Japanese design has long had a defining impact on other cultures from all over the world; as early as the mid-nineteenth century, fashionable collectors in Europe exchanged artifacts from Japan, and Frank Lloyd Wright was famously influenced by their distinctive architecture after a trip to the country in 1905. In recent decades, Japan has been one of architecture's superpowers, producing seven Pritzker Prize laureates in under 30 years. And, while Japan's Pritzker winners are widely revered, they are far from the only players on the scene, with a new wave of young Japanese architects now emerging behind internationally acclaimed names such as Sou Fujimoto.
In this new series of interviews titled "Japan's New Masters," Ebrahim Abdoh speaks to both the established and emerging architects of Japan's dynamic architectural scene. The first interview of the series is with Yuko Nagayama, founder of Yuko Nagayama and Associates.
Ebrahim Abdoh: What is your earliest memory of wanting to be an architect?
Yuko Nagayama: I always wanted to be a biologist. Everything about the natural world excited me. But in my senior year of high-school, my friend told me that she was going to study architecture at university. For some reason, in that moment, the idea of being an architect appealed to me more, so I followed her.
EA: Many architects in Japan have themselves had very famous professors and/or former bosses. Who did you learn from?
YN: Jun Aoki. I didn’t do a masters. Immediately after obtaining my bachelor degree, I went to work for Jun Aoki. Everything that other’s learnt in their masters, I learnt from Aokisan.
EA: And how long did you stay at Jun Aoki & Associates?
YN: Four years.
EA: What was his parting advice to you when you left to start your own firm?
YN: I was 26. Aokisan told me I was too young for this level of independence. Mr Aoki’s firm has a four year system. This means that most staff do not stay beyond four years. That is what I told him, but he insisted that I was too young and warned me that I might fail. I told him that my mind was already made up and that I was leaving. Not having his blessing made me anxious about my future, but soon after he helped me get my first project.
EA: Do you think that Aokisan’s words of caution had anything to do with the fact that you are woman?
YN: As far as I know, my gender had no impact on his decision to warn me. It is true that 26 is very young to start up on your own regardless of whether you are a man or a woman; and on top of that I have always looked much younger than my age. Perhaps that was the cause for concern. Maybe he wasn’t sure people would take me seriously, not because that I was woman, but because I looked so young.
EA: Was he right to think this? Has your youthfulness caused you any difficulties?
YN: When I was 28, two years after I left, I won the competition for the Louis Vuitton shop in Kyoto. The sponsor in charge was very worried, because of how young I looked, and didn’t think I’d be able to finish the job. So the sponsor called Mr Aoki to ask him about me, and Mr Aoki told him he had nothing to worry about.
EA: As a female architect, do you have anything you would like to share about the role of women in architecture?
YN: There are very few "solo" female architects. The most famous are Itsuko Hasegawa, Kazuyo Sejima and Kumiko Inui. It’s far more common to find women architects in partnerships with their husbands, managing a firm and designing together rather than on their own. There are very practical reasons for this. Children are of course a big factor. Then there are the working hours. Just those two things make the decision of becoming an architect very difficult for a woman. I am trying to challenge this status-quo; to show women that it is possible by demonstrating that the typical architect "lifestyle" is a thing of the past. Technology is what has made this possible for me. I do my site visits by Skype, and did most of my Singapore project on Skype. It sounds like nothing but this one app has saved me not hours but days and days if not weeks on a single project. Another thing women must realise is that you don’t have to be at work to be working. You don’t even have to be working to be working. Just thinking about a project, visualising it, is immensely important and you can do this while playing with kids or doing something else.
EA: A couple years after the end of the lost decade, marked by the crash of the bubble (2000), you started your firm. That time was the beginning of a new age of prosperity and growth. Now though, things are not so good; and nowhere is this truer than in Europe. If you were starting up now, would you do things differently, or would have gone it alone regardless of the state of the economy?
YN: Nowadays people are more careful, more cautious when it comes to making ‘new’ things. When I first started out, people were more positive and open. They were actually excited about being part of something ‘new’, whereas now they are just scared. Today in Japan there is a new and heavy emphasis on remodelling and renovating. This is very "unjapanese." Architecture now is more than ever a social exercise. The community aspect of any project is very often at the forefront of the brief. This is good but in my mind, architects and architecture have always been ahead of the masses; that is the one and only condition to progress. We should never compromise but we must always be able to seduce them. However in these fearful times, we all fold; we have to in order to survive. So frankly if I were you I would not be as "gung-ho" as I was, and I would probably would not have done things alone; maybe with one or even several partners. However I will say that Tokyo within Japan and within the world is the exception to the rule. We have Olympics in 2020, so construction and morale is still like before. Our fees went up by half, and there still a lot of work.
EA: What are your ambitions for both the immediate future and the longer term?
YN: The answer to this question falls in line with what I was saying. My short term ambition is always the same, to make something new, to convince my clients to let me to do this; to constantly update myself with every commission. I would add that this makes me nervous, so my ambition is also not to let my nerves get to me. My long-term ambition is to carry on doing that. I also have two children, and don’t want my private life getting in the way of my career, and likewise I don’t want my career getting in the way of my private life.
EA: Among your peers and other architects in Japan, is there anyone you especially admire or look up to?
YN: I don’t want to name anyone specifically, but I do feel strongly about the talent within my generation. I don’t like to look up too much to those much older than myself, otherwise I will spend my life and my career being their junior when I am in my own right a successful architect. I would like your generation to look more to each other than to mine and the ‘masters’.
EA: The notion of ‘ma’, which means ‘void’ or ‘the space between two objects’ is said to define the Japanese conception of space. Do you agree with this statement? What does ‘ma’ mean to you, and is it important to your design philosophy?
YN: One of the themes that I explore as an architect is ‘phenomenon’; not of objects but of the immaterial. ‘Ma’ is not just the void, it is not ‘pure’ emptiness. For me, there is always something there, a phenomenon, which you can’t touch, like a reflection or the changing light. The façade which I designed for Louis Vuitton in Kyoto is made up alternating black and transparent strips of varying thickness. Neither the black nor the clear represent the ‘ma’. When you walk past it’s like the light is flashing at you, and depending on the angles one moment you can see into the shop, and the next all you can see is your reflection. It is the dance of these ‘phenomenon’ which is what the real ‘ma’ is to me.
EA: Manabu Chiba said that “designing the house was like designing a city”, likewise Riken Yamamoto said “the house is like a miniature city”. Is this true? What do they mean by this? Is this way of viewing the home specific to Japan?
YN: Yes. I would tend to agree with these statements. Especially in Tokyo, where the houses are gathered together in small areas into clusters. Also, I don’t always look at a house, or a project as architecture – to me the houses here are more like furniture, big pieces of furniture. But the way the ‘city’ fits into the context of the home in Japan, is that we have many points of contact with each other inside the home. This feeling of proximity is not exclusive to the interior but extends to outside and to the community.
EA: You’ve done many different types of projects: private residences, interiors, museums, retail spaces, office buildings, as well as some fashion design and art installations. What out of these do you most enjoy?
YN: Most of my life I worked on retail spaces, often for very important brands and fashion houses. But I actually most enjoy museums and private houses. Not only is it more intimate, but I really get the sense that I am designing with people and a community.
EA: There are many very young and incredibly wealthy people in Tokyo. Are you doing anything to secure the next generation of clients?
YN: I don’t really think about this. Not that I don’t think this is important question to ask yourself as an architect, especially when you have your own firm, but the reason I don’t think about this is because I have never have had to. I feel young and I think I have the same sense as the youth today, so I know instinctively what they want. For example I did a sweet shop and café in Okamoto called L’Espoir Blanc. On top of designing the building and the interior, I consulted on the branding as well as the products themselves.
EA: It is very common in Japanese firms to work exclusively with physical models. In the west however, now more than ever, there is a very heavy emphasis put on 3D modelling skills and visualisation. Why is this so?
YN: Even with the incredible tools and techniques offered by technology, there are some areas that are still championed by the physical model. When it comes to studying light, even though we explore both methods, I do trust physical model more. Light is a material and it is fully scalable.
EA: In your body of works, there is a huge range in materiality. On the one hand you have very glossy, shiny, bright and even ‘cute’ projects (mostly retail), but then you have these quite dramatic, sombre and masculine projects. Would you say you had a dark side?
YN: I can adjust myself to my clients. This is why I am able to do the "flashy" stuff as well as the raw. I do not preoccupy myself with "style," so much as phenomena. If you focus on the immaterial, the material will fall into place.
This interview is an edited excerpt from a forthcoming book of interviews with Japanese architects by Ebrahim Abdoh. In 2014, Ebdoh spent six months as an intern at Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP. The full book, with a publishing date yet to be confirmed, will feature more designers and longer, uncut interviews.