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<eyebeam><blast> Itsuko Hasegawa Interview, Tokyo
HANS ULRICH OBRIST
My first question is about exhibitions. You have recently written in
this book a short text about your installation at the Louisiana Museum.
Can you tell me a bit about the display you did there?
One of the fundamental principals of my architecture is that it starts
from communication. This exhibition was a way of studying how
communication can create spaces, or how spaces and communication
interact. It was kind of a test. Of course communicating face to face
is the best way, people to people, but recently all kinds of new forms
of communication have developed, so it's necessary to explore these ways
of communicating as well. The various themes that I explore in my
architecture, nature, technology, were involved in the installation
through a number of different settings that explored the relationship,
for example, between communications and nature and architecture, or
computers and nature and architecture. There was a way for the visitors
to the exhibition to respond through e-mail to our office in Tokyo. They
responded to the works of architecture or to the exhibition itself or to
the themes of the exhibition, really anything they want.
This idea of feedback and participatory issues are also very strong in
The messages which were e-mailed to our office during the exhibition
were also printed out and put up so that they could be read, thus
becoming a part of the exhibition. The modern tradition of
architecture, the generations of Le Corbusier, Tange in Japan... was
mostly interested in making very individual statements of their own
personal works of architecture. For my generation it's more important
to consider that a number of different people will be in the buildings
and that this type of communication is more important than a singular
voice designing a building.
What is the role of the architect ?
In any case, as opposed to making a singular object, my interest is in
making a place where different people can come together and can enjoy a
range of activities. I see the role of the architect as creating a
place where this kind of inclusiveness can occur. Some people say that
architecture is engineering, and other people say that architecture is a
kind of art. Architecture is so complex, there a so many forces
involved, that somehow it seems natural that it reflects this kind of
complexity and the different voices of the people who are involved.
In our last discussion you mentioned that from the very beginning there
is a dialogue with the community, who basically are not only the
commissioners but also the future users of the building. Can you tell me
a bit more about how this process works in general, and perhaps more
concretely through the example of the Fruit Museum?
The Shonandai Cultural Center and the Sumida Culture Factory, because
they were competitions, are maybe better examples of how this process
works. Generally for competition there is of course a given program,
requirements that you have to fulfill, but rather than thinking about
those requirements, my thoughts go to the people who will use the
building in the end, and their requirements. So when I'm making a
competition proposal I starts by thinking of those people rather than of
the brief that's been written by the politicians or whoever is
sponsoring the competition. Even though architecture is fundamentally a
public entity, often the needs of the public are not well represented.
There is a real need to consider the public as a client, and by doing so
it opens up new possibilities and maybe even needs for new kinds of
programs developed through this kind of thinking.
How do you see the role of the architect and the urbanist in terms of
providing public space, to "make public" ?
No matter what you build, if it's in the city it must have a public
character, and when it starts to be put away, more and more privatized,
the city becomes uncomfortable to live in.
Where are the boundaries between public and private space in the city
now? I had a discussion this morning with Toyo Ito who pointed out that
more and more these boundaries are blurred. It's like a membrane he's
interested in creating. How do you see the distinction?
The Asian city in general, in contrast to the European or American city,
has always gotten it's sense of life through a juxtaposition of
different functions and scales together. The kind of city where people
are not living in the same places they're working seems to be
fundamentally different from most Asian cities today. Most Asian cities
have a mix and that's where their life comes from. For example, in a
city like Tokyo of course there are tall buildings but at the base of
these tall buildings you'll find a sort of jumble of little buildings
that change day to day as needs change, very rapidly. I call it a
process city, and this kind of constantly unfinished, process city is
actually where the life is and how a city like Tokyo gets its energy,
from this small scale.
In contrast with Europe?
This is generally true, and occasionally when a young architect builds a
new structure in one of these cities it's more shocking than in Tokyo
because of this contrast. The rate of change is so small in Europe that
when there is a change it's very noticeable.
You are building a house in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. How do you
see these exploring or emerging cities in South-East Asia and China, the
incredible high-rises in these cities, this verticality? In Kuala Lumpur
itself, among younger architects there are those who criticize this
energy consuming and ecologically devastating tendency, and there is a
claim for more horizontal architecture, which interestingly enough is
something about which you have written. So, two questions: how do you
see the development in cities like Kuala Lumpur and, can you talk about
this concept of horizontality instead of verticality?
The history of the Asian city is a kind of horizontal sprawl, but when I
say we should try to develop horizontally rather than vertically, I'm
not speaking literally, saying we should sprawl the cities out, but
metaphorically, as a way of thinking about the kind of places we make.
But fundamentally, with horizontal developments it's easier for people
to meet; it's naturally a more active kind of structure than a vertical
structure where people are on different levels. In a vertical structure
people are fundamentally cut off from one another and in a horizontal
structure people are free to interact. So I'm thinking (laughs) if
you're going to build a tall building, why not take the horizontal
structure and tilt it on its side, rather than this kind of horizontal.
If would like to have the chance to build this kind of tall building and
explore this way of thinking...I was recently in Shanghai and there are
really no middle-scale or low-scale buildings, there are just tall
buildings, and they really have a political feel about them, like it was
political powers making these structures. I liked the city of Kuala
Lumpur of years ago when it felt like a sort of village surrounded by
jungle; it felt like a curious but natural sort of a place. Now since
they have been building sky-scrapers it seems very man-made, unnatural.
Are you interested in bringing environmental issues back to the city?
Cities are fundamentally artificial places and you need to accept that,
however at the level of bodily comfort it's always very important to
consider nature even within the city. For example, if the wind is able
to blow through a space, or water is able to flow through a space, even
if it's created with artificial means, it's easy to control and the body
feels more comfortable in those kind of environments. I've been working
for a long time to incorporate this kind of thinking into my
architecture. Again it's not exactly nature, I call it fluctuation --
these elements of wind, water, movement that work with the human body.
Things that are moving have this kind of connection to the body and
nature and are important within the city. For example a long time ago,
in the summer time, houses would all hang light bamboo screens (sudare)
and lanterns outside. That was the summer landscape, and then a
different landscape would develop in the winter time. Hanging things
and taking things down, movement and change, was part of the of the
You said the city is never finished. Could one extend this to a
building - a "building on the move", in permanent transformation?
Tall buildings are just finished. In Japan so many things are
constantly changing: the politics, the values of society, the family
structure, lifestyles... It's incredible how things change in South
East Asia and Japan.
Let's talk about the oscillation between local and global, because your
buildings take into consideration local issues, while you also talk
about global concerns. Can you talk about this kind of
shifting/floating between the two, this in-between-ness?
Generally in Japan, the bigger architecture companies do the big work.
An office of this size...
How many people work in your office ?
Thirty-five. The kind of work we do is more local, sort of by default,
because we're a small company.The local Japanese or Tokyo traditions, of
course because we are here, are very important to us. But more and
more, by incorporating these local traditions, it's somehow becoming
easier for people outside to connect with us. Even so, it's becoming
difficult to find genuine traditions. If you search them out, if you go
way out into the countryside, in the middle of the mountains, you can
still find the traditional dances and dramas, find the root of what is
now known internationally as Japanese dance instead of the international
"version" of Japanese dance. For example, in Niigata I'm doing a
workshop that combined one of these very traditional forms, with a
contemporary dancer as part of the workshop. By creating these
collaborations between traditional art forms and contemporary
performers, it's possible to reach a global audience. Of course the
people who are upholding and preserving the traditional art forms are
very set in their ways, and the contemporary artists are also very set
in their ways; it takes a lot of energy to bring them together. The
same with architects (laughs). Basically this kind of collaboration is a
means to reach out to a larger sphere of people, but it's always a very
difficult and challenging task.
Could you tell me about the process of the workshops?
During the Niigata workshop sessions (they were held once a month for
three years) I was always showing the people the architectural drawings
and getting their opinions. It was very hard work, but as part of the
process of making the performing arts center it was very important to
get the opinions of the artists, the opera singers... Of course as an
architect your own opinion is important (laughs) but I also like to go
see dance and go to these places as a regular spectator, and I think
this way of looking at the building is quite important as well.
Sometimes these two viewpoints are in conflict, but they are both
important. In the process of building the Shonandai Cultural Center we
had over a hundred meetings with the local people, showing them the
drawings, etc. The result of that was not so many changes in the
architecture, but in the programming, the kind of facilities they had,
there were some changes. I heard that if you go there now and talk to
some of the people sitting at the cafeť they will say things like, "oh,
this is the spot that I thought of" (laughs).
Sometimes in interviews I have been asked things like, "don't you think
they're taking away your authorship of this building?", but I don't feel
that way at all.
Would you call it a collective building, a collective process?
Collective is a good word. The competition proposal was open enough that
it allowed a lot of participation from different people. Although I
wouldn't exactly say we made it together (laughs), I think participation
is a good way to describe it.
I would also like to address the social and political implications of
architecture which arise in the discussion between you and Koji Taki.
You mention the importance of dates such as 1989 the fall of the Berlin
wall, the earthquake in Kobe... and you also talk about issues like the
cardboard architecture phenomenon of homelessness in Tokyo.
To make a very long story short, architecture has a kind of presence
that influences the movement of society and political activities around
it, and you can't ignore that.
Architecture as a trigger?
Not like a trigger, actually. It's the container for the movement of
society, not a catalyst. Some architects believe in a solidity of
architecture, but my opinion is that architecture, in particular in
Japan where things are so rapidly changing, has to be able to move along
with the changes in society. Architecture has to have that kind of
flexibility and ability to move with society.
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