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2008 September: 'The Person I most want to meet' by Peter Cook

The person I most want to meet

Luckily (for I can’t resist the place) I have been invited to Japan again: as the European Curator for ‘New Directions in Architecture’, tagging along with a posse of much younger architects from Stavanger, Oporto, Budapest and elsewhere, presumably maintaining the line that Europe still carries the flame of experiment, initiative and wit in our wayward field. Yet 29 years ago it was my heart that pounded at the thought of finally seeing in the flesh their strange, gawky and sometimes impossible structures that were already straying quite far outside our own confines of Modernism.

The intervening years have been informed by multiple revelations, whereby the experiences of Japanese friends and Japanese structures have become intertwined, all of us enjoying the same passion for gadgetry layering, robots, translucency, here-not-here or a taste for provocative juxtapositions. The initial impact of Tokyo’s exuberance or Kyoto’s ambiguities has not paled, but acted as an incentive for architects as unlike as Peter Salter Enric Miralles or Herzog & de Meuron to perform at peak - only too aware that down the street the locals can contrive just as ingeniously and think just as deviously.

My own personal admiration and enjoyment has been on site, where the depth of Arata Isozaki’s mind, the audacity of Itsuko Hasegawa’s compositions, the finesse of Fumihiko Maki’s spaces, the cuteness of Atelier Bow-Wow’s observations or the sheer range and virtuosity of Toyo Ito’s whole output sends you back West feeling very humble.

So exposure to the weird world of Terunobu Fujimori at the 2006 Venice Biennale hit me oddly sideways. At first I treated it as ‘craft’, as a form of provocation altogether too coy, and instinctively recoiled from an implicit attack upon my friends mentioned above. Isozaki had admittedly made built responses towards traditional Japanese conditions but remained an International architect through the substance of the pieces, but this stuff was more edgy, more worrisome.

So the recent lavish book (published by TOTO ) was irresistible; a brilliant level of translation has been achieved with both Fujimori’s descriptions, his own essays and an illuminating piece of gossip from Genpei Akasegawa, his friend and client.

We are confronted by the ‘Sprout of the Earth’ and the ‘Tokyo Plan 2107’ where hive-like mounds recall those ant-cities or maybe cacti. Then onto teahouses of ever increasing audacity sitting upon progressively more exotic sets of legs. All backed by an extraordinary atmosphere of nonchalant but naughty observation. The kind of disarming matter-of-fact, but at the same time oblique, line of explanation that only the English (and, it seems, the Japanese) can pull off: ‘Ultimately, I decided that I would have to commit an architectural crime and conceal the structure under natural material … the act would be a failure if it were discovered or seemed somehow suspicious’. Or provocatively: ‘Has anyone before Gaudi in the long history of Christian churches ever designed a cathedral that has a snake as its starting point? Are giant lizards, crocodiles and serpents indispensable to the Holy Family?’

His decision, on graduating, was to be an architectural historian; Kathryn Findlay, a colleague teaching at Tokyo University, remembers him only as such. But in the book, he narrates bit by bit his gradual return to design. Nearly all his work claims to be inspired by material: its naturalness, its localness, its manner of being cut or honed or planted. Yet as he narrates and as the buildings become more and more purposeful, we become aware of a complex set of motives.

With observations that are certainly cosmopolitan - the guy has travelled, looked and read far beyond his locality of Nagano Prefecture (where his first works were made) yet his rediscovery of the ‘stuff ’ of architecture is bedded in narrative and local memory. He intriguingly gives us an insight into an approach to Modernism whereby he debates whether Mies or Gropius is its ‘point of origin’, a line of creative agonizing that few of my own (European) mentors would have dared to expose.

I would love to show him the ‘House in the Clouds’ at Thorpeness, Suffolk, and can imagine him sharing my delight at this one-time water tower as sky-borne cottage which (after the dismantling of the water tank) actually became a house. He’d surely get the double irony if we are read his friend Akasegawa, who recalls, ’ … the next time I saw Fujimori was at a broadcasting station … once we began talking, we really hit it off. He proved to be so entertaining we talked for two hours straight, though the original plan had been to talk for half an hour. The radio station staffers the other side of the glass were in stitches’.

Yet his own buildings are several notches more sophisticated than the Suffolk folly. In some ways they are built critiques, in some ways built rhetoric, in some ways I might claim from them my own territory of desire (reiterated again and again since Archigram days) that our architectural vocabulary is generally so narrow, so hidebound, surrounding us with politeness and circumspection. That perhaps we insult the tradition of Modernism by being so mean with it. I’m looking forward to having that conversation in Tokyo.

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