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Youth and success in architecture

July 22, 2014

At 43, Sou Fujimoto is the youngest architect to author a Serpentine Pavilion. Will his talk in Sydney inspire encouragement and support to the emerging generation of architects?

Text and images: Sara Anne Best

A gargantuan pebble lies dormant in Kensington Gardens, on the doorstep of the Serpentine Gallery. Chilean architect, Smiljan Radić’s paper-mache carapace is the antithesis of last year’s translucent terrain by Sou Fujimoto. It is a contradiction that highlights the pavilion commission as an ‘unparalleled site for architectural experimentation’.

Often a luxury, the privilege is awarded to an architect yet to build in the UK, enabling local audiences to ‘engage with their work first hand’. It is a prestigious honour and at once an affirmation and catalyst toward architectural fame. Yet in a profession that draws heavily on the work of others to teach and inspire, there is a commensurate level of responsibility.

It is not one Fujimoto took lightly, as the youngest recipient in 2013. For the commission is an offer of collaboration, not a donation. The Serpentine brief was nothing short of ‘give us Barcelona’, a pavilion that will change the future of architecture. An informed and involved client, the gallery pressed for ‘more Fujimoto, less Fujimoto’, the clearest expression of what we have already seen and a provocative hint of what to expect. The six month process is immediate and intense and for Fujimoto, ‘crystallised many of the concepts’ on which his oeuvre has been built.

His work is very much an exploration of contradictions. Predominantly of architecture and nature, but elucidated as public and private, open and closed, outside and inside, sharp and soft, order and disorder, and simplicity and complexity. Meshing these oppositional concepts creates ambiguity, erases boundaries and constructs new relationships between people in the space. But the 2013 steel cloud almost wasn’t – because it was impossible to draw a plan.

How to illustrate that the distribution of density within a strict grid can yield spatial inversions that support both intimate scales and open systems? Serpentine director, Julia Peyton-Jones flew to Fujimoto’s Tokyo studio, to be sure, and the 1:10 scale model revealed a simple and curiously low-tech design, which she called a ‘source of endless fascination’.

And indeed it was, a mirage on the horizon on approach from Hyde Park Corner. An amorphous matchstick house come epic climbing frame, rendered in ghostly white. An exercise in human participation and surveillance, comfortably bathed in the dappled light of a deciduous tree. There is a lot to admire about the pavilion, and of Fujimoto.

Speaking at C+A’s Talks, at the Maritime Museum, he comes across as calm and considered, approachable and above all, humble. His work is highly experimental yet executed with precision and clarity, even humour at times – which is no mean feat in this trade. Fujimoto’s youth is evident, but perplexing as you do the numbers. Born in 1971, graduated in 1994, opened his studio in 2000, comes to prominence in 2008 with Final Wooden House, and follows that with a string of captivating projects.

Youth and success in architecture. It’s a loaded proposition and one that Fujimoto carries with dignity. His 43 three years are regarded as formative in a profession that takes all but a lifetime to master. And of his success? Fujimoto considers himself lucky to be working in the lineage of SANAA and Toyo Ito (2002 and 2009 Serpentine Pavilions respectively).

Because he does not grow in the shadow of their formidable legacy, there is a respectful continuity between generations. He is grateful for the way in which Toyo Ito and Kazuyo Sejima are supporting the young. They are inclusive and interested in a way that energises the profession. There’s dialogue, academic praise and acceptance into the professional network at the highest level. Fujimoto is conscious of his role in preserving this tradition and his modesty resonates with those of us craving such a role model.

Fujimoto’s buildings are utopian in many ways, a likely symptom of his youth. Regardless of scale, they strike an inspiring balance between idealism and realism. A tower plagued by monster balconies, for example. Sydney should be building this tower, not Montpellier, I think. But it is not the concept we should be in awe of, rather the conditions that created it – an inclusive, encouraging and stimulating atmosphere for all architects.

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