Interview with Sou Fujimoto

July 28, 2009

By Anders Melsom and Pawel Druciarek

Conditions: What are your ideas about architecture in relation to nature, concerning copies and interpretations of nature? You have written about primitive futures and primary needs, how do you see it as valid to use nature and a primitive approach in architecture?

Sou Fujimoto: Recently I have been thinking about the architecture of the future as an artificial forest, and I mean literally a forest. I think the forest is very interesting because many different things exist together, in a complex order, and create a certain harmony. I like developing different materials, and having different elements existing together, because in public architecture many people are gathering and doing many different things. Architecture should accept the diverse activities of a city.

C: Is this related somehow to the condition of Tokyo? Arriving here for the first time, we find the city of Tokyo very different from the western city.

SF: Yes, it’s actually quite chaotic. There are so many different types of architecture existing together, but it still maintains some clear character.

C: When you talk about the primitive in architecture, is it part of a reaction to architecture becoming too complicated, too technological? You talk about artificial nature. A lot of cities are very artificial, and involve a lot of technology just to meet primary needs. For example, going to the toilet in Japan is very high tech!

SF: Yes, a bit too high tech! Actually, the word primitive doesn’t necessarily mean low tech.  In one way I use it to describe the use of more natural sources of energy, such as airflows, rather than artificial technologies. In another sense, I use it to describe how architecture should be designed for the human animal. This kind of architecture would allow for people to be more primitive by allowing them to operate by their natural instincts.

C: When you talk about using simple technology, are you then also interpreting tradition? Are you relating to traditional Japanese architecture?

SF: Yes, I am very interested in traditional Japanese architecture, not as an image, but in the basic concept of space. The traditional Japanese architecture has not a strong wall, but many thin walls or layers to control distance from inside and outside, to protect or to open. We can select in which layer to stay, different degrees of protection or privacy depending on season or situation and so on. It is not controlled by mechanical architecture, but interrelationship between architecture, nature and the people. These are good aspects that we can reinterpret in a contemporary way.

C: To what degree is originality important to you as an architect and where is the limit for you between copy and interpretation? Is it a primary concern for you to do an original project?

SF: I think copying the surface of things is not interesting, but copying the deep concept, reinterpreting that spirit in a new way or a new shape is a very creative thing.  In that kind of reinterpretation I think some kind of originality is happening.

C: So with the idea about the “forest”, is that part of something going on at a bigger scale among architects in Japan?

SF: Yes, but from the idea of the forest we can get different things, depending on each architect. I think the originality is not in saying that architecture is a “forest”, but in how we act on that idea.

C: In which scale do you think about the idea of the “forest”? Is it like a building, or do you think about it on an urban scale?

SF: I think the idea of the “forest” is very interesting because it has no scale. We can think about the forest for interior architecture or a city. We can develop that kind of idea on different scales. I think it is a really interesting basis for architecture.

C: When we look more on the design level of your work, it seems that a kind of repetition or copying of elements and making new relationships between similar elements seems to be very central. Can you tell a bit more about how you work? A lot of your work is composed of fixed units. What creates the architecture seems to be the relationship that develops between the units.

SF: Yes, this is one of the very important aspects of my architecture. In my early days for example, Le Corbusier modern architecture represented a very strong order. I thought that without this strong axis or strong box, we could make some kind of fragile, vague and ambiguous order by creating relationships between small elements. This was a very exciting thing for me in my early days. So now I try to make such an ambiguous order in the way I treat the many small elements required by a client or site. This is one of the basics of my architecture. I think that kind of order is very similar to the way the forest is created, and similar to the way the complex areas of Tokyo are composed.

C: How does the city of Tokyo affect your work? You did not grow up in Tokyo correct?

SF: Actually I was born in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the very northern part so it is quite cold in winter. I stayed there until the end of my high school days. I moved to Tokyo for university, and later started my office there. It is very strange because the Hokkaido situation and the Tokyo situation are really different, almost opposites. Hokkaido is filled with nature, Tokyo with artificial things. I find Tokyo very interesting, because in Hokkaido nature and artificial things are completely divided; nature is the enemy that the house protects us from.  But in Tokyo nature and artificial things are rather mixed and melding together. Hokkaido has a big grid system, while in Tokyo the city has far more winding paths. And although Tokyo consists almost completely of artificial ways, it has this strange mixture of half natural and half artificial.  This kind of in-between natural and artificial situation is one of the big influences on me in architecture and design.

C: How is it establishing a young office like yours in Japan?  Is there any official support for young architects?

SF: No actually there isn’t, so it’s tough. But, young emerging architects like me also have the opportunity to work on a lot of small private homes for clients of the younger generation. Half of my housing projects going on now are for clients around 30-40. These kinds of projects are great for young architects because it presents a challenge to work with a small space, and limited budget, but it also affords us the opportunity to propose some experimental ideas as well. I think we are quite fortunate to have that opportunity.

C: Do you feel that the younger clients have other needs today? Do they want something else from you?

SF: Yes, some of them are very eager to have something new and different, so we can propose rather avant-garde ideas, and sometimes we actually get to realize our visions. So it is a very strange, but special situation for architects.

C: Do you have strict rules in these kinds of neighborhoods for what you are able to build? Can the municipality go in and say this is not the right kind of house for this area?

SF: Yes, regulation in Japan is very strict, but at the same time it is only a regulation of quantities, which allows us to work very freely within them. It’s a lucky situation for architects but I am not sure it’s good for Tokyo as a city. This kind of loose yet strict regulation creates the kind of chaotic cityscape you find in Tokyo today.

C: In the west there are certain impressions about what Japanese architecture is. To you, what is special about Japanese architecture in a global context?

SF: Maybe one characteristic is its simplicity. Sometimes it is too minimalistic, but at the same time such kind of simplicity is rooted in traditional Japanese culture. Japanese architecture is also sometimes very conceptual. This can be both a strength and a weakness, as it is often understood in a limited way.

C: That brings us along to how you relate to the context of a building site or a local culture? Do you have another approach when you do a project abroad? Do you feel the context as important?

SF: Recently we have been doing many foreign competitions including the Oslo Library, the Oslo National Museum competition, and we are now submitting in other countries as well.  In that process I am very interested in how to understand the context or how to re-conceive and re-interpret the existing context to create something new. It is a very interesting and fresh process for me.

C: The project becomes more autonomous?

SF: We can propose freely to create new context. Of course such a creation of new context is a creative thing, but understanding the existing history and context of the city is of course a very creative thing also. So for me it is a new inspiration to understand the context. It is a big challenge for us; how do we interpret, how do we understand the context? It’s another way for us to break through existing architecture.

C: In the way Japanese architecture is presented in western media, in the architecture press, it is very object based and out of context. You read it as a fresh product. Are you as an architect satisfied with the way your architecture is presented in the press? Many people don’t have the chance to visit your buildings and learn to know them only through the media. Do you see other ways to communicate architecture than how it is done today?

SF: It is a difficult and serious question. I think some of the photographers could take some good photos to represent not only the space inside as an object, but the activities inside and outside and the relationship to the neighbors. These kinds of things could be shown by good photos and good text. For now, I have to put faith in the editors and writers to understand and make a presentation not from a narrow viewpoint, but from a wider architectural and urban one.

C: You also published a book about your own work, “Primitive Futures”. How did you involve in this?

SF: I engaged deeply in collaboration with a book designer and editor discussing many of the aspects that I was going to explore. The book is not just showing architecture as architecture; it is a conceptual idea book. We tried to show the concept behind the future development of architecture. In some ways it’s a bit too conceptual!

C: Is there an exchange of ideas among architects in Tokyo, a discussion about the direction of architecture? Or, does it work in the way that you are inspired by each other’s projects?

SF: Tokyo is not such a big city for architects.  We can meet each other many times, but sometimes we don’t talk about serious things, we just have a drink together. But maybe we do have some kind of an influence on each other.

C: You also do some teaching.  Do you learn something by this contact with students?

SF: Yes, definitely I learn from it and that is why I continue part time teaching. I am very interested in how I react to them. That is a big challenge. What I say to them is often a big surprise, even for me.

C: What kind of methods do you use – I see you have a lot of models here – when you want to evaluate the space you create? Have your methods changed during your time as an architect?

SF: That is a difficult question. Currently we are making a lot of models, discussing with staff, and also using some kinds of keywords. Models are a very clear way to test ideas, but sometimes too realistic. So we have to use some conceptual keywords to represent and develop the ideas. I like to use conceptual keywords. One model is one model, but one keyword can create many different possibilities. Alternatively, from one important model we can get many keywords. So it is a kind of intercommunication.

C: When you talk about a project like a “cave”, and similar metaphors, is this what you would call a keyword?

SF: Yes, it is a very simple keyword to explain my ideas. For example, I have a contrast between a cave and a nest. A nest is rather well prepared and functional for people to use, but the cave is not so well prepared and beyond functional. We can find and discover many aspects and new ways to behave from such things.

C: A space to be colonized? The function is not defined?

SF: Yes, it is between nature and architecture, so we have to find a way to design natural things by artificial ways. It’s a nice challenge to think about such things.

C: Then it seems you have both a keyword and a strong concept for a building. Is it always a correspondence between the ideas and the way you put things together? Do you have a close collaboration with an engineer at early stage of a project and do you think very early on about the tectonics and structure of the building?

SF: Yes, I always collaborate with a structural engineer named Jun Saito, one of the best in Japan. He is very young, almost my age. These are both important points, but tectonics is not the starting point. I like to combine my ideas and the tectonic real things together. I don’t want to show the tectonic aspects too much.

C: Do you in your office do the construction drawings, or is it done by the contractor and engineer?

SF: Actually in Japan, these drawings are done by the contractor, but sometimes we can change in the process of the construction.  There is a kind of dialogue about it. This is one of the strange points of Japanese architecture. In a small scale private house we can draw many details by ourselves and of course we can discuss with our contractor to decide if a solution is dangerous and so on. I am not sure if it is good or bad for Japanese architects to have such a system.

C: Does it make the relationship towards the buildings more abstract? Is it the reason why you have such a conceptual approach?

SF: I think Japanese architects are very conscious about the details. I think these kinds of details and the quality of the construction support the concept itself. I don’t want to divide the conceptual and tectonic things.

C: We talked earlier about originality. Do you wish to come up with entirely new ideas, or is it more interesting for you to develop a theme from one project to the next and so on?

SF: Actually I am developing an idea from one project to another, but sometimes I want to do a big jump to create something new. It gives our office a wider view to develop our ideas.

C: It seems also you work with self-imposed limitations in your projects. You make a kind of dogma in a project; within a concept, certain things are allowed, or a certain element becomes the one you want to work with now, and this creates a kind of freedom. It seems you work with systems in architecture.

SF: Sometimes yes, we have a strict limit in one aspect but the rest is very free. I like some kind of a system. Not a strict, strong system, rather a loose and flexible system.

Tokyo, 28/7-2009





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