ARYS Field Team: Gordon Higgins – An Architect in Tokyo

ARYS Tokyo Talks is a monthly series that shines the spotlight on our Tokyo network of creatives, artists, friends and family. Next to our base Berlin, we proudly call Tokyo our second home since the early days of our brand. You can find ARYS in renowned shops in and outside of the Tokyo concrete jungle and with this series we want to represent the people that help us, inspire us, and create their own story and legacy.For our next interview, we met up with Jamaican-born, Tokyo-based architect Gordon Higgins, who told us more about his inspirations, work and the motivation behind his move and life in Neo-Tokyo. With more than 10 years of Tokyo experience, he knows and feels the town with a one of a kind view and mindest. Let’s find out more:

Dear Gordon, can you please introduce yourself to our network, and tell us more about yourself! 

Hi I’m Gordon. A Jamaican born architect now practising in Japan. I work mostly in residential architecture. I have been a part of projects in Japan and throughout the world.

What got you initially into architecture?

When I was young I think I felt space differently. I could feel the weight of space, the emotion of space. My parents said when I was a kid when I was in some interesting space I was just wandering away like in a daydream just looking around like in a daydream. I think I was just built to work with space.

And what made you want to move to Tokyo in the first place, what does the city mean to you in terms of your line of work?

When I lived in the US undergrad I randomly decided to take Japanese classes but wasn’t into Japanese manga or anime. I worked part-time in a library and one day I found the section with the books on Japanese architecture and aesthetics. It’s all so different and unique from Western visual culture. How it connects to philosophy and nature. It only made sense that I come to Japan to experience this first hand.

You live in Tokyo for quite some time now, and with the fast pace the city is changing, you must have witnessed many places and neighbourhoods changing. Do you feel like Tokyo is steadily evolving or keeping its design DNA over the years you have been here?

Tokyo is definitely evolving. Long before I moved to Tokyo I lived for a couple of months in Kyoto. I left Japan then I came back to study architecture in the Tokyo area. Tokyo is the opposite of Kyoto. If Kyoto represents the long history of Japan, Tokyo represents the now. In university, I volunteered for a while trying to preserve historical public bathhouses in Tokyo. That was a huge failure because no matter how hard we all tried these beautiful buildings that can only be built by palace craftsmen just kept being demolished. And that’s when a friend of mine told me something: Tokyo is a city that was always supposed to exist in the present. It’s a practical city. Kyoto was the symbolic capital the historical heart of Japan. Tokyo exists in two tenses the present and the future. Tokyo is always evolving and changing.

Do you have a favourite building in Tokyo? If so, which one is it and what makes this specific building so unique?

Yanagisawa Takahiko’s, Museum of Contemporary art and Tokyo Opera city. Both buildings sort of spread out horizontally and vertically in a way that is both playful yet meditative. There is always a wow element. He uses the void in a way that many architects can’t. Also if you’re really into architecture you should try to sneak into The Nakagin Capsule tower, if you can sneak into it. It’s such a beautiful building. It’s running down and falling apart but what it meant for architecture and the future is still relevant. I think I will cry the day they tear it down.

Why do you think so many architecture lovers feel so home and comfortable in Tokyo, is there anything that makes Tokyo so unique and different from other cities?

Japan has a visual culture that encourages a certain amount of experimentation. For a culture that is so much about fitting in, when it comes to style, fashion and design you can always feel welcome to stand out. Since Japanese architecture was never meant to be permanent and there isn’t a strong sentimentality for old things that no longer serves a purpose, this lends itself to experimentation and evolution. As such there is a vigorous architectural culture where new design is always prized.

What factors besides architecture made you want to move to Japan?

Originally I came to Japan to sort of break away from my own existence for a little. In Japan, the way of life and thinking here is so different from the Western world that it actually forces you to hold a mirror up to yourself and think what is my identity? What are my core values? I’ve learned so much about myself being here in Japan.

When arriving in a new city, it’s not uncommon to make inferences about the local society based on the architecture/buildings. What did you infer about Japanese people the first time you came here?

When I first came to Tokyo I thought it was really closed. You can’t see into bars or restaurants, galleries are hidden and Japanese people at first can be a little closed. But once you find your way in, this city is the most amazing place to be. I’ve had so many crazy, intense and wacky experiences here. I’ve met the most interesting creative people ever. If you put into the effort to find your way into Tokyo it will keep rewarding you with amazing experiences. Also, Japan is an electric city. Tokyo is very business-like in the day but when it switches to night mode and the neon comes on. The entire city changes into this playground. Tokyo people are the same, work incredibly hard and play hard too.

If Tokyo was a person, how would he or she be like? 

Tokyo is a woman who is cool, urban, stylish and nerdy in ways you wouldn’t expect. Secretly unpretentious, sexy by attitude and definitely hard to access.

As a Tokyo Expert and lover of good taste and food, can you please give us a top 3 list of your favourite restaurants and favourite places for design and inspiration?

Favourite restaurants: When I eat, to be honest, I love junk food a dirty unpretentious Izakaya. Best Yakiniku: Sumiyoshi Horumon (charcoal grills at each table open 24 hours). Best Karage: I’ve been going to Chiba Chan since I was in college. It has the best Karaage sauce. Best Ramen: Ramen Takahashi, Simple no-frills yet exquisite. Best Grilled Fish Lunch: Sanshuya, before lockdown I tried to go here once a week.Design and Inspiration: Eastern Tokyo. If you want to feel the soul of Tokyo head east. Walk from Kanda to Bakuro Cho to Asakusa walk to the sky tree and if you have time walk north to Mukojima. This used to be the traditional craftsman city. You will go through neighbourhoods with shops that have making brushes, selling leather, clothing etc. since the Edo period. Look at the older buildings and how they have come to have a certain balance of elegance and functionality. Look at their wares and the attention to detail in how they are crafted.

What do fashion and functionality mean to you? What are your expectations towards apparel and design? Have your fashion purchase decision criteria changed since you started working as an architect? 

Japan is a very visual culture. There is a lot that is encoded in how you present yourself. People assume your values and what tribes you belong to from how you are dressed. As an architect I don’t have a lot of time to worry about my wardrobe. But I do take a lot of time and effort to choose the items I own. I look for pieces that are comfortable, practical and stylish. I look for things that are comfortable enough to work in for 16 hours, durable enough to wear on a site visit and stylish enough to impress a client. Just like how I consider architecture to be a part of the story of the place it inhabits, I think that you have to choose clothing that honors and makes sense within your own story.

Do you see parallels in your fashion taste and preferred architecture styles?

I originally studied Art before architecture. I think before I became an architect I was into clothes that were frivolous loud, bright colors, graphic and bold statements. But after becoming an architect, I think my style has become more about function. I look for interesting shapes and volume, materials, something unexpected. I also appreciate when you can feel the attention to detail of the designer. I’m a sucker for a design element you didn’t even know you needed. And also as now green is the new black in architecture. I also have started paying attention to brands that have a future minded approach to the climate crisis and fashion’s role in it.

What are your plans for the future? What’s next for you, Gordon?

I think my future goal is to diversify my work. Spend more time writing, making art as well as architecture. I’m also really interested in furniture design recently.

Thank you a lot for your time!