Japan has long been one of the centers of production when it comes to avant-garde architecture, stretching back to the middle of the 20th century with Modernist masters such as Kenzo Tange. As one of Japan's new, emerging architectural leaders Shuhei Endo – the founder of architecture firm Paramodern – believes the country is still well positioned at the forefront of architecture, creating new responses to the concept of modernity itself. In the second interview from our series covering “Japan's New Masters,” Ebrahim Abdoh speaks to Endo about what it means to be “Modern” in the modern world, and how these ideas have influenced his architecture.
Ebrahim Abdoh: What is your earliest memory of wanting to be an architect?
Shuhei Endo: When I was a child at elementary school, one day, the teacher took our class to an architecture exhibit in Osaka. The year was 1962. I remember seeing all the drawings, and models of these strange buildings. It was that day that I heard the words "architect" and "architecture" for the first time. Many years later, I applied to university to study architecture and got in. I always wanted to see the world. In my first few years of university, I went on a trip all over Europe. If that little exhibit I went to in Osaka was my baptism, then Rome was my confirmation. When I walked into the Pantheon… that is when I knew that I had made the right choice.
EA: What would you say was the most important lesson you learnt at University?
SE: To travel. I traveled so much... internationally and domestically – all over Japan. In that sense, traveling is not a lesson, it is a tool. What you learn, “the lessons” as you say, are taught by you to you – they are everything you see, everything you notice, pick up and adapt to your own ideas. I still don’t know if architecture can be taught; for me it’s just a journey.
EA: Most architects I’ve asked that same question of usually answer with a quote from a famous former professor or master of theirs. From your answer, it sounds as though you are casting doubt on the whole university experience. In your mind, how necessary or pertinent do you deem university to the formation of an architect and specifically to your former self?
SE:I did not benefit and do not see the point in the academic side of university. And for me university was not about academia. I benefited a lot from the social aspect of university. Think of it as a place that groups young people with the same passions and ambition under the tutelage or supervision of your idols. University is crucial for the conversations, the discussions, and all the interaction between friends and professors. Just as you learn from travelling, you learn through your relationships with others.
EA: On top of managing your practice, you are a professor at Kobe University. If there is one thing you’d want your students to take from you, what would it be?
SE: To move forward, you need to look back. The importance of history, and ancient history of architecture… Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc… including traditional Japanese architecture. I cannot stress enough the importance of the past.
EA: Where did your firm’s name “Paramodern” come from?
SE: Modernism, with a capital M, has long been dead. People who wrongly say “I am a modernist” are merely adopting a style; a style which no longer has the same purpose because the parameters have changed so much since the day the term was first coined. However Modernism as a design method, as an approach or strategy to the constraints of a particular site or project, is absolute... for now. All “Paramodern” means, is appreciating Modernist principles, all the while acknowledging that the parameters of architecture as well as the built and social environment have changed, meaning necessarily that the resulting project will be different and also maybe look different…hence Para-modern.
EA: So is that a critique of Modernism and The International Style? Is it a critique of the architecture that students are still overwhelmingly taught today at University, and mostly end up imitating to a certain degree? In your previous answer, it seems to be that you are not criticizing modernism, in fact you praise it, but only within its context. So are you criticizing Modernism as a whole, or just Modernism in 2015?
SE:The world and everyone in it do not progress at the same time. Some get there early, and some a bit late. There is a sort of cultural time-lag between individuals and groups of individuals. In my opinion, Japanese architects are very much at the forefront of architecture, and we have been very successful at reworking modernism, and remolding it, into something culturally appropriate.It is my belief for instance that climate-change is the single greatest threat to the world and our species. In Japan we understand that, because we bear the brunt of Mother Nature’s brutality.
Many of my buildings are the results of experimentation with cheap, reusable, and sustainable materials. They may not look as glossy as these vast concrete villas in Ibiza, or as futuristic as the skyscrapers in Dubai, but in a way, what I build is more modern, because it is not only more appropriate for the world we live in, but also the world we are moving dangerously fast toward. Modernism to me was the result of the combination of democracy and capitalism. However both democracy and capitalism have changed, and continue to change, so it’s now time for something new, bearing in mind that something new might look a little bit older than what we’re used to seeing... think a little bit less “Star Wars,” and a little more “Waterworld” with Kevin Costner.
EA: What are you immediate and longer term ambitions?
SE: I have one ultimate dream as an architect... To design and build an aquarium. I have done many projects across Asia and Japan, and would like to get to do some projects in Europe and also Africa. To be able design for another culture is a very exciting prospect.
EA: Do you ever question or doubt yourself?
SE: Yes. All the time. I am in a constant and never-ending conversation with myself. It is actually very annoying. Not only do I question myself, I answer myself as well. But regardless of the answer I give myself, be it good or bad, I deal with it, put it aside, and keep on going. Doubt is a natural stage in the development of any venture or project, and the trick is to think of it merely as a stage; as in a stage to get past to get to the next stage. Otherwise no one would ever accomplish anything or get anything done. Some doubt is well justified... a lot of it isn’t. In life sometimes we are our own worst enemy, and as architects we are definitely our own toughest critics. The only thing I would say to young architects reading this is, do not be too hard on yourselves, and never give in to doubt.
EA: Have you ever reinvented yourself, or made changes to your style or philosophy?
SE: No. I wouldn’t say I’ve changed my philosophy or even my style. The only thing that changes with each new project is the client. Their needs and tastes change as do their budgets. Architects do not like to talk about money or budget, but this really does impact the direction of a design.
SE: No, not at all. Very often the projects where there is a low and very firm budget are the ones that breed the most interesting ideas. This is a bit of cliché, but nevertheless it is true.
EA: Would you say that you had a style?
SE: I do not have a style for “shapes,” but I have a style of working – an attitude. I suppose that if I have a style it would be the product of my understanding of space. For me, space cannot exist in isolation, at least not in the context of architecture. I only look at space and how it connects to time. Time is everything. Time can be the movement of the sun’s rays through the space, or can be the coming and going of people. When you are designing space, time is your most important parameter.
EA: I am not so sure whether what you said about having a style is entirely true… Looking at all your projects and their names (Rooftecture, Halftecture, Springtecture, Glowtecture, Bubbletecture, Looptecture, etc…), would it be fair to say that you have a "product line"?
SE: I see how one could understand that as a product line. The idea of these names and the projects they’re tied to stem from my belief that architecture as a word is limited. I proved this by taking a single component of architecture, like a roof say, and expanding it into an entire building.
EA: That sounds like another criticism... which makes me want to ask if any of these projects are in some way a bit satirical?
SE: I wouldn’t say that they were, no.
EA: How can you consolidate such sophisticated ideas on architecture with somewhat childish or at least innocent words like "bubble" and "loop," along with buildings that embody those words so literally?
SE: Sometimes big and “sophisticated” concepts in architecture are best illustrated by the simplest forms. The famous Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein used mundane and everyday objects in his art and turned them into icons. I seek to create my own icons, the bubble, the loop and the roof being just a few of them. To me they are not only underexploited, they hold almost infinite possibilities and are beautiful in their simplicity and purity. The very nature of your question exemplifies my criticisms quite well. You say “childish”; I say “playful.” There is no need, and no rule in our profession that says playfulness has no place in architecture. However, in my opinion, there is that implication and here lies the bulk of my gripe. Modernism is a form of Protestantism; a strict set of rules followed religiously by architects, professors and their students without sufficient criticism.
In 2014, Ebrahim Abdoh spent six months as an intern at Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP. In that time he conducted a number of interviews with the young architects that are forming the next generation of Japanese design leaders; his column, “Japan's New Masters” presents edited versions of these interviews in order to shed light on the future of Japanese Architecture.