As a Japanese immigrant who has spent much of her life in the United States, the architecture of Toshiko Mori occupies an interesting space: on one hand, the material and tectonic culture of Japan is, as she puts it, her “DNA.” On the other hand, her work clearly draws inspiration from the Modernists of 20th century America, and most notably from Mies van der Rohe. In this interview from his “City of Ideas” series, Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Mori (his former architecture professor) about materials, details, and the inspiration behind her work.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You came to the US as a teenager with your parents from Japan in the 1960s. Were you interested in art early on back in Japan or was it something that you discovered already here?
Toshiko Mori: I was already interested in art as a child, always drawing, painting, making sculptures and models. I continued doing that here.
VB: Was this interest in art unrelated to architecture?
TM: Well, thinking back I was also paying attention to traditional buildings, especially to shrines and temples, and gardens in Kyoto where I visited with my aunt and grandmother often. The first time I visited a modern building was when my father took our family from Kobe, where we were living, to see the Hiroshima Peace Center by Kenzo Tange, shortly after it opened. It was very tough to go through the exhibit, but also I remember the impact that the building itself made on me – very simple, but dignifying.
VB: You studied at Cooper Union here in New York at the Art School first and transferred to architecture after meeting Dean John Hejduk. What was it that made you switch?
TM: I was working on a kind of “transformation” project with two other art students. We set out to paint a corridor at the Architecture School, all in white; this was still in the old building with gray walls and all kinds of hodgepodge. The assignment was to transform a space by using a color. Then John Hejduk came while we were on the ladders, busy painting everything in white – the walls, the ceiling… It was spatial and atmospheric. He looked at it; mind you, we didn’t have permission for any of that and he started to laugh. He liked it. That’s how I met him, and then I started looking at the work the architecture students were doing and liked it. So I went to see Hejduk to show him my portfolio. He said, “Oh, now here is someone who can really draw!” [Laughs.] Then I transferred.
VB: You were my very first architecture professor at Cooper Union in the early 1990s and curiously, you introduced me to the Russian Constructivists. However, your own work has very different origins. Could you talk about where you derive your inspiration?
TM: Architecture is multidisciplinary and therefore there are many sources of inspiration. I never dream up in a vacuum. There are so many conditions and constraints. There is a client, site, program, and so on. But aesthetically, my inspiration goes back to Japanese traditional architecture, which has a sense of clarity and tectonics. That’s my DNA.
VB: In one of your interviews, you named architects who influenced you most. One was Togo Murano [1891-1984]. What was it that attracted you to his work, since his architecture did not have a particular distinctive character, right?
TM: Well, that’s exactly right and that’s what is so interesting about him. He was responsive to the context in a very specific way. His architecture is traditional, but he would always transform it in some interesting ways to make the work his own and contemporary. He walked right on the edge between a fantasy and reality. His work is vernacular and contemporary at the same time; he conceptualized his ways to put old right against new in a very subtle and fresh manner.
He has done large projects: a train station, department stores, theaters, and hotels all over Japan, and particularly a well-known Miyako Hotel in Kyoto. I learned about him through my studies as an architect, but I remember going to his buildings as a child.
VB: I recently saw you at the opening of MoMA's A Japanese Constellation exhibition with projects by Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, and Junya Ishigami, and it occurred to me that your work is quite different from their projects. Your architecture seems to be more rooted in American Modernism. Would you agree and how conscious is this for you?
TM: I spent my adolescent and student years here, so I think it is only natural to relate to the background in which you grow up. My background and the background of most of my professors was American and European Modernism. My references are John Hejduk who graduated from Harvard and as an extension: Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Paul Rudolph, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and of course, Edward Larrabee Barnes for whom I worked right after my graduation from Cooper from 1976 to 1981, when I started my practice. But I like the work of contemporary Japanese architects and subconsciously I am probably influenced, let’s say, atmospherically and in terms of materiality, maybe. I am sympathetic to their work, but I don’t think what I do can be characterized as Japanese architecture. It doesn’t quite fit.
VB: What are the intentions of your work?
TM: My work is all about the context. Relating the project to the specific site, whether urban or rural, and resolving the materiality of the project is very important to me. I change all the time and I don’t repeat the same style. Every new building is an invention. Every project starts from zero. We never impose any particular style. But I think there is definitely a common thread in our work, even if a project such as our cultural center for Sinthian in Senegal looks completely different from our house in Ghent, New York. They are very different but if you x-ray them, there are commonalities in our approach.
VB: What words and phrases would you choose to describe your work?
TM: Clarity for sure. Clarity of expression. Clarity of a concept. The intention is to make something very simple, which is very difficult to achieve. I like to tackle complex issues by coming up with simple solutions.
VB: Talking about details in architecture you said, “Details is where architecture intersects with reality.” For many architects details are much less important, while forms and ideas are paramount. Could you talk about details in your work?
TM: Details is something where concept, program, technology, engineering, tectonic, materiality, all fuse together. In different projects, we focus on different details. Sometimes a project can be obsessively detailed; sometimes it can be detailed very loosely and informally. There are different ways in how we approach details. The ideas are in the details. Form is a form; it comes and goes, but for me, it is the details that carry ideas and intentions.
VB: So it goes without saying that you never recycle your details from project to project.
TM: Not really. For example, I try to use small steel members spaced at short distances to make an impression as if the building is made of wood. The intention is to make steel buildings appear to be much more delicate than one would expect them to be. I always play with different ideas and how they can affect appearances and perceptions. For example, it may not be apparent, what is structural and what is not. I would call it tectonic interplay.
VB: You are playing with different ways of how to hold the building.
TM: Right. As architects, we always fight against gravity. To pretend that gravity doesn’t exist is not really honest. But we can play with this fundamental fact by creating an illusion of winning over it in various ways.
VB: In other words, your primary question is – how to work against gravity?
TM: Sure, rather than working with forms, we work with forces. And we work collaboratively with engineers from the very beginning. The house in Ghent, which is broken down into several pavilions, presented many such challenges. Not only that we had to resolve each volume structurally and spatially but also how to pin these pavilions to the rocks where they are sited, and make them appear to be floating by hiding the structure underneath. But not directly below, so you can’t see the structure.
The cultural center in Senegal is very different. It is designed parametrically because we tried to come up with the most effective use of structure and local materials, such as bamboo, mud brick, and thatch. Also the idea was to have a building that would have a roof with maximum surface to provide deep shade and collect maximum amount of rainwater. We also needed to catch as much wind as possible to have a constant breeze under the roof. And we wanted to work with what they had and to employ local laborers, not simply bring something already prebuilt. So the building’s form was the result of all these factors, not the other way around. Also the design was influenced by vernacular cylindrical houses they have in the area. You can say that in this project elements of observation were stronger than elements of pure imagination. The main goal was – the residents had to accept this building as their own, and not as a foreign object.
VB: You worked on a number of additions to Modernist houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Rudolph, and Marcel Breuer. What did you learn from these projects and do you have a particular philosophy about how to engage them?
TM: One idea is that I never imitate anything. It is always a conversation, a dialogue. I try to imagine how these architects would have done their projects if they had the materials and techniques available to us today. But in any case, I usually work in contrast to their work. If the original is solid, my addition might be transparent. If it is dark, mine would be light. And to contrast something that’s grounded, I might elevate my project next to it. So there is always a dialectic relationship and juxtaposition of contrasting ideas. But I will never imitate anything or make something overwhelming. Being an academic, I always try to gather many clues first and I am always very careful with my decisions.
VB: At Harvard, you experimented with students by developing new materials and exploring tactility and fabrication process. Could you talk about that experience?
TM: When I arrived at Harvard in 1995, there was no real culture in terms of materiality in their curriculum. So in early 2000s I introduced a course that was based on such sources as the architectonic course at Cooper Union, teachings by Mies at the IIT, the Bauhaus exercises, and my own interest in textile tectonics. It was a series of lectures and hands-on workshops. I’m first of all a maker, so I like experimenting with materials. We worked on inventing new materials that we called ultramaterials, based on cutting, casting, molding, extruding, weaving, and so on.
In my own work, I recently used membrane materials that were developed specifically for one of my projects, a portable concert hall. New materials can be very empowering. For example, we used membranes that completely absorb the drumming sound of rainwater. Or there are textiles that reflect and distribute sound so well that by utilizing a particular geometry for a performance space it is possible not to use speakers at all because sound can travel well without any amplification. And in our new laboratory building for Novartis in Cambridge, Massachusetts we will have a copper tone fabric embedded into our glass louvers to control the sun and it will also add a warm glow to the interiors.
VB: Would you say there is a particular progression in your work?
TM: Not really. I am not systematic and, as I mentioned earlier, I tend to start from scratch every time. We work intuitively, based on the power of observation and power of imagination. Architecture is becoming more and more complex and a lot of our work is based on research, particularly in the fields of engineering, energy efficiency, human comfort, and so on.
VB: Looking at the contemporary architects whose work do you admire most?
TM: Oh, the next-door guys; I like them! Herzog & de Meuron have their New York office right on our floor. I followed them since my student days. They are very inventive and they don’t do the same thing twice. They don’t impose their style. Every project starts from zero. They do a lot of research. It is all about working with the specifics of each site, program, and other constraints. You can concentrate on using forms and shapes, and progress in perfecting a particular stylistic language, but to me this means you limit so many other possibilities and challenges of architecture that are very different in every project. It is in confronting the specifics that true inventions occur.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions will be a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title to premier at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will then travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.