would be considered an illogical waste of money. Tokyo’s infrastructure is very well-planned: I couldn’t even discern the local rush hour. The streets are zoned into pedestrian, bicycle and car lanes. Even in the farthest reaches of the city the lanes follow the regulations with full precision. Large highways generate very little noise. The only transport-related issue in Tokyo is its underground, which is managed by several companies. If you purchased a ticket from one company, and your final destination was managed by another, you would have to purchase another ticket from them.

Sustainable campus. Portfolio project / Polytechnic University of Milan
Sustainable campus. Portfolio project / Polytechnic University of Milan
Alternative office. Portfolio project / Polytechnic University of Milan
Alternative office. Portfolio project / Polytechnic University of Milan
Alternative office. Portfolio project / Polytechnic University of Milan
Sustainable campus. Portfolio project / Henning Larsen Architects
Sustainable campus. Portfolio project / Henning Larsen Architects
An exhibit at the Venice Biennale 2014 / Argot ou La Maison Mobile
Mind the Gap. Portfolio project / Polytechnic University of Milan
Sustainable campus. Portfolio project / Polytechnic University of Milan

When I was starting my internship, I did not fully realize how different the new cultural environment would be. When I imagined my future life in Japan I skipped right to the office part of it. When I arrived to Tokyo, I was impressed by three things. The first was how multi-coloured the city was; I often felt that everything was covered with hieroglyphics, although most of them had English transcription. The other thing was my first time in the city. Japan is a country with a very low percentage of foreigners. I felt like I was standing out, and not because the locals had never seen Europeans before, but because my appearance was so different from everyone else’s. African-Americans must feel the same in Moscow. The Japanese have neat hairstyles, dress in light-colored shirts, are incredibly tidy and well-groomed, and any European man would look like a pirate in their midst. The third thing that impressed me was the size of their apartments.

In Tokyo the shared house format is quite popular. Each floor in a house is split into several rooms, in a similar way to communal apartments in Russia. I was renting a 4.5 m2 room in the Shinjuku district in a house like that. In my room I only had a small table, a bed and a wardrobe – I couldn’t even fit my travel bag in there. At first I was nervous, but soon I realized that 4.5 m2 was enough space for comfortable living. I felt like the Japanese have figured out how to use space in a more efficient manner. In Japan entering the house in your shoes is a no-no: shoes are to be taken off and put into the storage area before stepping into the living area. As a European, I often felt like I did not understand how to behave in some situations, but I wasn’t judged too harshly. For instance, it took me some time to realize that making a funny sound while eating noodles is encouraged. Not doing that might even be considered disrespectful. The sound shows that you are enjoying your meal.

In Japan, it’s all in the details: being polite is an essential part of their lifestyle, their self-identification. One day while I was riding the underground I witnessed a conflict: two men were pushing each other. The entire scene was unfolding in full silence, neither of them would make as much as a grunt to express their emotions. The same thing happens at work: if you’re stressed, you should not show it.

I wouldn’t say that I experienced any radical changes after this trip, but my worldview was definitely enriched. Japan follows an entirely different set of rules, which you either get an immediate grasp on, or do not understand at all.

Author: Alexandra Sivtsova