Back to Nature
Sou Fujimoto speaks with inter·punct about the problems still needing dire attention in architecture.
For additional information and to view Sou’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.
“Between Nature and Architecture” was the title of a recent exhibition of your models at the GA gallery in Tokyo. Where does this juncture between nature and architecture occur for you?
Sou Fujimoto: For me it’s very fundamental. Designing architecture rests not only in designing objects and spaces, but rather exists in designing entire living environments. These living environments are made not only by architecture, but consist of the entirety of our surroundings—everything together with nature. I believe that we have to go back to a fundamental point of thinking of nature and architecture as equal. It’s a nice challenge to try to mix the elements of architecture with those of nature because usually they are quite distinct. It can be quite difficult to create these boundary-blurring spaces, but that remains my focus.
Your notion of the primitive future of course describes the architectural work itself, but does it in any way also describe the design process? Is it maybe in any way nostalgic?
SF: Well I don’t know—our design process is rather straightforward. We do research about the foundations and background of a project—the program, the cultural background, the site—and then we discuss possible ideas. Every time, I try to start from a very fundamental position. I like to go back to the beginning, beyond our preconceived ideas of architecture in order to rethink architecture itself. That is the meaning of the primitive. In that sense, the primitive future relates to both the design process as well as conceptual ideas.
You once described architecture as a framework that’s not yet comprehensible. What do you mean by that specifically? Are you referring to the invisible and underlying conditions that we can’t see? What’s the value in visualizing these structures that we don’t exactly see?
SF: Yes, that is quite a deep question. I think most importantly, architecture is fundamentally about the experience of space and the life that brings. To create richness, it is very important to think about the most basic form—the basic order of architecture. Even when designing a project as simple as a small private house, I like to create a new spatial hierarchy in order to establish new relationships between the architecture, the occupant, and the project’s surroundings, whether urban or natural. So, in my view, architecture is not just the design of the experience itself, but the creation of a new way to understand the order behind our world.
In a similar vein, to what extent do you view architecture as an artistic means of expression?
SF: That is another very deep question. Of course, architectural creation is in some ways very artistic, but for me, the architectural design does not come from myself, but instead from outside factors: the site conditions, cultural background, the requirements of the climate, etc. The architect’s skill rests in integrating all of these constraints in a simple way.
"Architecture is the ultimate compromise between the desires of the designer and the many external elements—it’s not only internally driven."
Of course, much art has similar influences, so I can’t say there is a clear boundary between art and architecture. But in my case, I like to think of myself more like a physicist than an artist: I try to carefully observe what is happening in the world around me and interpret it in a unique way.
You mentioned your work on a number of residential projects, those such as the House K, House N and House T. In those projects and others, how do you balance the residential need for privacy with the desire to relate the architectural experience to the project’s surroundings, particularly in dense contexts like Tokyo?
SF: Privacy is the most basic, fundamental thing to think about not only in a house, but I think actually in all architecture. For me conceptually, I like to create gradients or layers of privacy. Depending on the client’s requirements and the surroundings, we choose the appropriate range of public and open, to private and closed, like a gradient from white to black.
For example, in the case of the House NA, it’s quite open. That was partly a result of the requirements of the client, but also because with the crowded, dense Tokyo site, the client wanted a space that would feel spacious and not too enclosed. As a result, we chose to create a range of open areas with slight gradients of privacy between them. With the case of House N, it’s more in between. Even the outside garden is protected by a large wall, and inside, it’s further sheltered from the street by another barrier. But still, it’s not completely shut off from the city—the large openings make it rather half open and half closed. Sometimes, as with House K, with almost all directions of the site surrounded by neighboring houses, we decided to open it up primarily to the sky. But still, trying to create a gradient of privacy, we decided to create a rooftop garden as part of the outdoor living space, a space more public than private. While the privacy needs in private homes are more direct, with the case of cultural facilities, the needs can become quite complicated, and from there, we seek to design more complex gradients. When others say that the houses I design are too open, I think it’s rather a misunderstanding. Sometimes houses should be very private, but I think much of their spaces can actually be quite open. Ideally, a house should have a full range of spaces from private to public and should not just be completely closed off.
Is this concept of spatially dense living, as exemplified in House NA, at all related to the notion of Raumplan, from Adolf Loos?
SF: In a sense, I think there is a large similarity. The Raumplan and Frank Lloyd Wright’s open plan—partially divided, yet connected spaces centered around the fireplace, and maybe Mies van der Rohe’s ideas about fluid space—those were some of my starting points back in my school days. In the House NA, the spatial fluidity is of course, more three dimensional, with open connections between each of the various levels, as well as functional relationships from the architectural scale down to the furniture scale—you can sit on one level and use the next as a table for example. It’s a different type of spatial integration that we used, but the basic starting point was certainly the spatial innovations of the 20th century.
Jumping from your residential projects, with your library at the Musashino Art University, it seems that you conceived of books as shelter, and perhaps even as structure. What inspired this approach?
SF: At the very beginning, of course, I thought about what a library is at its foundation. Libraries should be very systematic and very ordered of course, but at the same time, I imagined that the experience of a library could be like walking through a forest. It’s a more poetic starting point—imagine walking through a forest with no idea of where to go, wandering until you run into something unexpected—that could make a fantastic library.
So, with the competition entry we submitted to win the project, we proposed creating a forest of books. We then studied in great detail the systems of a library and designed a form that could be very functional systematically, while simultaneously enabling such a forest-like experience. We ended up deciding to use these large, floor to ceiling bookshelves to form a large spiral with many openings, almost creating a labyrinth, but with a functional order that’s understandable to walk through. I think these two paradoxes that we worked with—being systematic while trying to create an unordered experience—ultimately gave us the chance to create something that truly went beyond the typical solution. Finding a way to put such opposites together—that’s really when breakthroughs occur.
I noticed that photographer Iwan Baan has represented much of your work. How did your collaboration come about? How do you feel his images add meaning to your projects?
SF: Yes, Iwan’s photos are quite amazing. The first time we met was strangely in Mongolia for Ordos 100, a crazy project where Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, back in 2007, invited 100 young architects to each design a villa for the city of Ordos. That was an amazing moment—the chance to meet our generation’s top young architects from all over the world. At that point, Iwan was already working with SANAA and Toyo Ito, and so after that meeting, he began taking photos of many of my important projects.
His photos are really quite important for my projects because they show not only what the architecture is like, but really also something beyond it. I especially like how he includes people in his photos of architectural space—the photos therefore not only show the architectural form, but also describe what life is like inside of it. I try to deeply think about how people will interact with my architecture while designing it, and in that way, his representation shows this amazingly well. His photos give my architecture new layers of meaning and expand the possibilities of how they’re perceived I believe. I always appreciate his work, and I think it’s amazing that he not only takes pictures of contemporary architecture, but is also constantly travelling around the world to showcase life in different environments.
On a different note, are there any books that have had a great influence on you as an architect or simply as an individual?
SF: Oh yes, of course. In my high school days, I loved physics and I wanted to be a physicist, like Einstein. That type of thinking tries to find order behind complexity and to more fully integrate a complex world. I have read many books on Einstein, and also more recently on superstring theory. Another book on physics that was quite influential was a book about deriving order from chaos, written by a famous physicist in the 70s or 80s—I forget the name. He speaks about natural orders where complexity emerges out of the chaotic edge, and that was full of inspiration.
I also really enjoy reading about Japanese culture. Japanese traditional cultures, for us, the younger generations, seem almost like something from a different country or a different world. It’s quite exciting that they are so foreign, and yet simultaneously are so connected to our roots. In his famous book, Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes describes Japanese culture in a very particular way, which I really enjoyed. It’s a quite clear description about how Japanese culture can be so strange and yet also so beautiful for foreigners. Because we, the modern Japanese people, are like foreigners to traditional culture, we can share in this surprise and re-understand what Japanese culture means.
I also read books by Toru Takemitsu, a contemporary music composer who recently passed away. He tried to integrate Japanese traditional music with Western music, and in his book, he describes his understanding of not only the large differences between Western and Japanese cultures, but also how similar they can be. I found those descriptions quite inspiring, and I think there are numerous parallels that could be made with the traditions in Japanese architecture.
Finally to close, to ask a broad question, what problems today in your mind still remain unsolved? Going back to the question about seeing the invisible, what out there is the most important thing that still needs an answer?
SF: For me, when I think about the history of architecture or the history of human beings, I see it as a continuous flow from the past to the future, and we right now are somewhere in the middle—in the middle of the river, so to speak. What we create and what we put forward is just a small part of the continuum that is the history of life. Sometimes what we create resonates and has a value that those in the future will be inspired by, but of course, we also get a lot of our inspiration from the past. I don’t think that I personally can solve large problems or change the world, but instead, I try to consider the past and the future to create something new—a small contribution to human understanding.