Masahiro Harada – Tokyo Design Stories

13 May 2008 (Last Updated May 13th, 2008 18:30)

Masahiro Harada of Tokyo's Mount Fuji Architects talks to Christopher Kanal about why architecture needs to 'talk less'.

Masahiro Harada – Tokyo Design Stories

Masahiro and Mao Harada founded Mount Fuji Architects in 2004. The two architects both attended the Shibaura Institute of Technology then, between 1997 and 2000, Masahiro worked in the architectural office of Kengo Kuma as chief architect. He is currently visiting professor at the Shibaura Institute of Technology and the University of Keio.

Mount Fuji Architects have built up a reputation for their use of simple materials to create delicate compositions. In particular the houses, including XXXX House in Shizuoka Prefecture (2003), M3/KG in Meguro-ku Tokyo (2006), Sakura in Meguro-ku Tokyo (2006) and the E-House, nearing completion in Tokyo, have attracted considerable interest beyond Japan.

Chris Kanal: Tokyo is often held up as a totem for the city of the future and western designers look to it for influence. Is Tokyo a vision of the city of the future?

Masahiro Harada: Tokyo is a futuristic city with no fixed master plans. The city grows and metabolises quickly like an organic being.

Tokyo is a good example of a highly advanced city that grows based on the idea of object orientation. I admit its great potential but it hasn't yet reached to the point to be an excellent city as a whole.

Japan tends to scrap architectures and build new ones in quite a short span. This fact gives Tokyo the impression of being fictional. Such short-lived architecture is welcomed in a capitalist economy, but it's not sustainable.

It is dangerous to regard Tokyo as the one and only ideal future city, just because it meets the needs of the former.

CK: What projects are Mount Fuji Architects currently working on?

MH: We're now working on a residence for a ceramic artist, 6m in width and 40m in length. This construction inherits the idea of XXXX House, which solves all the problems of structure, lighting and economic efficiency. Other projects include a boutique in New York and a football stadium in Okinawa using traditional techniques of landscape architecture and local sand and rocks.

CK: What recent material innovations do you find exciting?

MH: So many innovative materials are arriving, but they don't stimulate my interest much. I'm more intrigued by innovative ways to handle materials. For example, Oya stone was used only for decoration because of its soft and heterogeneous features. Now, with advanced computer programmes, structural calculation of such fragile material is possible, allowing the use of Oya stone for core parts of construction, such as structure segments.

"Japan tends to scrap architectures and build new ones in quite a short span."

Innovative wood adhesives have given us high-quality bonded wood at low cost, and has made it possible to use them casually to form large spaces. Thanks to that, traditional large-scale wooden construction that suits the Japanese climate could be realised for a first time in a long while.

For me, technology is not a major player itself, but a means to push familiar, conventional materials back to the forefront.

CK: What was the inspiration behind your design of the Sakura House, in particular the lace-like steel with holes punched out in a floral pattern?

MH: There are so many influences to this design. One of them is Nodate, the traditional style of Japanese tea ceremony. Nodate is tea ceremony held outdoors, with a white curtain that catches the light falling through the trees as if it was a screen. Instead of creating an artificial space isolated from nature, it blocks the view of natural elements to emphasise them even more.

The space is not a closed chamber. The lace-like steel reflects the woods and at the same time, plays the part of the white curtain used for Nodate.

I always try to not regard the exterior and interior of architecture as opposed elements. My intention is to create a place comfortable to live in. It wouldn't make much difference if we lived indoors or outdoors as long as it was comfortable.

CK: How important is bio-morphism in your designs?

MH: In Sakura, I tried to show that the traditional abstract can be naturally connected to modern abstract. The pattern of Edo-komon (traditional Japanese stencil dyeing) used for Sakura was the one the ancient people observed and abstracted the cherry trees and blossoms planted in Edo (ancient term for Tokyo). I am very much interested in the process of abstraction.

CK: Kenya Hara, professor at Musashino Art University, said that we are 'creatures of touch, not sight'. Do you agree, and if so, how have you incorporated tactility into projects like Sakura House and M3/KG?

MH: An object intended for touch has a special attachment. On the contrary, an object intended to be viewed appeals more to the intellect. Architecture should appeal to the rational but not completely. After all, it provides protection for people and should be designed to be embraced.

"Short-lived architecture is welcomed in a capitalist economy, but it's not sustainable."

In M3/KG, I emphasised the texture of materials to evoke tactile sensations through the visually augmented wood grain pattern of laminated veneer lumber, unpolished Indian sandstone floor and the rough concrete surfaces.

In Sakura the objective of the design is shifted from the texture of the material texture to the texture of the light. This gave people greater awareness of the change in the quality of light throughout the day.

It's very interesting that the light, which has no mass itself, can be 'touched' when it's designed carefully and delicately.

CK: Sustainability has almost become a fundamentalist religion today. How can architects respond to the constant demand to produce sustainable solutions?

MH: Sustainability is an important issue, but we have to be careful not to concentrate too much on gaining environmental points. What's important is to sharpen our senses to appreciate the environment. If we experience the environment with our own senses we'll pursue it instinctively. Our role as architects is to give society a chance to experience it.

CK: Which architects have inspired your work?

MH: Laurie Baker and Susumu Takasuka, who I think is the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe of the wooden architecture world. They are both brilliant artists, abstracting things based on the local environment.

CK: Are the more sustainable characteristics of Japanese design, such as designing houses that heat the body not the room, transferable to the West?

MH: Japanese traditional design reflects the idea that the life of human beings exists as a part of a natural cycle. As a designer, I like to incorporate human lives into nature, and am designing architecture that I believe embodies this ideal.

"Do not regard the exterior and interior of architecture as opposed elements."

In the past, architectures had a short life. Today natural materials have been replaced by artificial building materials which refuse to rot and to return to dust.

The Japanese have deviated from the nature cycle. However the culture to regard architecture as something disposable hasn't changed. As a consequence, today's Japanese design sometimes fails to be sustainable.

There are two ways to realise a sustainable society: one is to live in natural cycle as the Japanese used to do and the other is to live out of it.

CK: Dematerialisation has been a feature of Japanese design for a long time. What are the benefits to contemporary architects?

MH: Japan is a nation poor in resources. People in Japan tend to focus on delicate details such as the surface of material.

You can emphasise each design element by reducing the total number of them. This method is good for material as well as for shape. Architecture needs to talk less.

Miscellaneous products make all sort of noise. The architecture has to be carefully designed to be suitable base for them, because its role is to bring harmony to various design noises.

CK: Do you feel that we should be use materials to do multiple tasks? Shigeru Ban recently designed a house where you can move the rooms around.

MH: If a component does multiple tasks, you can reduce the number of them. A space that has multiple roles is very efficient. Multipurpose spaces allows creativity to run wild.

CK: Is Mount Fuji Architects interested in creating designs that are interactive?

"Architecture should appeal to the rational but not completely."

MH: I'm always seeking architecture which is simple in principle but complex in purpose. I want a future city to have both efficiency and diversity.

CK: Tokyo is more of an urbanised state than a city. Are the Japanese experts at urbanisation?

MH: I think we have to stop and think about what the word 'urban' means. When you take the city in terms of the style of how each building is defined you can't call Tokyo an 'urban city'. Tokyo is sometimes called a 'gigantic village' instead.

However, if you regard 'urban city' as a regional group which functions as a huge structure integrating people and various cultures into it, you can call Tokyo an urban city.