Columns, roofs, doorways, walls and ramps are those vital bits of buildings that rarely draw attention. They’re supposed to be functional but who says they have to be generic? The question has led a growing list of architects and designers to make the pilgrimage to a factory in a gritty part of Shiroi, a city near the eastern edge of Tokyo.
This is where Kikukawa, an 85-year-old family-owned company with 200 employees, has sculpted exquisite steel, bronze, aluminum and titanium facades and interiors for luxury retailers, office buildings, train stations and museums around Japan. Its handiwork has gone into Japan’s ancient temples and tallest towers. Despite its modest size, Kikukawa’s name carries weight in the country’s 52 trillion yen ($462 billion) construction sector. Architects such as Kenzo Tange, Arata Isozaki, Kengo Kuma, Toyo Ito and Kazuyo Sejima have all commissioned the company for their building projects.
Kikukawa’s global breakout, however, was a more recent move: The company produced the swirling central ramp and about 1,000 exterior fins -- all in an auburn-colored, hand-patinated bronze -- for media giant Bloomberg’s $1.2 billion European headquarters in London. That project, led by London company Foster + Partners, stretched over five years. “Bronze is an expensive and tricky material to work with,” says Yoshihiko Utsuno, Kikukawa’s president and the youngest son of its founder. Utsuno smiles as he says this: It’s clearly a source of pride and one of his company’s strengths, having spent decades manufacturing bronze doors and other decorative pieces for Buddhist temples.
The Bloomberg project was the big break that Utsuno, who took over in 2006, had been hoping for. As demand in Japan shrinks, he is leading the company that his father started into a niche sector of the global architecture market. “After the global financial meltdown and the 2011 [tsunami] disaster in Japan, builders here were only interested in recouping costs. They wanted generic glass towers; nobody was interested in iconic landmarks,” says Utsuno. During trips to architecture companies in the U.K., France and Germany he has been able to find a more receptive audience.
In some ways Kikukawa is an old-school manufacturer. Utsuno wears the factory uniform over his shirt and tie and eats in the canteen with everyone else. Throughout the day, chimes notify the factory and office staff of designated breaks and in pep talks to his employees, Utsuno stresses the importance of genba: the manufacturing front line.
But he is also leading an ambitious modernization drive, digitizing archived materials, upgrading to the latest 3D architectural software and automating production whenever possible. “We are aiming to raise productivity by 10 times,” he says. “There may come a day when our factory relies more on robots than people. We have to adapt to Japan’s declining workforce.”
At the moment, though, Kikukawa’s production combines manual techniques with state-of-the-art machinery. In two warehouselike factory buildings, workers cut, bend, polish and stamp patterns into metal sheets with the help of machines. There’s a swiveling robotic arm that welds pieces together with lasers and a new metal-shaping machine; its technology is a company secret. At one end a crew is inspecting 150 steel columns, covered in blue plastic film to prevent scratching, that will soon be shipped out. It’s not unlike the matte-metal skin that Kazuyo Sejima ordered as a wrapping for the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo.
Nearby, 69-year-old Noboru Senjo is working out the measurements of a sloping aluminum roof that will end up at the shop of a global technology brand. Although Kikukawa devotes an entire building to creating a material that’s exclusively made for this particular brand, employees are not allowed to utter its name to outsiders. Luckily, their work is far from repetitive. “We almost never do the same thing twice, so each project is a challenge,” says Senjo, who has worked at Kikukawa for about five decades.
The irony of working on a large scale is that Kikukawa’s staff fuss over millimeters. Yuji Tsuchiya, a veteran sales manager, leads us to a back corner of the main factory building. There, he runs his hands over a curved 2-mm-thick sheet of bronze: a sample of the panels used for the Bloomberg project. “This was a reject,” says Tsuchiya. He leans in and points out a welding seam so fine and faint that the untrained eye wouldn’t have a chance of spotting it. “The architects spotted it,” he says, shouting over the whining, clanging and buzzing sound of brute force being applied to metal, which comes from every direction.
When architects contact Kikukawa they usually hand over a drawing or a rough outline. Rarely are the requests straightforward. It falls on Kikukawa’s team of designers and architects to come up with the exact measurements for the factory staff to work from. “We don’t paint metal – it’s aged or blasted -- but the color has to be consistent within a narrow spectrum,” says Tsuchiya. Figuring out how to mount every piece onto the building’s exterior is also Kikukawa’s job.
The fact that Kikukawa is willing to go to such lengths to please architects is one reason that the company is attracting business overseas. The logistics are complex but Utsuno, the company’s president, tells his staff to never decline a job that seems too difficult. Taking on assignments that are not part of Kikukawa’s repertoire, he says, has kept the company nimble and a step ahead of the industry. It’s something that he picked up from his father. “What we make does not have our brand name on it. But it is a visible part of building,” says Utsuno. “As long as we do a great job, architects and designers will find us.”
This report first appeared in Monocle magazine. To find out more about the magazine and to subscribe, visit monocle.com.