December 12th, 2009


A passion for polished concrete

Believe it or not, "uses of polished concrete in Japan" is a topic I've been planning to blog about for some time. And now I have the perfect excuse to unleash the comment torrent this topic will undoubtedly provoke ("How dare you suggest that wet-look concrete is a mere compensatory tactic?"). Yesterday, buffeted by a fierce low pressure system, Hisae and I erected umbrellas and headed down to Nadiff a/p/a/r/t.

There I found an area of polished concrete so miraculously shiny that I genuinely thought the rain was leaking in through the window, and tried to splash it with my shoe like a puddle. But let's take a step back, before this text gets too exciting.

Nadiff, to recap, is short for New Art Diffusion. It's an offshoot from Saison Culture; the bookstore, record store, gallery and cafe was started by the people who used to run the Libro bookstore in the Ikebukoro branch of Parco. For the longest time it was in a funky part of Aoyama, near the Maisen tonkatsu restaurant. Then in 2008 it moved to a purpose-built structure on an obscure alley off a riverside footpath in Ebisu.

If it weren't for prominent signs on the lampposts, nobody would find the new incarnation of Nadiff. And that would be a pity, because it's a jewel, an excellent repository of art books and magazines, with two galleries and a bar attached. The only thing that's gone is the record section, boiled down to a single table featuring CDs released by Raster Noton, Casten Nicolai's label. Nadiff has, in timely fashion, got out of CD retail.

But now comes the exciting part of my tale. Nadiff may have got out of music, but it's very much got into shiny polished concrete. The ground-level store's floors boast a fascinating variety of surface sheens. You need to read Schemata Architecture Office's account to discover how haphazardly these textures were arrived at:

"The existing floor was uneven from inaccurate construction," writes Schemata architect Jo Nagasaka, "so we poured epoxy mixed with pine ash on the floor to create a flat surface. The transparent black liquid made different shades of black, following the uneven surface on the floor. It looked like gradation of color on a gradually shoaling beach."

It actually looks, on a rainy day, as if even more inaccurate construction has let the elements seep in and cover the whole surface of the floor with a couple of millimeters of water. It's very hard to imagine such construction imperfections happening in Japan when you consider the care with which such things are done...

...but taking construction imperfections and making a conversation piece of them by subtly drawing attention to them is a Japanese tradition too; it's called wabi sabi.