The idea of inclusiveness has the potential to expand the possibilities of architecture.

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The idea of inclusiveness has the potential to expand the possibilities of architecture.

[Architect / Director and Co-Founder of o+h architects]


[Photograph]  SHIKAMA Kohei

[Edit & Text]  TADA Tomomi(MUESUM)

This article is a translated version, which was originally published in Japanese language on 29 July, 2022.

Reading time:6 minutes

(Date updated)19 May, 2023

(About this story)

In April 2022, an inclusive playground, of which there are few examples in Japan, opened in Katayachi, Yamagata City. The facility was designed by architect ONISHI Maki, director and co-founder of architectural firm o+h. What is Onishi’s idea of a “place open to all”?


Creating an inclusive playground

DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS TODAY (hereinafter called “DA”)
First, can you tell us a bit about the Shelter Inclusive Place copal (hereinafter called “copal”)?

ONISHI Maki (hereinafter called “ONISHI”)
Copal is a children’s play facility that was newly established by Yamagata City in an effort to improve the local childcare environment. It opened in April 2022 as an inclusive playground for children of all backgrounds and abilities, regardless of gender, age, nationality, language, disability, or family environment.

The space also aims to build an inclusive community that values the diversity of each individual by giving children the opportunity to encounter people of various backgrounds and generations from an early age through “play.”

Because this was a Private Finance Initiative (PFI), we were in charge of the architectural design and will be involved in operating the facility for 15 years as a member of Yume no Koen Co., Ltd. (representative: Shelter Inc.), a special purpose company in which 10 companies, including o+h, have jointly invested.


There is a gymnasium for indoor sports, a large playground where children from infants and toddlers to upper elementary school-age kids can play with age- and developmentally appropriate equipment, and five outdoor areas with different characteristics. The facility also has a cafe that teaches children about the importance of healthy eating, a reading corner, an arts and crafts room, and a Snoezelen Multi-Sensory Environment.

How did the “inclusive” concept that defines the facility come about?

Even before we got involved, the policy was to create an “inclusive playground.” The concept came from a woman who ran a welfare center in the neighborhood.

During her day-to-day interactions with children with severe disabilities, she heard many sad comments about how parks in the area were inaccessible to them. Some of them mentioned that they had never been to a park or that there were no playground equipment they could use at the park. She submitted her request to Yamagata City as a public opinion, and it was reflected in the policy. She ultimately became a core member of operations, although she was not expecting it when she submitted the request.

We often think of “parks” as places that can be freely used by anyone, but the reality is that many people find parks difficult to access.

That’s right. When we take another look at parks, we will notice that there are many steps, and that users must be able to climb to the top of a slide in order to play on it. Parks also encourage the type of atmosphere in which people will say “Hurry up!” rather than wait for a child with a disability to climb to the top. Besides, swings designed for children who use wheelchairs or who have mobility disabilities are not yet familiar sights in Japan.

We realized that even parks that aim to be freely accessible to all were not truly open to all children due to a combination of various factors, including physical barriers and social interactions.

Play is “something you discover on your own”

At copal, what measures did you take to try to create a “place open to all children”?

First of all, we looked at the presence of the architecture. We wanted the exterior of the facility to convey a “welcoming” sense from its appearance. It has a generous image that seems to accommodate anything and everything.

At first glance, visitors may find the shape of the facility to be rather strange. But in fact, it echoes the shape of the beautiful Zao mountain range in the background. Our goal was to create architecture that blends in with the surrounding landscape.


Copal echoes the shape of the Zao mountain range. “The large roof looks like clouds hanging over the mountains, while the outdoor hills and trough shape connect naturally to the inside of the building, creating a relaxing place for play and learning.” (ONISHI Maki)

The gymnasium, large playground, and outdoor areas are all comfortable spaces where you can feel the presence and activity of others from wherever you are in the space. Can you tell us more about this?

For this project, we sought to rethink architecture based on the words “inclusive” and “play.” This is symbolized by the gentle slope that connects the entire space.

Generally speaking, ramps are installed in facilities to eliminate differences in level. However, from a slightly different perspective, ramps can be seen as slopes or big slides that make you want to run down them. In this way, they are not only there to eliminate barriers for certain people, but they can also soften the space and make people feel excited and joyful.

Focusing only on the safety and peace of mind of certain people makes a space start to feel stiff and constrained. Adding another function to the space gives it a more open feel.


When you were a kid, do you remember spelling out words as you hopped up and down the stairs, like “C-H-O-C-O-L-A-T-E” or “P-I-N-E-A-P-P-L-E”? Kids create games to play even when there are no toys around. Play isn’t something given to us by others. It’s something we discover ourselves.

When you think about it, every little step, slope, and curved wall has the potential to inspire the human body and trigger play. Imagining these types of situations, we aimed to create spaces that would naturally generate the desire to try things out and explore, as though freely discovering play in the wild. The differently textured tiles surrounding the opening to the room were an idea that came from imagining someone walking while trailing a hand along the wall.


The handrails have wooden balls that can be moved along the rail and played with. “Through play, we wanted to bring awareness to the fact that there are people who need handrails. So we asked Karimoku (a furniture manufacturer) to make play equipment that is comforting to the touch.” (ONISHI Maki)

That makes sense. By viewing facilities as not only a way to eliminate barriers, but also as opportunities for play and learning, users can become aware of the existence of others who need those facilities. Why did you change the color and texture of the floors in some indoor areas?

We are required to install tactile paving on the landings of stairs and ramps. Still, we wondered whether we could come up with a way to make it look more natural, not like something that was put there because it was required by law.

So we looked into the origins of this law. It turned out that it was important to provide a strong color contrast with the surrounding material and to ensure that the tactile patterns could be felt with the feet. From there, we had a series of dialogues with the operators and were able to create spaces that would allow people to play with the different tactile sensations on their feet while still fulfilling the function required for those who need tactile paving.

The need for unique and appealing architecture

There are indeed many laws that govern the creation of architecture from a safety standpoint. It seems like a critical part of this project was interpreting the significance of these laws while ensuring safety.

To begin with, buildings are made up of standard components such as walls, floors, ceilings, and window frames. However, what’s interesting is that we can question each of these components by thinking deeply about how to make them inclusive.

If we try to develop walls that are safe to bump into and floors that are comfy to roll around on, we may end up with a never-before-seen fluffy building (laughs). Or a new question may arise: what kind of place would be a comfortable space that stimulates the imagination of all people?

Considering “inclusivity” gives us the opportunity to think about how we can update the standard components in architecture that tend to be focused solely on functionality and necessity.

Copal has an appealing shape, and people might wonder what it is when they drive by in their cars. It gives the impression of being a new member of the city.

As more and more rectangular buildings are being built in the pursuit of function and efficiency, we are reminded afresh of the need for architecture that is unique, appealing, and accommodating. Inclusivity is about recognizing and valuing each other’s differences. This concept is continuing to spread, with the aim of creating a society in which small circles of empathy centered on the “individual” overlap until they encompass the whole. In such a society, there will be a need for architecture that is based on values other than just homogeneity, efficiency, and refined beauty.

In architecture today, there is a tendency to try to achieve a high level of perfection in the building materials themselves, even in something as simple as a window frame, such as in terms of its air-tightness and durability. However, it may be possible to improve upon architecture through other means, such as in how spaces are created or teams are organized. I think it’s a sounder strategy to bring together imperfect things and have them complement each other, and this will open up more possibilities.

Related people


(Profile of ONISHI Maki)
Onishi is an architect. In 2008, she co-founded onishimaki+hyakudayuki architects / o+h with HYAKUDA Yuki. She has worked on a variety of projects ranging from public architecture to housing, retail, and urban development. Major works include the ‘Double Helix House,’ and ‘Good Job! Center KASHIBA.’ She has authored “onishimaki + hyakudayuki / o+h: 8stories” (LIXIL Publishing, 2014).
(Sites related to ONISHI Maki)