Japan’s legacy pays off for Shiro Architects’ developer clients

Shiro Architects’ design principal Hiromi Lauren was schooled as an architect in Japan, and her introduction into its workplace at the height of the country’s 1980s economic miracle has cemented how Japan’s legacy pays off for Shiro Architects’ developer clients.

She says, “Everybody who goes to study architecture at university thinks they can do what they want when they come out.

“But I learnt the hard way, not once, but every day, that architects are never ‘helping’ the developer, as developers never think that way. Developers are always using architects, They are simply higher in the hierarchy, and in the bubble I was working 180 hours in overtime per month to satisfy banks and developers.”

It was a surprise subsequently to work at Harry Seidler and Associates in Sydney, whose approach to relationships contrasted strongly with those she’d become used to in her home country.

“When I came to Australia, I was spoiled by working for Harry, and from being a slave to the banks, I learned from him to become a respected architect, believing that if you think you can make beautiful, effective, economical buildings then everyone should agree with you.

“That was just Harry’s attitude, he had complete confidence.

“That discipline of being obedient to developers and the pressures they had imposed on them by their bankers was baked into my mind, but it wasn’t baked into Harry’s.”

I can see that when a developer has a concept and they are right … what is most important is that we use our skills to help them realise their concepts, as, most likely, they don’t have our skills

Hierarchy aside, the Japanese property industry has a structural concentration of wealth and power that also increases the pressure on its architects.

Most property in Japan was owned by a very small number of massive family companies, in a system known as “zaibatsu”, whose vertically integrated chain of command has now widely been superseded by the horizontal relationships of association and coordination characteristic of “keiretsu”.

The major keiretsu are each centered around a single bank, which lends money to keiretsu member companies and holds equity positions in the companies.

For architects, however, whether zaibatsu or keiretsu, the effect has proved the same.

Hiromi says, “Whenever you want to develop property, you need money. In theory, in Australia, you can go to any bank, can’t you?

“But in my experience, a Japanese developer doesn’t really have power like here.

“First, developers are also tied in the keiretsu structure to one or other of those family banks. But then, even if they know what to do, if the bank doesn’t approve it, they can’t do it.

“Then, as keiretsu, every single beak the bank has will be stuck into your project to make sure its risk management is secure.

“The banks are experts in development feasibility studies but have a different view to the architects. They never care about the shape of a building, just the money.”

Because the need to design to optimise space to satisfy the needs of banks and developers is a first principle in her personal design discipline, Hiromi says, “I am lucky I have the skills that were baked into me back then, because now I am working for myself, I find I have a natural advantage.

“As in my work for Harry Seidler on North Apartments, when I squeezed in that extra apartment per floor, our edge is using the disciplines that were cooked into me under an incredibly high pressure system.

“I can see that when a developer has a concept and they are right, it is just our job to help them make money.

“We don’t have their knowledge of the trends they can see, but what is most important is that we use our skills to help them realise their concepts, as, most likely, they don’t have our skills.

“When we were in conversation recently with a developer working in Vietnam and we started showing them pretty things, he was saying we don’t want that, it’s just a cartoon.

“He was saying, there is a trend, there is a market and what we need are architects who can help satisfy it.

“I was able to talk back to him and to tell him that I know how to do exactly what he wanted because I have been trained like that.

“Because that is the principle under which I’ve worked my whole life, although it was different when I was working for Harry Seidler, I know how we can do it.”


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