Sou Fujimoto: The architect who wanted to live in a tree

The Japanese House, Barbican Centre.
Photo Arch Daily
Photo Arch Daily

The Barbican Centre recently explored Japanese domestic architecture through a major exhibition: The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945.

“In the wake of the war, the widespread devastation of Tokyo and other Japanese cities brought an urgent need for new housing, and the single family house became the foremost site for architectural experimentation and debate. Since then, Japanese architects have used their designs to propose radical critiques of society and innovative solutions to changing lifestyles.”  The Barbican centre

As a deeper encounter with Japan contemporary architecture, the Barbican invited several architects highlighted in the exhibition to present their work in a series of evening lectures (Sou Fujimoto, Atelier Bow Wow, Kazuyo Sejima, Sakamoto & Hasegawa).
Sou Fujimoto produced some of the recent most interesting projects in Japan and was the youngest architect to be invited to design the Serpentine Gallery Pavillon in 2013.

Sou Fujimoto at the Barbican. Photo Thomas Carpentier for Mood Board Magazine

Sou Fujimoto at the Barbican. Photo Thomas Carpentier for Mood Board Magazine

What defines Sou Fujimoto’s work?

Looking at his buildings, it is hard to identify any style other than noticing some common qualities to them: continuity, lightness, brightness, permeable enclosures, rich space and delicate construction. His specificity lies behind both sensual and intellectual appropriation of these spaces.

They are a series of explorations of consistent themes:
nature VS built environment,
boundaries VS in between spaces,
building program VS space appropriation and unexpected human interactions.

Collecting memories

Born in 1971, young Sou Fujimoto spent a lot of time outdoor, playing in the forests of Hokkaido. The Northern island is known for the beauty of its landscape but also the harshness of its nature. This contemplation of nature will later on, deeply influence his work.
He, then moved to Tokyo where he studied and established his studio. As a daily inspiration exercise, he has been walking the city and, with the same curiosity as a child, notices the smallest and insignificant details that truly define Tokyo’s nature.

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House Before House – Sou Fujimoto Architects / Photo Arch Daily

Restriction is invention

Tokyo is an energetic and congested city where house plots are tiny and expensive.
Sou Fujimoto is part of a generation of architects who need to constantly come up with innovative approaches in order to deliver optimized, functional but pleasant houses on extremely restricted sites. As a result, these contemporary houses do not follow any theoretical models but are highly creative solutions.

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Wooden House – Sou Fujimoto Architects / Photo Arch Daily

The poet – gesture

No matter the program : house, library, residential tower… Sou Fujimoto starts with a simple and formal concept : some shells one in another, a wall rolled up on itself, some boxes stacked on, … This apparently simplistic diagram, when then turned into a space, becomes a comprehensive construction for the user while still offering surprisingly rich experience.
For instance, House N is made of three perforated boxes of progressive size, nested inside one another. This playful assemblage creates a graduation of privacy. The first shell covering the garden, the second a first internal space, the third a more private one. Strangely, the large openings do not allow much views from the outside while offering internal perspectives to the sky and the surrounding trees.

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House N – Sou Fujimoto Architects / Photo Arch Daily

The mathematician – fractal figure

The architect plays with primitive geometrical elements: lines, squared plans, boxes. He assembles them in a complex composition that becomes an organic form comparable with nature expression. This sort of a fractal figure is similar to use of tatamis in traditional Japanese interior design. Their dimensions are standardized and used as the primitive unit from which interior space is unfolded. Therefore a room is defined by number of tatamis.

The design for the 2013 Serpentine Gallery Pavillon was made of thousands of steel bars welded together to create a regular three dimensional grid. This rigid system is then limited by an irregular boundary, leaving pockets of space for user appropriation. Starting from identical linear elements, the architect manages to create an evanescent cloud.

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2013 Serpentine Gallery Pavillon – Sou Fujimoto Architects / Photo Arch Daily

The philosopher – blurred boundaries

Traditional Japanese architecture is made of a series of layers that creates a gradient of privacy, from the outdoor to the building heart. Delicate and almost invisible thresholds delimitate spaces: a step, a portal, a down stand, a paper partition, a change of floor texture, …

For the design of a public toilet, Sou Fujimoto wanted to question the purpose of a wall. It generally acts as a barrier to air movement and views. However, in his proposal, these two requirements are separated. A glass box and a permitter wall around the garden. The architect approaches briefs from an intellectual perspective, which allow him to identify preconceived ideas and break them to propose truly interesting physical experiences. Here, the awkwardness of not being immediately hidden while contemplating the surrounding nature.

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Itabu Toilet – Sou Fujimoto Architects / Photo Arch Daily

The child – space appropriation

From early work (see first image) to recent projects, Sou Fujimoto has always been fascinated by hilly landscapes and their potential for inventive appropriation while remaining undefined. This interest has a clear connection with the architect childhood spent in forest and how a young boy will not see a tree for instance but an potential house or fortress.

Built on a restricted site in Tokyo, House NA is a clever response to a tiny plot. There is no delimited rooms (living room, bedroom, reception, dining room, …) but a series of floating surfaces located at different height and placed in such a disposition that any plan edge could become at anytime a bench, a sofa or a table. From a standard house diagram, the architect removed all walls, combined rooms together, spread them vertically and merge the staircase within this space. The result is a playful tree house like open to the surrounding where users can constantly reinvent their way of living.

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House NA – Sou Fujimoto Architects / Photo Arch Daily

Rich of traditional Japanese architecture and culture heritage, Sou Fujimoto has spent the last 20 years exploring childhood dreams. Using intellectual approach to brief and a deep curiosity for nature, he brings to life playful and sensitive projects that shake preconceptions of program and body interaction with space.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945
23 March 2017 – 25 June 2017
Art Gallery – the Barbican Center
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Thomas studied architecture at Ecole Spéciale in Paris. He has worked in Paris, Los Angeles and London in various firms including Wilkinson Eyre Architects. He is interested in identifying unconscious pre conceptions in design fields and shaking them to explore new potentials. His work investigates social aspects of objects and spaces, rituals attached to them and their impact on space experience, behavior and body.