To reach the starchitect’s studio, you take the bookbinder’s elevator. When the metal door rattles open, the smell of printer’s ink fills the air. From the landing, a steep stairwell that’s barely shoulder-width leads up to the studio. Here, sporadic tiles are dotted over the scraped concrete walls—whether by design or out of necessity is unclear. In contrast, the staff’s silence is absolutely unequivocal. Intensely focused on their screens, they huddle over tiny desks, defending what little personal space they can carve out with styrofoam blocks, cardboard boxes and pieces of models. Welcome to Tokyo’s creative world, as exemplified by Sou Fujimoto’s architecture practice.
Immediately after greeting us, the tall Japanese architect explains—as if he has just read our minds—that “personal space” is an American concept. “You won’t find barriers in our traditional buildings. The doors were made of paper so each individual could hear, see and sense the presence of everyone else. Withdrawing or secluding yourself in private had no place in our culture. It was only after the Second World War that the practice took root.”
We sit down in front of a wooden model that reaches up to the ceiling. The full-size, habitable version is located in Tokyo’s Suginami district. From there, we plan to set out in our Audi Q2 to explore the city’s forward-looking architecture. As with most of Fujimoto’s designs, he has also assigned letters to this structure—the client’s initials: House NA.
“The site was typically Japanese—a tiny piece of ground hemmed in by a jumble of urban structures,” says the 46 year-old. “The owners are a young couple whose previous home was divided into clearly defined spaces—a kitchen, entrance area, living and tatami room. They wanted to leave all that behind. “My solution was to spread loosely linked alcoves and bays over various levels.” In the stack of glass boxes that comprise House NA, the residents can choose a nook that chimes with their mood and chosen activity—reading, eating, sleeping, working or listening to music. With their ever-changing functions, the nooks, crannies and bays allow for a transparent life in a state of flux or transit—just like Tokyo itself. The fact that the metropolis has no city center is what truly lends it its dynamism. Home to 38 million people, the conurbation has multiple centers bristling with skyscrapers: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinawaga, Ikebukuro, Ueno, to mention just a few. They are connected by a dense transportation network that penetrates the even more tightly-knit sea of wooden houses. Most of the two to three-story family homes have a lifespan of only 30 to 40 years. Then they are torn down to make way for a new generation. Often the heirs are insolvent due to the high inheritance taxes and end up selling parcels of land. As a result, property footprints in Japan’s cities are continually shrinking into increasingly bizarre shapes. It’s not at all unusual for a 12-story building to be only four meters wide and to even taper along its length. Japanese architects come of age professionally with these challenges and are accustomed to constantly compensating for lack of space with creative ingenuity. This may well explain why the island nation’s contemporary architecture has attracted so much international attention over the last few decades.
The future of architecture is archaic.
On our way to the Omotesando district, we stop in front of an intersection between high rises in Shibuya. Unlike the Western system, the pedestrian traffic lights on all four street corners simultaneously signal red or green to let the million people who pass through on foot every day cross in any direction, even diagonally. Many of them wear padded designer headphones, stare at their phones and flow past one another in the throngs like quicksilver. Above their heads, LED screens blare their messages into the daily hustle and bustle. Ten minutes later, we’ve left the melee behind. The streets are peaceful and green, the houses small and modest.
“We call a village shopping street shotengai. They are the heart of every residential neighborhood,” explains Fujimoto. “For centuries, they have been the glue that holds society together. Everyone knows everyone else. Shop owners live above their stores, organize festivals, hear about everything and are a good source of news. Each shopkeeper has an overlapping private and official persona. Tokyo is nothing more than a collection of thousands of villages with shotengais that have a lot in common with my buildings, especially in terms of transparency and communication.”
Before we know it, the winding streets that left the Audi Q2 little room to maneuver have given way again to a vibrant boulevard. For the Japanese, Omotesando is Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées. This is where all the international fashion labels have their flagship stores—many of them designed by the crème de la crème of Japanese contemporary architects. Jun Aoki did the honors for Louis Vuitton. Kengo Kuma is behind the Celine store, while SANAA stepped up for Dior. Luxury shoe brand Tod’s is at home in a Toyo Ito creation.
The doyen of the scene, Ito favors themes of freedom, control and liberation. “Of course, I want my buildings to be safe. But building regulations stifle creativity. One of my fundamental principles is to cast off standards and expectations. With my architecture, I want to free people from constraints, to help them relax and give them inspiration.” Ito also believes that we have reached a point where it’s difficult to break free from established control mechanisms. “Even major construction projects increasingly serve to ‘monitor and manage’ people.” It was some years ago that the now 76-year-old architect announced: “Nothing can be allowed to stem the flow of information. Architecture in megacities that are home to millions must be as flexible as the bubbles in a lava lamp!” Toyo Ito also once said of Fujimoto’s buildings that they aroused the same emotions as climbing in a treetop. While Terunobu Fujimori, who is famous for his treehouses, has referred to Fujimoto as kohai—a term expressing praise for a student who is especially devoted to his mentor or sempai. So it comes as no surprise that Fujimoto the kohai is eager to talk about woodlands: “Trees need individual comfort zones but don’t want to be isolated from each other. Their branches, leaves and shrubbery help create this balance. My architecture works in similar ways. Instead of separation, I create fragmentation which blurs boundaries and forges connections."
Fujimoto’s four-story commercial center dubbed Omotesando Branches is an architectural weave of branches and twigs. It’s located in a small street near to Toyo Ito’s Tod’s building. Spread across the facade, trees sprout from inclined vertical metal frames. The facade’s broad struts represent tree trunks. As a result, the building’s silhouette is not clearly defined, enclosing a space that exudes a welcoming, sheltering, intimate feel. It’s a space that remains etched in your memory.
Fujimoto grew up surrounded by pristine nature and imposing peaks at the opposite end of Japan on the northern island of Hokkaido. “I only came to Tokyo 20 years ago. It couldn’t be more different. Here, everything is chaotic, artificial and organic all at once. From that moment on, my architecture has always taken its cue and inspiration from the contrast between city and countryside. For all its maze of concrete, metal, glass and wood, I walk around the city as if it were a forest.” Although not even Fujimoto can say what drives the rampant construction in Tokyo, he sees order in the myriad layers that make up the city. And the inheritance laws are as much a part of it as the punctual subway trains, seismic design and disciplined mentality about never carelessly dropping litter on the sidewalk—not even a toothpick. Fujimoto refers to this paradox as “organized chaos.”
We drive on to a structure comprising five mini houses that look as though children had piled them on top of each other as part of a game. Each unit consists of a room accessed via an outdoor metal stairway. And this time, Fujimoto used more than a pair of initials to baptize the building, fittingly dubbing it Tokyo Apartments. It’s hard to image a better or wittier visual representation of the city’s population density. On average, each square kilometer in Tokyo is home to 13,300 people. By way of comparison, it’s 4,300 in Munich, Germany. Despite this, the Japanese see their capital as a village—a sort of outward-looking communal lounge where you move around as if among your closest family. You know you’re among likeminded souls as you pass by gaming centers, skyscrapers and single-family homes, Internet cafes, minimalistic cubes, eight-stool bars, department stores, noodle stalls, under subway bridges, over canals and into stylish boutiques. And tucked away between it all, you can still find temples and shrines. Their patient presence merely confirms Tokyo’s unique place in the 21st century. Even as exteriors appear to be in a constant state of flux, the inner, traditional values remain constant. Could it be that the headlong rush toward the future and hunger for what has never been before—coupled with a powerful allegiance to the legacy of the past—is what will shape tomorrow’s architecture in Japan and beyond?
Japanese architects have naturally taken a greater interest than their Western colleagues in why some spaces feel roomier even when they’re actually smaller. On average, single-family homes in space-starved Tokyo occupy just 40 square meters. “I’ve come to the conclusion that creating a sense of spaciousness is not simply about how far apart the walls are. What’s more important is evoking a sense of the unknown, the alien,” says Makoto Tanijiri, a young, rising star with architecture offices in Tokyo and Hiroshima. “When you have such elements at your fingertips, a house automatically feels bigger.” The Japanese have been using this trick—they call it engawa—for centuries. It refers to that indeterminate multifunctional space in the transitional area between inside and outside that creates a link to nature. “If, for instance, you can incorporate the garden into the home,” Tanijiri explains, “then you have engawa that functions as a foreign object creating an illusion of space.” This is why he lets rock faces and plants encroach on roofed-over living interiors. Much like Fujimoto did at the Tokyo Apartments, he also makes use of nesting—a design technique that’s increasingly prevalent in building projects. Different roof levels, a patchwork of projecting elements and mismatched window openings create an organized chaos that enlarges space—at least in the eye of the beholder. In extreme cases, the results look like drawings by Dutch artist M. C. Escher, where everything begins but nothing ends.
In Shinjuku, we drive past a building that is no more than three meters wide. It’s called “Split Machiya”—split townhouse—created by the Atelier Bow-Wow team of architects. It was lovingly dreamt up by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima for a married couple, as if to reduce the risk of a divorce among astronauts in the cramped conditions of a space station. The ground floor is a concrete cube that supports two levels made of wood and simultaneously serves as entrance, cloakroom and piano room. The furniture is flat so as to prevent the rooms appearing just too narrow. Cladded on the sides with copper paneling, the stairway reflects the miniature garden, drawing it optically into the house and dispensing soft light. The toilet is tucked away under the stairs, its doorway cleverly camouflaged as a wardrobe. Not just materials but also humor can convey a touch of lightness.
Who knows, maybe one day cars will even become part of our bodies? How will our cities look then?
“My training at university began with the European masters. Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe paved the way for the subsequent evolution of my own architecture,” says Fujimoto. “Then I made tentative steps toward the present day. Fantastic the way Kenzo Tange—the eye-catching Tokyo city hall towers are his creation—defined modern-day Japanese architecture with traditional design.” Ryue Nishizawa, Kazuyo Sejima’s partner, is also among Fujimoto’s role models. Together, they run the SANAA team of architects. For me, furoshiki is the epitome of Japanese functionality and aesthetics—and a symbol of my style of building,” says Nishizawa. Furoshiki looks like a handkerchief but actually means “bath mat.” When the Japanese from the Nara era a good 1,200 years ago were relaxing in hot baths, they wrapped their clothing in furoshiki. Lacking handles, buttons, side pockets or a zipper, this piece of fabric today serves as a universal holdall or as packaging for gifts and lunchboxes. “A brilliantly minimal, multi-purpose object. But only when the ends of the cloth are knotted,” Nishizawa goes on to explain to us. “My architecture works in a similar way. Walls and roofs are important, but the essence of the way I build lies in the connections—for instance, where the living space fuses with nature and the world outside.” To get a feel for what he means, we drive to Hachobori, beyond the elegant Ginza district, to where Nishizawa has erected Garden and House in a gap between high rises. Five stories in concrete grouped around a circular stairway. Four meters wide, eight meters long. Wedged between office towers. The terraces perforated and laden with huge potted plants. The walls made of glass. Two female writers live here.
There’s nothing worse for the Japanese than to be surprised by the unexpected. They don’t want shortcuts. Everything is expected to work smoothly, run according to plan and above all not step out of line aesthetically. Skyscrapers are completed right on schedule, as promised. Every bank irons its banknotes on request. And if the cleaning crew of a luxury hotel in Europe needs eight hours for fourteen rooms, their Japanese counterparts need twice as long. Not because they work more slowly but because they want to be more perfect. That, too, is part of the layers and strata which, as Fujimoto asserts, bring the chaos of a megacity into harmony. But what if these layers cannot be transposed onto other cultures? Will Japanese spatial concepts, even futuristic ones, make any sense outside the island nation?
“For my Mille Arbres project, I’m currently in Paris every few weeks and have noticed that the city has a lot in common with Tokyo,” says Fujimoto. “You have the wide boulevards and, behind them, the narrow maze of streets. Japanese cuisine tastes good also in Paris and French cuisine is as good, if not better, in Japan!” Fujimoto laughs as he raises an espresso cup to make his point. “This is where the game of proportions and harmony starts.” He places the cup down again. “The table has to fit it well. Then the room. Then the street and the house opposite with the graceful facade that in turn segues into the mighty residential block. And on and on it goes. Who knows, maybe soon all the way to an airport on the moon. No matter what concepts we come up with for the future, if the proportions aren’t right, the structure is doomed to failure. Even if we seal ourselves off, retreat into our shell and support that isolation architecturally.” At that point, Fujimoto recalls the time he built a hospital for disabled children in Hokkaido. “I realized that they need recesses they can retreat into whenever they are having problems, but these must be hideouts from where they can watch the world outside. That’s actually true of all people, except that grown-ups don’t care to admit it.”
Further photo credits: Iwan Baan, Felix Dol Maillot, Sou Fujimoto architects, Forgemind ArchiMedia/flickr & AUDI AG, Takao Nagase (film)