Social sustenance

Designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, the Koisuru-Buta Laboratory offers long-term employment to differently-abled individuals, it includes an on-site restaurant open to the public, and its headquarters were. Yoshimura Yasutaka reports on this new model of factory designed around its social agenda.

This article was published on Domus 969 / May 2013


The Koisuru-Buta Laboratory is part of a pig farm, but it combines both food processing facilities and a restaurant open to the public. In Japan, the production of agricultural and marine foodstuffs, defined in Colin Clark’s classification as a primary sector industry, has experienced considerable decline and, along with a low level of food self-sufficiency in society at large, is becoming increasingly problematic. However, because this facility hybridises primary processes with those of the secondary and tertiary sector activities of the restaurant, becoming a “sixth sector industry”, [1] it can be seen as offering a sign of hope in the present situation.

Atelier Bow-Wow Domus 969
Top: The new laboratory is located in the countryside around Narita, in the Chiba Prefecture, and aims to establish a close relationship with its surrounding farmland. Above: A small market selling locally produced vegetables is organised in the entrance hall on the upper level. Each community space is defined by a different roof. Photo Atelier Bow-Wow
The laboratory provides long-term employment for physically and mentally challenged individuals, superimposing another layer of importance on the project. The introduction of the “sixth sector” not only allows for a reduction in intermediate expenses, but also ensures complete control over the brand and its products—from the creation of a concept book through to the design of the product packaging. The result is an overall streamlining of the profit structure, despite the fact that the employees receive the same wage as those without physical and mental disabilities. Indeed, for a long time such jobs could only offer extremely low wages, and they depended heavily on the investment of public subsidies in order to maintain even a minimum operation. Consequently, faced with the possibility of actually turning a profit, the Koisuru-Buta Laboratory can be considered a very ambitious project.
Atelier Bow-Wow Domus 969
Atelier Bow-Wow: Koisuru-Buta Laboratory, Katori, Chiba, JP
The building, which in this context plays an important role, was designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, who responded to the commission with a pinwheel arrangement featuring four hip roofs of various forms. The spaces given over to food processing are situated on the ground floor and are off limits to visitors, as well as sealed against bacteria. On the side facing the adjacent road, a gallery attached to a portion of the first-floor facade extends out from the volume of the main building. While providing access to the restaurant and office on the first floor, this gallery also creates a partially sheltered outdoor public space on the ground level, offering fine views of the surrounding landscape. Effectively constituting an enlarged engawa, or Japanese balcony, the lightweight gallery is therefore not only a means of conveying people to the upper floor, and it seems as if it were delicately seeking a place to meet the ground. To use a term dear to Atelier Bow-Wow, it might be described as a loggia, which functions as a new kind of public space. Since the institute aims to become a base point for the area’s rural regeneration, and given the fact that the building also hosts a small market selling locally cultivated vegetables, one can appreciate how this gallery has a central function. Perhaps because it is reminiscent of an arcade, or the fact that this is a place for both research and production, or even possibly due to the existence of spaces of clausura (the enclosed or “cloistered” areas inaccessible to the public), the project somehow evokes the idea of a Romanesque monastery. [2]
Atelier Bow-Wow Domus 969
Atelier Bow-Wow, Koisuru-Buta Laboratory, Katori, Chiba, Japan
Even though the live-in employees are not subject to any manner of organised communal life, there nonetheless seems to be a clear intention to promote this kind of impression. The form of the complex is much like that of a large house, and there is the obvious presence of a Gesellschaft (society), together with this kind of programme’s great dependence on a Gemeinschaft (community) of human relations, with the result that the organisation resembles a sort of monastic community.
Atelier Bow-Wow Domus 969
Apart from the ground floor, which is accessible only to food processing staff for health and safety reasons, all the other spaces encourage personal exchanges and interaction. Photo Takahiro Okamura
The site is located near Narita International Airport, the main international port of entry to the city of Tokyo. The Narita area has a long history of activism opposing human intervention in the environment, and this spirit is still present today. The reasons for this resistance date back to the forcible site acquisitions for the transfer of imperial pasture land, as well as the fact that settlers returning from Manchuria had only just repatriated to the area before the new airport plan was set in motion in the postwar period. Alongside this complex interweaving of interests, the spread of violent struggles due to the convergence of left-wing activists in the area cast a long shadow over the whole of Chiba Prefecture’s transport administration. Consequently, with such an accumulation of history, the form of this area’s traditional rural landscape provokes a sense of irony. There are still many farmhouses surrounded by fern hedges, and this building’s gallery is also bordered by the same kind of vegetation. As this hedge grows to reach the height of the building, perhaps the structure’s relationship with its surroundings will also become more profound.
Atelier Bow-Wow Domus 969
Atelier Bow-Wow, Koisuru-Buta Laboratory, Katori, Chiba, Japan. Photo Takahiro Okamura
While strongly related to the cultural underpinnings of the area and its ascetic expression, the building seems to evoke the singular essence of Japanese architecture since the Great East Japan Earthquake (or the Tohoku Earthquake) of 2011.
In addressing the condition of a minority group—and doing so without depending solely on public subsidies—this design becomes a sincere and dignified response to the issues at hand. As a collective operation, the project also extends beyond the limits of Atelier Bow-Wow’s individuality. In the Tohoku area further to the north, even though the debate on how to counteract the menacing power of nature is still smouldering, this project asserts a belief in human rationality, in geometry and history. However, like a small overturned stone, it is also just a small piece of architecture. While not opposing to nature, the building adopts a stance that seems to exude pathos towards a certain concept of life and death—not just human death, but also animal death and the death of cities.
Atelier Bow-Wow Domus 969
Atelier Bow-Wow, Koisuru-Buta Laboratory, Katori, Chiba, Japan

The architecture of Atelier Bow-Wow, which until now has above all served the enjoyment of life, seems to have changed with the moment of disaster that struck Japan two years ago. That said, only time will tell whether this change has occurred in them or in we who view their work. If one can say that the construction of many Romanesque monasteries is related to the earthquake that hit Northern Italy in the year 1117, we should carefully observe whether this project by Atelier Bow-Wow might become an indication of the essence of architecture after the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the Tohoku area in 2011. Yoshimura Yasutaka, architect and Professor of I-AUD (International Program in Architecture and Urban Design), Meiji University

1. According to the agricultural economist Naraomi Imamura, the “sixth sector” industry is a hybridisation: an addition to the three sectors that asserts their importance
2. This direct connection can be noted in Palladio’s villas, especially in the side wings of suburban mansions with a deep connection to agriculture such as the Villa Emo


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