As one practice among Japan's emerging crop of talented architects, Takaharu and Yui Tezuka of Tezuka Architects can boast some highly successful projects; perhaps most notably among their collection of houses, medical buildings, and community buildings is the Fuji Kindergarten. Completed in 2007, the unusual open-air design was so successful that it earned Takaharu Tezuka a spot on stage at TEDxKyoto. In this interview from his series “Japan's New Masters,” Ebrahim Abdoh speaks to Yui and Takaharu about their formative experiences in the United States and United Kingdom, their design approach, and the unique challenges that come with working in Japan.
Ebrahim Abdoh: What was your earliest memory of wanting to be an architect?
Yui Tezuka: My father was an architect, which didn’t give me much choice. He was working for quite a famous architect. He designed the house in which I was born and grew up in. I loved that house. Instead of playing with plastic doll-houses, my father would often bring back his models with which I played instead… carefully of course. He had a huge collection of architecture textbooks, and there were always magazines like “Domus” lying around. I really enjoyed looking through the pictures and deciding which houses and rooms I liked, and which ones I didn’t like. So before even knowing the word “architect” or knowing what the job entailed, I was already constructing my identity by developing my tastes. There is no one memory, but rather my entire childhood.
Takaharu Tezuka: My father was an architect for a big Japanese company. Like my wife, I too was surrounded by drawings and models. My plan was always to follow in my father’s footsteps, but I found myself drifting away from the 2D world of his drawing board and looking more into architecture books and magazines and building a repertoire of names, terminology and styles. By the time it came to apply to university, architecture already felt like second nature, and I applied to the faculty almost unconsciously. My undergrad was little more than a cakewalk, and my professor told me to go abroad to challenge myself.
EA: And where exactly did you apply?
TT: Harvard GSD, Princeton, NYC, and University of Pennsylvania. Harvard didn’t like me, but the others accepted me, and I chose U-Penn. I also got a scholarship.
EA: So after you got back to Japan from the States, what happened?
TT: Well the first thing I did was marry Yui.
YT: By the time Takaharu returned, I had already graduated from the Musashi Institute of Technology. He was offered a Job at Richard Rogers in London. Of course I followed him and went to study at UCL Bartlett.
EA: Are you still friends with Lord Rogers now?
TT: Not friends; he is my master. He is a great master, not a friend, but still we keep in touch. Only a few weeks ago we all had dinner together in Singapore.
EA: What were the most important things you learnt at each stage of your education?
TT: In Japan, I learned logic. At U-penn, I took Alex Wall’s studio. Before then I didn’t know the meaning of “concept.” Before, I used to strap on a concept to my project usually after the design, which is completely wrong of course. But since his studio, I learnt that concept was necessary to make good architecture. He used to say that “design was nothing more than outcome.” Mohsen Mostafavi, who is now the dean of Harvard GSD, used to teach at Penn when I was there. His class taught me that you should use logic to form your concept, and always somehow link it to society. The combination of Mohsen’s classes and Alex Wall’s design studio changed my life completely.
YT: If I’m honest, university was not that life-changing for me. The most important things about architecture I learnt at work, mainly at Richard Rogers.
EA: So you also worked for Lord Rogers?
YT: Sort of... While I was at the Bartlett, every day after classes, I went to Richard Rogers’ office to help out part-time. The office space there is beautiful and looks out directly onto the Thames, so we can enjoy the views. Back then, he had this policy where workers could bring close friends or girlfriends and boyfriends to help out on models and at the same time keep us company. It really felt like one big family.
EA: What would you say are the most valuable lessons you learnt whilst working for Lord Rogers?
TT: Many people who see his work wrongly assume he is a “high-tech” designer. But if there were two things which he spoke of almost always it was “life” and “people.” He was and still is a great humanist. He had very considered ideas about how life should be, and how people should live. I think a lot of my own philosophy of life, not just architecture, comes from him and his vision of the world. Yui is right; it really did feel like a big family over there. No other firm is like that.
EA: Many years on, and with many projects under your belt, do you feel that you can claim your own architectural philosophy and beliefs as your own, or are you finding that you can attribute a lot of them to your masters? Did your own architectural identity survive these powerful educators and influencers?
TT: I would say yes. However I’m not sure “survive” is the right word. Before Penn, I had very little in terms of an “identity,” architecturally. Instead of teaching explicit rules on design, the professors at Penn taught us how to think about architecture. As for Rogers, it’s a little more complicated. Of course he is to me the greatest influence but not in the way you might think. As I said before the two things he really taught me were “life” and “people.” Like him, these are the main parameters I consider in every design project, however the paths we take to enrich both, are different.
EA: What is your favorite project of his?
YT: That is easy. His mother’s house in Wimbledon. The first time I saw it, I fell in love. I was so moved, that I began to cry. It was so beautiful. It was in that moment that I realized that the most important lesson: that the design concept should always be able to be felt as soon as you enter inside, without any explanation. That is the tell-tale sign of great architecture.
EA: So when your UK visa ran out, and you had to return to Japan, how old were you? Did you already plan to start your firm upon your return? If so, how did you go about finding work?
TT: Actually the decision to start our own firm was a bit out of our hands. You see, the expiration of my work visa coincided with a call from my father, who mentioned to me that my uncle wanted to speak to me about offering us a project design a hospital in Japan… with a budget of $10,000,000. My father actually told my uncle that I was too young and inexperienced and not ready for a project of that scale, so he introduced him to the Kajima Corporation. Needless to say, I was furious. A few days later I flew back to Japan, and the first thing I did was tell my father to call my uncle back and tell him that I was ready. But my father said no again. Anyway, that didn’t stop me. After seeing the brief, we prepared all our drawings and a complete and comprehensive design proposal which I later presented one-on-one to my uncle. He liked it very much but unfortunately he also liked the other firm’s proposal. Anyway, a couple months later I got a call from my uncle saying that the other firm’s estimate came in at $16,000,000. He then asked me if I could do it for 10, to which I said “no problem.”
EA: Were you ready though? Were you in any way happy to leave your job in London?
TT: I had to be ready, I had no choice. As for Rogers, he could have helped me extend my visa, but when I told him I had a project and was seriously considering starting my own business he told me to go. There is one rule at Richard Rogers, and that is if a staff member wants to leave to start his or her own firm, you let that person go and wish them the best. He did say however that if I went bankrupt or if for some reason things didn’t work out, that there’d always be a job for me at his firm. Four years later he came to visit us in Japan, and the first thing he asked was “Are you bankrupt yet?” I laughed, and answered “Not yet.”
EA: What are your ambitions for the near future and also in the longer term?
TT: My long term ambition has always been to design an airport. I was actually trained as an airport designer at Richard Rogers, so I know everything there is to know about airports. As for short-term ambitions… I don’t have the time to think about what I want or would like to do; I am way too busy as it is. I guess finishing all the projects I have going on at the moment.
EA: You have done many educational buildings and community centers. Did you ever get the chance to design any more hospitals after your first commission? Is it something that interests you?
TT: We did two more hospitals. The last one was the Sora no Mori clinic. It is a fertility clinic for women. Usually these sorts of clinic are found in conventional hospitals. And when you just stick women with these sorts of problems into these air conditioned box rooms in bad buildings, the success rate is never very high. Our clinic is on the island of Okinawa. Okinawa lost most of its forests during WWII when the Americans bombed it. This project is also to promote the revitalization of the forest. We liked the idea of a fertility clinic for both women and the land.
EA: In what ways is your clinic different than others?
TT: There is one very high tech treatment facility surrounded by clusters of pavilions all on ground level and all linked together by lush external courtyards. There are no corridors; you get from one place to the next by walking outside under the canopies. There is a real sense of openness. We also used a lot of timber internally and externally which is extremely rare in a medical facility. This gives our clinic a wholesome and domestic feel which really adds to the women's wellbeing. Sure enough the pregnancy success rate at our clinic is much higher than the average; such is the power of good design.
EA: What are the projects you are most proud of?
TT: I have so many. One would be the Fuji Kindergarten. It’s an oval shaped school. And what was discovered after the project was complete was that the autistic students who attended the school showed little to know symptoms of their condition. Afterwards it was found that confined environments aggravated the symptoms. The Child Chemo house in Kobe is another. The radiation treatment that they have to endure destroys their immune system and they have to be quarantined for 6 months. Half a year away from your parents puts enormous stress on the entire family so we had the idea of surrounding the clinic with little houses that link both together so that families can stay together throughout this period. At the end the plan looked like a little village. This project took eight years, and now that’s it built, it clear to see that once again the survival rate at this children’s oncology clinic is much higher.
EA: So the projects that you are most proud of are the ones that expand the definition of architecture into a sort of cure?
TT: Yes. But these projects are not only cures. Most importantly they helped set new standards. This means that our projects will inspire countless others ones which means far more people will benefit from the innovations we made on just a few projects.
EA: Are there any projects that you are not so proud of?
TT: Yes. One. It’s quite ironic actually. Funnily enough, our biggest design mistake was the house we designed for ourselves. We built it for us and the child we were hoping to have. However after almost 10 years of trying, we gave up and my parents moved in with us instead. Shortly after they moved in, our baby was on the way. Now we live with our son in one bedroom and with the grand-parents downstairs. It is so horribly cramped, you cannot imagine.
EA: Japan is a country that, over the years, has endured a lot of hardship, from natural disasters, to war, terrorism, and economic crises. In spite of all this, it remains the third largest economy with less than 1/10th of China’s population. Words like “gambari” (perseverance) have become part of day-to-day conversation and integral to Japanese culture and philosophy. In your opinion, have hardship and resilience influenced style and architecture in any way?
TT: I would say so, yes. And here’s why. In a mild environment, like in the West, people are fooled into thinking they can control the environment. In Europe architects are very concerned about “comfort” and “ideals.” In Japan, whether it is an earthquake, volcano, typhoon, or tsunami, we are constantly being humbled by Mother Nature. When disaster strikes, your architecture will not save you. We are very aware of the unavoidable, and of our helplessness. And it is only then, with that realization that you learn to truly design with nature, and embrace all of it, from the beautiful to the fatal. I always say “we do not melt in the rain.”
EA: There are some Japanese Modernist principles like “ma” and “oku” which have become very popular. Are there any principles, words or driving concepts that you refer to or use in your designs?
TT: We are not architects who design according to a specific manifesto. There are no rules here. As Japanese architects, our ability to design, how and what we design is all in our genes. My grandfather’s house is in Saga. My family has been there for 350 years, although the house is only a little over a 100 years old. But how we live in that house is so natural. It is better than any modern house I have seen and precedes all the theories, all the famous names and all their work. That house holds so much wisdom.
EA: So if this “wisdom" is part of your genes, does someone like me, who isn’t Japanese, have any chance to acquire that knowledge?
TT: No. And you shouldn’t try. You are something else. In you lies something or maybe even many things that we Japanese will never be able to fully understand. Part of Japan’s success in architecture, is that we do not try to be international; it is far better to be unique. We try to be true to ourselves and our past; we are not seeking to please everyone. And nor should you.