At just 42 years old, Makoto Tanijiri and the office he founded in 2000, Suppose Design Office, have emerged as one of Japan's most prolific medium-sized architecture and design firms. However, Tanijiri's path to success was somewhat different to the route taken by his contemporaries. In this interview, the latest in Ebrahim Abdoh's series of “Japan's New Masters,” Tanijiri discusses the role that education plays in a successful career and his work's relation to the rest of Japanese architecture.
Ebrahim Abdoh: What was your earliest memory of wanting to be an architect?
Makoto Tanijiri: When I was about 5 years old. Of course at that age I did not know the word “architect” or “architecture,” all I remember was how small our house was, and all the things I didn’t like about it. Back then, my dream was to be a carpenter, so that I could build my own house and live on my own.
EA: Where did you go to university?
MT: I didn’t think I needed to go to university.
EA: So how exactly did you go from high-school to owning one of Japan’s fastest growing and most exciting architecture firms?
MT: After graduating high-school, I went to the Anabuki Design College, in Hiroshima, for two years.
EA: With only two years in design school under your belt, you were able reach and surpass so many ‘fully qualified’ people in your field. Have you ever felt in any way lacking in terms of a formal education, or would you say instead that spending 6 years studying is unnecessary?
MT: This should be for everyone, as it was for me, a personal choice. I don’t think there is a clear right or wrong path when it comes to this profession. I personally felt very strongly about not needing to go to university. Many people will not have such strong convictions. And yes, I am successful, and although I accomplished everything myself and without the need for an architecture degree, I did get lucky.
EA: You are just 40 years old, and you are a multi award winning architect, with a hugely successful firm with 2 branches (Tokyo & Hiroshima), and dozens of projects under your belt, some of which are very large scale. When you are at a dinner or cocktail party with other friends or colleagues who are architects, or any other scenario where you are surrounded by other architects, do you feel in any way insecure for your unusual path to success?
MT: Honestly, yes. At the beginning of my career, I constantly had a sort of complex, because I didn’t have a degree, because I hadn’t been to university; it felt like shame. I felt as though I hadn’t earned the title of "architect," and that I was lying by saying I was. It was a long time before I felt the awesome relief of pride.
EA: How did you overcome these insecurities?
MT: Fortunately, like most teenagers, I have dealt with insecurity before. I used to play basketball, and at quite a competitive level, and well... I wasn’t the tallest guy in the world. I was still a very good player, but my height made me very insecure. Later on, in my professional life, I looked back at that time had and what I did to overcome those feelings. It’s all the same.
EA: The most important thing is that you recognise yourself as an architect, however others may not still. Your firm is quickly becoming one of the most famous "new" outfits in Japan. Surely this has attracted some envy or resentment from your peers. Has anyone ever tried to diminish you for your less orthodox education?
MT: I have been in this industry for some time now and met many people. In this time I have observed two patterns, or two types of people. There are the "creators" and then there’s everyone else: the rest. The latter do refer to their education quite heavily in discussion, and this is also clear in their projects. They do not do it to discredit me; people in Japan are not like that. Education is supremely important to the Japanese, and this is taken to an even greater extreme in architecture. The “sempai/kohai” (master and student) relationship is central to most architects in Japan, which in a way makes me a bit of an orphan. I owe no-one that level of respect, I do not see it as my duty to carry on anyone else’s legacy, or apply their principles – I am free. If anyone were to envy me, I think it would be for this freedom I have, rather than for my success.
EA: Are the two linked?
MT: The two what?
EA: This special freedom you have and your success?
MT: No. Maybe. I don’t know. Most successful architects in Japan are in fact very educated individuals; they hold several masters from the best universities in Japan like Tokyo University and some even additional degrees from Ivy League universities in America like Harvard etc... I can only speak for myself, and all I can say is that I have no regrets, and that I love my work; that is real success. As for the success you are referring to, as in all my projects this could be for several reasons. I am actually ahead of the curve of a new trend, whereby it is not so "cool" to call yourself an architect. In Japan now, it is more fashionable now to say you are a designer, or craftsman, etc... So maybe this new trend has helped me.
EA: Would you say you have a style?
MT: No, I believe quite strongly that I do not have any particular style.
EA: I can actually believe that. When I look through your all your projects it looks like three or four different firms or design companies.
MT: I see what you mean. I think having a clear design philosophy or a set of things you like or aspire to can be very helpful in the very early design stages to give you that initial direction but it can also trap you. You should never forego a better alternative for the sake of continuity or style.
EA: I have always said that there is a distinct "Japanese-ness" that many Japanese contemporary architects share; please pardon the expression - a sort of Japanese "je ne sais quoi." And although I think a few of your projects possess that quality, some of them despite being very daring and cutting edge, have an additional dimension which is at once more traditionally Japanese, but also more gentle and demure, particularly in the interiors. What would you say to that?
MT: I have never tried to design in a Japanese way, at least not consciously; in fact it is something that I have even tried to hide. Yes in Japan our walls are almost always white and the spaces are bright – we favour light woods over dark ones and timber furniture over heavy upholstery. I believe exteriors should be striking and original; this is what makes Tokyo one of the most architecturally diverse cities in the world. Interiors should be more humane, gentler or at the very least more subtle. When I was born, my mother was still very young, so I was raised by my grandmother. From a very young age, I understood the importance of, and need for, quiet.
EA: What type of project do you find easiest or where you find the design comes to you most naturally?
MT: No project is easy. So far, every single one of them has been difficult.
EA: When you look at a modern house in the West and one in Japan, what for you are the big differences?
MT: I would say size, but size is not a difference in architecture but a difference in parameters like a site constraint. It may be the cause behind a difference in the resulting architecture but not a difference itself. For me the main distinction between the West and Japan is layout. Our layout is smart, very clever. Japanese architects know how to make a small space appear much bigger than it is. We have been doing this for centuries. A good example is the shoji. Shoji screens are translucent, you cannot see through but the light still passes through which makes you imagine the space on the other side. This adds a lot of volume to the space you are in.
EA: In Japan it is very common for architects to make spaces all white, or all concrete, everything one thing like a museum. In your projects however there is far more variation and even color which is not common in Japan. How do you explain this choice?
MT: These architects like Ito, SANAA, Ando, Ishigami, or Fujimoto, etc... do spaces that are beyond beautiful; they are very moving and powerful. But I believe this is because they are a bit alien – not completely human spaces. I am not a collector of white spaces; I want my work to be enjoyed by human beings with different personalities, and each one calls for a different approach and a different palette.
EA: So far 2015, and especially 2014 have been very big years for you. In this short time you have completed so many large and varied projects, shops, restaurants, showrooms, interiors, houses, hotels, etc... You are one of the most prolific firms in Japan at the moment. What are you doing differently to get all this work?
MT: The last couple of years have been huge years for us. To give you an idea, in 2014 we were working on eighty projects and managed to complete thirty in just one year. The project management experience I acquired at that little known firm I went to after I finished my studies really taught me how to progress projects very quickly. I do not need to teach my staff how to design, but where I do instruct them is on time efficiency, so that they can move projects on as quickly and smoothly as possible. Timeliness is one of the most important things to clients. I think that is a big part of our recent success.
MT: It all started with competitions. In order to compete in the international design competitions and have a fighting chance you need to bring your standard of presentation up the level of the other participants, which is very high. Models and line drawings are good but sometimes to sell your design you need to create an atmosphere, and that’s what 3D does. Also I my material palette is very varied, I can’t rely on my imagination to see if it works or not, so 3D is the thing that brings me closest to reality and allows me to try out various materials and details.
EA: Japan is one of if not the most technologically advanced country in the world with the biggest market share in the technology and electronics industry, yet its architects almost never use any of it. Why is that?
MT: I think you are absolutely right in asking. This has always seemed very strange to me. I think it goes back to the "master and student" relationship. The Japanese masters had enormous influence on their students. Not only did they teach their design principles but also how they designed, which back then was always models and line drawings. Many years later both the principles of design, working methods and distrust of computation have been passed on to their students and their students’ students. Once again, seeing as I did not attend an architecture faculty and did not have a master, I was free to implement to tools that I thought were best. I will say, however, the trend is quickly evolving and younger architects are finally starting to use more 3D and they are learning very quickly.
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.