Sou Fujimoto Office Talk with Sou Fujimoto

a+u is starting an interview series tentatively called “Office Talks,” which aims to relate the ideas and environments of Japanese architects’ workplaces to the rest of the world. With this notable first iteration of the series, we interviewed architect Sou Fujimoto, whose practice has now reached well beyond the borders of Japan.

“Listening Closely” to the Site

Today, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. Stepping right in, first please tell us about what is most important to you in your current design projects.

That’s a big question to start with (laughing).
This may seem ordinary, but when designing, I pay attention to the context of site, the background of the surrounding environment, the client’s vision, the history and climate of the place, its natural features, and so on.

I often describe this as “listening closely,” and it’s not just about sounds, but the environment, culture and history. Listening closely to all sorts of things, I come to hear the start of a connection to the near future. Giving form to that is the task of architecture, and I think that by listening closely architecture connects to the layering of history and then first comes to have meaning.

Is “listening closely,” to carefully read the environment and history of the site, an attitude that you have held since you began practicing?

Before, instead of reading the context of the site, I used to think within my own sense of architectural history. Of course, architecture has a long history, from ancient times through to modern architecture. I used to think, myself in the present, from what point of view should I go on to build the architecture of the future. At the time, I understood the context of architecture in larger terms, so I made design proposals thinking from the fundamentals of architecture, such as the human body or the relation to the exterior, instead of the place itself. Now, my thinking has changed, and I think the strength of those designs was in their simplicity, and that my views back then have come to form my foundations as a designer..

That said, when it came to working on actual projects, even within Japan, I came to understand that the conditions of designing are entirely different from client to client, and place to place. Since then, I think based on what can be had from each site, beginning to think that the vision of the future seen from the site is a more expansive one.

Moreover, when it came to doing work around the world, I felt a difference in the amount of information available about individual sites, greater than in Japan. With this, I realized that the history I had conceived of when I began designing was actually not one single thread but rather something weaved in multiple layers. Thinking in this way, the vision of the future is then not so simple, and I came to believe that many different futures could be built in many different forms when “listening closely” to the entire context before one in each project.

Through doing work around the world, I came to understand that there are cases where architecture itself is the answer, and others where the lifestyles and the built form of urban environments can be the big answer to connect to the future of humanity. Presently, I ideally hope to propose designs that, while still starting from individual conditions, are broad enough to be commonly accepted by all sorts of people and take in stimuli from them.

A Studio that Began With Instability

You spoke about starting your design practice, but after graduating from university, you did not work for any studios, instead starting off independently. Why was that?

Well, put simply, I didn’t know what to do after graduating.

Though I had wanted to study architecture, because I did not continue on to graduate school, I really only studied it for at most two years. At that point, not knowing whether it would be better to try to get into a famous architect’s office, or to go to a large institutional design firm, or even to go abroad, I could not even make the decision of what to do next. I think that was because I was uncertain, not having thought out about this thing called architecture in which I was supposed to make a living from there on out.

So, at the beginning it wasn’t so much being independent, but making time to think by myself about what architecture should be from that point on, and what I actually thought about that.

I see. During that time what is it that you actually did?

Making things is something that I rather like, so rather than losing myself in thought, I submitted to all sorts of competitions one after another, like the IDEAS Competition.

During that time, I tried to not read magazines and such very much, because I knew since I was in school that I am influenced easily, and I didn’t want to get shut down by taking in too much information.

But I did read Shinkenchiku and a+u (laughing).

Thank you (laughing). So you painstakingly tried to think things out on your own. Under these conditions, did you have opportunities to speak to others in the industry?

By chance I met Hirata Akihisa, who at the time was working at Itō Toyō’s office. We are the same age, and we spoke about many things, his thinking after coming to Tokyo and the projects he was working on.

Being of the same generation we had a lot in common, and on the other hand his working at Itō Toyō’s office, which even globally is at the fore. With difference in our positions, just hearing about what went on there was a great impetus for me.

Hirata has now also ventured overseas, presenting his work at the Milano Salone. Your conversations then may have come to influence his and your success. As you were saying, your thinking changed in the course of working on actual projects. When was it that you began to work as a design office?

When I first began to be widely recognized was at the Aomori Museum of Art competition in 2000, which was headed by Itō Toyō. I came in second but received very good comments. But of course for me this did not become an implemented project.

So I think when I actually began building was around 2001 to 2002. I worked on some projects in Hokkaidō. But as I was saying when designs actually became a reality, I felt a gap with how I had imagined them in my head, and at first I had a sense of unease about my own completed buildings. Hirata also called me out on this. Since then, I strongly felt I had to do something about it, and around 2003 to 2005 I finally was feeling that what I conceptualized in my head and turning that into actual space were beginning to match up.

When you started constructing your designs, it was initially a trial-and-error process after all?

Yes, without experience, not knowing what to do thoroughly, it took time to gain that sense of balance, especially without having worked in another office.

A Growing Design Practice

At that time, did you have any staff in your office?

Until 2000 I was working at home by myself, but as I mentioned after I was selected in the Aomori museum competition, I thought it would be a good idea to have a real office and I rented a separate space for my practice. I had believed that I would somehow get dulled working at home, so it would help me pull myself together.

From the next year I had one employee, and then the following year another came in, so that by around 2004 or 2005 there were three or four on staff. Among my employees of that time, there are those who are now designing independently, like Aoki Kōji and Katō Hiroshi.

Personally, I have seen the introduction of staff members as a large change. Until then I had only worked by myself, so I found that moment, when the design proposal is driven by the introduction of others’ points of view, interesting. At the time, I had a lot of time and was always in the office, and my thinking often developed from the sort of trivial conversations with the staff.

I knew that there was a limit to what I could do as far as my personality and skill, so I felt that I was first able to really design architecture when employees with different personalities and skills came in.

At first, you were able to think about proposals through close communication with your employees, having the time to do so. Your office today is rather large and you have many employees. When did you move over to this space?

We moved to this office around 2008 to 2009. With the staff growing, the old office was getting cramped and got to the point we had to urgently search for a place to move to. The big reason why we took this place was that it was big and cheap (laughing).

On the second and third floors there are bookbinders, in what used to be an entire building of bookbinders. The floor we are on used to be a dormitory for their employees. You should still be able to see the marks on the floor where the walls used to be …

Now about how many employees do you have?

In this office, about thirty. Recently, we opened an office in Paris, where there about eighteen.

In the last two years, the Paris office has suddenly grown. There are a lot of large-scale projects over there, on the scale of several hectares, so they need the manpower.

Even in your Japan office, over half are not Japanese.

Yes, lately I have not been paying attention to ethnicity. It is okay as long as they can speak English. But they do have difficulty dealing with the government offices when it comes to projects in Japan.

The Paris office handles hiring independently. Their director is someone who used to work here in the Tokyo office, but they have more work since she went over there.

At that office, the employees come and go fluidly, in a good way, many coming from big offices, and work proceeds more smoothly with so many people with experience. They are mature members of society and we can trust them to take on projects as group leaders. It’s a culture not very common in Japan, though I would like it for our office here to become like that.

Organizing an Office to Realize Projects Globally

As a private design firm, I think yours is on the large side. How is it organized?

As employees increase, it gets chaotic if you don’t systemize, so now we work in teams.

I came to systemize the office after noticing how the progress of work can change dramatically, like with something as simple as writing emails clearly. This was about five or six years ago. Now I often fly around the world, and many of the communication are over email, so the accuracy of correspondence is very important. So I hire people I can trust to develop projects as team leaders who can convey their intentions concisely and unequivocally.

Now we have “big leaders” for the Japanese team and the foreigners’ team, and each of these is split up into smaller teams that are not split up for each project. Instead, we assign projects to the appropriate existing team.

I see. As the number of employees increases, intraoffice communication becomes a key. How is the development of projects organized?

Once a project starts, the team in charge first compiles case studies similar in site conditions, climatic conditions, and cultural and historical background. They present this to me, and after discussing a bit, I have them think up ideas. After about a week, they bring their ideas and sketches. If they’ve come up with an interesting direction, I have them put together three or four proposals at the same time.

For any project, since the initial direction is not clear, instead of saying “now we go with this,” we proceed setting up a few hypotheticals. By doing this, the complex details of the program become clear, and from those hypotheticals sometimes one or two do live on, and other times it becomes an entirely different proposal. As much as possible, we try not to exclude possibilities.

This goes back to the beginning “listening closely.” At what timing do you present to the client?

In general, we present once the idea has taken form considerably. I think it’s irresponsible to present something we are not totally satisfied with, and even if the functionality and area requirements are met, if the space is not interesting, we can’t present. So we carefully put together models and drawings. Even when we can’t cut it down to a few proposals, we do that for all of them and then present.

We do use models separately from CG, though. It’s not about one being better than the other, but simply there are things you can’t see without a model. Not necessarily having all the details for a 1/50 model, but when we don’t have an exact enough form and we don’t get how it feels, we sometimes do it up in CG and compare the two.

Do you draw sketches?

We do draw sketches, but we don’t use them in presentations. They are for getting ideas out. Of course, as we draw and talk, ideas develop. So for the presentations, we choose the most appropriate form each time.

Impressive Houses: T House, House NA, House N

As you have been working on many different types of projects, and you selectively use methods and tools for each project. We have learned a great deal from you.

Now, I would like to ask next about specific projects. For the foreign audience on A+U Magazine, we plan to present primarily works of Japanese housing. This is because the conditions of housing in Japan are quite different from outside Japan, and housing projects attract attention from being born from these conditions. You have worked on a number of housing projects in Japan. Out of these, which have left an impression upon you?

Recently, we have not designed any houses, but those that left an impression on me are T house, House N, and House NA. I will explain why in order.

Neither connected, nor separated—T house

This project was my first house. Right before designing this, I designed a psychiatric hospital, in which everything had to be visible for the sake of the staffs. That was necessary, but from the point of view of the patients, they were being observed, and I thought of that as a sort of violence.

From the experience of designing this psychiatric hospital, I came to think that people are most comfortable in an ambiguous state in which they can hide themselves somewhat, while not being entirely isolated. So in this house I took this as the starting point of the design, to see if I could make the family’s relationships rich yet ambiguous as “neither connected nor separated.”

In reality, much of this work was a mystery even to me, as it was built at a time when I was still searching around, and it remains as the vestige of my thoughts at that time, in a good way. It came out as unorganized architecture, in a good way, and spaces that cannot be seen in their entirety. This is a point that I think continues into my current work. And it was a very low cost project, so it was a good experience for balancing cost and the quality of the spaces, tinkering with the materials and structure, and so on. Back then, time was the only thing I had (laughing).

The client really liked it, and now it is occasionally opened to the public as a gallery. It seems they are happily living there.

Changing the Idea of Housing—House NA, House N

These two works are projects in which I think I was able to come up with proposals with great personal significance.

First, House NA is a house on a small lot in Tokyo. Hiring an architect like me to design the house, the client wanted to build a house that could not be done normally. At the time, the client was living in an apartment building, and through talking together, I understood that he was living there paying little mind to the floor plan.

Hearing that, I came up with the vague image of living in a house with little floorspace but many levels, like a monkey jumping from branch to branch. When I presented that image as a form to the client, he very much liked it and came to construction.

In fact, I wasn’t sure about that proposal, so I had at least another idea (laughing). After putting it together, it still didn’t look much like a house (laughing).

But, in the end, he chose the proposal closest to what was eventually done.

In the beginning, it was a simpler plan, but as it went on, it changed into building more diverse spaces, and in the end five years had passed since the first designs. And looking at the completed house, I thought it felt very Tokyo-like. Tokyo is made up of lots of little things like houses and shops bunched together, right? That’s the image. It’s hard to grasp from photos and videos, but actually going inside it’s a physically comfortable space.

Made up of a bunch of little things, it has the pleasantness of being enveloped. I think it turned out to be a house more interesting than I had expected.

When designing House N, we were thinking more conceptually about interior and exterior. It’s a box but not just a box. It’s a house that has complex and ambiguous spaces connecting interior and exterior by gradations. But actually listening to the people who lived in it after it was constructed, we found out that even in the same house the appearance changes entirely depending on time and weather, that the house turned into a more diverse and complex space than even we had imagined. Listening to them, I thought the tolerance that housing has for living in was really interesting.

Thank you. What do you feel is different in designing houses that is different from other building types?

I think probably what is different from other building types is that in housing, it is possible for the sense of bodily scale to work directly together with forming spaces.

Housing is the place where you always are when you live there, right? Even more so on holidays when you might be there the entire day.

As I said with House N, if you are there the entire day, the atmosphere of the spaces change considerably with time and the weather. That change has a sort of power or value that comes from being in that environment all the time. I think this is what housing is and by extension it is also one of the strengths of living.

I think another quality of housing might be its tendency to get filled up with the stuff of life.

In architecture, the more things get put inside of it, the more the nuance of its spaces change. For example, in House N, the walls are layered, and as things get placed in between the layers the relations of those spaces become visible. In this way, architecture itself becomes something like a background in front of which the entanglements of life and architecture occur on a level surpassing the architecture as matter, out of which new diversity and richness are born.

I have a bad habit of thinking of architecture as a sort of background, rather than as an autonomous thing. This is something I noticed recently, and even though I took Corbusier’s perspective sketches in my undergraduate thesis, it was about examining things aside from the architecture drawn inside of it, like the chairs, shelves and the plates on top of the tables, rather than his architecture itself. This mindset of not thinking of architecture as an autonomous thing was not something I took seriously initially, but even now I have come to think that I am pursuing that sort of space instinctively in my own architecture.

Going Back, Humans Have a Common Root

These days you are flying all around the world. What differences do you feel between projects in Japan and projects outside Japan?

That’s hard to say. I am often asked why great architects continue to come out of Japan, but I think that is because those individuals are great, and if you ask me whether Japanese architecture is on the whole great, that I am not so sure about.

Whether you are talking about Andō Tadao or Itō Toyō, it is that those individuals are great, and they have entirely different styles. Right around when I was a student, Sejima Kazuyo appeared, and I learned a great deal from her. But Sejima probably learned from Rem Koolhaas and Itō. And going back to Tange Kenzō, Tange learned from Le Corbusier. Going back, I think that the roots might not have all that much to do with Japan.

But on the other hand, I also feel I have to express Tokyo symbolically when building houses in Tokyo. This is something I felt when designing House NA and House H. Until then, I had only done one-story houses like T House and House N. But since building houses in Tokyo means the property is always small, they have to become multilayered. I think this is fate. Yet designing multistoried architecture has been a great experience for me. I spoke of the image of the jumping monkey in House NA. I thought that for humans living three-dimensionally might be an essential thing. So I think that no matter in what place, in the end going back to our roots, the essence of the human body and such becomes clear, and so I don’t have much of a feeling of it being like this because it’s Japan.

Yes, it may be that if one looks back to the characteristic essentials of a place, one’s thoughts arrive at the essentials of humanity itself. But on the other hand there are a great deal of social issues, such as the problems of the shrinking of the population and the profusion of abandoned homes in Japan, and even in architectural practice renovation projects instead of new construction are increasing. How do these conditions in Japan strike you?

I feel like I am repeating myself, but renovation isn’t something unique to Japan either. Especially in China it is becoming more common lately, because it’s popular in Europe, you know.

We are also working on a number of renovation projects. It’s not that renovation is good or bad. But renovation has become something of a style and if it is being consumed as fashion then I think that might not be so good. I think it is important to take a step away from that.

You know, Frank Gehry started with renovations before coming to do work all around the world. At the time, Gehry’s method was to simply strip off the walls, and that had great value in questioning the meaning of architecture.

Architecture is originally something made from a conversation with the cultural and historical context. As opposed to architecture, renovation has the potential to let you to mess around with even the original context. It has the potential to intervene in the city. In Japan because there isn’t much large-scale urban planning or urban development, I get the feeling that if there are more projects that transcend their lots and spread out from the inside, the way in which the city is developed can take a new turn. In this way, renovation is really interesting. But really if it just becomes another style, then it’s not very interesting.

Renovation also is important in that it lets you return to the source and see the essentials. You can even do renovations only halfway or however, so what it is that you choose to do becomes important, and so it’s difficult, I think.

Work Outside Japan on Different Scales and in Different Building Types

Japan may be approaching a transitionary period now. As you said, if renovation is able to present an entirely new different set of values as architecture, it would indeed be intriguing. What about your projects overseas?

I was just talking about cities, but in France they are relatively large-scale projects. For instance, around 20,000 m² for a housing project; rather than one piece of architecture it’s more the design for a whole city block, and you can design everything including what to do with the façades and the relations between the architecture and the open spaces. The city block is separate from the surrounding context, so as far as the scale you can half think on the scale of the city. With this, you have the possibility of thinking more dynamically about the relationships between the architecture and the city.

If even in Japan we could do projects on this scale, I think we might be able to clear the way for even renovation.

Aside from that, we are doing all sorts of projects like a bus stop, a visitor center for an old castle, a learning center at a university. And we are doing a bunch of competitions too. Relatively speaking, we are doing more projects in France. But basically, if we get hired we’ll work on a project anywhere in the world.

I see. Do you feel there are differences between how projects progress in and outside of Japan?

Not really. But as I was saying, there is the difference of scale, like high-rise buildings taller than 100 meters.

A competition we won recently was 60,000 m² and we hadn’t done anything nearly that big! (laughing) It was a multi-use complex, and in Europe they are suddenly thinking strategically of the program as directly tied to business. Because of that, if you don’t think carefully about where you fit into the project, it’s problematic. So if there were a difference, it would be that in projects outside of Japan you have to carefully think about the urban context.

Rather than differences in the progression of work but the type of project. I look forward to seeing the projects you are working around the world as they get completed. So to end, what sort of architecture would you like to build looking forward?

Basically, I think I’d like to try anything. If the building type is different, then what you come to see is quite different.

But let’s say that I would like to build something like a “small city.” I am becoming interested in what it would be like to think about a residential environment in its totality, looking at everything from architecture to roads, including the building of open spaces, roads and the like. As you might think, this started with the large project we are doing in France. It has a commercial aspect to it, but I am thinking that if we were to simply look at that small society in its totality, the architecture might turn out to have an extremely intricate complexity. I’d like to think about an urban residential environment at that point.

An urban environment that has a sense of sociality while still being human. In a way I think that is what the city of Paris expresses. So then I guess I don’t have to build it (laughing).

I feel a great deal of respect for amazing things all around the world. After all, I think the pleasure of going out into the world is in finding and delighting in these sorts of things.

Architecture with an extremely intricate complexity. Definitely something I would like to see. Thank you for all your time today.