Inside the Mind of Sou Fujimoto
Metropolis interviews the renowned Japanese architect, whose retrospective exhibition Futures of the Future is currently on view at Japan House Los Angeles.
Hokkaido-born Sou Fujimoto’s breakout masterpiece, the playful and cloud-like 2013 Serpentine Pavilion says a lot about who Fujimoto is and how he thinks about architecture. But even more so do the 100-plus sometimes painstakingly refined, sometimes roughly executed exploratory models that dot the minimalist gallery space of Japan House Los Angeles. This, his retrospective show, Futures of the Future, neatly reflects on Fujimoto’s career, which began when he opened his own Tokyo-and-Paris-based firm in 2000.
In the midst of all this, the Serpentine is just one of many remarkable points on his still relatively young career. The show’s through line is an exploration of themes and ideas about nature and the built environment that Fujimoto has been working out in different projects, ones that are usually jarringly transparent, white-on-white, and often involve trees. As another form of contrast, Sou was wearing black as he strode in to inspect the show before it opened October 27. It was 85 degrees that fall afternoon in Hollywood, California. Being hosted here, adjacent the Walk of Fame’s noise and clutter, Futures of the Future asserts itself against all odds, a play of contrasts and contradictions, things Fujimoto appreciates.
Guy Horton: Do you think coming from Hokkaido gives you a different perspective on the nature of space and place?
Sou Fujimoto: I didn’t really understand what I had in Hokkaido until after I moved to Tokyo. I had to see it from a distance. Growing up, I didn’t really think about it. When I moved to Tokyo to study architecture [and recalled] this feeling of living in a more barren landscape and in small towns, this contrast between the natural environment and an architectural environment, then I realized that the Hokkaido situation was quite unique.
Because I was from the countryside, playing in the forest and being immersed in nature was quite an important starting point to form my perception of space. In a natural environment, you can choose your own path. It was strange to have a similar experience in the density of Tokyo. Everything is artificial, but the scales, densities, and floating pieces are quite similar to walking in a forest. You can still choose your own way. That was when I realized that nature and artifacts, though different, can still create similar spatial experiences. And within the artificial spaces of the city, there are always natural elements.
You bring nature into very dense urban conditions, overtly and sometimes abstractly. Is that a conscious move, to bring the natural world into your work?
Yes, not just nature, but creating spaces where people can feel as if they’re in a forest or can feel the openness to the sky. I’m always looking to strike a balance between nature and architecture, including the more metaphysical, and deeper meanings.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to pursue architecture?
I always loved making things. Not architecture, but anything I could make with my hands. Then, when I was 11 or 12, I encountered a book about Le Corbusier. That was when I realized architecture was a creative activity. Before that, architecture was just buildings. But I wasn’t thinking about it as a profession at that time.
In high school, I became interested in physics and how physicists were trying to understand the complexity of the world, and, like Einstein, discovering such clear theories to explain everything.
When I first got to university, I wanted to study physics or mathematics. But I soon realized it required a high level of studies and I gave up because it was so difficult to understand. Then I had to decide what subject to pursue. Coming from physics and math, pure art and painting seemed far away from me, so architecture seemed a bit more related to what I was doing at that time. At the time, I didn’t know anything about architecture. It just seemed like it might be the right fit for me.
Who inspired you when you first started?
The first architects they showed us were Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. It was really fascinating to see how they invented new concepts of space with a modern edge. It was completely different from what I understood architecture to be. And for me personally, there was some similarity between Einstein’s theories and what Mies and other Modernists were doing. That was really fascinating to me. I always come back to that, even now, to re-understand architecture. Because in some ways, Modern architecture and Modernism are still ongoing. Sometimes it leans towards more Postmodernism, sometimes it leans towards shapes, but still there is an underlying shared aesthetic. Modernism surrounds us. So, I try to re-understand it, re-critique it. These are important reference points for me to remind me where I am.
Is this what your show is about, reminding you where you are?
I realize now, even in revisiting Gothic, Romanesque, or 16th or 17th century architecture, that there is a lot of inspiration to be had from the entire history of architecture. I feel like I make things in response.
For future architects, the things I do will become part of this long history and may inspire them to create another future. The future is a spreading matrix rather than a straight line. What I am making now can be seen as seeds for the future, although those seeds are created by the past seeds of past histories. So, it is a continuity of creations, ideas, and inspirations.
What ideas are you exploring now? Your Instagram feed shows a lot of skies and horizons. Are you looking for something there or is it just because you happen to fly a lot?
Yes. The sky is quite simple and yet always different. I’m not sure what I’m looking for in the sky [laughs]. But maybe I’m interested in its complexity. I like to be surprised. Recently I’ve been getting inspired by complexity and contradiction and how I can make something in the midst of that.
What’s the goal with that and how does it impact people?
Everything feels like it is becoming more complex and diverse. Nature is different from human activity but an important component of our lives. It is a contradiction that people cannot control nature but we have to be part of it. It is like the opposite of the modern age, in which people wanted to control everything in the environment, or so they thought.
So, if this contradiction is the human condition, is your goal to make people feel comfortable with that?
What I like to create are spaces that allow people to behave as they want, an architecture that respects the diversity of people’s choices rather than dictating to them. I don’t want to design a beautiful space…. I like to make a space in which people can be inspired by the space and by other people interacting within that space. Then their lives become more diverse. Creating choices for people or creating places where people can feel open and free to do what they like is a nice goal.
Do you think it’s important for your architecture to stand out from its context, to appear obviously different?
It depends. In Tokyo, you don’t have to be similar to the surroundings because everything is already so chaotic. It’s just not possible to make new structures melt into the surroundings. Plus, in 20 years, the whole area will change again, so context-wise it’s very fluid.
The project in Paris [Milles Arbres], for example, is on the city’s edge, next to historical Paris, so we tried to explore that tension and contrast.
The Budapest project [House of Hungarian Music] is in the middle of a park so you don’t perceive any exterior shape from the ground. You just walk under the canopy of trees and then, at some point, you are walking under an artificial canopy, but then some of the canopy has trees sticking out of it. It’s like gradually transitioning from the forest to the building. So here it is more like melting into the surroundings, which was my intent.
I guess I’m interested in reinterpreting how to harmonize old and new, past and future, nature and culture. New ideas about how to produce harmony can lead to something new. Even if people don’t automatically recognize it as new, it’s still new.