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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

In Yanaka, a New (Old) Haven for Art and Design
Susan Rogers Chikuba
Good things come in small packages: A self-branded "micro cultural complex," Hagiso announced its March 2013 opening with this graphic statement, humorously positioning itself vis-a-vis such urban icons as Tokyo Sky Tree, Landmark Tower, Shibuya Hikarie, Umeda Sky Building, and Spiral.

Dotted with temples, tasty places for soba and dango rice cakes, and a hodgepodge of other shops making and selling old-timey things, the sloping alleys of Yanaka in Taito Ward are one of Tokyo's most enjoyable areas to explore. Adding to the neighborhood's charms is Hagiso -- a combination gallery, café, art studio, hair salon, and design office run by graduates of nearby Geidai (the prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts), and slated to open officially this March.

Erected some 57 years ago as an apartment house for temple workers at Sorinji, a Nichiren Buddhist sanctuary next door, Hagiso was left vacant for a time and fell into disrepair. In 2004 the wooden building found new purpose as a rooming house and studio space for Geidai students, most of whom were aspiring architects. A kind of symbiosis emerged between the aging structure and its young inhabitants, a supportive spirit that seems to have permeated its walls in the years since.

Palpable energy: Exhibitors, guest critics, visitors, and Hagiso members gather after the open jury held in December 2012 as part of Japanese Junction, a pre-opening exhibition showcasing the works of Japanese architecture students training at schools abroad (left). The show ran through January 20 in the unfinished spaces now being remodeled for Hagiso's official launch in March. A seven-meter void, created by knocking out a portion of the second floor, gives the gallery a comfortable airiness.

Despite that happy arrangement, Sorinji decided after the March 2011 earthquake that it was time, finally, to let the building go. Plans were made for its demolition and the site's conversion to a parking lot.

In early 2012 the student tenants staged a farewell open house to celebrate the structure and its spaces one last time. Knowing that the building was to be destroyed, their creativity may have been on overdrive: walls came down, floors were removed, birds were even brought in. The ambitious art event, dubbed Hagiennale 2012, drew nearly 1,500 fans and curious onlookers to the address in three weeks.

Saved from the wrecking ball, before and after: New windows, warm lights, and a sleek coat of black paint mark the new Hagiso on the outside, but the real changes are all inside -- with more yet to come.

Thanks to that outpouring of interest, the plans to scrap the building were shelved. Hagiso's core group of supporters, led by architect and former resident Mitsuyoshi Miyazaki, sketched out a proposal to renovate the building and give it new life as a freewheeling autonomous space where professional and amateur creators can gather to feed off and fuel each others' inspirations. The roadmap for how it will work as yet remains undefined, but the Hagiso mission is clear: to spur cross-disciplinary discourse and creativity, and deliver that synergy back to the community.

Miyazaki, who spent three years at Arata Isozaki & Associates after earning his M.Arch at Geidai in 2008, will oversee and manage the new enterprise and its events from Hagi Studio, occupying part of the building's second floor. "Our wish for Hagiso," he says, "is that it play a positive role in process, in exchange, in dialogue. We'd like it to be a place focused on contextual content, on design as a learning process -- like the evolution of the building itself." Exhibiting artists, for example, will benefit from peer reviews or other programs that involve real-time, constructive critiques; freelance curators may hone their skills; and aspiring curators will have the opportunity for hands-on experience not possible at commercial galleries.

"Anarcity ©: Is a self-organized society possible?," a serious yet entertaining doctoral presentation compiled on film and in print at the Berlage Institute by Japanese Junction exhibitors Ryuho Hosawa and Hiroki Muto, was based on extensive case studies and workshops with political theorists and refugee experts. Curator Tomoaki Todome (center rear) and organizers Mitsuyoshi Miyazaki and Pinpin Co (front row from left) gather with exhibitors.

Japanese Junction, a pre-opening exhibition held this past December and January, embodied those goals. The third in a series featuring the research projects and postgraduate theses of Japanese architecture students studying abroad at leading schools for design, it was curated by Tomoaki Todome, himself a graduate of the University of East London's M.Arch program. "One aim of the series," he explains, "is to introduce to Japan some of the approaches to architecture found in classrooms overseas, where there's a far more rigorous approach to visual conceptualization using a variety of media, more emphasis on cross-disciplinary study, and many more opportunities to interact with practicing architects." At Hagiso the exhibitors presented their works to a panel of professionals, and the lively discussion was broadcast on Ustream to enable participation and commentary from anywhere in the world.

Two works by artist Pinpin Co: Vivian 17032011, ink on skin, 2011 (left); and
Touch Is to Drawing What Breath Is to Dance, a performance by Pinpin Co, Asuka Itagaki, and Akatsuki at Hagiso, 8-9 December 2012, photo by Kazuyuki Matsumoto (right).

Another key Hagiso member is Pinpin Co, a native of Hangzhou, China who received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Architecture from Waseda University and Geidai, respectively. An accomplished artist with many solo and group exhibitions to her credit (including a two-month residency at BankArt Studio NYK last year), Co has recently been wielding her talents in line drawing to create "experiential body art." Using ballpoint or fude brush pens and a live model as her canvas, she draws directly on the skin in both portrait-style sittings and live dance performances. When Hagiso opens in March, she will have her own studio on the second floor, where customers can book an appointment for a facial or other body-part design. As the ink washes off easily this might be the perfect gift for someone you know who likes the look of a tattoo, but doesn't want a tattoo's permanence. "I like the participatory aspect," she says. "Anyone can become part of the creative act."

Rounding out Hagiso's planned offerings are a
café and standing bar adjacent to the first-floor gallery space, and a hair salon upstairs. In addition to fostering relaxed exchange between artists and visitors, the café will enable catering for opening parties and other events, and operate as a profit center to offset exhibition costs. The salon, which should help draw people of all ages and backgrounds to Hagiso, will take appointments for personal, one-on-one sessions.

As policymakers continue to dither over the best ways to enliven Japan's workforce, improve the country's relations with neighbors, and promote its original offerings to the world, tiny Hagiso -- a haven where diverse people from many fields can gather to experiment, learn, express themselves, and push the creative envelope -- is just the kind of place we need more of.

All images are published by permission of Hagiso.

Hagiso (official opening in early March)
See "Here and There" from March 2009 for another story on Yanaka art destinations.
Susan Rogers Chikuba
Susan Rogers Chikuba, a Tokyo-based writer, editor and translator, has been following popular culture, architecture and design in Japan for 25 years. She covers the country's travel, real estate, hospitality and culinary scenes for domestic and international publications.
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