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Hiroya Kawabata


Hiroya Kawabata is familiar to OVE SANSO cruise fans as the leader of the Architecture SANSO Cruise. He’s a graphic designer whose main focus is editorial design for books and magazines. He’s also somewhat of an expert on architecture, having written a guide called “Build Your House with an Architect” on the All About website (allabout.co.jp). We spoke with him about how he got to where he is today.

“I always liked architecture. I think that I could have become an architect if I’d been better at math−but I wasn’t. Instead I became interested in graphic design. So, I entered the Department of Visual Communication Design at Musashino Art University. This long department name simply means ‘graphic design.’”

After graduating, Mr. Kawabata got a job at a small design firm and over the years worked on the design of publications such as Kurashi no sekkei (Chuokoronsha publishing), Kurima (Bungeishunju Ltd. publishing), and Kikan minzokugaku (publication of the National Museum of Ethnology). After 10 years, he started his own company. Although his main job is a graphic designer, he has been devoting more and more time in recent years to All About.

“I’ve always enjoyed looking at architecture−while I was studying graphic design, and even after I started working as a graphic designer. I think I was attracted to architecture because of what I’d call the ‘power of space.’ Every building has its own unique sense of space. And each time I come across a new kind of architecture, I ask myself with wonder, ‘how in the world did they build this?’”

Graphic design is two-dimensional and architecture is three-dimensional. But both are art forms and so they should influence each other. At the same time, the indispensable mathematical and engineering elements of structural calculations put architecture in a whole different realm from other art forms. We took this opportunity to ask Mr. Kawabata about where architecture fits in to the big picture.

“Japan being an earthquake-prone country, great importance is placed on structure. It’s too bad that architecture is not considered an art but rather a form of engineering in Japan. There are only a few universities that have an art-oriented architecture department: Tokyo University of the Arts, my alma mater of Musashino Art University, and Tama Art University. Other than that, as a general rule, architecture is part of a university’s engineering faculty. In Europe, conversely, architecture has always been considered an art.”

In Europe, the thinking is, “I want to make a beautiful building, so what type of engineering can make this possible?” But in Japan, we say, “I want to use this type of engineering, which means the shape will be like this.” The thinking is reversed. So then, does this mean that in Japan, architects who graduated from art-oriented universities think differently? Also, how does one deal with the engineering problems when approaching architecture from an artistic perspective?

“Architects in Japan who went to art-oriented universities think differently. For example, look at the Cinema Rise movie theater in Shibuya, Tokyo. It was designed by renowned architect Atsushi Kitagawara, a professor at Tokyo University of the Arts. Architects like him make extremely artistic buildings. But of course structures like his come to fruition because of the cooperation of structural engineers.”

“The renowned architect Tadao Ando is an extreme example of starting with form without initially worrying about structure: his designs present huge challenges for structural engineers. In one of his representative works, Church of the Light (Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church in Ibaraki, Osaka), natural light from outside streams inside through a slit in the shape of a cross on a wall. At first glance, it looks easy to build. But the left and right sections of the wall above the cross are structurally out of the ordinary. These two heavy slabs of concrete are suspended from above, with nothing supporting them from below. It took a lot to ensure that these pieces were secure. Therefore, the structural elements are behind the scenes ensuring that a building’s design is beautiful. This is something that I didn’t realize until an architect pointed it out to me.”

My goodness! People like me not schooled in architecture would never notice such things if it weren’t for Mr. Kawabata. You could say that as an architecture enthusiast, it’s Mr. Kawabata’s role to be a bridge between architecture and the average person.



Mr. Kawabata normally creates publications as a designer. But he also has experience planning and putting out architecture books. Examples are The Architectural Map of Tokyo, printed in 1994, and The Architectural Map of Kyoto, printed in 1998 (both by TOTO Publishing). He told us about how he came about doing The Architectural Map of Tokyo.

“Back when I was working at a design firm, I was often in charge of making the maps that go at the end of magazines. Thanks to this, I came to enjoy making maps. I applied this skill to my architecture hobby and on my own I made an architectural map of interesting buildings in Tokyo.”

“I made it because I wasn’t satisfied with the maps being done by architecture-related publishers. Even if I could find such a map, privacy concerns meant private homes could not be shown, and the maps themselves were not very detailed. So, I had an architect friend teach me some things, rode a bicycle around to see buildings firsthand, and projected these onto a residential map to complete the project.”

After he started his own company, Mr. Kawabata continued making architecture maps. They were about 20 to 30 pages of A3-size grid paper on which were marked buildings according to type. Being made by a designer, they must have been beautiful maps.

“I took my maps to architecture-related publishers asking if they’d be interested in putting out such a map. Nobody was interested in publishing them until finally TOTO Publishing agreed to do it. The Architectural Map of Tokyo was born. There were some private homes among the buildings on the map, but the editorial department made sure to get the owners’ permission. This allowed us to put an amazing number of buildings on the map. The result was exactly the kind of map I had been hoping for.”

The Architectural Map of Tokyo was one of the publications in a series, so the late Kan Akita was in charge of design and Mr. Kawabata acted as planner and editorial supervisor. When it was published, this book became a sensation and was introduced in numerous magazine stories. As a result, it has gone through 13 printings (as of January 2014) and has sold more than 100,000 copies, unusual for an architecture-related publication. As well, a revised edition was published in 2003 and a smaller version The Architectural Map of Tokyo Mini was published in 2004.

“I’m not an architecture critic because I’ve never studied the fundamentals of this discipline. I’m just an architecture enthusiast. I’m also a designer, so I was thinking about how I could use my experience to introduce people to architecture, and I thought that a map was something I could make. This is how I connect with architecture. I couldn’t become an architect myself but I could make a two-dimensional map. Let’s see an architect do that!”



Four years after The Architectural Map of Tokyo was published, The Architectural Map of Kyoto gave Mr. Kawabata a wider perspective on architecture. While he had previously pursued contemporary architecture, the publication of this book gave him an opportunity to turn towards pre-modern and earlier architecture.

“The publisher wanted the Kyoto edition to include historical buildings. My aunt lived in Kyoto, so I’d been visiting there often ever since I was in university. But when I was a student I didn’t visit temples since they didn’t interest me. Making this book got me gradually interested in this area and today I devote a lot of time to historical architecture. I just love old buildings.”

“Back when historical buildings were first built, they incorporated the latest ideas of their day, and they were just as cutting edge as contemporary architecture. To give an example, the tea houses of the 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu have always expressed fresh, new beauty. Even today, they don’t seem out of date, and they incorporate such amazing ideas that I want to tell everybody that they’re way cooler than modern architecture!”

Mr. Kawabata also did the design for The Architectural Map of Kyoto. The biggest difference between it and The Architectural Map of Tokyo was how the maps were displayed.

“In The Architectural Map of Tokyo, the maps were divided according to streets and other area demarcations. In The Architectural Map of Kyoto, large maps were divided into multiple pages, so to get to a location, the reader moves from page to page. This is an important point. Although the Tokyo version had a great design, the Kyoto version went in a totally opposite direction. The streets of Kyoto form a grid, so it wouldn’t be appropriate to focus only on certain areas.”

“Regarding the historical buildings, I knew very little when we were first making the book, so we had experts come in for the editing. One thing we did with the design was use three shades of color for the titles and data for the buildings: recently made buildings use a bright, youthful color, while older buildings use a gradually darker color. I think this helps make it a very practical map.”

In Kyoto, there are many other things besides architecture that catch Mr. Kawabata’s interest.

“I also really love side streets. I’ve enjoyed exploring them ever since my university days. To me, Kyoto is like a foreign country where people speak Japanese. And there are so many layers of culture to be discovered. I never get tired of going there.”

Riding a bicycle around Tokyo to look at architecture and exploring Kyoto’s side streets: this is what a SANSO cruise is all about. So how did Mr. Kawabata get involved in SANSO cruises?


“A woman I know who’s really into architecture used to work at OVE Minami Aoyama, and she asked me if I’d be interested in leading a SANSO cruise that was being planned.”

It was this chance request from an acquaintance that led Mr. Kawabata to the Architecture SANSO Cruise. He has now led about 30 excursions over the past three years, making this outing one of the fixtures of the SANSO cruises.

“I’m so fortunate to have been chosen to lead the Architecture SANSO Cruises. And I’m grateful for this opportunity. I love bicycles; when I was a student I had a road bike. I didn’t do any heavy-duty riding, just puttering around. The bicycle later became my mode of transportation when I was searching for interesting architecture. But outside of the SANSO cruises, I generally walk from place to place.”

“As I did more and more SANSO cruises, I realized that it would be useful to have a map, so I made one to give to participants. I want them to remember what they did on the SANSO cruise when it’s over−and have a souvenir to remember the day.”

As the authority on the subject, Mr. Kawabata updates the route and the map for each Architecture SANSO Cruise; this gives participants something to look forward to. Each Architecture SANSO Cruise has a particular theme and Mr. Kawabata chooses the buildings to see, with OVE staff helping plan a cycling route.

“For example, on a recent French Architecture SANSO Cruise, we saw the Institut Français du Japon-Tokyo in Iidabashi (formerly L’institut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo) and the Athenee Français, went through Ochanomizu, and ended up at the Hama-rikyu Gardens. This long distance was unusual for the Architecture SANSO Cruise, which is normally shorter than other SANSO cruises. The Institut Français and the Athenee Français are significant in that they were built by Junzo Sakakura and Takamasa Yoshizaka, who were disciples of Le Corbusier, one of the pioneers of modern architecture. In particular, the Athenee Français is heavily influenced by the artistry of Le Corbusier. He built revolutionary structures based on an engineering concept, but as shown by his chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, in his later years he moved to more art-influenced structures.”

“There is one Le Corbusier building in Japan, the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno, Tokyo. Le Corbusier only did the basic design for this, so for all intents and purposes this is really a work of his Japanese disciples (Junzo Sakakura, Kunio Maekawa, and Takamasa Yoshizaka). But when you think about it, the ability to create buildings in this way is one thing that’s amazing about modern architecture. Even in the Kano school of Japanese painting, a work was done not by one artist but as a collaborative effort by an entire studio of artists. You could say that modern architecture comes together in a similar way. Of course, in the end, buildings that Le Corbusier worked on were credited to him.”

Listening to Mr. Kawabata talk makes one realize the depth of architecture and piques one’s intellectual interest. And it’s precisely because there is so much depth to architecture that we need someone with a perspective like that of Mr. Kawabata. On the Architecture SANSO Cruise, there’s no need to think too deeply about the subject at hand. Along the way, you make unscheduled detours if you see interesting architecture, and the outings are laced with enjoyable observation stops, such as looking at kanban kenchiku, which are old shop architecture from the early 20th century.

“I love kanban kenchiku. Some of it is really charming. The artisans of the day put a lot of thought into making those buildings, lacing them with a variety of design elements. It’s amazing that such buildings were created by people who weren’t architects. Contrary to what you’d expect, modern architecture tends to have a short lifespan due to the influence of earthquakes. That’s why the Architecture SANSO Cruise gives you a chance to enjoy slightly older buildings.”


At the end of the interview, Mr. Kawabata showed us a small book that he published. It’s titled A Tattoo of Light: Reflections of Tokyo, and Mr. Kawabata did the content, book design, and page layout. It’s a collection of photographs showing light reflecting off buildings and other structures. He took all of the photographs himself. For a few minutes I forgot the interview and looked at the beautiful photos, in the process understanding the source of his inspiration.

“Walking around town looking for architecture, I come upon images like these. It’s not that I pick up on these things or am particularly attentive to them; rather, they seem to be calling out to me.”

There are photos of light reflecting like jewels off small buildings, and a grandiose photo of light reflecting off a skyscraper onto a shrine. At the end of the book is a series of time-lapse photos showing the light moving across the Nakano Sun Plaza building. The book was published in 2005 and there is currently no new edition being printed, but it can be bought from online bookstores.

“I’ve been interested in reflected light for some time now. You can’t enjoy it unless you walk around town; you could say that it’s not for the average person. These photos were made simply by using time-lapse photography to take a picture every five minutes. I did this while shivering in the cold, so you probably have to be a little crazy to do this.”

Not at all! I think that with such curiosity and willingness to get the job done, an architecture enthusiast like Mr. Kawabata is truly in his element in the city. And it’s this extraordinary talent that led him to become a leader of a SANSO cruise at OVE. I sincerely hope that he continues to come up with original ideas that he will share with us.

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Hiroya Kawabata Profile

Mr. Kawabata runs the Kawabata Design Office. Known widely as an architecture enthusiast, he spends his time touring and observing architecture in Tokyo and other parts of Japan. He has a wide circle of architect and architecture-industry acquaintances. Besides writing on architecture matters for the All About website (www.allabout.co.jp), he acts as planner and editorial supervisor for books such as The Architectural Map of Tokyo and The Architectural Map of Kyoto (both by TOTO Publishing). He also keeps himself busy writing columns in several magazines.

Photo:GOTO AKI

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