Showa Kodomoen is an integrated kindergarten and nursery located on the campus of Showa Women's University, in Tokyo's Setagaya district. The client requested a facility to serve a total of 223 children divided into 12 classes ranging from infant to 5 years old. The design brought the playground up to the second story to ensure that it would get plenty of sunlight. By allowing the children's activities to spill out into the neighborhood on the building's west side, adjacent to the road, a warm and friendly building that was open to the neighborhood and did not feel oppressive was created.
View from the elementary school on the southeastern side. A two-story building rises from the large playground. The large staircase to the right leads to the campus plaza.
The first floor houses many different rooms, including classrooms for the younger children, office space, and a play area, all of which are laid out in a figure-eight formation without any dead ends. Walls between classrooms are kept to a minimum to allow free movement back and forth. The second- and third-floor plans are compact but still maintain a high degree of flexibility, with the children able to enter the playground from many different points. The playground features two hills. The design allows the children to enjoy running around on the varied topography while also bringing sunlight all the way to the back of the office below. Through careful and creative design, we aimed to create a childcare center that would both match the spirit of Showa Women's University and become a symbol of the neighborhood.
The main entrance is located under the gently undulating playground.
The elevated corner of the rooftop playground ensures adequate ceiling height and soft natural light below.
What was most important for you during the design process?
This is a large facility intended to serve 233 children ranging from age 0 to 5 years. But even if the building itself was large, we felt it was important that the scale wasn't out of proportion with the children who would be using it. In addition, the project site is located on the Showa Women's University campus, adjoining the main plaza and fronting a road on the west side for 50 meters. We of course wanted the building to represent the campus, but also to be a soft presence in relation to the neighborhood.
What challenges did you face in the project? How did you respond to them?
We believe that opening buildings up to society is an appropriate, transparent approach to architecture. However, we realized that when it comes to buildings that involve many different stakeholders, implementing that type of vision within contemporary Japanese society is not an easy thing to do. This is not a problem just of certain stakeholders or types of neighborhoods, but rather one of Japanese society as a whole.
The first floor courtyard has good circulation and lets natural light into the building. The dogwood tree growing there is a symbol of the school.
The classrooms for 5-year-olds. Built-in cabinets attached to structural walls gently divide the rooms.
The rooftop playground extends around the building's west side, improving circulation.
Because the sliding glass doors that open onto the second-floor playground lack door jambs, children can come in and out wherever they want.
The second-floor playground. The exterior wall color matches that of existing school buildings. The third floor incorporates stained glass from the previous nursery school building, and has a weather vane on the roof.
The third-floor playroom. The folded ceiling and inset floor ensure adequate ceiling height. The area on either side of the stage can be used for seating.
In the evening, the entire first-floor interior is visible from the entrance.
1. During the final design stage, the university requested a four-story building. However, such a tall structure would have been an oppressive presence on campus and in the neighborhood, while also casting a shadow over the playground.
2. Our design limits the structure to three stories and raises the playground to the second story. Offsetting the third-floor volume ensures plenty of sunlight reaches the playground.
3. A courtyard brings natural light into the large first floor. The playground extends around the west side of the building for improved circulation.
4. The playground includes two hills. While the children enjoy running around outside, sunlight penetrates deep into the building below.
What did you learn from this project? What will you take from it to future projects?
In the past our office has focused mostly on residential architecture, and this was the largest public project we have ever undertaken. When clients request a building with this type of large-scale public function, it is necessary to constantly incorporate a wide range of perspectives while also reflecting the results of various inspections and regulations in the design. However, we felt that it was also important to simultaneously incorporate the sense of scale and detail that we have developed through our residential practice.
How does this project fit into current architectural trends such as sustainability, social function, or technology?
As Japan moves toward a society with less children, the nature of rural and urban areas is called into question, and societal conditions change as the result of many different factors, architecture must respond to the needs of the era. Against the backdrop of national policy aimed at concentrating population in cities, the cost of land in cities is rising and in many urban households both parents are working. Showa Kodomoen is part of a new, integrated system of childcare that has developed in response to these societal pressures.
What is the societal role of the architect?
Right now, the people of Japan as a whole feel both an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and entrapment, and a responsibility to keep moving forward despite this stress. This isn't the sort of era when architecture alone can pull society forward, but if architecture embodies the technology and other characteristics of each era, then we must carefully consider the direction in which we want it to go. It is unacceptable for us to lead society in a mistaken direction, and essential to create architecture that reveals our relationship with family and local community--not only with large, symbolic buildings, but also in residential design.
Interview by Ryogo Utatsu (translated from Japanese by Winifred Bird)