Image, Technology, and Tradition

“Does technology lead to the new utopia?” Mr. Maki, who has been asking himself this question for 40 years, does not think so. He speculated that technology leads architecture in opposite directions, towards both homogeneity and diversification, and that these two forces can coexist in urban environments due to the dual nature of architecture as commodity and cultural artifact, the former valued for its “economy, functionality, marketability,” and the latter valued for its beauty and existential singularity.

“When I look back, I must say I was always using technology at every level of the process of making, from conceptual formation to the elaboration of details,” Mr. Maki reflected. Swedish welding technology enabled him to extend the frontiers of interior space in the roof composition of the Fujisawa Gymnasium (1983), creating a “homogenous look of wrinkles on stainless steel plates” similar to a traditional Japanese copper pot. For the 350-meter stainless steel roof of the Makuhari Messe (Nippon Convention Center, 1997), an innovative system of construction and assembly was created to raise the roof, in record time. Mr. Maki equilibrated the force of gravity on the structure with cables. He compared the visual effect to a fisherman reeling in a fish in a Hokusai painting.

Mr. Maki noted, “Lightness is a concern for architects, especially the younger generation.” The Kirishima Concert Hall (1994) in Kyushu was designed to allow the foyer a spectacular view of Sakurajima Volcano. Computer-generated simulations were used for the first time to analyze the complex of forms and ducts between the ceiling and the roof, cutting-edge technology in the early 1990s. For his Tokyo Church of Christ (1995), a large glass wall (which also served as the western façade) was placed in front of the congregational seating space. A picture of the finished building showed the glass surface dramatically illuminated by a sunset sky and (cleverly) visually and acoustically softened by the insertion of fiberglass between two panes of glass, sealing the inner space from street noise and glare. “The ceiling is a metaphor of a sheltering sky—you feel enclosed—and the light fixtures hanging randomly are metaphors for stars.” Wood and other building materials, sourced mainly outside Japan, were selected to match the singular identity of the main hall.

For the TV Asahi building (2003) in Roppongi Hills (a recently redeveloped area of Tokyo comprising cultural institutions, entertainment venues, shopping areas and parks as well as office and residential space), Mr. Maki employed large Vierendeel frames for its vast atrium, ousting traditional welding for mechanical joints, which were assembled piecemeal on-site by 16 prefabricators who worked from drawings. They allowed only a 0.2 mm tolerance for error. “People question that, but it seems to me that architecture is a testimony of the time it was built. Later on, it reveals time. We might call this precision ‘technocraft’—it still exists in Japan... but may die out after some time,” Mr. Maki said.

He profiled other projects: the new MIT Media Lab research center (2006) featuring a novel curved staircase; Triad (2002), an ultra-thin, curved cylindrical laboratory drawn and assembled with painstaking precision in Nagano Prefecture; the Fukui Prefectural Library (2003), “very gentle in profile alongside mountains and hills... a primary landscape for many Japanese,” using terracotta and aluminum materials with touches of black; the Kaze-no-Oka Crematorium (1996) in Nakatsu, spatially arranged to walk one naturally through the rite of mourning; and the Floating Pavilion (1996), a lightweight, fabric-covered, curved structure designed to float between pavilions at a summer festival in Groningen in western Holland.

Mr. Maki concluded on a philosophical note: “I have shown you large and tiny buildings and the use of technology in large and small applications. Architectural production requires hundreds and thousands of decisions of all kinds on behalf of the architect. In the process of decision-making, the architect is required to rely not only on his innate aesthetic preference for certain forms or spaces, but also on his ethical principles. To me, form seems to be a reduction of ethics to a question of aesthetics.”

Question & Answer

You’ve built and lived in many different places. Now you’re building in the U.S. How do you approach the U.S.?

“The process of architecture is becoming crosscultural, and we have many products from different countries. Architects ought to know about products and fabrication from around the world,” Mr. Maki declared. He recalled a positive experience in San Francisco, where he was able to find skilled workers and deploy his proprietary products and processes to the clients’ satisfaction.

Your work is not static. How do you explore?

Mr. Maki said of himself, “I have a very restless character. I like every building to be a new departure. Simple repetition is boring and denies self-advancement. Further improvement and sophistication is a continuing challenge. Curiosity may be another motivator.” He also reflected on his calling: “Each building requires a different response.” To Mr. Maki, refraining from automatic application of past ideas that are not appropriate to the current project is a part of being ethical.

How has digital technology affected your studio’s working methods?

Mr. Maki said digital technology allows the architect more freedom to explore interior space using curvilinear forms and linear forms alternately.

What are your thoughts on the plans for the Word Trade Center Site?

Mr. Maki said he would say only what he had said for the record. He is, however, concerned that the area of the site is about twice the scale of Rockefeller Center, while the physical context is approximately the same: “How are you going to make the environment livable for visitors, pedestrians and others? Of course, one will employ lots of trees and other means to mitigate the vastness... but the immense verticality cannot be mitigated.” He also questioned the wisdom of using a twin-tower theme in the new design: “People will be looking at it [while keeping in mind the original Twin Towers] and the impression will not be as deep as before.”

Presented as part of the symposium, "Technology & Tradition in Contemporary Japanese Architecture"
on February 26, 2004.
Topics:  Design

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