The dreamy visions of Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto comprise loops of smoke puffs and a pixelated mass that slowly melds into a shape-shifting blur. He approaches his designs like a conceptual artist searching for new forms – a constant scavenging of possible ideas in almost anything.
Fujimoto shot to international fame in 2013 following his breakout Serpentine Gallery pavilion masterpiece, a playful and cloud-like structure standing on slender steel rods that formed a climbing frame of steps and seats, hovering like a deconstructed ‘spirit’ in Hyde Park. He joined the likes of Oscar Niemeyer, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Toyo Ito and the late Zaha Hadid who first designed the Serpentine Gallery back in 2000.
The annual project was the platform that helped propel the 47-year-old designer to global recognition. “It was like having a free pass,” recollects Fujimoto. “It gave me confidence. But more than that, it changed my approach to my work and gave me a new perception of how a building could be a landscape, furniture and enclosure at once.”
He continued to spread his philosophies with two offices in Tokyo and Paris, working on prestigious projects around the world including a 1.2km-long shopping mall in the Middle East. A boat-shaped block of apartments with a forest rooftop is also being planned for Paris while another upcoming music hall project in Budapest comes in a form of a glass bubble surrounded by forest on all sides.
Fujimoto, who grew up in rural Hokkaido on the edge of the woodlands, has a strong affinity to nature. According to the architect, the feeling of being in an open field surrounded by all sorts of things – trees, streams, hills — inspires curiosity. “The fact that you can’t see everything invites you to walk to discover more,” he says.
Building his own practice
Unlike many architects today, Fujimoto has never worked for another practice. “I was scared of being rejected. And if I had gone to work for another architect, they might have overpowered me because I was so easily influenced,” he mentions. This further solidifies the reason behind his original approach.
Unbeknownst to many, Fujimoto was supposed to study physics at the University of Tokyo. He found his calling for architecture instead and graduated in 1994. “Coming from physics and math, pure art and painting seemed far away from me, so architecture seemed a bit more related to what I was doing at that time. At the time, I didn’t know anything about architecture. It just seemed like it might be the right fit for me,” he explains.
He began his career with the help of his psychiatrist father who commissioned his first project — to design the psychiatric ward for the hospital that his father ran in Hokkaido. He rearranged the patients’ rooms opening into a communal living space and found a balance between privacy and openness. This similar philosophy resonates with the ideologies of the International Style; Fujimoto cited his first contact to architecture was through Le Corbusier, one of the fathers of modern architecture.
Fujimoto has a clever way to layer and stack spaces to blur the transition from public to private. This is depicted evidently in a 2008 project – House N located in the Japanese town of Oita — that resembles the idea of ‘a space within a space’, like a Russian doll. He is able to hide spaces without looking too obvious, and create openings that are unexpected to the naked eye.
On a larger perspective, Fujimoto addresses the notion of a so-called ‘primitive future’ where imagination yields diverse and multi-faceted arrangements that are rendered through crisp and angular geometrics. There is a certain duality to his work – an infinite quality to spaces that evolve in the eyes of its beholder. As a result, his works are able to join inside and outside, open and close, vertical and horizontal, nature and man-made.
Fujimoto had another breakthrough with a project that challenged the limits of openness and privacy. It was his smallest project to date – a public toilet in Ichihara.
He designed a solid wooden fence in an oval ring around the edges of the site, encircling a bucolic garden in which the toilet stands brilliantly exposed in a glass pavilion – of course in a way that allows the user to have his or her own private moment while still being surrounded by nature (in the open).
Fujimoto believes that the future is a spreading matrix rather than a straight line. What he is making now can be seen as seeds for the future. It is a continuity of creations, ideas and inspiration.
“I guess I’m interested in reinterpreting how to harmonise old and new, past and future, nature and culture – leading to something new. Even in such a small project, you can find opportunities to reinvent architecture,” he says.