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Sou Fujimoto: ‘Foreigners don't want really crazy things’

Sou fujimoto hokkaido children centre daichi ano

Although small design challenges still excite Fujimoto, he is now thinking big and merging architecture with urbanism

As the car curved around the Hokkaido hillside, Sou Fujimoto’s Children’s Centre for Psychiatric Rehabilitation came into view.  Majestic, monolithic and a bit incongruous with the countrified setting, this cluster of abstract white cubes appeared like a mirage. Although I had seen photos of the building countless times, none of those static images prepared me for Fujimoto’s striking, dynamic form. As the architect and I entered the building through its side door – the one that its diminutive residents use daily – the interior revealed itself bit by bit. Like a cityscape in miniature, it contained a mixture of piazza-like, open areas for group activities loosely embraced by two-storey, house-like volumes that hold mainly sleeping quarters. While blond wood flooring and white walls gently enclosed the space, full-height glass panels effortlessly connected it to the scenery outside. Neat rows of tiny toothbrushes above the communal sinks and colourful crayoned drawings affixed to the walls bore witness to the kids’ comfortable accommodation within Fujimoto’s architecture. Even the designer, his own harshest critic, had to admit that his building still looked good some 10 years later.

‘Even the designer, his own harshest critic, had to admit that his building still looked good some 10 years later’

This was the project that first put Fujimoto on the proverbial map. Captivated by its unusual programme and fresh parti, the media showered it with attention. As elsewhere, most architects in Japan launch their practices by designing second homes for friends or family, not mental health facilities. Plus, psychiatric centres are rarely conceived as a jumble of boxes, randomly scattered like toy blocks. Clearly, Fujimoto had a new point of view. In recognition of his achievement, the Children’s Centre was lauded as a prizewinner in the AR Emerging Architecture Awards and, once that happened, the budding designer was off and running.

Sou fujimoto hokkaido children centre

Model of the Hokkaido Children’s Treatment Centre

Model of the Hokkaido Children’s Treatment Centre

‘The award had a big impact on me,’ says Fujimoto, who grew up in a small town in the middle of Hokkaido before matriculating at the University of Tokyo. Thanks to the award, he says, he began receiving requests to take part in professional activities around Japan as well as overseas. ‘I had time so I accepted every invitation,’ he remembers. For him, those trips were opportunities to lecture and establish relationships with colleagues around the world. But they also broadened his perspective: wherever he landed, he made time to explore on foot, gaining a feel for the local architecture and urban organisation of each place.

These experiences opened Fujimoto’s eyes to the possibility of commissions beyond Japan – an ambition that continues to guide his career today. The size, scope and context of projects overseas offered design opportunities unavailable to him at home. In Japan, where city growth can be quite organic, even haphazard, urban elements – such as street grids, town squares and greenbelts – are mostly absent. In addition, building sites tend to be small and subject to severe code restrictions. In the hope of gaining access to foreign jobs, Fujimoto began entering competitions in earnest.

Hokkaido Children’s Treatment Centre

Hokkaido Children’s Treatment Centre

Source: Daichi Ano

No stranger to the competitive process, he first participated in design contests after receiving his undergraduate degree in 1994. While the majority of his classmates went on to apprentice at established firms or enter graduate school, Fujimoto rented a one-room apartment in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward, where he embarked on a course of self-study that lasted for several years. In part, he wanted to fill in gaps he perceived in his education, but his main goal was to devise an entirely original approach to building design. 

Though Fujimoto did not want to be moulded by a mentor, he was deeply moved by Toyo Ito’s reinterpretation of the standard column at Sendai Mediatheque. No longer just a means of providing support, Ito’s wavy tubes modulated the interior and doubled as vertical circulation conduits. This stimulated Fujimoto’s thought process and he began searching for ways to reinvent other conventional elements – roofs, stairs and, especially, floors captivated him. Competitions gave him the impetus to put his ideas on paper.

‘He began searching for ways to reinvent other conventional elements – roofs, stairs and, especially, floors captivated him. Competitions gave him the impetus to put his ideas on paper’

Envision pavilion

Envision pavilion

Source: Vincent Hecht

Many of Fujimoto’s early entries received high praise and prestigious prizes for their conceptual merit. But in due course his efforts began yielding bona fide building commissions too. Thanks partly to overseas competitions, Fujimoto today has more work outside Japan than at home. Among his current projects, Budapest’s Forest of Music, a performing arts centre capped by an enormous, perforated roof, recently completed its design development phase. L’Arbre Blanc, a high-rise housing complex resembling a giant pine cone, is now under construction in Montpellier. And in September, his Envision Pavilion, a mountain of white scaffolding inspired by the Serpentine Pavilion, opened in Shanghai.

To a large extent the composition of his 50-person practice – foreign staff and interns outnumber the Japanese – enables Fujimoto to take on international work without skipping a beat. With that goal in mind he consciously hires not just Japanese and English speakers but also Chinese and French designers who provide the in-house language capability needed to navigate project briefs and client negotiations in their home countries. On any given day, his designers can be heard speaking their native tongue among themselves. However, English is the appointed office language. Unusual for a Tokyo firm, this choice ensures internal communication. Plus, the constant exposure to English doubles as informal language instruction for the studio’s Japanese speakers.

Render of l'Arbre Blanc

Render of l’Arbre Blanc

Source: SFA + NLA + OXO + RSI

The hiring of foreign employees not only benefits Fujimoto, it also aids potential clients who might have struggled to connect with Tokyo-based designers previously. Until fairly recently, Japanese architecture could only be admired from afar; differences in design sensibilities and construction capability, not to mention communication methods, made it hard to export. Today most of those impediments are inconsequential to Fujimoto. Regardless of location, he starts every project he undertakes with a thorough assessment of the local conditions. ‘[Foreigners] don’t want really crazy things,’ he says. ‘They want something that is new but really connected to the historical context.’

Nowhere is this more evident than in France. Like SANAA, Shigeru Ban and Kengo Kuma before him, Fujimoto enjoys a special relationship with France, where he now has several works under way and more in the pipeline – many of them competitions. One of his most recent victories was Mille Arbres, the 60,000m2 mixed-use development that convinced him to open a Paris office. Located at the edge of the city, the project is a collaboration with the local firm OXO Architectes. It consists of articulated housing blocks on top, a public park at street level and myriad public components, such as a bus depot, hotel and kindergarten, held by a single ship-shaped container in between. ‘It’s a really strange shape for me,’ remarks Fujimoto. But the project’s merging of architecture and urbanism speaks volumes about where he may be headed in the future. Although small design challenges still excite Fujimoto, he is now thinking big.

Sou Fujimoto’s Mille Arbres project for Paris

Sou Fujimoto’s Mille Arbres project for Paris

Source: SFA + OXO + MORPH

Sou Fujimoto’s AR Emerging Architecture awards

Residential Care Unit, Hokkaido, Japan, Highly Commended 2005
T-House, Maebashi City, Japan, Honourable Mention 2005
Children’s Treatment Centre, Hokkaido, Japan, Winner 2006
House, Chiba, Japan, Highly Commended 2007