Fumihiko Maki: Making History

Sep 23, 2009
  • Article by David Neustein
  • Photography by Imogene Tudor
  • Designer

Fumihiko Maki has been practising architecture for more than 50 years. He has seen modernism, and then postmodernism, come and go. In that span, Maki has not only witnessed Tokyo, the city of his birth, emerge from the devastation of World War II to become the world’s most populous metropolis; he has been an essential contributor to Tokyo’s physical and intellectual development. Commenced in the 1960s and featuring several successive stages of construction, Maki’s mixed-use Hillside Terrace complex instigated the growth of Daikanayama, where his office is located, from peripheral suburb to highly desirable Tokyo locale.

Now a serene octogenarian, Maki has lost none of his fascination with building and thinking on architecture. Entering into perhaps his most prolific period to date, he is completing some of the present time’s most significant projects, including the headquarters of the Aga Khan Foundation and a tower at New York’s World Trade Centre site.

David Neustein: Walking to the office we couldn’t fail to be impressed by the scale of work that you have completed in this area. It must be an extraordinary feeling to have built up an area that you have known well since you were young.
Fumihiko Maki: Sure. I was able to witness the changes that have been taking place here and there and in all the areas of Tokyo. It is not like London, where you have a more stable sort of neighbourhood in mass, scale, appearance and architectural style for many, many years, and where only particular places in the city are changing. Tokyo is not like that. Everywhere changes have been taking place.

DN It seems that your style and interests have also changed greatly over the years.
FM Now remember that I’ve been practising long enough, almost a half century, so that I think you might be able to identify great changes, where a transformation took place in my architectural style or approach. But I have stayed within a modernist tradition. I have not been affected too much by changes like postmodernism, which arrived in Japan in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. I have also not been affected too much by, I should say, the current, computer-oriented type of architecture. So I don’t think I’ve changed too much. People say I am one of those who have not strayed. But it all depends on how you look at architecture.

DN You taught at Harvard just after the war. How did it feel being a Japanese man in the US at that time?
FM I went to Harvard, and I belonged to my class where most of them were American. But also, being Harvard, there had probably been quite a lot of students and teachers from Europe and elsewhere. So it was very much an international scene in the architectural area. In 1956 I went to teach at Washington University, where I built my first building. Many of the Americans were on the GI Bill, meaning that they were able to attend university after serving in the army or navy during the Second World War. So they were also just about my age, but there was no schism: being one Japanese defeated and Americans the winners, and Japanese happened to be teachers and Americans happened to be students. It was just the kind of normal relationship you find between a teacher and students.

DN I can’t help but notice that your Kaze-No-Oka Crematorium is on the cover of your upcoming Phaidon monograph.
FM In the 1970s I wrote a long essay on Oku, Japanese inner space. When I designed the crematorium 15 years later, I thought Kaze-no-Oka was a good example to show how, in the modern world, Oku or Oku-ness can still be interpreted in one’s own project. It was in this sense that I decided to have Kaze-no-Oka [on the cover of the Phaidon monograph]. I am also interested in Japanese vernacular, in how a modern vernacular could exist or could develop in each region. I used the crematorium tower as an example of this kind of vernacular icon. So in this sense I was interested in introducing Kaze-no-Oka as an example, and I shouldn’t say this is the best work, or the most representative, only in relation to what I have been finding out about Japanese spatial characteristics. I thought that this project could give some understanding of what I was saying.

DN I am interested particularly in the image chosen of the courtyard through which the mourners pass in Kaze-no-Oka. This kind of space is not typical in Australia.
FM It’s not typical in Japan either, because it’s my reaction to two kinds of crematoria. For instance, when I have a funeral in a temple for my relatives, one of which happens on and off, after a very formal, ritualistic, and in a way strained service, the body is taken to a crematorium. It’s a very shabby sort of community service type, you just open a glass door and right in front there is a place to leave the body. Then you go to another place and are waiting until it is cremated. So it’s a kind of anti-climax.
But there is also another extreme happening today. Because of the hyper-dense population in Tokyo, many, many people need cremation, particularly in the wintertime. Today the crematorium has become more institutionalised. Three years ago I had a service for my mother, who died at the age of 97, in one of these places. It was wintertime and we were taken to a big crematorium, it was like an airport terminal, there were so many cremations happening at once. It took less than one hour for the cremation. I’m sure that the Germans developed a very efficient way to cremate people in the Holocaust. And since then it has become so mechanised. It doesn’t give people the repose of time to think about the deceased. And so I was able to see two alternatives: one shabby and the other an unnecessarily grand scaled and efficiency-oriented sort of crematorium.
So I just wanted to make this other crematorium somewhere where people could remember their evocation. Fortunately this happened to be in a small city, so they didn’t need big places like in Tokyo. But the place should also contain a certain dignity for a very important moment for the people left. This was the underlining philosophy for this crematorium. It has been very well-received and many people want to be cremated there, though it is mostly intended for people from the small city. Still you can register, and a friend of mine who is only 40 years old has decided to register his name. Maybe he will arrive there after 40 or 50 years. To that extent this place has been well-received.
It is not a performing arts centre or a museum, it’s something closely related to the daily life of ordinary people. But the cremation or funerary service is an extraordinary occasion for ordinary people. This is a key point in conceiving the ideas of the crematorium. It shouldn’t be very light or open because then it becomes like a sports club. It requires a certain type of serenity. Not to say that it shouldn’t be an enjoyable place, but at the same time the space should be able to offer something to you, for thinking and for spending time. It’s very difficult because no architectural manual says how it should be designed. When you do a hospital or a school there are lots of instructions.

DN As I understand it, the space depicted in the photograph lies between the prayer hall and where the body is cremated, and so after the service is concluded the mourners pass through there. What I find significant is that this space has no prescribed function…
FM Yes! And you don’t have to get out or do anything; it is not a prayer ground, it is a symbolic place where you are able to see only sky and water, and sometimes you find a dragon and that’s about all. And the clouds. And perhaps this is the way that you should somehow get involved. It has no other function.

DN What is the process of designing such a space?
FM [Laughs]. Of course it is a municipal crematorium, so we started with a way to make the building fit within the set square metres. And then I wanted to make a procession, and each procession is related to the next procession. After cremation you have to wait one and a half hours in this waiting space, then come back to the enshrinement room to collect your ashes and bones, each in a small ceramic container, and then go back again to the path you took on arrival. It’s a circulatory sort of a process. Baroque architecture has one significant focal point, and you always move towards that point. But in Japanese ritualistic experiences the process or journey is more important than arriving at a particular point. This is pretty much why I decided to make the crematorium a sequential experience of places, which becomes just one short journey from arriving to leaving. My concept is in this spatial organisation.

DN Can I talk to you about the Spiral building? I believe this is the project that has brought you the greatest international recognition…
FM [Laughs] Well, I’m not so sure this is the one, but anyway, people from abroad still visit this place and it must therefore be well-known. I’m glad that it is still functioning as it was built. Well, we know that this happens to be my attempt at making a collage out of modernism: using columns, flat planes, curves and a number of other things. But more important is the way that space is organised. The reason why I did these kinds of things is that it was a very narrow and left over and sort of undistinguished property in Tokyo when I was asked to do it. How could I bring people inside? You know, insects are always drawn by light. So I said, “Why don’t we have a small skylight at the end of the corridor like this one?” We also integrated a café with many events and activities. And I am always interested in having a choice of path. People can go up here, but can also come from the front to meet on the second floor via a different path. There is also a roof where you have skylight. But being a roof, it’s a little different, even in Tokyo. It is isolated, cut off from noise on the ground floor or views. It becomes a little bit surrealistic. So I decided to make a fairly surrealistic sort of landscape.

DN The floating pavilion that you built in Holland seems quite an unusual project in comparison to your other work.
FM [Laughs]. Well you know Groningen is a city that has lousy weather. So the summer it is a very nice time for them. They have an annual festival, and one year a few architects were invited to participate in this festival. Four or five of us came to Groningen to discuss many small projects. The owner asked: who is interested in doing a floating pavilion? Groningen happens to be an aquatic city with many canals, and this floating pavilion had to be able to be sailed and also to be moored on the shore for the performances. I put up my hand, and nobody else did, and I got the job. It was a very informal sort of occasion, and also an informal way to receive a commission. I think it was 1994 when we had this small meeting, almost 15 years ago, and Rem Koolhaas was not as big as now: he did a public toilet and some apartments in Groningen.
What interested me very much is that it is always said that architecture must be site-oriented or site-fitted. But the pavilion moves around and it changes. Here it’s a little bit like a white swan, and now there it looks like a cloud merged into the scenery, and here becomes a tent, and there one of the stages, and so on. So the question is what should architecture be? Should it be site-specific, or could it be more iconic, superseding any question of site? I have no answer to that. But it brings up an interesting problem or argument of icon versus context. For me this is a kind of learning process, and it poses a new question of architecture, which interests me very much. The pavilion is a double spiral, so suddenly, through its geometry, it says something. But at the same time it has a roof, which reflects light in different ways. I was very interested in these kinds of notions.

DN What else have you been working on recently?
FM We made a proposal for an addition to the United Nations headquarters [in New York]. We’ve been selected to be architect, but for political reasons right now it’s on hold.

DN That must be very frustrating, because it’s a very symbolic project.
FM Yes, yes. As symbolic as the WTC [World Trade Centre, New York]. Of the various WTC towers, other than the freedom tower, ours is the only one coming up, because the rest of them are all for investment funds, which are not being produced anymore. Ours is for a public agency, fortunately.

DN How does that feel, getting to be so closely involved in history?
FM Involved in history yes, but also politics!

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