Mr. Waka’s Dog House
“Get out at the Sakuragaoka post office. Turn around and you’ll see a Lawson’s. Walk to it and then turn left. Walk up that street and you’ll see the Dog House on the right.” Typical Tokyo directions from the art impresario and entrepreneur Joni Waka.
The director of A.R.T., a cultural institution in the city, the San Francisco-born Waka was raised in Kobe, Kathmandu, and other “points east.” When I first met him in Tokyo 10 years ago, he had an enormous Irish wolfhound, Bacon. Named after the artist, Bacon died of a heart attack during a beach outing Waka took with the American artist Joseph Kosuth. Daimler-Benz now sponsors the annual Bacon Prize in Tokyo in honor of the late dog, inviting artists—Ai Wei Wei among them—to paint the latest model big Merc in his memory. Waka now has a new dog, a much calmer Rhodesian ridgeback, and a new house—designed for him by Kosuth. I visited Waka in April, while I was in Tokyo.
The Dog House is Kosuth’s first-ever art-and-architectural work, a collaboration with the architects Claudia Hertrich and Ryo Shimizu, and the artists Seamus Farrell, Noema Kosuth, and Ryan Peterson. In an interview with the Japan Times, Kosuth noted Waka’s kindness and generosity, and his attachment to the late Bacon—traits that won his affection.
The Dog House sits on a pocket of land at the intersection of two narrow streets—a sloped site requiring a substantial retaining wall on the uphill side and an imposing foundation on the downhill side. As a result, the house proper really looks like a doghouse, with a level, setback entry. Trees and bushes screen it from the road, a sign of its conscious distancing of the frenetic city around it.
The area between the retaining wall and house is a linear garden terrace. A window wall opens on to it, the sun reflected by the stone retaining wall. Green and calm, it’s a setting that attracts birds. “I wake up to hear them singing,” Waka told me. The Dog House is a five-minute walk from the crowded crossroads of Tokyo’s Shibuya station and from the slower Daikanyama in the other direction. Yet it’s a world away from both.
Homage to Bacon
An integral part of the Dog House is a neon installation, inside and out, consisting of 21 wall elements. As Waka describes it, “each piece was handmade in Venice with black film on Venetian glass panels framed in and mounted on black stainless steel and illuminated from behind with handmade Venetian neon lights.” As is Kosuth’s pattern, the installation incorporates 10 quotations in English and 11 in Japanese (as the local language). Drawn from a variety of sources, they are uniformly about dogs—a bow to the late Bacon.
While the Dog House lives up to its name in basic form, it also resembles a mountain cabin with jet-black lapboards. Operable windows just below the roofline on the downhill side admit light and air, but not much else, adding to the feeling of a country retreat that has somehow survived the Tokyo juggernaut.
The interior consists of entry area opening out to a large room where the living happens. Beyond it is a small kitchen and attached bathing and ablutions area. Privacy, if desired, is provided by a stop light on the wall to the left of the kitchen doorway: red for privacy, orange for caution, and green if you want company. Above it and above the entry are two sleeping lofts. The main room is designed with furniture that can be easily shifted to accommodate one man working or a dinner party for 10 or 20 people. Inside and out, the artwork is the main event, turned on when the house is given over to society. Switched off, it goes dark and the Dog House is a house plain and simple, fitting unobtrusively with its neighbors.
Taking me outside, Waka showed me a narrow, planted strip along the street on the downhill side of the house. As happens, the construction intruded slightly into the nominal public realm, catching the attention of a sharp-eyed neighbor. Drawing the local authorities’ attention to the importance of the house as an artwork, and noting that its development spared the neighborhood an eyesore of a lot, Waka convinced them to designate the offending strip a public amenity and put him in sole charge of it—a fact to which a small bronze plaque now attests. So there.
A few days later, Waka and I drove into the countryside north of Tokyo to meet a master potter. On the way back, after stopping at the studio of the famous potter Shoji Hamada, the spiritual father of our master potter, I asked Waka if he ever thought of finding a weekend retreat outside Tokyo. No, he said, the Dog House does the job.