The art of self-definition

22 January 2020

Since the start of the millennium, the rise of Japan’s architects on the global stage has been staggering. What accounts for this success, and what lessons can the wider global architectural milieu draw from the country? Elly Earls meets two of the country’s most celebrated current practitioners, Sou Fujimoto and Junya Ishigami, to discuss whether it is possible to define a ‘Japanese’ approach to the built environment.

Perhaps no country’s practitioners are more celebrated in today’s global architectural field than the Japanese, with four of the last 10 Pritzker Prize recipients hailing from the country.

The 2019 winner, Arata Isozaki, is part of the longest-practising generation of Japanese architects – a list including Kisho Kurokawa (who passed away in 2007), Fumihiko Maki and Yoshio Taniguchi. They were succeeded by the generation of Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito, who won the Pritzker Prize in 2013, before the likes of SANAA (whose co-founders were 2010 recipients), Kengo Kuma and Shigeru Ban (who won the award in 2014) took centre stage.

As Sou Fujimoto talks us through the most recognised architects to come out of his home country in the past few decades, he conspicuously leaves himself out. Although he’s certainly made his own mark, with high-profile projects including the 2013 Serpentine Pavilion in London (a cloudlike structure made from a white lattice of steel poles), the recently unveiled L’Arbre Blanc in southern France (from which balconies fan out like leaves) and the radical HouseNA, which is designed to allow inhabitants to live as if they were within a tree.

For Fujimoto, the rich variety of styles to come out of Japan makes it difficult to define a ‘Japanese approach’ to the built environment. “Ando and Ito are the same age, but have achieved international acclaim for completely different styles,” he says. “Then look at SANAA’s inventive architectural space and lightness, Kuma’s reinvention of materials and tradition, and Ban’s unique innovations in the wooden structure.”

What brings us together

He does believe there are a few common themes, however. These include the architectural space found in a traditional Japanese garden, where nature and artefacts are blended equally, the richness of “the ambiguous boundary” in the root architectural concept of inside and outside, delicate sensitivity when dealing with objects and the environment, a method of combining novelty and tradition, and a focus on making “places for humans” that go beyond the functional.

Junya Ishigami, who worked for four years under SANAA co-founder Kazuyo Sejima – herself a disciple of Ito – agrees on many of these points. “I’m always seeking how we can make [architecture] ambiguous,” he says. “The natural environment and the architectural environment are kind of equal. While human activity always influences the natural environment, the natural environment also influences human activity.

“My goal is to mix the natural and the human environment – that’s very important. I don’t want to make a building as an independent structure – I’m always making the architecture as the environment. For me, the independent structure and surrounding environment are the same.”

None of his projects demonstrates this more than the semi-outdoor square for student sports, parties and barbecues he is currently working on next door to a workshop he designed for the Kanagawa Institute of Technology in 2010 in suburban Tokyo. “Outside, we can see the horizon far away made by the sky and the ground,” he says. “I want to create this big feeling of scenery inside the building. The space is a little bit distorted so the ground and the ceiling, like the sky, make the horizon inside the building.”

Meanwhile, Fujimoto says the ideas he learned when he first started studying architecture and became interested in Japanese tradition – around the mysterious and undefinable appeal of Japanese gardens and the meaning of space beyond the surface layer of traditional Japanese architecture – can be seen most clearly in one of his most recent projects, L’Arbre Blanc in Montpellier, France.

“Despite the fact that the climate of the Mediterranean is completely different from that of Japan, [this project is] very Japanese in the sense that it re-examined the fundamental meaning of people living together, restructured loose communities and reinvented the modern meaning of living with nature,” he says.

And while he acknowledges that it was architects such as Kenzo Tange, Isozaki and Ando who guided him through those thoughts, he’s keen to stress that the roots of his architectural ideas don’t only originate from his home country.

“I will never forget the surprise when I first encountered the architecture of Corbusier and Mies. Even today, the architecture of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron is always a source of joy and inspiration,” he adds. “One more characteristic of Japanese architecture is a curiosity towards the outside world. Just as Tange developed Corbusier’s work in his own way, I believe that Japanese architects have always had a curiosity about the wonderful architecture of the world, and have carried out fundamental cultural exchanges to develop it in their own way.”

Allow things to coexist

Ever since Fujimoto graduated from university and started his own architectural office, his main interest has been to re-examine the roots of architecture, cities and the human living environment. For him, that means looking at the relationships between three different pairs of things – nature and architecture, space and the body, and a single building and the whole city.

“I have come to feel that architecture is a question of how we can create a place for diversity. I think that the question is whether one shape or one idea can reveal the infinite potential of a place and connect with the daily experiences of people,” he says.

His latest project – and his first in New York – is a co-living space called The Collective, which, he says, goes right to the heart of those questions.

“Rethinking the relationship between cities and architecture should create a new relationship between individuals and the public. Through this rethinking, intimate relationships between space and body are tested on an urban scale. In addition, there is always the fundamental question of nature and architecture,” he says. Architecturally speaking, he and his team were inspired by the theatre that originally existed on the site, which was the core of the local community, and scattered various ‘theatrical’ shared spaces both in and outside.

“This can take shape as a stepped room, a rooftop terrace, or a librarylike step. Each stage builds a variety of relationships between body and space, and the interspersed ‘theatre’ common spaces give people a new sense of the integration of city and architecture, as well as individual and public. Through the multitude of architectural scales, from human to furniture, an interesting city-like diversity is created,” he explains.

Looking at the bigger picture, he thinks the movement towards co-living and co-working is a sign that the relationships between individuals and communities, work and private, are going to be redefined.

“The existing concept of ‘function’ will become out of date, and place, space, body and activity will update the meaning of architecture and city in a more interactive manner. When individuals and the public can no longer be separated and new places need to be defined, both architecture and the city will change,” he predicts. He says he is attracted to the possibilities of ‘the undifferentiated’, by which he means mixing things together rather than dividing them. Things such as the city and architecture, private and public, nature and architecture, humans and the environment.

“I feel the potential of the future in this ‘undifferentiated’ state,” he explains. “This in a sense is a very Japanese state – one that is ambiguous in a positive sense and creates the potential for a place where various things are allowed to coexist.”

Expand architecture

When asked what the global architectural community can learn from Japan, Fujimoto prefers to widen the scope of the question. “I’m always learning a lot from France, Europe, China, the Middle East, the US and moreover not only a big area, but even from one city and one human,” he says.

“Where there are differences and diversity, there is curiosity, learning and inspiration. What we think is common in Japanese culture may be reflected freshly by people outside of Japan. This ‘rediscovered’ Japan should look like something new for us Japanese people, too.

“In the same way, your own culture and life, which are taken for granted, will be a surprising and fresh learning [experience] for me. In this way, I want to value each other’s differences and diversity, learn from each other, and inspire each other.”

For Ishigami, this is the role of the contemporary architect. “Historically speaking, architecture was always made by the architects living in the place, but when I think about the role of the contemporary architect, we can make a building anywhere in the world,” he says. “We are always trying to understand other cultures, histories and environments, so I want to find a good character in each environment and then increase the existing character of the environment. So of course, as an architect, we have to think about our original culture, but at the same time it’s important to think about the relationship with another culture and our own.”

He also agrees with Fujimoto that architecture is only going to expand in its scope. “In this era, all clients have different values, different ways of thinking, different histories, different cultures, different environments, so it’s not possible to come up with one solution,” he says. “In this meaning, the role of the architect now is making different solutions to increase the type of architecture. For me, I’m always trying to think about how we can create architecture in a different way – how we can recognise architecture in non-architectural things. I am trying to expand the definition of architecture.” 

Serpentine Pavilion, London, UK: rendering of Junya Ishigami’s 2019 installation.
L’Arbre Blanc, Montpellier, France: this 17-storey residential tower (its name translates as ‘white tree’), co-designed by Sou Fujimoto, places Japanese architecture in southern France.
Aerial view of a model of a new cafeteria space for Japan’s Kanagawa Institute of Technology, as conceptualised by Junya Ishigami.

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