Local inPhormation

I’m no Tokyo virgin. I’ve been there a bit over the years. The first time I went, I was that wide-eyed guy with the camera, the phrase book and the copy of Lonely Planet. I crammed while I flew to familiarise myself with my destination, but still I fumbled around a lot when I got there, got lost and took snapshots that I later threw out when I discovered the same subjects better photographed in the postcard books at the airport.

The second time I went, I had my Australian friend Andy and a Japanese friend Kentaro living there. They showed me around and translated for me. The experience was way, way different. I saw the Tokyo the tourists don’t always see and saved myself a lot of time and effort with their local knowledge to guide me. It didn’t alter the fact that I was still being an Australian in Tokyo. I was still staring in wonder at things a Tokyoite wouldn’t notice, like the doilies on the head rests of the taxis and the bell bottom trousers that the laborers wear (swish, swish, swish), and the way even the danger signs have cute little kawaii characters telling you that you could be killed or at least horribly maimed if you touched the electrified train tracks in an inappropriate way. Things Tokyoites consider ordinary. I was still adding my perspective to the landscape, but I wasn’t naïve to the customs or cluelessly losing things in translation.

Tokyoites with lots of local knowledge.

Tokyoites with lots of local knowledge.

When Yo Shimada mentioned, during our first meeting in Tokyo, that he felt it would be helpful for him to work in concert with an architecture firm in Brisbane, I knew exactly what he meant. He would need a local firm to guide his concept through the local laws and building code. He would need a local firm to explain the menu of materials available and the economies to be made by working with regularly manufactured sizing. He would need a local firm that could bridge the gap between the Japanese approach to architecture and the local approach.

He would also need an interpreter.

He recommended a firm called Phorm Architecture and Design. They did great work in their own right so I was intrigued and motivated to make contact with them. I spoke to an architect by the name of Paul Hotston. He introduced me to an architect by the name of Yohei Omura. Paul was not Japanese. That is true. Not in the least. There was nothing remotely Japanese about Paul. I’m pretty sure that nobody has ever accused Paul of being Japanese. He left that job to Yohei and Yohei-san did it very well. So well in fact that he would form (Phorm) the architectural/cultural/language link between Yo Shimada, Tato Architects and myself and Phorm Architecture and Design.

Paul Hotston from Phorm. He's not Japanese.

Paul Hotston from Phorm. He’s not Japanese.

Paul and Yohei-san got to work immediately researching the site. Paul recommended we do a survey to confirm the location of the boundaries but more importantly to chart out the sight lines for any property built on the block. Sight lines are crucial to know. You don’t want to be bending over picking up your socks in the morning giving your neighbours a proctologist’s view over breakfast. Or maybe you do. So you should know where the windows of your neighbours look out to and you should know where the views that add value are to be found.

Here’s the survey of my block.

Survey with Sightlines

Survey with Sightlines

There are sight lines to the value-adding Brisbane River. I knew about those. But there are sight lines that also drew my attention to a couple of interesting features I hadn’t seen in the land I purchased. Things like quirky old chimneys, boat sheds on the river, the possibility that if I built a tower at the rear of my property I could achieve views of the river from that angle too. The Rapunzel in me liked that idea. I love a tower.

Paul also pointed out a non-descript brown brick house across the ravine. If you’ve ever read David Malouf’s famous Australian novel Johnno, you’d have read about this house. He calls it “a grim, three-storeyed brick house my father built for us in one of the best suburbs in Brisbane.”

I’m a writer. I wonder if I could ask Yo Shimada to engineer a view of that house from my writer’s desk. Now that would be a poetic sightline. That would be an excellent use of local knowledge. I could look out from my Minimalist Monument to Moi in the middle of the night and agree with David Malouf when he writes, “The traffic of Kingsford Smith Drive is less than fifty yards away but cannot be heard.” I’m with you, David. It’s a bloody miracle of topography.