The Tokyo-based architect has been visiting New Zealand to give a series of public lectures on “architectural behaviourology”.
Momoyo is a guest of the University of Auckland’s school of architecture and planning, and is its international architect in residence for 2010. With partner Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, she works out of the world-famous Atelier Bow-Wow studio, which they founded in 1992.
Their practice has achieved near-cult status among professionals and students, and seeks to rethink the production of living spaces in urban environments. Their interests range from urban research to architectural design and public artwork.
Dr Andrew Barrie, a professor at the University of Auckland, says Atelier Bow-Wow has been influential in re-establishing the importance of small-scale urban patterns and daily life in architectural design.
“They observe the city around them and use their discoveries to inject joy and drama into activities that take place in the buildings they design,” he says.
Atelier Bow-Wow is well-known for making the most of small spaces — a necessity in people-heavy Tokyo. A prime example is a supermarket with added functionality, thanks to a driving school on its roof. Such multi-purpose thinking is called “hybrid space”.
Momoyo’s studio coined the term “pet architecture”, which means to examine how much can be made out of the narrow spaces afforded in Japan’s capital city.
She believes that to get a sense of a city’s landscape and design, you need to get out onto the streets and interact with the people who live there. It’s difficult, but not impossible, she says, to apply the same principles used in Japan to architecture in Auckland. “For me, every area and city is fresh,” says Momoyo. “I think observation is very important for our research, architecture and design.
An architect of international renown, Momoyo has held positions as assistant professor at the University of Tsukuba, and in the visiting faculty at Harvard University’s graduate school of design. Her most recent position, which she has held since 2009, is as associate professor at the University of Tsukuba.
One principle she believes is not transferable from Tokyo to Auckland concerns the difference in cultures.
As a city of 13 million people, residents of Japan’s largest metropolis are used to being squeezed wherever they go, while Aucklanders are long used to enjoying ample wide-open spaces.
“You don’t have any small space as a culture,” says Momoyo. “For example, I visited a house in Auckland that has a huge and amazing garage. I may be able to include my whole house in it.”
Regardless of the differences in culture, project or location, her method of working is the same.
It involves taking in all relevant information, and then discussing ideas with partner Yoshiharu Tsukamoto about what they have to work with.
When it has a new project, the Atelier Bow-Wow team needs to understand the location’s culture and technology, among other things.
“The diversity of the space is another aspect of culture,” says Momoyo. “If it can be organised both ways it’s better for the future. The diversity of the space and the architecture makes for a richer and nicer life. One idea is to try to make a smaller space within the city.”
In terms of differences in architecture, Momoyo says Auckland is unique compared with other large international cities, such as Paris and Tokyo. One of the things she likes is the “dynamism” of Auckland’s topography, but feels it can be hard to work out where exactly in the city you are.
“In Paris there are a lot of buildings that are very similar. There is strong town planning and the height of the buildings is very limited. European cities have strong zoning, whereas in Japan there is some zoning but it is more dynamic in relation to the street.
“Here [in Auckland] the stronger element is the topography. For example, every peak has one building, some green, and in between there is a building. I call this a kind of volcano urbanscape.”
As an international teacher, Momoyo has views on whether travel can help to shape an architect’s education. The 41-year-old encourages students to go overseas and put themselves into the mind of the “outsider”.
“The city educates students,” she says. “If they study the environment and the suburb, or if they study an old city like Europe or a medieval city, they get information from history.
“If a student was to go to the United States, they will find a lot of urban planning in a very modern way so they will become good at urban planning. In Japan, we have history as well as modern architecture, so we are very good at that.”
The city where the student is provides information and has an effect on their technique.
“If the student wants to go to many places they can apply that experience, to get more knowledge, and it is very helpful to compare it to other cultures. To be a foreigner is a good education for an architect.
A foreigner is always a minority and a little bit of an outsider.