RHA is very excited to announce that Robert Hutchison has been awarded the 2016 - 2017 Rome Prize in Architecture by the American Academy in Rome. For more information, including the list of other winners, please see the following link.
Robert Hutchison Architecture, in collaboration with an all UW-based design team, was one of eight out of 160 qualified teams recognized by a distinguished jury in the Storefront for Art & Architecture’s international competition entitled ‘Taking Buildings Down’.
The competition sought out proposals for “the production of voids; the demolition of buildings, structures, and infrastructures; or the subtraction of objects and/or matter as a creative act.” The criteria for entering the competition was strict: “Removal is all that is allowed.” The UW-based team’s submission, which was one of five awarded an Honorable Mention, was influenced and inspired by a 2015 Installation project in Mexico City by Hutchison, Mattheis and Gonzales entitled ‘Lineamientos’, and continues the exploration of Gonzales’ UW architecture thesis project entitled ‘Unbuilt’. The team’s proposal argues for the temporary public use of the many private residential sites found throughout Mexico City that stand vacant for 12 weeks as they await pending demolition, and subsequent redevelopment as multi-family housing.
Pleased to finally get our Traversing the Moving City video uploaded to Vimeo and our website! This video compiles video footage taken by myself while on a 5-month Creative Artist Fellowship awarded through the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. The video was exhibited at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in February 2015 as part of the Gardner Center for Asian Art & Ideas' Art Globally series. Thanks to Alexis Eggertsen and Cody Groom for editing and sound!
Robert Hutchison (RH):
I was very interested to find out that you come from painting originally.
Toshio Shibata (TS):
Yes, I started my career as a painter.
RH: Why did you move away from painting?
TS: Well, I was in University from 1968 to 1969. And 1969 was the time that there were a lot of movements. During my sophomore year the university closed.
RH: Because of the student movement …
TS: Yes. After that I had plenty of time to think about things. I was very interested in American contemporary artists such as Robert Rauschenberg. I was doing photography and silk screening. Up until that time I was doing a lot of drawing and painting too, but I had to somehow make myself want to draw well.
RH: You were unsatisfied with what you were doing? The drawing?
TS: I was.
TS: Why? It was like I would stop myself from drawing well or painting well, perhaps because it had no meaning to me. There were other ways to express my own ideas and I thought maybe I should try to find another medium. So, I started printmaking. There are many different ways to make prints … woodblock printing, copper etching … I tried many, but found that the process of silk-screening gave me a fresh perspective - a new vision. There was no trace of my …
RH: Your authorship?
TS: Yes. The work had a distance for me. While painting I had to concentrate on what I saw in my mind and then try to convert that image to the paper or canvas. But when silk-screening, similar to photography, I can keep the distance from my work. Because it’s more indirect.
RH: Why is it important to you to keep that distance?
TS: I don’t want to put too much emotion into the work. I want to be like a third person somehow. I want to keep a distance from what I have made. I think it’s important to do that. I also tried making films and I actually worked in a film factory for one year after I graduated from school. But I had to work with a lot of other people. [laughing]
RH: And you didn’t like that.
TS: It was all right because people were nice to me. But I wanted to work alone, so I went back to my private work. After graduating I had to work, right? But it was very difficult. I tried to find some scholarships. Actually, I wanted to go to the United States, but it was too difficult because at that time the exchange rate was 1 dollar = 360 yen.
RH: Wow! That’s not the case anymore…
TS: No, it’s just 80-something now per dollar. I tried to find some scholarships to the States, but it was quite hard - just one or two for scientists. So I went back to my university and I ended up getting a scholarship to Belgium. And once again I was a student again.
RH: And when you went to Belgium did you apply as a painter?
TS: Yes, at first a painter and a printmaker. At the art school the principals told me that I already had enough experience in painting and printmaking so I should try something new. They had just established a photography department in the academy so I started there.
RH: It’s a nice turn of events.
TS: [Laughing] It was just by accident, but I was interested in doing photography. Having experience with the photo process and silk screening already, I knew how to develop film and make prints. And someone gave me a book by Edward Weston. That was a turning point. I didn’t know that photography could express such strong messages.
RH: When you say that it’s expressing a strong message, in Weston’s work the message isn’t necessarily his own message, correct? Similar to your work.
TS: No, not necessarily, but you know, after that I knew that the photography in Japan was very different. Maybe you know the photographer Daido Moriyama? Very grainy, very emotional. Somehow he expresses his own personal feelings. But I didn’t like that because in my work I needed something different from the real world. Because of that I didn’t like that kind of photography much at the time. But in Weston’s work he had his own world, and a different quality to his prints. I could feel how different it was from what I knew, so I tried to pursue how I could get the same quality in my work that I found in his images. It was obvious that I should use large format. I purchased five books and tried to learn how to develop and about exposure and well. I was especially inspired by a book about Group f.64. I didn’t buy 8x10s at the time—I bought 4x5s and I learned what I could by myself.
RH: So, how do you see photography and painting as similar and different?
TS: The nice thing about photography is you can work outside the studio.
RH: That’s what I love about it too. The world becomes your studio.
TS: Yes, until that moment I worked in the studio making prints or paintings and I had to stay inside, but with photography I could go out. I feel that you have to go out. Of course some photographers work inside, but that was a most important thing for me doing photography.
RH: I read an interesting thing about photography … that it’s about taking things away to create an image. In other words, in painting, you start with a blank canvas and you add things and you layer and you create something. Whereas with photography it’s all about how you are framing and maybe not showing something.
TS: In other words, with painting you can eliminate what you don’t need, right? But with photography you have to work with what’s there.
RH: What’s there is there. Of course now they have photoshop [laughing]. So you started when you came back to Japan; you were looking for subject matter.
TS: First I had to find a subject in Europe, because everything I saw was so fresh. Every place that I went was a new place with new people and a new culture. I traveled a lot in Europe. But I started doubting myself. You take photographs because it’s very fresh to you, a new experience for you. But to the people that are living there, it’s nothing special. It’s their daily life. So what I was doing seemed flawed. I felt that I should go back to my own country. So after 4 years of living in Belgium, maybe a bit more than 4 years, I came back. But I didn’t take photographs here in Japan after I came back—things seemed mixed up to me. In the 80s, Tokyo was a rapidly growing city, maybe a bit like cities in China now, and everything was mixed up. There were still a lot of old parts of Tokyo mixed with new cultures. I didn’t know how to cope with this. I couldn’t focus on anything. So I decided to take night photos, because at night all of the structures seem to disappear. There are only lights in the darkness. It was in the 80s that many of the expressways were built. Sometimes I had experiences driving in Europe where I would imagine I was on some highway here in Japan. Roads are made in the same way there, right? It is just a paved road. Very flat with some lights going like this and like this. Sometimes it reminded me of Japan. And I while I was driving I didn’t know what I was doing there. It was a strange feeling that came to me while I was driving. This happened in the States too. Because of this, I thought that maybe I should take photographs that do not allow you to predict where you are exactly. I didn’t want to come back to typical Japan, because while I was in Europe I realized my own culture and I didn’t want to use very Japanese things here. I wanted to characterize a new Japanese. I wanted to share the current time. That is why I decided to take photographs of a highway or a rest area of the highway. I continued this for six years.
RH: You did this for 6 years? Wow.
TS: Yes. Six years. But after three years, in 1983, I found a new subject. And that is what I’m still doing now.
RH: So really quick, this is the first book (Still In the Night by Toshio Shibata) I bought when I got to Japan, after visiting the Tokyo Museum of Photography. What I found really beautiful about these photographs is how the buildings are lit up. There is so much light being put down to the ground and around it. Especially in some of these photographs there’s so much light in the center of the photograph that it enhances the darkness around it. This is very interesting to me. I think it relates to what you said just a few minutes ago. It almost pushes that idea that at night everything disappears around it. So I could take that picture and put it anywhere. I could put it in California or Washington. For myself it feels universal.
TS: Yes, that’s what I intended.
RH: At first I didn’t even know they were Japanese, I thought they were American. And then I read that these are all in Japan!
TS: [Laughing] Oh yes, that’s nice.
RH: So then, what is it about infrastructure that is so interesting?
TS: Well, I was kind of eager to take photos in daytime. Nighttime photography is very hard work. After sunset you just take the car and go. You don’t sleep. I was looking for some subject to take in the daytime. [Goes to get photo] It was really an accident that I took this photo. This one, in 1983. This was my first. It looks like something very, how would you say, like a creature.
RH: It’s almost alive.
TS: Yes, like it’s looking at me, staring at me. So I just took this picture. And after I took this picture I started thinking about types of concrete on the land, especially in infrastructure.
RH: Are these all in Japan?
TS: Yes. I found it nice because I didn’t have to put emotion into it, because it’s just concrete and infrastructure. It’s not Architecture. Architecture is intended by the architect, designed by architect.
RH: I thought about that today when I was preparing for our talk. I find these compelling visually. But it’s curious to me that while these are things that are designed, they are designed to only function, they aren’t designed to be aesthetically beautiful. In your case, when you take the photographs and you think about composition, and tone and shadow, you create a completely aesthetic thing. So it’s very curious to me that these things have no aesthetic intentions, but then your photographs do almost the opposite and make them aesthetic.
TS: Yes that was fun to me.
RH: When I look at some of your photographs, it makes me think about how we build on the land. Is that something that you want people to think about? Do you want people to think about what we are doing and the relationship of how we construct relative to nature if you will? Or is that not of interest?
TS: I try to stay away from politics, because otherwise my message is going to be very narrow. I want to make my work free to the people. The image can mean whatever they are thinking, using their own knowledge and their own ideas.
RH: One other thing I love about your work is that most of the photographs don’t have a set scale. It seems like this could be a detail of a river, or we could be a mile up in the sky and I don’t really know.
TS: No scale. That is one thing that I intended.
RH: So why don’t you show the sky? Is that related?
TS: Yes. Sky is the one thing that can remind you of the real world.
RH: So have you ever tried photographing people?
RH: Why not?
TS: Well, I want to work alone. You know, it’s like traveling, but I’m traveling with myself. With my spirit.
RH: Your spirit?
TS: Traveling. It’s like that. I don’t want to interact with other emotions. I think I’m actually very shy. I cannot cope with people very well so it’s very comfortable to be alone. And I like working alone. I really care about people, but that interferes with my work I think.
RH: When you go up and work in the mountains and start shooting these incredible hydroelectric projects, you probably have to interact with a number of people, don’t you?
TS: To meet people? Or just to get permission?
RH: To get permission.
TS: No, most of the places don’t require any.
RH: So you could get right into most of the places? What about the Grand Cooley Dam?
TS: No, no not that. We went this spring and I couldn’t get inside. They’re really strict. I was taking photos of the retaining wall just inside the dam and a security guard came and they said you should not take that.
RH: So you went there without getting any permission?
TS: Yes. I didn’t know I needed it, because when I went and shot fifteen years ago there were no problems.
RH: So the photographs of the base of the dam at Cooley, were you able to get that one before the guards got you?
RH: What else was I going to ask… you said two very interesting things about photographing these infrastructure sites, and maybe you can expand on them. The first thing you said was that after you take a photograph you try to leave as soon as possible.
TS: Yes, because any place like that has its own kind of feeling. I don’t want to get infected by that.
RH: So what do you think would happen if you did get infected? Do you think that would change your work in some way?
TS: No, it’s kind of that I don’t want to research prior to it.
RH: That was the other thing I read that I thought was interesting. You almost try to go there without knowing anything.
TS: I just go there, find something interesting, and just try to assemble the camera as quickly as I can.
RH: How long does it take you to set yourself up after you get to your spot?
TS: Like in this picture, Japanese mountain roads are very narrow. If you stop the car other cars cannot pass, so you have to hurry.
RH: How fast can you take a picture from the time you pull over?
TS: Maybe a few minutes or so.
RH: Wow. You’ve been working a lot in Japan, but now you are starting to work outside of japan a lot, like in America.
TS: Yes, America. That started from around 1995.
RH: So what is it about America that interests you?
TS: Space. Rolling hills, desert, and expansive landscapes. That is something Japan doesn’t have. And I see a horizon that we don’t see in Japan.
RH: It’s interesting that you mention the horizon. One thing that I had written down was some of your photographs of the dam faces, when I first saw that photograph, I actually thought it was a road going into the horizon, and it was very strange, and for the longest time I looked at it and finally realized I was looking at water.
TS: Water! [laughing]
RH: So what are you working on now?
TS: I’m working with color.
RH: And are you on a specific series?
TS: No, I just go outside and I find something interesting. Well these days maybe my objective is just to travel. Just travel and take my own film.
RH: Sounds like a good life.
TS: Yes! (Laughing)
Interview conducted by Robert Hutchison on 10/5/2010. Transcribed by Rachel Schad, Edited by Robert Hutchison & Megan Greenfield.
All Images courtesy of Toshio Shibata.
While I have interviewed many architects and artists now, this was one of the hardest interviews to prepare for, because I think your architecture is very difficult to talk about. I realized that as I looked at your architecture and your book, I found it hard come up with specific questions. So I have a lot of thoughts in my head, but nothing that is very clear. So I thought maybe we would just start talking, and see what happens?
Let’s start off by talking about the idea of ‘genetic rule overdrive’, which you allude to in your essay ‘Concerning Ornament or Dress’ in your monograph Jun Aoki: Complete Works. Could you explain what you mean by ‘genetic rule overdrive’?
I wondered about the law of intention, or the concept of the architect or artist. Because, of course, when I create something, I need some idea, or concept or intention, otherwise I can do nothing. But this intention, or this wish, is not the purpose of the creation. It is just a kind of trigger to create something. People think that all architecture should be created from some intention. But for me, while intention can be the starting point of creation, it is just a direction for the first attack, the first step towards creation. When this intention is very strong to develop the idea, we can use this concept as a more formalistic way. When I wrote this text, I alluded to Frank Gehry’s architecture. He has, I think, an intention, but I believe he does not want this intention to be a direct translation to the real architecture. And so he needs some external rules to create architecture. To create architecture like a fish, this is just a geometric exercise, it is not his inner intention, just an outer rule.
So do you mean when we look at the fish, we don’t understand what his intentions are, that it does not matter?
Correct, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care why he likes fish. When he creates the idea, or rule, of elements like a fish, it can create some architecture, from detail to the whole shape. It is very systematic, because the small part and the big part have the same rule. Likewise, when I wrote this text, I needed some outer rule, not from inner intention, but an outer rule. And I wished to be driven from this rule. And out of this came the word ‘overdrive’.
So when you talk about rules, what do you mean?
Rules mean some manipulation … (struggles with translation)
Well, this situation is very difficult even in Japanese! So it is the same for me speaking in English or Japanese. (Pause) A rule is some common direction with my staff and client. For example, when I designed the Aomori Museum of Art, the idea was to use two elements. One was the earth; the trench, a kind of landscape; the surface of the earth goes up and down. The other was a building that is placed over these trenches; the bottom of the surface of this building was also going up and down. With these combinations of two surfaces, interstices were created. That’s a rule, because these are not just geometrical manipulations, or ecological concepts. Ecological concepts can be understood by so many realizations. For example, if you use the solar panel, it is ecological, but you can also use deep eaves, which is also ecological. So when I say ecological, it is too vast of a word. When I say a rule, it is more precise, more detailed.
So for the Aomori Museum, you’re saying that one of the guiding rules was simply the notion of the trenches and the building above, resulting in a space that is created in between it. That is the guiding rule that you and your client and your staff came to understand together?
So why could I not say that that was your intention?
Because intention is another thing. My intention when I designed the museum was to create a very good museum. Of course, what is a good museum is a question in its own right. What I intended was a museum that is good for an artist, not necessarily for a curator. But what is good for an artist? I believe it is a space that gives some feeling of freedom for an artist. It is a space that does not anticipate the artist’s wish. In this way the artist can do anything in this space. And then this space can be defined with the realization of the artist’s work. The White Cube Gallery in the museum, this gallery is a good space for artists, but even this gallery anticipates the artist’s creation. Some artists like very much the White Cube Gallery because they can imagine the space, and can imagine the relationship between the art work and the space. In this way I don’t think that the White Cube provides freedom for the artist; I wanted to make a museum even more free for artists. But this freedom does not mean a universal space. For example, for site specific art, the floor is the earth; it is not free; it gives some limitation of creation to an artist because it is not the white gallery, and the artist has to use this condition of earth. Of course people can cover this condition, but it has one limitation, one condition. (SEYAKU) It has some obligation to the artist.
So in other words, it requires the artist to react. It is not neutral.
Yes, it is not neutral. It requires some reaction from the artist. But this is not to force the artist’s imagination, but rather to trigger the start of a creation. In this design of the museum, my intention is to create this kind of space, rather than the White Cube Gallery. This is the intention of the museum.
And so you have mentioned that it is not important for you for those intentions to be understood in the building once it is finished. But is it important for you that those intentions be achieved?
Yes, I think so. But this intention does not need to be understood, that is ok. These intentions must be realized in the real space though, so that artists feel freedom in the museum. Then the museum will succeed. If not, then it will not succeed. But no, it is not important to be understood.
So I am wondering how intuition plays a part in your process? It seems like you rely on your intuition a certain amount in the design process. Does intuition play a part with your rules, the ruleset? Does intuition guide the rules?
Well, of course when I design, I need intuition. Let me explain the process of the design for the Aomori Museum. When I first started thinking about the project, I analysed several museums. For example, in London, the Tate Modern is a conversion of an electric plant. In France there is a contemporary museum that is a conversion from a wine cellar. In New York, the Beacon Dia Center is a conversion of the Nabisco Factory. All of these museums were conversions from some other function. Sometimes these conversions are better than a museum that an architect could design. This became my first question. When an architect designs a museum, the architect must think about what is the ideal gallery for an artist? But this means that the architect has to anticipate the artist’s creation or reaction to the space. I think that artists feel uncomfortable about this anticipation by the architect. In a renovation, such as the Tate, in this huge space there is a freedom given to the artist, because the space does not anticipate a specific artwork that needs to be done there. But this space is not neutral because it is so huge. It has its own specific character, because this space is designed for the special purpose to hold turbines to generate electricity. So this space is designed with a specific intention, or rule, to house electricity machinery. But after the conversion, the logic of this rule has disappeared. People cannot feel this logic anymore. Why is this space so huge? There is no meaning, it is just a space. Other people and artists can feel comfortable with this space for creation. And so one idea for how to design a good museum was for me to first design an electric plant. (Laughter)
So you design for a different program, and then convert it!
Yes, then I convert during design! Yes, this is one solution. But of course, this is silly.
I don’t know, it doesn’t sound too silly to me.
Ha! Nonetheless, this is something very difficult to pursue with a client. I needed a very strong rule to create a space like the turbine hall. But this is not derived from some idea about what is a good museum. This is another idea that is ok. Any idea is ok! And so this combination of trenches and building surface is a very abstract idea for a museum; it is not a relationship with the museum at all, but it can be a very similar rule to the turbine hall. And so this is just an idea to push, or develop the design. And then if we design only with this rule, we can have a lot of ideas about the space; we can choose which space is good and which is not. And so this has no anticipation for creation, rather it is related to the intention to design a good museum, it is related at the end. And we can analyse many things about a good design. For example, if every space is too similar in proportion or size, then it is a bit boring for the artist. In the PS1 in New York, a conversion from a primary school, while the spaces are very good because there is no anticipation for creation, the spaces (old classrooms) are very similar in size, so it also poses the artists with limitations. But if you have a space like a gymnasium, it is a larger space, and combined with the smaller spaces, then you have variations in space, and there is a larger range for creation. For the Aomori Museum, I manipulated the combination of spaces; I wanted a lot of variation of proportion, and variation in size - if we have a very large space, then we need to balance it with a more small space. This is derived from this observation.
So now whenever I go into the Aomori Museum again and I go into the very large space, then I will see turbines!
Ha ha, yes!
Before I visited the Aomori Museum I had not read anything about it - I did not read what your intentions were, and I did not know about your ‘rules’. But when I went there what was very obvious to me was the ground, and the architecture above, so I think it is interesting to me to hear about these notions of intentions and rules. To me the rule that you used was very clear.
Let’s change the topic to education. I understand that you teach at Kobe Design University?
Yes, but only two days of the week. My studio, my atelier, is very small, about 10 staff. Every staff can stay here only 4 years. So every staff that enters in after graduation from university, and then they stay here just 4 years.
Is that a rule?
A rule, yes! Also a rule! When I started my own career, I realized that the good staff who I wanted to stay longer wanted to leave after about 4 years, and staff who I did not want to keep working …
Ahh, so 4 years is the perfect length.
Of course, I miss very much when my staff grows up in my studio and then they leave. Every time this happens though I feel happy. And everytime I bring in new people, it is very stimulating to me. But I have to teach them a lot, to draw …
Because most of them are coming in directly from the university …
Yes, so they have no knowledge of how to design a real building. For example, on the Aomori Museum, only 2 to 3 staff worked on the museum, and for all three of them it was their first time designing a building. So I have to stay in my studio a lot of time. This is one reason why I can’t teach much at a university. I suppose my studio itself is a kind of university.
That’s actually a nice analogy. With my own firm, we talk about the importance of teaching people, and expect that in the end they will move on. We don’t have the 4-year rule, but maybe we should start one!
Yes, my staff knows that they can stay only 4 years. They can imagine what 4 years is. So they work very hard, because in these 4 years they want to learn as much as possible from my studio.
I interviewed one of your former ‘students’, Ryuji Nakamura. He spoke very highly of his experience here. Perhaps this discussion about education leads us to a related discussion about ethics. In Kenjiro Hosaka’s text ‘Ethics for Architecture, Architecture for Ethics’ in your book Jun Aoki: Complete Works, he mentions several times the word ‘ethics’ and how that word is important to you. I don’t know if I have a specific question about that, but I guess it made me wonder about how we articulate an architect’s ethical obligations? And are these any different from anyone’s ethical obligations, or perhaps more specifically are they the same or different to other creative professions? Such as an artist, do their ethics differ from an architect’s?
When Hosaka-san mentioned the idea of ethics, it was not the general meaning of ethics, but the more philosophical meaning of ethics. Often words are used to explain architecture, but sometimes these words are simply about persuasion, about a presentation of the building of architecture. I myself don’t want to explain my own architecture, because I believe architecture has to speak by itself. If people don’t feel anything, then the architecture is nothing. I don’t want persuasion by words. This is not just for architecture, but any creation, it must have this kind of ethics. For example, an artist also deals with the same thing, and a musician, can be said in the same way.
A few more questions regarding your projects. When I visited your Louis Vuitton project, at first it struck me as being very different from the Aomori Museum; but after spending time in it I began to see things about it which were very similar.
Yes, there are many differences between them. First, for the design of Louis Vuitton, I could not propose the character of the building, because the character is fixed, it is very obvious. The intention, the goal, was to represent the image of Louis Vuitton.
So by ‘character’ what you mean is the image, the brand?
Yes, the brand. But for a museum, it is the opposite case; I don’t want to create an image for the museum, because it is important that the museum be a space that can be interpreted in different ways by any artist. But for Louis Vuitton, it is about one single interpretation. For both buildings, while the design directions are very different, the design attitudes are very similar. Both projects were designed at the same time, from 2000 to 2004. I proposed Louis Vuitton as a piling up of the trunks in a random fashion. It is my interpretation of Corbu’s La Tourette. When I visited La Tourette, I felt ‘volume’. In Japanese, we don’t say ‘body’. When we use the term ‘volume’, it has no form, it has no mass. This is a bit difficult to explain. This feeling of the volume the feeling of ‘here and there’. In La Tourette, there are many spatial elements, like spiral staircases, and a small chapel; there are many elements present all over the place. When you arrive at one of these elements, you will find another element, and you will go towards another element, and then you find another one; this is an endless condition, walking around. By this experience, you feel not the shape of the space, but a set of sensations. So when you leave La Tourette, you only feel the sensation of the space. This labyrinth feeling gives you a feeling of the space, which I call the feeling of ‘volume’. When I designed Louis Vuitton, the piling of the trunks was just the rule, not the intention. It can be received by my client because Louis Vuitton makes trunks. But this was not my intention, it was just a persuasion, that’s all. The challenge became how to develop the ‘idea’ of piling of the trunks. I thought the idea could in some way be related to the experience in La Tourette, the idea of ‘here and there’, because you could see the next space, like an endless space. I also used this idea in the Aomori Museum. The Aomori Museum is composed of two types of spaces; one space of interstice between the earth material and the white cubes; and another space inside the white cubes. I wanted these two spaces to have equal strengths, like a checkerboard pattern. If you say the earth is black and the white cube gallery is white, then we have a white and black checkerboard pattern; like a kind of labyrinth. It is the same idea for me in the Louis Vuitton project. The process of design is very similar. I just fixed some rules at first which can be received by a client, while also thinking about the more architectural intentions. They are both similar, like twins.
Yes, it is almost like the strategies are the same, but the techniques are the different. My first reaction when I went into Louis Vuitton was how different it was from your Aomori Museum, because of the very different material palette. But once I got to the top of the building, I began to see a similarity to the Aomori project in a spatial way.
You designed a very interesting bridge a while back, the Mamihara Bridge. I appreciate the design because it has a spatial element to it. Could you tell me about the process that you went through while you were designing it?
The client, a small town, wanted space for pedestrians. I thought the simple solution was to put some space for pedestrians, a terrace or balcony, but I felt it was not pure, just an addition. The terrace seemed like a superficial ornament.
Yes. I wanted the bridge itself to be a space for traffic, but also a space for pedestrians. But of course, for a simple bridge this can be very difficult. So I proposed a bridge that looks like a pair of lips from the site; it is a very simple idea, a street with an upper and lower part, and they are fused at both ends of the river. When I presented the scheme to the people of the town, many did not like the idea, because they wanted a more monumental bridge; they wanted a bridge that would attract a lot of tourists. I did not agree with this idea because tourists will come just once, but they will never come back. So I persuaded them that they need to have a very good space, not for tourists, but for themselves. Anyway, the bridge was completed …
So obviously you convinced them …
Ahhh, it was 50-50, but I said I have no other ideas! While many of the community members said that they did not like the idea, but I used the idea anyway. Of course, I was very afraid of the people’s reaction after the bridge was completed. During the ceremony of the opening of the bridge, I went there the day before, and in the evening, the people were already using the lower part of the bridge – they were drinking on the bridge! They said to me, “I have only one objection to you, and this is, why didn’t you put an electric outlet here?” They wanted an outlet so that they could play karaoke! I think I was the first architect to be scolded for not including an electric outlet on a bridge.
That’s hilarious, that’s a great story!
Yes! Everybody in the town likes the bridge very much. I think it was completed in 1994, so it is now 15 to 16 years ago. And this year there was an article about the bridge, because the community likes it very much, and even now they still have parties on the bridge in the summer.
You have done numerous exhibitions and installations: FARM, Fiber, Pharmacy, Ubis. These projects do not seem to have a program per se; they seem to be more like art installations in that way. Are there differences in the way you approach these projects relative to your more architectural projects which have clients and programs?
I worked as a kind of artist in the Pharmacy and Ubis projects; Ubis was an installation inside the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (MOMAT), and so it was understood as an artwork by the museum and visitors. But for me, what I was doing is the same or similar to architecture. At Ubis, I related the installation project to a previous residential project called U, where I based the formal development of the residence on a mobious strip. As you know, a mobious strip has a front and back that can be reversed. The Ubis installation interpreted the idea of the mobious strip at a pure spatial level. In the MOMAT museum there is a universal space with several columns, and for every exhibition they install temporary walls. But these temporary walls are made to look like very fixed walls. I asked the museum to create an internal space between these temporary walls, an interstitial space, which could be illuminated at much higher levels than the exhibition spaces. While this interstial space functions as a ‘back’ space, it looks and feels like a ‘front’ space. While the project was inspired by the U residence, it is a more simple and experimental application of the idea.
My own thoughts about art and architecture have made me wonder if architecture, by definition, is conservative. Because the profession discourages, in fact I would argue, does not allow failure. Because we have to create buildings that don’t fall on people, or we have to make the building for a certain cost, or they have to function in some way for society. So architecture does not allow us to fail. I have been wondering if the reason that architects do these more art-related projects is to allow, or not to be afraid of, failure. What do you think about this?
Any creation has some limitation. Even if you make a sculpture, you have the limitation of gravity.
So is it about understanding what the limitations are, because they change depending on what one is trying to do?
When I create something, even an artwork, I start from the observation of the existing space, and the first step is how to deal with changing the existing space by very simple, small actions. This is my wish regardless if the project is an artwork or architecture. So with this intention, for me there is not much difference between architecture or art.
You have mentioned that film is important in your work. In what way?
I discuss films often with my staff. We want to create a new space that has not yet been realized. Film provides a lot of images which are not real.
I very much appreciate the filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda.
‘Nobody Knows’ …
Yes! I was hoping to interview him also. I think he portrays architecture in a very interesting way.
That is very I interesting, because in my lecture at Kobe Design University on Saturday, I used an image from Koreeda’s ‘Nobody Knows’. Our impression of this film is that it is influenced a lot by the corridor in the building, rather than the inside of the apartment which might at first seem to be the primary space of the film. If you calculate the time of the corridor scenes in this movie, it is very small, yet it gives you a lot of sensation about the whole space of the building. The children don’t want to be found, they want to stay hidden. When they walk through the corridor, they are very afraid to be found; they feel like suspects. In this way I think it is a very powerful part of the film.
Why have you not had a chance to interview him?
I simply have not been able to determine how to contact him. Ironically, I also used a clip from Koreeda’s film ‘After Life’ in my own lecture at Kobe Design University, more because of my interest in light and dark, and the way Koreeda used this theme in his film. I actually took a picture of the clip while it was playing on my computer, and used it in my lecture as an image. So it is funny that you used him as well.
Yes, this is very interesting!!!
Ok. I’m so sorry for the long interview! Arigato gozaimasu.
Interview by Robert Hutchison conducted on October 5, 2010, at the office of Jun Aoki, Gaienmae, Tokyo.
All images courtesy Jun Aoki.
Tracing LinesRead More
I am honored to be a part of the upcoming 'Art Globally' event at the Asian Art Museum the evening of February 20th. I will be giving a lecture regarding my 2010 fellowship in Japan awarded through the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the NEA, and a project that has been recently funded in part through a 2014 Seattle City Artist Project Grant. There will be a video and photographs exhibited also. Plus the very cool exhibition of pop-artist 'Mr.' Please come! Happy hour starts at 5:30 ... cash bar, complimentary small bites! Lecture starts at 7:00.