One of the 2012 Live Arts Festival highlights is Toshiki Okada and Pig Iron Theatreʼs Zero Cost House. The show is about, among other things, Kyohei Sakaguchi. Though Sakaguchi is relatively unheard-of in the United States, his Zero Yen House project has traveled as close as Canada, and with the sustainability movement in full force here, heʼs a figure who bears extensive discussion.
Sakaguchi is an artist, a documentarian, the author of two books, a musician and illustrator, and an avid blogger and tweeter. He is Bear Grylls crossed with John Lennon. He is an architect who does not build houses, a Tokyo-based artist, a performance architect, and a revolutionary. But it was not until March of 2011 that he became the Prime Minister of Japan.
Zero Yen House
You could say that this all starts on the top of an abandoned building, in an empty water tank, in 1999. Sakaguchi, while still earning his degree in architecture and rejecting the practice every step of the way—“Because I am not interested in making new buildings and recycling old architecture,” he explains on his website—dragged a camera, a generator, and a power strip to the top of that building and documented a three-day, zero-yen living experiment.
The video is weirdly reminiscent of an episode of Man vs. Wild, except that instead of stripping bear carcasses to make blankets, he pans the camera across his rooftop flophouse showcasing the generator and power strip heʼs rigged up so that he can charge his camera, and we see him falling asleep and waking up in the dark little tank. And instead of long, nostalgic shots of an Arctic sunrise, we see the sun rise and set on Tokyo, Sakaguchi’s wilderness.
The point of this project was to prove that in a person can live, happily, in a tiny space, and not while away their lives supporting a 1,500 square-foot apartment. This proved an concern for Sakaguchi, and a year later, still working on that architecture degree, he stumbled upon something amazing: a house created not by architects, but designed and built out of local refuse by the owner. On the bank of the Tama River, it might be called a squat-house, or a nest, more than a house, and but its zero-yen design was a revolutionary concept to Sakaguchiʼs imagination, and became the subject of his graduation thesis.
Finding more of these homes in cities like Tokyo and Nagoya, Sakaguchi studied them and wrote Zero Yen House, an exploration of the homes built by certain homeless people in the streets, under bridges, and along riversides in populous cities like Tokyo and Nagoya. He doesnʼt call them homeless, though. In some cases, they are “urban hunter-gatherers,” and Sakaguchi draws a connection to the homes built by African natives in situations lacking what we would call traditional building materials. “I don’t call them ʻhomeless,ʼ” he writes on his website, “because they have a house. I rent a house now and don’t have a house. In that sense, I may be homeless.”
On his English-language website, the project features pictures and descriptions of a number of the homes he found around large cities of Japan. Some resemble small campers, only their walls and roofs are made completely out of recycled—i.e., foraged—materials, like cork board and blue tarps. Others look kind of like junkyards where the living space is completely outdoors. In some cases, they use environmental elements to make their walls, like in “A Living Room Out on the Road (Tokyo),” which Sakaguchi amends with, “Since the bridge is used as a roof, furniture can be placed outside the house. Because the interior is inside-out, he can get a huge space.”
His A Solar Zero Yen House and The Way of Zero Yen Life each focus on a single home. The Solar residents not only use a solar panel to charge a car battery, which they then use to watch television in their home, they have also built the home to be completely portable. Sakaguchi elaborates in detail on how this is possible, and remarks, “He understands everything about his house.” In The Way of Zero Yen Life, Sakaguchi explores the daily comings and goings of the residents, including their method of making money (collecting aluminum cans) and their monthly expenses (they manage to save about $29/month).
Sakaguchi says in Solar: “I think he looks like a hunting people. He uses natural materials of Tokyo . . . I think this house’s zero yen technology [could] change the way of life in a city in the future.”
Sakaguchi, like his “urban hunter gatherers,” are accessing a place where boundless ingenuity, drawn out of instinct, collides and coexists with a cityʼs infrastructure.
Aside from being a documentarian and a self-titled “performance architect,” Sakaguchi is a musician and a visual artist. In his Dig-ital series of prints, he provides a series of dreamlike but eerily real illustrations of this collision. In Dig-ital #3, a stalk of material which might be manmade or organic bursts out of the city below in a plume of hard matter. It grows like a tree through concrete, and is composed of jagged skyscrapers, apartment buildings, rafters and fire escapes, corporate towers, and, curiously, at the top, a palm tree.
The city beneath cuts a hard line against a jungle of what looks like overgrown lawn, a uniform and mysterious wilderness harmonious with but separate from the city. And, not surprisingly, it is out of the border between these two worlds that the towering, urban tumor appears.
In Dig-ital #4, an impossibly- weighted city expands from the neck of a man in baggy, ill-fitting clothes. This city, though more normal than the last (in that it is lateral rather than vertical), bears some of the trademarks of the previous Dig-ital city. On the far left, a building grows out of the tops of other buildings, and the whole structure looks about to crush the man on whose neck it depends.
The man in Dig-ital #4? Probably a squatter of some sort. His boots, jacket and pants are ill-fitting and mis-matched, and the stripped room in which he stands is decorated only with an unplugged speaker, a dead plant, and some takeout.
Cities growing out of the heads of people, tenuous connections between the earth and the structures growing out of it, overcrowding and impossibly massed structures. A kind of artificial wild, an urban structure made natural. The dreamlike Dig-ital is both a celebration of the innovative developments of his “hunter-gatherers” and a fretful reflection on the tenuously-constructed cityscapes which clash with their natural surroundings and dominate the lives and priorities of their residents.
All of this, in retrospect, could predict the disasters which struck Japan on March 11, 2011, and changed life for a lot of people, including Sakaguchi. A series of powerful earthquakes, and a tsunami which claimed 15,000 lives, were bad enough, but people around the world looked on in horror as, on March 12, it was confirmed that the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plantʼs six reactors were melting down experiencing.
Sakaguchiʼs reaction was an understandable one: escape. Not only was the idea of radiation poisoning terrifying, but as the government held a hard line denying the dangers of radiation, in the face of growing international concern, Sakaguchi was inspired by an idea. Not only escape for himself, and his family, but escape for everyone in Tokyo. He uprooted his family, headed back to his hometown of Kumamoto, which is about 400 miles west of Tokyo and as far away as you can be from that global center of cultural, governmental, and economic activities without actually leaving Japan. From there, he sent out hundreds of tweets a day, saying, “if you wanna escape from radiation, come with me to Kumamoto.”
And this is how Kyohei Sakaguchi became the Prime Minister of Japan. He built the home he now calls Zero Center, and gave out ministries to everybody who joined him there, in his “New Government.” And though his six-year-old daughter, the minister of mascots, prints her own currency, the people who live there (including Toshiki Okada, the writer of Zero Cost House) live a zero yen lifestyle. Food is grown in gardens on sight, and Sakaguchi himself built most of the furniture.
Zero Center is not an answer, necessarily, to the problems of a complex city like Tokyo, nor has the nuclear meltdown chased people out of city centers into farming communities like Sakaguchiʼs. That his lifestyle, one of wastelessness and sustainability, is considered radical is shocking but true. While sustainability movements and horrors of increased wastefulness—oil spills, fracking, deforestation, and so forth—combat one another in newspaper headlines, Sakaguchiʼs work and life prove that on all levels, whether destitute or middle-class or wealthy, a wasteless, sustainable lifestyle is more than possible.
The message of Sakaguchiʼs work is a righteously radical one. It is hard to reject anything in it on an intellectual or factual point. It also seems impossible to absorb without changing the way you live.
Zero Cost House continues its run tonight through Saturday at the Arts Bank, 601 S. Broad Street, Center City. Times vary, $28-$35.