The Ar(t)chitecture of Tadashi Kawamata: Between disruption and reconciliation

Art begins not with the flesh, but with the house.
That is why architecture is the first of the arts.

—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari 1

Tower, detour, contour

In the summer of 2013, in one of Parc de la Villette meadows, in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, Tasdashi Kawamata, an artist of Japanese origin, was entrusted with building a tower made of recycled or recyclable wooden planks. This tower, the highest the artist has created in France, was 21 metres high and 12 metres in diameter. Begun on April 17, the work in progress was visible until August 21, 2013. In June, a metal spiral staircase in the centre of this enormous, constantly changing structure allowed the public to visit the inside and have a good look around. Arriving at the last platform, one could see the canal de l’Ourcq running through the park in the distance, as well as various public buildings such as the Museum of Science and Industry and the Cité de la Musique. And when mounting and descending the staircase, visitors could also observe a collection of everyday objects made of wood that were integrated into the structure, representing familiar pieces of furniture for the most part.

Titled Collective Folie, this tower, designed for the Parc de la Villette,2 makes discreet reference to Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi’s constructed installations called Folies. Tschumi, who was entrusted with the park’s conception in the 1980s, designed twenty-six architectural structures made of metal and painted red, all different one from the other. The term Folies refers to the country houses of the 19th that the aristocracy and upper middle class constructed on the outskirts of cities. But, because their forms are composed of diverse curves developed from a cube, these multiple-use buildings also evoke postmodern architecture and what it leads to as a way of constructing dwellings.3 In this context, and like in many of his works, Kawamata’s Collective Folie is concerned with the environment and the history of the place. Furthermore, the title of this project presents the collective work that several hundred volunteers assembled during various workshops.

As for many of his recent installations, Kawamata works with numerous people: among them engineers, architects and landscape designers with whom he discusses the project’s feasibility. On many construction sites, there are also visual art and architecture students anxious to collaborate in a creative process that is unfamiliar to them. And then at times, there are the local residents, both young and old, who want to become involved in producing a work particularly when this is serving the community. Right away, the set up of these projects moves away from the standard idea of work. Contrary to Auguste Rodin’s 1898 work called La tour de travail or Vladimir Tatline’s Monument de la troisième internationale of 1919, Kawamata’s ephemeral tower Collective Folie, does not celebrate the worker at the heart of a fragmented social economy, rather it emphasizes the experience of working with one pleasure in mind, that of building a work together.

Like most of his large-scale projects, the tower’s construction at Parc de la Villette required numerous discussions. These took place during workshops in which a group dynamics strived to share ideas that subsequently were transposed into physical actions. Although Kawamata remains head of the work site, each participant is invited to comment and suggest ways of proceeding. Thus, he accepts that he does not control everything. Because the work to be accomplished is never entirely planned, each project allows for some improvisation.4 Leaving room for certain creative freedom, the work reaches beyond the artist’s subjectivity. Contrary to a deep-rooted view in modern art, the artist is not isolated. His inspiration — if there is inspiration — depends on the participants’ collaboration. However being at the centre of the process, Kawamata is aware of the place he occupies and of his responsibility. In the end, he must answer for the outcome, and in spite of everything, he is the one who signs the work.

Since his participation in the Venice Biennial in 1982, Kawamata has been invited regularly to produce in-situ projects in Europe and North America. His first interventions were mainly assembled accumulations of wooden planks that covered the façade of a building, such as Limelight Project in New York (1985) and Spui Project in The Hague (1986), which resulted in deforming part of the architecture. Project at Colonial Tavern Park in Toronto, presented from July to October 1989, was organized by Mercer Union artist-run centre and was of this nature. Kawamata was invited to transform a space left vacant, following the demolition of the Colonial Tavern on Yonge Street. This bric-a-brac construction of thou sands of planks enclosed the space between two buildings. Parts of the precariously arranged structure overhung the sidewalk and intruded on a portion of the bank façade that was made up of two Corinthian columns.

A similar process of presenting a space of ruins or one destined for demolition was also the focus in 1992 for Project on Roosevelt Island. For five months on an island facing Manhattan, Kawamata constructed a structure made of thousands of wooden planks and salvaged material that he found in various areas of an old abandoned hospital. Because these interventions, carried out by invitation, are concern with the spectacle, they enable us to question our relationship to architectural space. They also evoke living spaces that change or disappear and sink into oblivion. Although these new sorts of appendages seem disorderly at times, they do have artistic merit and are highly visible.

As a “sculptor of architecture,”5 Kawamata intervenes not only by taking over dwelling places, he occasionally intrudes from the inside, expanding to the outside. In 2009, for the Gandamaison project at La Maréchalerie contemporary art centre at Versailles, he piled up hundreds of crates any old way on the side of the building, creating the appearance of the crates tumbling off the roof. Inside the building, more piles of wooden crates were heaped up together to form vaults and tunnels. For Détour des tours, the project presented in 2005 at Creux de l’enfer and at Château des Adhémar, he used thousands of wooden planks to take over the interior spaces, creating momentary confusion and disorder. Again, assemblages of planks encroached on various architectural spaces, distorting their style, use and structure: for a time, diverting them from their original function. In the West, this artist is well known for taking over places with art.

East and West: Inhabiting space

Producing artworks in the West since 1982 and teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris since 2005, Kawamata always likes to recall that his approach to art retains a link to Japanese tradition.6 Contrary to Western art that has developed through Academies since the Renaissance, art of the East does not have distinct status within the aesthetic experience. As a cultural object par excellence, the work of art does not invite a particular aesthetic reading.7 Aesthetic experience is not limited to the “art world.” This is why Kawamata is prudent, regarding the social function of art. Because he does not consider that “art offers anything in particular,” 8 his point of view is more modest. Also the image he has of the artist is closer to that of a craftsman, looking with discretion at a very physical product to be made. Except in the case of Kawamata, as was said earlier, the work is produced with the help of various participants.

This said, when he works as a team, thinking about urban space or green areas, the architecture and its environment, Kawamata is also aware that viewers have a sensibility to the landscape and so he presents another way of looking at it. Surprisingly, this began in the early 1990s with a series of roughly built huts called Field Work presented in numerous cities such as Tokyo, Fort Worth, Montreal, Chicago and Hanover. Precariously installed in urban centres and made of cardboard and salvaged material, these huts recall the makeshift shelters of the homeless. In Montreal, there were 16 of them set up in various vacant lots throughout the city. In order to perpetuate their existence, Kawamata photographed them before leaving them to their fate.9

During these same years, he also produced the Favela series, presented in Ottawa and Houston in particular. This time, it was a collection of small huts made of wood, sheet metal and recycled material; crammed together one next to the other, they were then placed in vacant lots close to urban developments. Even if these urban interventions were commissions from cultural organizations, the image that this series gave viewers of course evoked the precariousness of an abode, the fragility of the housing situation in contemporary society. Moreover, it is in these conditions that architecture can be considered as the first of the arts. An art that is made without an artist, without the intention of marking one’s time. An art that maintains a relationship to the idea of the dwelling, the idea of home.

The series called Tree Huts is fantastic in this respect. These are small dwellings made of wooden planks that could represent a living space or nest, hanging from buildings and perched in trees. Presented in many cities since 1998, this series recalls our need to have a place in spite of everything, to find a shelter that defines the inside from the outside. Attached to the external structure of Centre Georges-Pompidou in 2010, Tree Huts emphasized our living conditions in cities. It symbolized architecture without architects, these compositions made with what one finds close at hand in order to protect oneself.10 As precarious dwelling places, these huts also were shown suspended in the Paris trees in 2008, and  the same year, in New York at Madison Square Park. These huts, identified with the most destitute, were placed in the lowest branches of the tree trunks. Thus they recalled human dwellings of the very distant past, or else in a rudimentary economy.

On the other hand, these small huts also could be looked upon, in a way, as “follies.” Even if, architecturally, this word refers to secondary dwellings of the wealthy, on a strictly theoretical level, the folly is a deviance, a disturbance in relation to the norms guaranteeing stability. Contrary to the idea of foundation — archè in ancient Greek —which is understood in the word architecture, these huts also are presented as unsettling elements in the urban landscape. If architecture marks a place, establishing it historically and culturally, these “follies” instead suggest impermanence and so precariousness, and consequently, why not that of the immigrant, the homeless, the one who is never sure of anything?11 In sum, if architecture is the first art, this priority goes back to nomadic territory, which is continually being transformed, readjusted.

Bridges, Passageways, Footbridge

Whether it is a matter of facades, of towers or precarious huts, Kawamata’s interventions are often linked to reinvented spaces. This is perhaps even truer of his sidewalks, his wooden walkways and his bridges built as a team, which become like so many places of passage. Many of his sitespecific interventions are ephemeral such as Sidewalk, produced in 1996 in Wiener Neustadt (Austria), Working Progress at Alkmaar (the Netherlands), which was constructed from 1996 to 1999, or even Tower and Walkway produced at Essen (Germany) in 2010. Others last for many years like Drift Structure in Uster (Switzerland) that lets one wander by the edge of a small lake or Observatoir in Lavau-sur-Loire created for the event Estuaire. Le paysage, l’art et le fleuve in 2007 and 2009.12 But whether they are ephemeral or last for years, the installations allow the public to take over an area. They give those who take these passageways the opportunity to see and appreciate the surroundings from a new point of view.

At Lavau-sur-Loire, an old river port no longer in service located between Nantes and Saint-Nazaire, Kawamata along with students and local residents constructed an immense walkway several kilometres long over marshy terrain. Begun in 2007 and completed during the second edition in 2009, this permanent work now enables visitors to walk to a lookout near the river. The experience of this natural environment is pleasing to the senses, to touch, smell, hearing and of course sight. It enables one to have a special awareness of the surroundings. This was also the sought-after objective of a series called Les Sentiers de l’eau, which was his first work in the Camargue. Several months before Collective Folie, Kawamata was invited to construct a walkway in collaboration with students that is titled Horizons. Installed near the Musée du Parc naturel régional de Camargue, it is the first in a series of six permanent interventions that will extend out across the region to give the local community another view of their area.13

Whatever they are, these walkways, paths and bridges link together various spaces. They join two riverbanks, two places. They are in fact the in between. They make joining together the here and elsewhere possible, encouraging exchanges and encounters. Consequently, as Newton would have said, they are the antithesis of walls that one raises to separate. As well, by using mainly wood as construction material, which will be salvaged in the end, Kawamata’s works are part of a life cycle that is  repeated, is recycled. In this sense, his recent works are certainly a means of furthering relationships: at first in the work process with participants in the project, and then with visitors who have immersive experiences with the surroundings. If the artist sculpts the architecture, he also structures the space architecturally, and this space begins with those who inhabit it.

Translated by Janet Logan


André-Louis Paré teaches philosophy at Cégep André-Laurendeau in Montréal. As a critic and art theoretician, he writes for various Quebec contemporary art magazines and is the author of numerous texts for catalogues and opuscules. He has been a member of the editorial board of Espace since 1994, and has supervised many special topic issues for the magazine. He was co-curator of the third edition of the Manif d’art, Québec, 2005 as well as the exhibition Québec Gold that was held in Rheims, France, in 2008. The same year, he was curator of the exhibition Hors de moi / Beside Myself, devoted to the work of Daniel Olson. Presented at Expression in Saint-Hyacinthe, this exhibition was shown at Maison de la culture Côte-des- Neiges in the spring of 2011. André-Louis Paré lives and works in Montreal.


  1. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?  Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, Columbia University Press, New York, 1996, p. 186.
  2. Press release, Paris, February 12, 2013.
  3. For thoughts on the Folies as architecture see Jacques Derrida, “Point de folie-maintenant l’architecture,” Trans. Kate Linker, AA Files, summer 1986, p.66-75.
  4. Jonathan Watkins, «Improvisation», dans Tadashi Kawamata, Tree Huts, Paris, éd. Kamel Mennour, 2013, p. 36 à 41. French and English.
  5. Jean-Max Collard, «Le baron perché», Les Inrockuptibles, 5 mai 2010.
  6. « Improvisation », Tadashi Kawamata, Tree Huts, op. cit., p. 37.
  7. Jean-Marie Schaeffer, Les célibataires de l’art. Pour une esthétique sans mythes. Paris, Éd. Gallimard, 1996.
  8. « Improvisation », Tadashi Kawamata, Tree Huts, op. cit., p. 37.
  9. The photographs Tadashi Kawamata took of the sixteen Field Work sites are in the collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.
  10. Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture by Bernard Rudofsky (The Museum of Modern art, New York, 1965) has deeply interested Tadashi Kawamata.
  11. I recall that in 1987, Tadashi Kawamata intervened in a squatters’ house in Grenoble and that in 2009 he was invited to propose a work that was not produced at the Cité international de l’Histoire de l’immigration in Paris.
  12. The Estuaire event was produced three times in 2007, 2009 and 2012. Made up of many permanent works created by French and international artists, Estuaire is now a recreational/touristic destination that lets visitors discover this area of Britanny.
  13. To enhance the prestige of the Camargue area, Tadashi Kawamata designed an itinerary of six lookouts installed in various places. This commission was initiated by the policy titled Nouveaux commanditaires de la Fondation de France et Marseille-Provence 2013.