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The Architect Making Conceptual Art Out of Buildings

By Nikil Saval

Benjamin Hosking
 
A House With No Walls

The courtyard of House N (2008), in Oita. The architect Sou Fujimoto has become known for his adventurous designs

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Benjamin Hosking
 
A House With No Walls

Omotesando Branches, a 2014 multiuse building with an apartment, offices and ground-floor retail space, in the Shibuya district of Tokyo.

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Benjamin Hosking
 
A House With No Walls

Toilet in Nature, a secluded public restroom completed by Fujimoto in 2012, near a railway station in Ichihara.

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Benjamin Hosking
 
A House With No Walls

Fujimoto’s 2015 Naoshima Pavilion, a steel structure on the coast of what is known as Japan’s art island, in the south of the country.

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Benjamin Hosking
 
A House With No Walls

Fujimoto in his Tokyo office.

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Iwan Baan
 
A House With No Walls

The treelike House NA (2011), in western Tokyo.

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Benjamin Hosking
 
A House With No Walls

The Musashino Art University Museum & Library (2010), which is essentially constructed of enormous bookshelves, in Tokyo.

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THE MOST IMPORTANT thing that Sou Fujimoto did as a young architect was to not produce any architecture. A transplant from rural Hokkaido, in the north of Japan, he was 23 years old in 1994 and had just graduated from the University of Tokyo, where he had studied architecture and had been impressed by the pure, elemental visions of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. But the work that seized his imagination nonetheless left him lost. He felt that he had learned too little in his time. There were so many possible directions for architecture that they were difficult for him to sort out. He was, by his own account, intensely shy, unwilling to brave the gauntlet of auditioning for Toyo Ito and Sanaa, Japanese architects and firms he admired.

So he took up residence in the Tokyo neighbourhood of Nakano, near the university, living alone and doing nothing for six years. He would wake up around noon, occasionally walk the crowded, anarchic streets across the city, consider the nature of architecture and the urban environment, reflect on his own ideas and those of other architects and accomplish very little. He recalled being relaxed, enjoying those utterly open days. (He was lucky, he noted, to be supported by his parents.) He submitted entries to the odd competition or two — losing, invariably — and honed his idea of what architecture ought to be. This was, to say the least, an unusual move in a country that notoriously insists on hard work. For Fujimoto, it was a source of pleasure as well as occasional bewilderment. “I was happy,” he said. “At the same time, I realised, ‘Wow, I’m out of the whole system of Japanese society.’”

His self-imposed exile, however contrary to the dictates of what was normal, proved generative. Today, Fujimoto is at the top of his profession, someone who at the comparatively young age of 48 has become renowned for the purity of his vision and his attempts to reduce architecture to a fundamental series of oppositions. His residential work, especially 2011’s perverse House NA, a single-family home comprising a series of stacked boxlike structures, plays — as few buildings since the era of High Modernism have — with the nature of open and closed spaces, and with what is public and what is private. Fujimoto reduced the idea of the home to a series of glass-enclosed cubes on multiple levels, connected by separate staircases, reconfiguring our idea of how rooms should function. In his 2010 library for Musashino Art University in Tokyo, he exploded the idea of interior and exterior by lining the outside walls with wooden bookcases protected by glass. In France, he has recently completed a startling white apartment block in Montpellier: a cylindrical tower bristling with balconies, intended to resemble a branching tree.

In a sense, Fujimoto’s is the conceptual art of contemporary architecture, born out of a relentless desire to interrogate, in building after building, variations on the same set of ideas. To spend time with him is to dwell in a discursive world constructed entirely of tensely opposing categories — inside and outside, individual and society, private and public, the natural world and the urban environment — out of which emerges this serene, unruffled but somehow dynamic architecture. Walking around Tokyo during the period of his non-activity, he wondered how such a bustling urban environment could be so similar, at least in its complexity, to the natural world of his youth. (Hokkaido is home to a rugged landscape of active volcanoes and hot springs.) “I was curious how people can make such complexity by artificial thinking,” he recalled. In other words, urban environments mimicked the chaotic natural world, even though cities are the result of man-made design. “Artificial complexity” is perhaps the key phrase for his work, and the surest way to understand and describe his achievement.

I MET FUJIMOTO in June 2019 at his atelier’s Tokyo office — a spectacular converted warehouse with surpassingly high ceilings in Etchujima, a quiet neighbourhood in far east Tokyo that is also home to the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology. Like a typical Fujimoto building, it gave off an overwhelming impression of whiteness — white walls, white furniture, white architectural models — with blond accents furnished by the large plywood work tables. It was a weekend, but unlike many architectural firms I have visited, this one was not filled with overworked assistants gulping coffee and slogging through AutoCAD with pump-up music crackling through their headphones: Only a couple of employees were present, working on a model. Fujimoto told me himself that since the birth of his son, he had taken more control of his schedule. (Fujimoto is married and lives in Iidabashi, Tokyo.) Still, it was unlikely that he had too much time, since, like his highly successful peers Shigeru Ban and Kengo Kuma, he maintains a Paris office and travels there at least once a month.

Fujimoto’s working process became unusually public with a solo exhibition at the Japan House Los Angeles in 2018, titled, somewhat pompously, “Futures of the Future.” Displaying models of buildings made from staples and potato chips and crumpled tissues, the exhibition suggested the conceptual slippages between artificial and human and natural forms to which Fujimoto’s architecture consistently pays tribute. The plastic grass from a takeout sushi tray became, in Fujimoto’s hands, part of a miniature landscape; in another piece, Styrofoam cubes connected by dried twigs were a new form of inserting the natural world into the built environment. As he put it at the time of the show’s opening, couldn’t this “artificial thing that imitates green open the door to a new possibility of green?” Of course, Fujimoto and his team don’t actually design buildings with discarded snack food — his predominant materials are steel, concrete and glass — though they occasionally do, in his words, “talk about crazy ideas and stupid things and bringing stupid objects and trying to find out something from that.” His process involves a series of sketches, long textual excursuses and model-making with his team. But the “Futures of the Future” exhibition demonstrated, at the very least, the extent to which Fujimoto is willing to let his metaphorical imagination travel, and to invest even the most recalcitrantly artificial objects with the potential to feel natural — to recognise few boundaries between the artificial and the natural. It also demonstrated the extent to which he is willing to return, again and again, to the same set of concerns over a series of buildings — to work out, in public, his ideas about how architecture is fundamentally structured by oppositions.

From the depths of his six-year soggiorno in the land of 20-something lassitude, it might have been difficult to imagine his success. His breakthrough, or the initial set of signs that he might emerge from his self-created swamp of viscous inactivity, came with a pair of projects. The first was a competition in 2000 for an art museum in the Japanese coastal city of Aomori, which he entered with a proposal for a predominantly glass space that looked almost transparent — and lost. But he placed a remarkable second, and one of the judges of the competition, the renowned architect Toyo Ito (to whose liquid and sinuous work Fujimoto’s bears some comparison), published an article in Shinkenchiku (New Architecture) magazine praising his work as representative of a rising generation. “Of course, nothing was changed,” Fujimoto said. “I didn’t get any commissions by that. But in my feelings, I thought I could be on the surface of the water; before that, it was the bottom of the sea.” Fujimoto soon opened an office and registered as an architect. He overcame his shyness and began having more of a relationship with the media and with other architects.

His other project, in the late 1990s, was a series of hospital commissions for his father and a few of his friends, who were all psychiatrists. It was with this work that he began to fashion his distinctive, highly allegorical approach to design. Fujimoto’s childhood home was just 300 feet from the campus of his father’s psychiatric hospital; he remarked to me that his father and the other psychiatrists he associated with insisted on treating their patients not as ill people in need of confinement but as full individuals in need of space and freedom. The grounds were open, and patients often greeted the young Fujimoto in his family’s house. “In a sense, I was lucky to grow up in such an environment,” he said. Referring to the boundary between sickness and health, he added, “You could be on that side and could come back to this side.” The differences, as in other sorts of oppositions, were only a series of “gradations,” and this “has been a very basic understanding of the world for me.” It was not hard to find echoes of that philosophy in Fujimoto’s own story, in which he was a dropout for several years in a society that did not encourage that sort of behaviour, a sense that one could come and go across the boundary of in and out as one pleased: that you could be on one side, and come back to the other.

Fujimoto’s Children’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation in Date, Hokkaido, completed in 2006, was the last of the commissions and the first to achieve international renown. In images, the work appears as an eerie, gnomic scattering of 24 tall, white boxes, isolated on a hill. In plans, the buildings of the centre look randomly assorted, at unpredictable angles to each other, nearly touching. Images of the interiors reveal a multitude of odd angles, creating corners that offer semiprivacy. Fujimoto’s logic, both in the placement of the buildings and in the creation of the interiors, was in fact based on a serious understanding of the particular needs of the children using the space. He spoke of how a psychiatric hospital should be like a refraction of society in miniature, since it had a residential aspect to it. Speaking of the children, of whom there are about 50 in residence, Fujimoto said, “Sometimes they like to hide a little bit, sometimes they like to be a little bit isolated. … We got the idea that children themselves could choose their distances between people, or choose their own hiding places sometimes by themselves, alone, or with two or three friends, really good friends, or much larger groups.” The spaces were meant to provide choices about how much distance the children kept between themselves and other people. Conceiving and executing the building was a constant renegotiation of closed and open spaces, and what sort of level of openness afforded privacy, and what level of closed-ness afforded contact. (Designers of open office plans: Take note.) Fujimoto’s long acquaintance with the doctor who commissioned the project “created a deeper understanding of his thinking,” he said, “and good trust with each other.”

Fujimoto’s work on the Children’s Center prepared him, in part, for a spate of domestic residential work that includes some of the more striking series of houses created by any architect in recent years. House N, built in the Oita Prefecture, in southern Japan, in 2008, represents an early exploration of nesting rooms. A dining room is enclosed in part by another shell containing a kitchen, itself enclosed by another shell that makes room for a garden, each of them partly open to a house whose walls are also perforated by large gaps — more rectangular cutouts than the regular spacing of windows we are accustomed to from standard single-family homes. Not an entirely open volume, in the way of the wide angles of Mies van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House — a one-room, glassed-in weekend retreat outside of Chicago — it is imbricated with the natural world through the interior garden, an idiosyncratic house that clearly declares its ambition to reshape how rooms traditionally work.

But it is House NA, built in a pleasant, single-family-home-dominated neighbourhood in western Tokyo in 2011, that is Fujimoto’s most characteristic and impressive residential project. Seen from the street-facing side, it appears as a series of randomly staggered concrete platforms with multiple boxes hoisted by spindly steel poles and enclosed on all sides by glass. There is no traditional facade wall, and because of its staggering, it bears resemblance to a construction site, or a tree house, with each of the nine rooms — constituted by 21 different floor plates — hovering at various heights. When I went looking for the house (it is occupied by a private citizen, its location only known to architecture geeks), I had the address wrong and spent hours wandering through nearby streets, for once frustrated by the extraordinary heterogeneity of Japanese architecture, with each house different from the other in style and dimension. If only the streets were fronted by brick rowhouses, so that I could easily discern the contemporary exception! I kept imagining that a glimpse of scaffolding down a side street was the thing itself. Publicity images of the house are extraordinary advertisements for a radically open vision for a single-family home, with one woman, dressed in white, sitting on one white platform, gazing up at a man, dressed in white and blue jeans, on a slightly elevated floor behind her, while another person, also dressed in white, sits on the stairs, seeming to converse with another woman in the kitchen, the whole scene illuminated by abundant light streaming through the many-windowed semi-facade.

In conceiving the house, Fujimoto cited the limitation of the small plot (578 square feet) and the desire for the client to have a nontraditional house: “As a plot, it’s too small, so that if you just put living, dining, kitchen, one bedroom, one bathroom, it’s just a small, normal house, and obviously the client didn’t like those normal typologies of the house.” Their conversations revealed a fairly familiar set of concerns around contemporary houses: that no particular activity corresponded to one particular room. The function of the room wasn’t conterminous with what was done in it; people worked on their computer in their living room, and then moved into the kitchen (presumably also with their computer), and thus constantly navigated their own, normally apportioned house, itself not necessarily arranged for openness and mobility. Fujimoto needed to design a house, in other words, for the internet age.

So he took the same idea of “many different corners,” and the attraction and repulsion of other people and their spaces that he had articulated in the Children’s Center, and came up with a house that seemed like an unstacking of nested furniture, connected by steps (which also doubled as seating areas). Fujimoto described it, in a somewhat poetic light, as “many small floating plates and columns and the stairs and the chairs floating around you, and you feel it’s not like one glass box — you are in the middle of something small, artificial, something floating.” The actual use of the house, in the event, didn’t correspond to the openness publicised by the images. The clients installed curtains to block out the windows as well as to separate spaces within the house, which they did fairly often. Fujimoto himself felt that adding the curtains enlarged the original idea of the house: “I feel as a space I prefer the situation with the curtains, because it’s more human, and it is increasing the concept of the house.” Given the possibility of a new kind of openness, the owners of the house instead found a new kind of privacy. When I finally found the house and saw it from the outside on a rainy day, all the curtains were drawn, and parked in the driveway was a Citroën: This last detail felt like an oblique allusion to Le Corbusier’s Maison Citrohan, the cuboid home he had built in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1927, which helped create a template for Modernist architecture.

SYMBOLIC AND METAPHORICAL registers in architecture are extremely common, despite the fact that people have to dwell in and around these buildings, and intellectual satisfaction and the workability of a space don’t always cohere. A classic instance is Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal for John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, built in 1962, whose soaring shell resembled a bird’s wing. As the architect and critic Thomas de Monchaux pointed out in a recent article, this made it “beautiful and inflexible” for contemporary use when the number of air travellers at JFK (and elsewhere) exploded — 11.5 million per year in 1962, it is now around 62 million. Last year, the building was repurposed as the entryway for a hotel. It no longer functioned as a departure gate, and so was consigned to be a gestural, nostalgic relic — appropriate for an age when flying is seen less as the summit of human ideals than as a cramped, unpleasant experience that happens also to be destroying the planet.

Fujimoto’s constant attempts to suggest the natural aspects of architecture, and the architectural aspects of nature, occasionally argue for the predominance of the concept over the requirements of a given site or space — if he can be said to have a signature style or idea, it might be this. In a competition for a theatre in Spain, he developed the idea of a cloudlike concrete spiral that would replace the traditional idea of a black-box theatre and instead be a more open and permeable arts centre. He came in second place. Later, after winning a competition to design an urban plaza for the Belgrade, Serbia, waterfront, he built a similar cloud structure based on the idea of “different flows” (of people, traffic, history and ideas) intertwining. Taking inspiration from the local environment, he proposed a tree shape for his 2019 L’Arbre Blanc white concrete housing tower in Montpellier, which is strikingly treelike in photographs, thanks to its deep, cantilevered balconies. It remains unclear why it would be valuable to mimic the shape of a tree in a housing proposal, specifically this housing proposal — except simply to break the idea of the tower block. Fujimoto admitted that “mostly I feel, of course, yeah, we have kind of been developing many different shapes,” but also argued that the cultural context plays a role in the kinds of materials his firm uses, if not in the shape of the building itself: For example, for the Belgrade waterfront project, he proposed using older stone to reflect the presence of nearby medieval castles.

With his breakthrough submission for the Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens in 2013, Fujimoto — the youngest person ever to receive the annual commission — achieved the perfect fusion of conceptual daring and architectural function. When awarded the job, Fujimoto thought it “should be the occasion in which all my previous ideas should be integrated into the project — but at the same time, it should not just be a repetition of previous ideas. All of them should be developed: It should be like a crystallisation of the whole concept.” Given a month to come up with a concept, he worked over a number of ideas, including one in which a stainless-steel mirror frame would reflect the greenery and therefore cause the structure to vanish (an idea he described as “crazy”). Ultimately, the idea of transparency attracted him more than disappearance, and redeploying an uneven, white-poled grid frame like that of House NA, he and his team began to approach the final idea of the pavilion. More cloudlike than his explicitly cloud-shaped theatre, Fujimoto’s pavilion was nonetheless based on a system of almost unimprovable simplicity: a series of grids created by white steel poles, whose dimensions vary in size. The effect was less a series of scaffolding than a surreal nimbus — a white thought in a green shade. Oliver Wainwright, the architecture critic for The Guardian, noted its resemblance to a 1980s computer mainframe or Tron-like vision of the future, which calls to mind Fujimoto’s own avowed aim to create a “primitive future” architecture — a forward-looking architecture that nonetheless boils down to a few basic tensions.

There are few architects of Fujimoto’s stature who are so doggedly committed to continuous experimentation, to consistent, almost obsessive reworking of the same ideas. But coming some years after the concrete heroism of the postwar decades, and the megastructures of the Metabolists — Modernists who produced structurally daring buildings that were meant to exude the future-minded society of Japan in the ’60s and ’70s — he has adopted a hermetic set of fundamental concerns that continue to be visually surprising. When I asked Fujimoto what his first introduction to architecture was, he described finding a book about Antoni Gaudí, the wild Modernist experimenter, whose Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona remains one of the more luridly unclassifiable monuments of the 20th century. Before that, he said, “I didn’t notice architecture as architecture. It was just building.” It was after his introduction to Gaudí that he realised that “architecture also is a creative activity.” This sense of architecture as a fully creative act — a play with fundamental oppositions in space — remains in Fujimoto’s work as he quietly, patiently, shyly draws architecture back to a sense of its own fundamental strangeness.

Shoot produced by Ayumi Konishi (Beige).