Retroft is a five storey building in Kagoshima City comprising of an art gallery, shops, restaurants, a bookstore, and studio apartments lived in by creatives on the upper floors. A rare example of the effective repurposing of an old building, Retroft has become a key hub for inner city art and culture.
Japan’s post war economic boom saw a huge increase in the domestic population and construction projects all over the country. Many of the buildings thrown up in this era of rapid economic growth are now in disrepair. Tattered concrete monoliths held together with reinforced steel girders, too expensive to demolish, and equally expensive to renovate. For the owners of these buildings they are often more of a burden than a blessing, needing constant repair and with rapidly decreasing utility.
Often property like this is inherited, and in the case of Nagai Akihiro, the success of the previous generation became a millstone around his neck. He says, “Three days before the year 2000, my father passed away suddenly. I’m actually a garden designer and my wife is a textile designer. We both did jobs totally unrelated to property, but all of a sudden we had to inherit a five-story building.”
The Burden of Ownership
With no background in property, Akihiro and his wife Yumie felt trapped. Drawn away from their creative work outside of Kagoshima, they came back to their hometown to manage a dilapidated building. Akihiro says, “We felt very negative about it, thinking it was a burden. I was working as a gardener so really didn’t want to come back to Kagoshima to manage an old building. We both work in the arts and creative industries and now we had to do something we’d never done before. For the first 10 years or so we had no idea what we were doing. It was always negative things like a water leak or something being broken. We spent years in quite a dark place really.”
With no choice, the couple started to use their creative powers to find a way to enjoy managing the building. Yumie says, “We started thinking if we don’t work out how to enjoy this, it would be very hard to manage and be a lot of work. So we thought about how to make it enjoyable, and that’s what led to the creation of Retroft.”
Refroft – Creative Hub in Kagoshima City
Retroft is a concept created by Akihiro and Yumie to breathe life back into the building that they inherited. Akihiro explains, “The word ‘retro’ describes the building’s old Showa-era flavour, and ‘loft’ is from when we renovated the apartments and broke through the walls and the wardrobes and all that stuff. It looked kind of like a retro loft space, so – Retroft. The name just came to me spontaneously, and it sounded really good. It had a kind of nostalgia and young people seem to like it.”
The unusual look of the building can be confusing for first time visitors unsure of what is inside. Yumie says, “There’s a noren door hanging at the entrance which says Retroft in big letters. I guess it takes a bit of courage to go inside.”
Unusual Layout and Kagoshima Products
Those brave enough to go inside will soon see that Retroft is not a typical building. Akihiro explains, “The lower ground floor and the first floor are for tenants with shops, the third floor and up, the third floor, the fourth floor, the fifth floor are apartments. There’s a restaurant in the most prominent place on the first floor that uses organic vegetables from Kirishima and Kagoshima. Beyond the entrance is a second hand bookstore modelled on the covered passage arcades in Europe. There are several tenants with shops and a design office as well. We also have an organic greengrocer, a photo gallery, a small design office, a coffee shop, and even a hot dog shop.”
“It’s like a maze, because there is one floor above ground and one floor below. Bookshelves connect all of the interior spaces, but also act as a partition. The bookshelves also lead you into the shop next door, drawing you along. I suppose it’s a little bit confusing for newcomers, but it’s also a strategy for visitors to find something interesting. We want visitors to come across something unexpected.”
Kagoshima Art Hub
Retroft also houses an art gallery where displays and installations are held throughout the year. The gallery features a small live in area for resident artists, and one of the most unusual toilets we have ever seen in Japan.
Behind the gallery there is a workshop making a Kagoshima sweet steamed cake called fukuregashi. Once strictly in the domain of elderly ladies’ tea parties fukuregashi has been reinvented into a cool snack and now sells out almost immediately each day.
The rest of the building is used for accommodation and studio style apartments. Akihiro explains, “From the third floor up, there are 15 small studio apartments. Some are occupied by older people who have lived there for years, others are occupied by young artists who have come in and done something unique. We also have a dog, three cats, and a hedgehog!”
Unique Living Spaces for Artists
Akihiro and Yumie have a unique way of looking at property rental which is very uncommon in Japan. Residents are free to modify and reform their rooms as they like with no requirement to return the room to its original condition when they leave. Yumie says, “Generally in Japan if you rent a property you’re not allowed to put any nails in the wall, and you’re not allowed to renovate. If you are allowed to renovate, you have to put it back in the original condition when you leave. Because it’s an old building, we decided residents can renovate the rooms as they like. They can paint the walls, change the interior, or leave it as it is. There’s no need to change it back when they leave either.”
This has resulted in many different types of apartments, studios, ateliers, and other spaces occupying the upper floors of the building. Akihiro says, “Now every room is completely different inside. For people who are artists or creatives it’s not so much a rental property but more a unique venue to live in and develop as their own. Our job is not to say ‘make something like this’, but rather to create a blank canvas for residents to create on.”