Studio SUMO is a New York based practice, focused on innovative design involving extensive research, formal exploration, and material invention. Embracing physical, social, and cultural contexts, as forces that shape design, both partners Sunil Bald and Yolande Daniels are directly involved with each project.
ARCHITECTEM held a conversation with Sunil Bald, about his studio, a recent project – the iHouse Dormitory complex for Josai International University, and the sesitivity of designing in Japan. Sunil Bald divides his time working between New York and Tokyo, and is Associate Professor at the Yale School of Architecture.
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Lets begin with your practice. Did the name Studio Sumo come out of the many years you have spent teaching and working in Japan?
SB Well, Yolanda and I were not working together as yet when we entered a competition. At the last minute we had to come up with a name, as that was a requirement. So we took the first two initials of my name and combined it with her nickname, Momo. So we became Studio Sumo, then won the competition, and so we had our firm. It didn’t have anything to do with Japan, but it does help a lot as an ice breaker [smiles].
One enters the building off the campus road through a void in the bar that separates the two programs on the ground level. A louvered surface, interspersed with projecting balconies, masks exterior walkways that serve the dormitory rooms facing out over the rice fields beyond. This surface is constructed from off-the-shelf aluminum louvers of different dimensions, each cantilevering its maximum allowable extension past a vertical support. This creates an interwoven texture in both elevation and section.
That is very interesting, in a way, the name foretold your connection with Japan. Have you been teaching and designing in Japan for over a decade now?
SB Yes It has probably been 15 years since we started doing projects there and around 17 years teaching. We have done an exhibit at the Rhode Island School of Design of our work in Japan. I think we have designed about a dozen projects in Japan of which 4 have been realized and 2 are in the works.
Was it teaching that took you there initially?
SB The teaching took us there. Around the second year we were asked to do a lecture of the work we had done so far, and so presented our design work. At that time we had just been doing installation scale work in New York, but the Chancellor of the University was in the audience and she liked what she saw. There were two small sites that she was interested in acquiring and wanted to know what she might do with them. There was no program, so we came up with a proposal, a kind of feasibility study. She liked the proposal, but it didn’t happen. Then another project came up which we took on. It was our first building, for the school of management, which remains the biggest project that we’ve done so far.
And your client was where you had been teaching, Josai University?
SB Yes. It has been the same client, this whole time. They have 4 main campuses. For a while we were working at their original campus, which was north of Tokyo. We designed the business school, a cafeteria project and a museum. Then we did a project on their second campus, east of Tokyo, which is a dormitory building. Now, they have a central Tokyo campus which is what we are working on right now. So, yes, it has all been one client in Japan.
You have not only worked on these projects but have also lived in Japan observing and absorbing the city and culture. How has that experience, guided the design of the iHouse dormitory building?
SB I would say, we have become more culturally familiar with Japan on three levels. One is, Japan as a country and understanding their architecture culture. The dormitory building, draws from Japan the most in that respect. Second, is the Japanese construction culture. We have worked with the same associate for the last 12 years. Third, is the Japanese academic culture, which we know very intimately through our teaching. So, the three combine within this project, in terms of the way we thought of the building itself.
We gained familiarity with traditional Japanese architecture and on this project drew on it. In terms of the outdoor space we used the idea of ‘Engawa’ or the peripheral ring often seen in traditional homes, that becomes the mediator between in and out. The project also references the typical Japanese apartment buildings that have single loaded exterior corridors. The main exterior space in a conventional Japanese apartment is housed on the back of the building in the form of balconies used to dry clothes and air out futons. We reversed it, somewhat, and combined them to make them part of the circulation.
The goal of the louver was to mask the dormitory program and create a unified façade that reflects a singular identity rather than a collection of units. The south-facing aluminum tracks the sun over the day, the building going from white, to silver, to orange at sunset. Behind the louvered façade, multiple sliding glass doors open onto the walkways, recalling the ‘engawa’ space of traditional Japanese houses. The provision of shared spaces, the walkway, and balcony system expand the compressed living space into the outdoors.
In terms of construction culture, we had an understanding that land for them is more valuable than building, so we tried to minimise the land-use. We also understand the construction processes. The project was designed without traditional columns, using instead, these type of wall columns that allow for a thinner slab. That allowed us to gain 5 floors instead of 4 floors, under the height limit.
Finally academically, understanding the living arrangements students have in Japanese universities which are quite different from the West. Also understanding international students, what their experiences are coming to a new place, and what they are accustomed to. This came from many years of interacting with students.
What are some of these differences from America in terms living conditions for students?
SB The student dormitory is not a common type in Japan. Most students prefer a commuter situation, and if not, they simply live in apartments. So this dormitory was mainly geared towards international students, coming from abroad. It is still quite difficult in Japan for an outsider, especially students, to rent an apartment. So, it serves that immediate need. The universities are also trying to attract more international students.
So was it primarily designed to serve international students?
SB In this particular case, there’s an interest in Japanese students becoming more fluent in the English language. So essentially an international student dormitory with 20-25% of the housing slots available for Japanese students, to offer them an environment where English is spoken regularly.
The building is sited along the main access road to the university on the edge of an expanse of rice fields. The 9-meter wide dormitory bar hovers over the International Center that projects out to engage the landscape. The International Center is composed of a gallery, archive room, and event space dedicated to the late Prince Takamado who helped broker the Japan/Korea partnership to host the 2002 World Cup.
Did that demographic of users and contrasting issues of privacy inform different room configurations?
SB It was more geared towards students coming from different parts of the world. So, there are very few single units. Most units are doubles and fours, based on the understanding that most of the Japanese students would gravitate towards doubles. There is such a different expectation of privacy, in Asia from European and other Western countries. But there are definitely some Japanese students that might occupy the four room units, but mostly the expectation is that they would prefer doubles.
Coming to the facade and the materials. The facade is an important feature of the project and the language seems to reference some of your previous explorations and specifically an interior where you had done a latticework pattern in wood.
SB Yes, that was actually a reception space for a small museum in Brooklyn. That is very perceptive of you. Actually we did a proposal for this dormitory project maybe 3 years before, but a very different solution, where we were asked to do a low-rise and more of a village typology. In conversations with the university, we had mentioned, if they wanted to develop the site further in the future, we should maybe rethink the form of the building. The project was on hold for maybe 3 years and then we were asked, with this proposal, to come up with something in a ten day period and submit a single exterior rendering.
We already had the design, so we only just had to think about what we wanted to put on the facade. We wanted the building to be read as a single surface where you could not necessarily read its use from the public side of the street. By using walkways, it gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted on the facade as it wasn’t an environmental enclosure. The project you mentioned is the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts [MoCADA]. We thought it would be interesting to do something similar to the lattice work pattern used there, as the building facade. So we, literally, took the ideas of the overlapping pieces of wood, and made it more porous. We also dealt with the overlap of the pieces, as a way to create more blurred density or different rotation of densities on the surface.
Lastly, how relevant is gender segregation in Japan and was that a concern in the design?
SB It is a mixed-use dormitory, but there are separate floors for different sexes, controlled by keycard access. This was an important concern, especially because the rooms have shared bathrooms. Currently the 4th and 5th floors are reserved for female students. There are more spaces designated for women than men. Partly because the majority students from China [which is the university’s biggest demographic] and Eastern Europe, are women. Also they had found that parents were more comfortable sending male students to look for their own accommodation, than they did female students. So there was more of a demand to provide housing for them.
As Japan copes with a declining population, universities are trying to attract an increasingly international student body for both long and short term stays. The iHouse dormitory and International Center, for approximately 140 international students, efficiently houses, educates, and integrates a population that is both culturally and economically diverse.
Architect’ Firm: Studio SUMO [Design Architect] and Obayashi Corporation [Architect of Record]
Lighting Designer: Studio SUMO, Obayashi Corp
Project location: Togane-shi, Chiba-ken, Japan
Completion Year: 2016
Photo credits Kawasami Kobayashi (KK) Photograph Office; Kudoh Photography Ltd. (K)