Kyohei Sakaguchi: Zero Yen House

At the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 1, 2007

A lean-to in an urban park, featuring a blue tarpaulin roof, a hinged door, and a bamboo blind. A car-shaped cardboard hut, lashed together with rope and sitting on a dolly. Temporary lodging under a bridge, incorporating a piece of playground equipment into its design. Each of these structures is an example of what Japanese artist and architect Kyohei Sakaguchi calls a “zero-yen house” .

Built by the homeless of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, zero-yen houses employ discarded and found materials, including pieces of wood and corrugated roofing, temple ornaments, blankets, shipping pallets, an umbrella, and those ubiquitous blue tarps. They also incorporate into their assembly the imminence of their disassembly: at any moment, they may have to be taken apart and moved.

Since his days as a university student at the turn of the millennium, Sakaguchi has been studying the kinds of shelters that street people have created for themselves in Japan's three largest cities. Based in Tokyo, he appears to be obsessed with this peculiar and transient form of “vernacular architecture” . Sakaguchi uses images, descriptions, and even facsimiles of the improvised homes of the homeless as a way of celebrating human resourcefulness and ingenuity. These dwellings, he tells us, are worthy of our interest and admiration rather than our indifference, our scorn, or even our pity. They can instruct us on an approach to architecture that is the reverse of overconsumption and resource depletion.

In addition to 13 large ink-jet prints, two short videos, nine sketches, and one detailed architectural drawing, the show features a life-size replica of one particularly inventive and efficient structure, entitled An Evolving House. This compact zero-yen house exemplifies the kind of invention born out of necessity that Sakaguchi so admires. The original, encountered on the banks of the Sumida River in central Tokyo, was built by a former camera engineer, and neatly incorporates sleeping space, storage, and an electrical system powered by a small solar panel. One of the aspects of this structure that Sakaguchi lauds is its possibilities for a modular architecture based on the dimensions of the human body.

Sakaguchi makes the point repeatedly that these zero-yen houses can be models for future architectural thinking. Where their inhabitants might be situated in terms of social justice, however, is not addressed. Despite the imaginative, inexpensive, and Earth-friendly accommodations people make to living on the streets, it's difficult to relinquish the expectation that they shouldn't be there in the first place. But I guess that's the subject of another exhibition.