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  • Ryue NishizawaPHOTOGRAPHY: TAKASHI OKAMOTO
  • Ryue NishizawaPHOTOGRAPHY: TAKASHI OKAMOTO

Ryue Nishizawa: Travel from Places to Spaces

, 2011/09/19

Architect Ryue Nishizawa (b. 1966) has become one of the faces of Japanese architecture today. While maintaining his own eponymous office, he is also a principal at SANAA, which received The Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2010 for their ‘deceptively simple’ structures. With projects across the globe, Papersky decided to sit down with Nishizawa to talk about his travels, sense of place as well as the influence of architecture on our lives and on the future of Japan.

You have lived in Japan most of your life and in the last decade you’ve traveled a lot. How has this changed how you think about architecture?

Sure, it’s definitely changed me. Before going abroad, I didn’t really formulate my own concept of Japan since everyone around me was Japanese. When I saw cities in Europe, I was amazed by their beauty, a feeling I had not felt the same way in Tokyo before. I appreciated Europeans’ way of creating atmosphere for comfortable living like in homes, hotels, parks, rivers or on the streets. Like people living in Italian cities, even if they don’t have a lot of money, a lot of possibilities allow them to enjoy their life- going to the market, getting something cheap to eat, then going to the park. I saw the city provide its inhabitants with many beautiful moments. When non-Japanese start appearing around you, you start to think more about yourself and how people portray you and what you do. So, I also started to become more aware of comparisons like the big differences between American and European architecture. In Europe, architecture is very brut- I mean, imposing and rough, almost aggressive in its reconstruction and renovation- always adding on top. I think the work of Le Corbusier is very brut. And this was something I had never seen before in Japan. It’s not precise like Japanese architecture, which at the same time I don’t feel any particular energy from, but European architecture showed me that people live in a different way reflected in their architecture while I realized Japanese architecture is like something more mechanical.

What are some cities or places in the world that have actually influenced the way you think about or approach your practice of architecture? How are these examples different from the way that another architect, or person, may have influenced you?

From this point of view, I would say Rome. When I visited in 1988, I was 22 and amazed and almost scared at the same time. Rome is a city with a long history of murder [laughs]- over centuries the city has been destroyed but all along this time rebuilt on top of itself. The archaeology is found deep below the ground, and even with every street having a different history, you have an architecture that is directly connected over 500 years. I found this fascinating. This plays into how a city can influence versus how a person because people who are still alive speak and while the city is alive too- it doesn’t speak. Cities have a long history and change a lot but their identity essentially stays the same; like Istanbul, for example. The name has changed several times but not its identity. People don’t change their names, well- there are cases like Bob Dylan but what is important is that the ways people and cities create history are different.

When you visit a string of cities in a short period of time, do you ever think they loose their uniqueness or charm? What cities have a unique charm for you?

Well, basically, I love cities- Rome, Istanbul, Paris, Barcelona, Bangkok, New York, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Havana and Sao Paolo will always be unique to me. Cities aren’t somewhere you should go on business because you only see airport – taxi – hotel – office and back. There are obviously more exciting ways to experience a city- when I went to Valencia, I took a taxi to the museum and on the way back to my hotel I decided to walk and get lost- then it started raining, so I went into a market to avoid the rain but I ended up amidst a pleasant crowd so- getting lost isn’t only an interesting way, it’s also the best way.

What are some architectural or urban ideas you have seen around the world that you think would work well in Tokyo?

Well, I think it’s impossible to import this but, the idea of heavy architecture. Tokyo architecture is very light and thin but it’s not only materials, there’s a spirit too. While the materials can be imported, the spirit can’t. Long ago, the Edo city was made of wood and when the big fire struck, this urban disaster created an atmosphere where people opted for temporary, quickly built houses and so typhoons, fires, earthquakes have in turn influenced our culture of architecture to be more light and transparent.

When you travel, what kind of sightseer are you? Do you like to see public places and famous sites like monuments or do you avoid these in favor of discovering some lesser known niches in the city?

Well, it’s nice to be like a kid and follow your senses. There can be some monumental power attracting you but I want to go somewhere local that I can’t see in Tokyo. If it’s a bland, gray modernist building by some anonymous figure, which I can see in Tokyo, then I wouldn’t go. Everywhere, even in Italy you can find this type boring modern style and I don’t want to spend a lot of time visiting but if it’s a museum and we don’t have it here, then I want to go.

So simply, what are some of your favorite places around the world and in Japan? What do you like to do there?

There’s too many so I can’t specify one [laughs]. The reason why I can’t live outside of Japan, is because people outside Japan don’t have soba restaurants [laughs]. I like Paris for being so beautiful, the city itself is like a miracle, a monument itself. It hasn’t been destroyed and you can really see a classic town on such a large scale. New York is one of the craziest cities- with everyone screaming all the time [laughs], but very cool. Kyoto is beautiful but rather modern, and you can still see beautiful temples, most of which have moss gardens which are beautiful too. I also like the landscapes of Mount Fuji and the Seto Inland Sea. I also love the beautiful forests in Aomori with the Oirase おいらせ/奥入瀬 streams. And I’d have to mention Towada lake there too which is beautiful in the autumn. Also, when I visited Iceland, it looked like a different planet, and seemed ancient, like a place where no one lived.

Where do you want to go next? Is a sense of ‘frontier’ or ‘discovery’ important when you decide on where to travel? 

Well, I would like to go to India, since I have never been there or to Africa. I went to Algeria but it was the Sahara in the North so I’d like to venture down South. I still think a sense of the frontier is still important like in Iceland, some places seem like no one lives there and that’s refreshing- it can change your mind and when I come back to Tokyo, I look at the city in a different light.

We often talk about cultural sensitivity- being polite or showing respect to foreign cultures when traveling. What does this mean for the architect that builds in another country? Recently, you have worked on several international projects, have there been any cultural considerations when you build abroad? Could you give us some examples?

Sure, I always respect the local culture and history but I know I can’t become a Spaniard or a New Yorker if that’s where I happen to have a project. I can only do something in my own, Japanese way. Yet, in this situation I can study and learn about a culture when I do something there. But I believe that adding something new is always nice in any city, yet before building, there are proposals and our proposals can look Japanese but also contemporary. In Valencia, we had been working on a museum project and there, I gave a lecture and a student asked, “Why don’t you make it more like Spanish architecture?” I answered, because I’m not Spanish [laughs] but sure, I could imitate ‘Spanish architecture’ but it would be a bad imitation. I want to do something real. When we completed the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne I thought that it was rather sculptural and so I invited Swiss architect Harry Gugger and he said, “great, this is very Japanese! It almost like Engawa!” [laughs].

I wanted to talk about places and your architecture, in particular The Teshima Art Museum. It was a collaborative project with Rei Naito but I wanted to hear some of your thoughts- how did you take into account the local culture of the island? Did you feel like you were building something in a nearly abandoned environment?

Well, Teshima has a primary school which means there is a population of children. I was impressed by how they live with nature- creating rice fields and settling their villages between the mountains. Teshima has a lot of green, which is rare in the area, but you can see the difference on Naoshima which has more mountains with more top soil than plains of dense green. Teshima’s mountainous features gather more water which also makes it unique for agriculture. And so I didn’t really approach this project with ‘straight architecture’ since everything around the site is in natural, free form shapes, not straight nor flat. But this building was not only for Teshima, it was for people who live in the area on other islands as well as visitors. Also, this is one of the oldest areas of Japan, with a long history so I don’t just see Teshima as one island, rather, these islands are all connected.

An open question, architecture has always had a big influence on culture- to what extent do you think this is still true? If so can you give us an example?

Well, the Japanese government created a kind of standard house after World War 2 because most people had lost their homes. The government provided houses with an identical floor plan. It featured a dining room, kitchen, one bedroom and one tatami room. Then the family came to fit that mold as the people who would live there in those spaces. Then all these Japanese people started living in the same house and started living similarly and well, acting similarly [laughs]. So I think something like a floor plan is very influential. You know, this floor plan even strongly suggests that the family must have one husband, one wife and two kids- as a maximum at least. The floor plan even tells you so, so that’s why a couple may have decided to get married and have two kids and then the correlated lifestyle. Architecture often suggests the lifestyle- and of course people cannot just live outside and if you want to live inside you must use available floor plans and again, that’s a strong suggestion in life and lifestyle. But if you make a big room, people start thinking, “hey, we can have a meeting here” and if you have a 100 square meter room you may think about organizing a government and have something like a democracy. In a tiny room, this kind of thinking isn’t as possible. On the other hand, people recently have started to own more than one car in the countryside, sometimes up to three, but the architecture plan says you can only have one car. Gradually the architecture starts changing to allow three parking spaces which means people cut their gardens or some people take out a part of the house. So contemporary life always asks architecture to change but architecture often asks us to change too.

Japan is going through some tough times- no one can claim they know how things are going to develop in the future- but what are some of your thoughts on the next 10, 20-50 years of Japan? How will cities develop, how will more rural areas develop or not? How will or won’t things change from an architectural point of view? Will your office play a part in this?

Well, I think people will start to appreciate living with nature and accept that they may live in a place that is not completely under control. After World War 2, the Japanese created a very artificial and industrial world, like Tokyo. The train is one time, almost every two minutes and you can buy anything you want, at almost anytime. The city is like a machine but I think this will change and people will start to appreciate the role of nature. Of course, the Japanese people have been good at appreciating nature but this spirit is important. Every century has different architecture and the architecture of the past tells you how people before us were living. Today’s 21st century architecture, with contemporary materials, is the only thing we can make so the materials we choose and the spirit we carry and enact is very important, I think.

In terms of the work and direction of my office, I want to show the diversity of relations that people can create based on the potential of architecture. If there is a certain floor plan, then people must live this way, but on the other hand, I want to show a sense of freedom, an open platform where people can start thinking and imagining different ways to use spaces. New architecture may give a new freedom that the previous architecture may not have shown. Architecture can show the diversity of our relations, it can be varied like from the Japanese house of the 1950s and the houses of today and this is something the architecture of today must show.

This interview originally appeared in Papersky No. 36 Genten (September, 2011).

One of Ryue Nishizawa’s recent works in Japan is the Teshima Art Museum located on Teshima Island in the Seto Inland Sea.

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