Visionary, poetic, and with a powerful connection to nature, contemporary Japanese architects have painted the world’s landscapes with some of the most awe-inspiring homes, museums, cultural institutions, and contemplative spaces. We look at six Japanese architects taking on the world stage
Japanese architects seem to possess an inherent respect for natural elements. These masters of design use light and transparency to beautiful effect whilst understanding the value of natural materials in creating a harmonious balance between building and landscape. There is an experimental quality seen in Japanese architecture that is both radical and logical, exemplified in projects which result in rooftop kitchens or transparent houses.
Contemporary Japanese architecture combines a rich mix of traditional design practices and western modern aesthetics. The dialogue between these two is present in the integration of time-honored Japanese architectural elements such as sliding doors (fusama) and modular tatami floor mats with cutting edge design and technology. Japan architecture is at the forefront of investigating questions of micro-housing in its dense cities like Tokyo where the population outnumbers the available space.
We explore the work of six Japanese architects who are masters of this architectural experimentation.
“Seeking freedom from the rigidity of a grid, Ito is interested in relationships—between rooms, exterior and interior, and building, and surroundings.” This was among the jury citations when Toyo Ito was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2013. Now close to 50 years into his celebrated practice, the internationally revered architect has put his innovative and sensitive touch on a diverse project range from libraries and funeral homes to private residences, museums, and pavilions. At the start, Ito attracted attention for projects such as his reinforced concrete White U house, a home built for his sister in 1976 following the death of her husband.
In the 2000s he became known internationally for his 2001 Sendai Mediatheque in Miyagi, Japan—characterized by its open façade revealing 13 tree trunk-like tubes and his Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2002. He followed these with Tod’s Omotesando building (2004), which features a tree-like skin, and his 2009 White O house in Chile. The Ito-designed Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture in Imabari on the island of Omishima, a workshop space for young architects, comprises two buildings including a replica of Ito’s former home in Tokyo. But it’s the Home-for-All communal spaces he created following 2011’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan that are closest to his heart.
With his most recent projects including the V&A Dundee in Scotland and NIWA, a striking housing project in France, Kengo Kuma is known for his work in wood. His approach is inspired by traditional Japanese architecture with the aim to naturally blend each project into its environment. With offices in Tokyo and Paris and a professorship at the University of Tokyo (his alma mater), the award-winning architect founded Kengo Kuma & Associates in 1990 following a fellowship at Columbia University.
Today his work takes him around the world with projects including the Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center in Tokyo, the Commune by the Great Wall hotel in China, Mont-Blanc Base Camp in France, the Wooden Bridge Museum in Yusuhara, and a cultural village at the Portland Japanese Garden in the US. His most anticipated project is the National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Interestingly, it was Japanese architect Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium, designed for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, that inspired Kuma to become an architect.
“The essence of architecture is to open the hearts of the people and to move them in such a way that they are glad to be on earth.” Tadao Ando, a one-time boxer and the only architect to have won the profession’s four most prestigious prizes, said this in the 2013 documentary Tadao Ando: From Emptiness to Infinity. The self-taught architect (he learned by brief stints in architecture offices, prolific reading, and study trips abroad, when he began his ongoing practice of keeping a sketch book) is revered around the world for his restrained homes, churches, museums, and other buildings in reinforced concrete, which are as precise as they are poetic.
Described as both a builder and an architect, Ando was inspired to enter the profession when he watched craftsmen converting his boyhood home in Osaka where he still resides today. Founding his practice in 1969, Ando started with residential projects including the 1976 Azuma House, which earned him the top prize from the Architectural Institute of Japan. He went on to design Rokko Housing, a housing project built into a sixty-degree sloping hillside; 1989’s Church of Light in the small town of Ibaraki, outside of Osaka; the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St Louis, Missouri; and numerous private home commissions including House in Sri Lanka and a ranch for fashion designer Tom Ford in New Mexico. Opening in April and running until July 28, 2019, The Challenge—Tadao Ando, a retrospective of his work, will be on show at Armani/Silos in Milan, Italy.
One of the new generation of Japanese architects, 43-year-old Katsutoshi Sasaki is making a name for himself with a number of private residences that have been attracting international attention.
His own home, recently built in Toyota (his hometown and where he founded his practice, Katsutoshi Sasaki + Associates, in 2008) contrasts a darkened façade of cedar with a light interior of Falcata plywood. Rooms are laid out on staggered platforms and light comes in through clerestory windows that run along the upper edges of the tall, narrow home.
“An architecture that becomes ‘light’ [light has several meanings, he clarifies],” is Sasaki’s ultimate goal with every project. “I want to find a structure that supports it.” In his House in Yamanote, the design is driven by the desire to bring in natural light. (The home is cast in the shadow of a tall apartment block.) Louvered walls and slatted stairs filter light coming in through the home’s north side and create a feeling of openness. In Koro House, a suspended lattice-like sculpture made from timber battens casts patterns of light and shadow inside the six-sided home. “There is no perfect architecture,” says Sasaki. “If we feel comfort from a home,that is good architecture.”
Founded in 1995 by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, Tokyo-based SANAA is one of the world’s most admired architectural practices. One of just a few joint winners to be awarded the Pritzker Prize (in 2010), Sejima and met when the latter came to work at Kazuyo Sejima and Associates following his graduation in 1990. “The buildings by Sejima and Nishizawa seem deceptively simple,” said the Pritzker jury of the firm. “The architects hold a vision of a building as a seamless whole, where the physical presence retreats and forms a sensuous background for people, objects, activities, and landscapes. They explore like few others the phenomenal properties of continuous space, lightness, transparency, and materiality to create a subtle synthesis.”
Among the firm’s buildings, very often in white, are the flowing Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the 21st-Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan. The duo, who maintain their separate practices, have also designed their fair share of residences including Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, comprising 12 white boxes with gardens in between.
Growing up in the countryside in Hokkaido, Sou Fujimoto spent his childhood playing in the forest. It’s no wonder his prized work is often inspired by trees.“[My goal with every project is] to create a beautiful harmony between nature, architecture, and humanity,“ he says. Founding his firm in Tokyo and Paris in 2000, Fujimoto skyrocketed to fame following his 2013 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion—a transparent grid-like structure in white steel (a construction that has become something of a signature).
Today, Fujimoto has projects in the works around the world including the House of Hungarian Music in Budapest’s City Park, a mixed-use tower in Montpellier, and a Vertical Village in Paris. His private residential designs including House N, a series of white boxes nesting inside one another. “I think a perfect home is one in constant harmony,” says Fujimoto, “with a diversity that allows it to maintain an equilibrium through constantly changing seasons and lifestyles. Architecture itself does not move, but human life, weather, and seasons always change. When the same space shows various expressions in response to these changes, the house is continuously presenting new values to us.”