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  • cover

Where does the ground begin?

Toshikatsu Ienari

(Architect and Co-Director of dot architects)

Maho Isono


Toshikatsu Ienari co-directs the architectural design firm dot architects, based in Kitakagaya, Osaka. The firm engages in a wide range of activities alongside architectural design: construction, event production, art projects, art performances, and bartending. Joined by anthropologist Maho Isono, this conversation delves into Ienari’s practice – how the random thoughts, improvisations, and elusive sensations in his life serve as clues in the creation of spaces.

Okonomiyaki Housing Theory

Ienari: I recently realized that the architecture we strive towards at dot architects is very similar to an okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake made with flour, cabbage, eggs, and condiments. To make this comparison more clear, I came up with the “Five Criteria of Okonomiyaki.”

  • 1.Accessible ingredients: Uses common ingredients that are readily available at supermarkets and grocery stores in Japan.
  • 2.A simple process: Has a simple enough cooking process for anyone to master.
  • 3.Accessible kitchen utensils: Uses kitchen utensils that are affordable and accessible like cutting boards, knives, spatulas, and a hot plate.
  • 4.Easily-to-handle tools: No special knowledge or skills necessary to use the kitchen utensils.
  • 5.Adaptable recipe: Able to add personal twists to the recipe. One can cut the cabbage differently, add extra ingredients or sauces, etc.

Ienari: By comparing these criteria with architecture, we can see how little the industry allows us to engage with dwelling and living. For example, it is nearly impossible for someone to purchase construction materials, get a hold of the right tools that can help transform the materials into products, or to learn the regulations and methods around construction. This lack of engagement creates a perception that we are living in something that’s been prepared for us. So I wanted to take a look at the elements of okonomiyaki as a potential model for architecture, with hopes that we can once again reclaim dwelling and living for ourselves.

Isono: First of all, “okonomiyaki” is an amusing keyword! I wonder, can yakisoba, Japanese fried noodles, be considered okonomiyaki?

Ienari: Sure, yakisoba works, too. Well… actually, I’m not sure

Isono: It meets the five criteria, so isn’t it safe to say that yakisoba also counts as okonomiyaki?

Ienari: No, not quite! But, whether something is okonomiyaki-like or yakisoba-like is a question of difference in appearance. I think the core idea is the same.

Isono: So, Mr. Ienari, could we call it the Yakisoba Housing Theory instead?

Ienari: I’ll have to think about it! But, I’m positive that okonomiyaki is more interesting. First of all, it looks great. Who doesn’t love that round shape! It’s also nice to cut up, using a spatula instead of chopsticks.

Isono: Are there any non-negotiables that make you say, “it isn’t okonomiyaki without this ingredient!”

Ienari: Hmm... flour, I guess. If it weren’t for the flour stirred into the broth, it would just be a plate of stir-fried vegetables.

Isono: That makes sense. It seems that you value “things that are undefined” and “things that are unpredictable,” but in order to create things that are unpredictable, a framework is needed to bring them to life. So, I wanted to ask you about the elements that go into okonomiyaki. The main ingredient for yakisoba is also flour, so I thought it might be similar, but in your Okonomiyaki Housing Theory, it seems important that the cooking is not just easy and inexpensive, but also participatory, so that people can get involved in the process. I wonder if okonomiyaki is also synonymous with a party-like atmosphere. I mean, you wouldn’t have five people gathered around a stew of meat and potatoes…

Ienari: That would be no fun! In Osaka, some restaurants serve the ingredients of okonomiyaki. Customers then mix the ingredients and grill the okonomiyaki themselves. It’s as if the restaurant is letting go of the dish and allowing the guests to take care of the final touches. I think that’s another great aspect of okonomiyaki.

Isono: Right, the restaurant staff lets go! In reading your book, Contemporary Architect’s Concept Series 27: Dot Architects | Cut Trees on the Mountain, Make a Boat, Float It on the Sea (LIXIL Publishing, 2020), I could sense that “letting go” is important to you. Was there something that inspired this?

Ienari: I guess when I was in the fourth grade, I sculpted a wrestler performing a backdrop with clay. I was staring at it, thinking to myself, “I did a great job,” when my teacher said, “Don’t sit there admiring your own work!” This might be the root of why I value letting go rather than fixating on my work.

Isono: I’m also a writer, and you know how books get printed by the thousand and distributed all around? When I think about that, I get the feeling that a part of myself is getting scattered everywhere, and I get very fixated on the feedback towards my work.

Ienari: I know that feeling. It’s hard to resist.

Isono: I’ve gotten so curious about my book to the point of searching my own name online… and sometimes I think to myself, “You’re so uncool, Isono.” I guess someone should tell me to just let go, too!

Planting a Banana Tree on a Whim

Isono: In your book, you write, ”But systems and spaces do not descend on us like rain from above; they grow out of the ground. We live on the ground, and our respective bits of ground are connected, forming the collective ground upon which we carry out our daily lives.” This really stuck with me. Where does this “ground” begin?

Ienari: I think of space as something that emerges when bodies meet. It can be people or animals, or even objects, but when an encounter happens, a space emerges, a structure is born, and various situations like collaboration or conflict can arise.

Planting a Banana Tree on a Whim

Isono: In your book, you write, ”But systems and spaces do not descend on us like rain from above; they grow out of the ground. We live on the ground, and our respective bits of ground are connected, forming the collective ground upon which we carry out our daily lives.” This really stuck with me. Where does this “ground” begin?

Ienari: I think of space as something that emerges when bodies meet. It can be people or animals, or even objects, but when an encounter happens, a space emerges, a structure is born, and various situations like collaboration or conflict can arise.

Isono: So, in other words, the “ground” is a space where things meet and come into being. Where is that exactly? Can this “ground” be found in the alley of a nagaya, or single-story row house, where you live?

Planting a Banana Tree on a Whim

Isono: So, in other words, the “ground” is a space where things meet and come into being. Where is that exactly? Can this “ground” be found in the alley of a nagaya, or single-story row house, where you live?

Ienari: There is a lot of ground in the alley. I live in a row of five houses that survived the Osaka firebombing. The alley is L-shaped and connects to various residences, so everyone cleans and tends to the alley, waterway, rain gutters, and vegetable garden. Cats that roam around my neighbor’s place come to the vegetable garden in front of my place to poop and relax. All of these houses are connected both physically and psychologically. This connectedness can be thought of in terms of “encounters,” and is what I see as “ground.”

Isono: So, even if there is no direct communication, the idea of sharing something is already a kind of an “encounter” or “ground.”

Ienari: Like how a waft of my neighbor's cigarette smoke coming through my window can alter my experience just a bit. But I have to be careful when talking about nagaya! Information travels fast in my neighborhood.

Isono: Word within the community spreads faster than fiber optics!

Ienari: It adds to the charm of the neighborhood, sharing information through word of mouth.

Isono: Doesn’t it bother you?

Ienari: Not at all. If someone needs help, I can easily find them. There’s also a thrilling sense of not knowing what’s going to happen next, so I’m never bored. When I lived in a condominium, the residents never came together to collaborate. I got tired of that, so I moved to my current house and planted a banana tree in the park in front of the nagaya on a whim! I’d hear the children say, “Bananas are growing!” The tree became a gateway for the energy of the neighborhood to flow into my house.

Isono: I remember that as a child there was a bit more of that sense of freedom where the boundaries between the inside and outside of the house were blurred. Actually, the cherry tree that blossoms every year in my parents’ yard is something my father picked from the mountains a long time ago. Not something you could do today!

Ienari: Back in elementary school, I once made 10,000yen selling my radio-controlled car to a friend. Because I didn’t want the adults to find out, I hid the money in a gap in the stone wall by the gutter in front of our house, taking out a little bit at a time to buy snacks. Eventually they found out and I got scolded, but it just goes to show that even a stone wall can be a wallet!

Isono: Forget innovations – now, that’s some real imagination at work.

Scaling back to recognize individuals

Isono: Talking with you, I get the impression that you honestly don’t think nation states are necessary. Is that true?

Ienari: Frankly, I don’t know what a nation state even is. But it’s puzzling to me that all of us have to abide by laws and rules that apply to people nation-wide. In my rowhouse, there are various local rules, like if I buy a new net for our garbage area, everyone splits the cost. I think it would be great if all these conflicting local rules would just drape the entire earth. We could autonomously modify and establish rules and norms as we go. Perhaps this is a bit idealistic!

Isono: It could be that we don’t need a nation state for that. But a system under a state can solve some of the more tedious issues. For example, a small conflict with a neighbor can be easily solved by calling the police. The state does fulfill some needs.

Ienari: That’s true. Sometimes we turn to a third party when we can’t resolve an issue among ourselves. But that can be considered a kind of “letting go” within relationships.

Isono: Right. Historically, people were bound together by region and kinship. At the base of unification was religion that was in harmony with traditions. Today, large systems such as the state can exist precisely because these connections have been fragmented. Yet, at the same time, such a massive system can also wield violent power.

Ienari: Violence isn’t just war – the act of referring to a citizen as "a national" might also be a form of violence. The phrase renders individual faces invisible. In the past, architecture, whether it be a capitol building or a museum, was intended to convey the authority of the state, and did not reflect the individuals who made use of the spaces. I am wondering if it’s possible to create something from the relationships among the people who are there instead. If we all build together, we could recognize one another as individuals and notice things like, “That person isn’t good at using an electric drill.” When you broadly define “a national,” that’s like saying, “Everyone needs to use a saw,” right?

Isono: So you’re describing scaling down a large unit like “a national” into a smaller unit like the “ground” that emerges from relationships. Are there any examples of public works that you feel you were able to create from the relationships among people?

Ienari: The Umaki camp project that we built in the Umaki district of Shōdoshima during the 2013 Setouchi International Art Festival comes to mind. The site that we built on was the garden of the (then) mayor’s house, so the mayor, dressed in shorts, would come visit in the early morning. We would stay late into the night with the islanders, including those from the town office, sharing stories and drinks, catching a glimpse of their lives. I felt like I could understand the structure of the town through the events of the day.

Isono: In a different way, art festival funding and government grants brought back spaces for living that are wriggled with relationships. So you needed a place where people can meet and recognize each other’s faces.

Ienari: Yes. It was a place where bureaucratic hierarchies would break down. Regardless of their social status, artists, designers, and town officials would just become another neighbor. Even if we got told off in a meeting, we could play it off by thinking, “that’s the old man we were drinking with who was too drunk last night!”

And so, people who craft things are vibrant

Ienari: I’m puzzled by tall, huge buildings. Even if it is logically explained to me that the Tokyo Sky Tree is resistant to earthquakes and won’t snap thanks to the vibration-control of the central pillar, the logic doesn’t translate to an intuitive understanding.
Recently, I have been thinking again about how I need to intuitively feel that “this is solid!” before I can make something.

Isono: “This is solid!” What does that mean?

Ienari: For example, if you were in the mountains during a blizzard, and you saw a battered shack in front of you, you would intuitively think, “Don’t go in there because it will collapse,” wouldn’t you?

Isono: Oh, I got a D in Arts and Crafts class, so I’m the type of person who would die in a crumbling shack!

Ienari: I got an A, so I guess I would survive! Buildings, nations, monetary economies, and so on, have become too big for people to instinctively sense “danger.” Once you create something that big, you forget how to break it down into smaller pieces.

Isono: In other words, under an architect's code of professional ethics, a building must be “unbreakable,” but must also be capable of “dismantling” into smaller units.

Ienari: That’s right. Just as a house, when dismantled, becomes firewood, and the ashes from burning the firewood can be returned to the soil as fertilizer for the fields, what we see in front of us now is only one part of a cyclical process. We must not stop that cycle. As an extension of this way of thinking, the other day I declared myself as Citizen of the Farm and the Factory. All on my own! But I wanted to pledge to craft things closer to where the materials are available by bridging two spaces: our “factory” in Osaka, and our “farm” in Shiga.

Isono: I suppose a Citizen of the Farm and the Factory is different from someone that just lives in the countryside! Does this mean that you and your colleagues purchased land?

Ienari: We are in talks about it, but I also have some thoughts about owning land… Before the land-tax reform, a house and the land it sat on were considered a unit, and the owner was also the inhabitant of the house. But recently, land and buildings have become objects of speculation. I don’t think you should own something that you won’t use yourself. The use of a place should be decided on by the people who use it, and privatization complicates everything.

Isono: Ownership is a difficult issue. Ownership begins when a person draws a boundary to separate what belongs to them from what belongs to another person, where no lines existed in the first place. Modern society tries to reduce conflict by preventing encroachment through enforcing boundaries. But no matter how many lines are drawn, ambiguity remains near the borders, and this becomes a source of conflict.

Ienari: Things, space, knowledge, and ideas are shared by everyone. Lately I’ve been fantasizing… What if, instead of paying a landlord, there was a system where everyone could pay rent to the greatest shared space, the earth, and pursue interesting things together.


Isono: What a great idea! I think that people who craft things are so vibrant. People who see things emerge into being have the energy to get up and get moving. Unfortunately, I think that out of 120 million people, 100 million of them are not able to relate to that feeling.

Ienari: I guess people who craft things are vibrant because they know how things work. If you can make something, you also know how to change it or fix it. That is why I think it’s okay to think of constructing in a more low-tech, accessible way. I don’t mean to be old-fashioned, but if we approach what we can do with today’s technology in the same way that we approach cooking every day, we could all enjoy making things more.

Isono: I see. I think that once we start using technology just to make life easier, we tend to lose the ability to create. Technology has meaning when it is used to launch something new.
What you are saying, Mr. Ienari, is not old-fashioned. To indulge in nostalgia is to deny creativity and process. But your words project a sense of hope for a future yet to be created.

Toshikatsu Ienari is an architect born in 1974 in Hyogo Prefecture. He co-founded dot architects with Takeshi Shakushiro in 2004. He is a Professor at Kyoto University of The Arts. He is part of Coop Kitakagaya, a collaborative studio for art, alternative media, architecture, area studies, and non-profit work. In 2021, he won the 2nd Kazuhiro Kojima Award with dot architects.

Maho Isono is an anthropologist born in 1976 in Nagano. She earned her PhD and specializes in cultural and medical anthropology. After teaching at the School of Culture, Media and Anthropology at Waseda University as an assistant professor, and at the International University of Health and Welfare as an associate professor, she became a freelance writer in 2020. Her publications include Tasha to ikiru: risuku yamai shi o meguru jinruigaku (Living with others: The anthropology of risk, death, and illness) (Shueisha Inc) and Naze futsū ni taberarenai no ka: kyoshoku to kashoku no bunka jinruigaku (Why can’t you eat normally? The anthropology of eating disorders) (Shunjusha Publishing).