An innovative design for a superyacht that saw the engineering firm Verme and the top Japanese architect Atsushi Kitagawara working
by Francesca Ciancio
Mugen is a Japanese word meaning infinite. Just like the sea. Giving this name to a yacht design could sound rather challenging, and indeed the idea of a vessel born out of the encounter between the Verme design team and Japanese architect Atsushi Kitagawara is challenging. But at the same time, it is also fascinating, precisely because of this meeting of different ways of understanding space and design in Western and Eastern cultures. The challenge was to create a superyacht that would unite these two spirits and enable them to go to sea together. Hence the birth of Mugen in the design studio in Lavagna, province of Genoa, where the Verme team is based.
The main space in Mugen is empty, without a specific function, but with endless possibilities that can adapt to the user’s requirements at any moment, going from a lounge to a dining room, from an exhibition space to a coworking area, from a gym to a tea room.
The engineer Massimo Verme heads the facility and tells us about its first contact with Japan: «We took our first step towards Japanese culture when we were allowed to develop – on behalf of Benetti – the design for the vessel that could be described as the ambassador for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government commissioned the design and construction in Italy and our firm was picked to develop the project as a whole. We, therefore, supervised the entire construction process, all the way through to the handover. It was the first time in Tokyo’s history that a contract had been assigned to a non-Japanese firm and the Governor was very excited about it. The boat is still in Tokyo Bay today and is used for public transport. This led to the start of our relationship with the great architect Atsushi Kitagawara».
Professor at Tokyo University of the Arts, Kitagawara is a real star in Japan thanks to the dozens of prizes he has won overseas. His style of architecture is recognised as one of coexistence. In his buildings, the elements of great constructive rationality and reliability – first and foremost his recognised expertise in the design of highly earthquake-resistant structures – coexist with a marked propensity for the three-dimensional expressiveness of forms. The Japan Pavilion for Expo 2015 in Milan is a perfect example of this design philosophy.
And so in the case of Mugen, the Verme-Kitagawara duo split the tasks between them, with the exterior styling and engineering entrusted to the Italian company and interior decor and layout to the Japanese team. «I was very impressed by Kitagawara’s open-mindedness», says the Italian engineer, «as well as his humility in approaching a world – that of boats – which was unknown to him. We started telling him all about life on board, obviously from a Western perspective. The professor embraced these ideas and interpreted them in an Eastern style».
Another important ideal of Japanese aesthetics is Miyabi, which means elegance, sophistication and luminosity. It’s the most comprehensive term for describing the aesthetics of the Heian Medieval period in Japan. In the Temples and Imperial Palaces of Kyoto (ancient capital), it is still possible to admire numerous works of art and architectural elements that recall Miyabi.
The Mugen superyacht, therefore, brings some of the most important rules of the culture of the Rising Sun to the sea: giving more space to the guests than to the owner, because according to tradition the former should be welcomed in the best possible way; making spaces variable through a concept of spatial metamorphosis, made possible with non-fixed panels and bulkheads; rooms dedicated to the tea ceremony and meditation to offer a different idea of relaxation.
MUGEN IS THE RESULT OF THE ENCOUNTER BETWEEN THE VERME DESIGN TEAM AND TOP JAPANESE ARCHITECT ATSUSHI KITAGAWARA. A STUDY OF DIFFERENT WAYS OF UNDERSTANDING SPACE AND DESIGN IN WESTERN AND EASTERN CULTURE.
The main space on board Mugen, therefore, becomes empty. A space without a specific function, but with endless possibilities and that can adapt to the user’s requirements at any moment, going from a lounge to a dining room, from an exhibition space to a coworking area, from a gym to a tea room. The floor-to-ceiling windows that connect the interior and exterior space allow one to feel the presence of the surroundings, as do the steps leading directly to the water.
Tanizaki Sun’ichirò essay, “In Praise of Shadows” (1933), played an important part in the creation of Mugen. In it, the Japanese writer describes the beauty of the tokonoma (a small raised alcove) in the traditional Japanese teahouse as “An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness (…)”.
As is well known, Japan boasts a thousand-year maritime tradition and has always distinguished itself as a people of great navigators both inland and in Southeast Asia, with an important naval technology, mainly represented by the “wasen”, a Japanese ship for handling and fishing, as well as the “atakebune”, the largest warships in Japan built between the 16th and 17th centuries.
«This combination of knowledge and cultures of different origins from ours», explains Verme, «has led to the development of a product capable of fully satisfying a sophisticated clientele from the new generation, interested not only in on-board entertainment but also in perceiving the yacht as a place for getting away from it all and meditation. A striking example of this is the relaxation cabin on the lower deck, in contact with the sea. And also the soft lighting and this seamless interior/exterior design convey an idea of harmony. This concept of flexibility and shared spaces is very Japanese and we liked it. The design is on paper for now and is being considered by brokers and shipyards for construction. In any case, the yacht will be at least fifty metres long».
The Italian-Japanese encounter, therefore, unfolded on the grounds of philosophy, particularly Wabi-Sabi philosophy, which embraces modesty and imperfection. Wabi evokes roughness, natural beauty and simplicity, and could be explained through the contemplation of the void and impermanence. Sabi is associated with the patina of time, the beauty that emerges over time.
Other important ideals of Japanese aesthetics are Miyabi, which means elegance, sophistication and luminosity, and Omotenashi, or rather experiencing Japanese hospitality, which can be understood as taking care of guests wholeheartedly, without any expectation of anything in exchange. We find all these concepts in Mugen, a vessel that becomes a unique experience in which space evolves, changes and adapts to cater to guests in the best possible way.
In the buildings of Kitagawara, elements of great rationality coexist with a marked propensity for the plastic expressiveness of shapes.
(Massimo Verme and Atsushi Kitagawara, the metamorphosis of Mugen – Barchemagazine.com – September 2022)