2021Design perspectives which gaze at “what lies ahead”
Ai Iishi
Considering “incomplete design”

Yuuki Kuroiwa × Ai Iishi | What is needed is design that can be continued comfortably


The Good Design Award 2021, the winners of which were announced in October 2021. “Focused Issues,” in which a special team (Focused Issues Directors) is organized in order to reveal a tide of design from a different viewpoint of selecting Award winners, and to work on respective themes. Preparation for presenting the issues and future possibilities as “recommendations” is currently underway.
Ai Iishi, one of Focused Issues Directors, Coordinator of Real Public Estate and Director of nest. inc, upholds the theme of “incomplete design. Through the utilization of public facilities, roads, and playgrounds, she started thinking, “For modern urban planning and city development, what is most important is to create an image from the viewpoint of users instead of prioritizing the hardware side, to repeat trial and error, and to update it within everyday life.”
During the screening process, Iishi focused attention on “Disaster Relief Housing for Community Preparedness [Kuwamizu private house with public bath]” in Kumamoto City, Kumamoto, expecting that she could find hints to deepen her own thoughts. This is “a private house” built with a public bath on the first floor. In other words, they open up their big bath to the public as a bathhouse. Iishi found in their efforts an ongoing empathy for the community by operating it comfortably for a long time without aiming at building a bathhouse itself.
The Kuwamizu private house with public bath is visited by people every day and continues to exist peacefully as a part of their lives—Iishi arrived at the keyword “to continue comfortably” during a talk with Yuuki Kuroiwa, an architect who operates the bathhouse. The hint was to absorb “incomplete design” into everyday life and continue exercising it.

It is not a public bath; Just “opening up” our bath

IishiThank you for doing this interview today. I heard that it was during the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes when you first thought of this Kuwamizu private house with public bath, which has a bathhouse on the first floor and private area on the second floor.

KuroiwaThat’s right. I am originally from Kuwamizu, and was living in an apartment in Kumamoto City back then. However, my house was seriously damaged because of the earthquake, and we had no choice but to move out.
I had considered building a new house somewhere else in our neighborhood, but then I recalled the scene of the town flooded with people who were not able to have a bath due to the water outage right after the earthquake... So I wanted to create a place that could do some good to the community, if I had to build a house anyway. That was how the Kuwamizu private house with public bath started.

IishiSo first you needed a new house, then you made it to be of help as a bathhouse for local people. How did you come up with the idea of “opening up a private bath to the public as a bathhouse,” which you are currently doing?

KuroiwaWe, the Kuroiwa family, have four girls, and used to have a bath all together, soaking in a small bathtub when we were living in the former apartment (laughs).

IishiThat’s lovely.

KuroiwaI wanted to have a large bath if I was going to build a new house. That’s when I thought that I could open up our bath as a bathhouse to people in the community during the daytime.

Yuuki Kuroiwa, Kuroiwa Structural Engineers Co., Ltd. / The interview was held in the dwelling part on the second floor.

IishiBut it is still your private bath, isn’t it? What time do you start using the bath privately after business hours?

KuroiwaWe normally start preparing for closing before 20:00, and our family leaves a bath by 20:30. Our girls are always joyful when they soak in the warm water. It becomes an exclusive family bath with no grumpy adults to scold them even when they swim in the bath, like in a swimming pool (laughs).

IishiThat’s nice, totally relaxing and no tension at all. I am currently speculating on “incomplete design.” I think one of the factors for realizing such design is that “production and creation are not always a goal.” I had this impression that the Kuwamizu private house with public bath focuses on carrying on with its business effortlessly, not just creating the place.
It attracted lots of attention after winning the Good Design Award 2021, but your days continued as normal. Regular customers pop in as usual, and your children have a bath at night. Facility design and the project itself are among several aspects that are evaluated. The fact that this place is running comfortably should be focused on.

Ai Iishi, Coordinator, Real Public Estate / Director, nest.inc

KuroiwaYes. At least, we are not aiming to be an “entertainment facility to enjoy hot spa” like a health spa. We are not able to cope with large running costs, so we want to keep just the right size to become rooted in the local community, rather than expanding the size of our business.

Three tips for running a bathhouse comfortably

IishiThinking of our conversations so far, “continuing comfortably” seems to be the key factor for achieving “incomplete design.” You mentioned the running costs earlier, but the initial cost to open a bathhouse must be fairly high, right?

KuroiwaThat’s right. I had estimates from three local brokers with prices of a few hundred million yen because construction costs soared immediately after the earthquake.
Since this bathhouse started from the viewpoint of disaster prevention, I didn’t think “It has to be a bathhouse!” to be honest. I didn’t want unnecessary debt, either. So, I struggled to sort out the initial cost issue.

IishiA few hundred million yen; that is a huge sum of money... How did you solve the funding issue?

KuroiwaMy background, that is, being specialized in architecture and structural design, in addition to growing up in Kuwamizu, became a breakthrough. I decided to make a separate order (note: a direct contract between a client and a builder without using a broker) to my friends who are builders or craftspeople without using a broker. After calculating the total sum, it turned out that the cost could be reduced to a few 10 million yen. It would be a little more than the cost of building a normal house. That lowered the stakes for opening a bathhouse and made me think “OK, let’s do it!”

IishiMr. Kuroiwa, you currently have two jobs: an architect and a bathhouse operator. Have you ever thought About becoming a full-time bathhouse owner?

KuroiwaNo, not at all. I insist on keeping it as my second job. Running a bathhouse is not an easy business at all. So, I think continuing the business without pursuing profit is important. We have many customers now, but our results are just break-even or slightly in the black. If I turned too keen to make profits, I would need to borrow a large sum of money. Then, my business would be something like gambling that cannot be continued if the balance of earnings and expenses goes into the red.
Also, I don’t hire any employees, in order to keep labor costs down. It is exclusively run by the Kuroiwa family in the spare time from our main job. I am lucky to have my parents to help us a lot because Kuwamizu is where I am from. My parents look after the bathhouse on weekdays. My father watches professional baseball games and my mother, who is a jeweler, makes handicrafts when they are at the front counter. Both of them are happy to help, and enjoy chatting with neighbors.

Before running a bath, he opens the lids in an accustomed manner.

IishiSo, remaining small in size is key. I assume the number of regular customers is moderately increasing by now. Do you have any future goals you wish to achieve?

KuroiwaI am asked this sort of question every time I have an interview, but I really don’t have any. The Kuwamizu private house with public bath is just a part of our life. Just like a small public bath in the countryside, I want to keep running it peacefully.

IishiYou want to carry on with your own life comfortably, instead of flying high. Summarizing your story so far, the relaxing business style of the Kuwamizu private house with public bath is supported by three key points, that is, “reducing initial costs,” “setting a plan to continue with minimum efforts,” and “no goal setting.”

Not making a community: The value of public and private space

IishiI think the nature of a bathhouse is a public place. On the other hand, private houses where family and children live are private spaces, and there is a clear line between them. But what I found interesting About the Kuwamizu private house with public bath is that public and private is mixed there.

KuroiwaThat’s true. The boundary between us and the outside world may be indeterminate. That may be because my wife Hiroko grew up in Okinawa where people are not opposed to open up their family matters to others.

IishiWhen you open up your home as a bathhouse, “your private house becomes a public space as well.” So, private and public coexist at the same time with an indeterminate boundary.

KuroiwaI think the true value of a public bath is to build “mutually assistive relationships in case anything should happen” during an emergency. Local people don’t talk to each other all the time, but they start sharing this special atmosphere of “people who kind of know each other” as they soak in the same warm water. It is such a delicate distancing that they recognize each other while at the same time avoiding active communication.
Other than earthquakes, Kumamoto has experienced many disasters, such as the eruption of Mount Unzen Fugen-dake and floods, and during those disasters, we experienced frequent water outages. I think we can help each other in such cases if we have this relationship of “kind of knowing each other.” In urban areas, such “places where we can sort of recognize the others” have almost disappeared, but cafes and bathhouses can possibly be places to build mutually assistive relationships among people in times of emergency.

A glimpse of the downstairs bathhouse from the dwelling space on the second floor.

IishiThe place you live in can also be a place where other people can see each other. Are you engaged in any activities, such as community organizing?

KuroiwaNo, I don’t do anything like that. I think what should be emphasized is distance. Overly organized management or pressure to enhance connections makes us tired from excessive communication. That would eventually spoil our place of relaxation. I am not a good talker and don’t want to be inquisitive About others.

IishiSo, you just welcome people from the viewpoint of making themselves at home. In the event of an emergency, such loose connections will create a relationship that makes people think “this place may be of help.” The Kuwamizu private house with public bath is like a “lighthouse.”

Being incomplete, it continues comfortably

IishiAs I hear your story, I became more and more sure that being able to carry on as a continuation of everyday life is invaluable. Home as well as a public space. On the other hand, not starting a community per se, and instead, keeping a comfortable distance. This business is standing on an incredible balance that can only be generated by this size.

KuroiwaI think so. As you know, many health spas have been forced to close. I think it is because their running costs are excessive. If you try to expand the entertainment aspect of the bathhouse, which is difficult to operate in the first place, you will have no choice but to survive highly competitive branding competitions or build a massive facility. I can’t be bothered to force myself that much because this is not my main job.

IishiYou know, against the backdrop of the recent hot spa and sauna boom, many young people gather together at small bathhouses and engage in activities to “transform bathhouses.” Are you considering doing something similar?

KuroiwaNot at all. We sometimes hold events, but circumstances that would require us to prepare content to attract people would overstrain us. We place no advertisements as well, just Instagram.

IishiI see. Thank you very much for having us today. The Kuwamizu private house with public bath remains in the form of “opening up a private house” with no expansion, and that is why it can be continued “comfortably.”
When you go downstairs, there are many customers. By the end of dinner time, it turned into a private bath that your family could enjoy together. By building more “semi-public” spaces with an indeterminate boundary between public and private like this bathhouse in cities, we can have more relaxed and flexible connections for mutual assistance in the event of emergencies in the community. If we can have more places like the Kuwamizu private house with public bath, the nature of "urban design" and the value of “incomplete design,” which continues to change along with the times and the people who live there, will be re-evaluated.

Editer: Masayuki Koike Writer:Tetsuo Ishida Photographer: Shunsuke Imai

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