James Pallister talks to emerging Japanese star Sou Fujimoto as the 41-year-old architect prepares to deliver this summer’s Serpentine Pavilion
Can you explain your proposal for the pavilion?
I wanted to allow for diversity in people’s behaviour by creating many different kinds of areas. The structure is composed of 40cm cubes made of thin (2 cm) steel tubular sections to create stepping, landscape-like areas. The top is just under 7m tall but the shape is organic, so some areas are higher.
It can work as a seating area, a covered area, an indoor or an outdoor area. The structure is really transparent because it’s very thin. It looks like a cloud or something, which is vanishing or meshing with nature.
The pavilion is not just four walls and a roof but more like a spatial territory
I tried to create harmony with the park and at the same time a strong contrast. We used a delicate frame to create different territories that are unified as a whole. The pavilion is not just four walls and a roof but more like a spatial territory. It’s a fundamental architecture of experience. Something, I hope, that is beyond architecture. I want to make a place for every day. I hope that people visiting have a different impression each time they come.
How familiar were you with previous Serpentine Pavilions?
[The pavilion programme] is very famous. I visited two of them before being invited to design the pavilion: the Jean Nouvel one and the Frank Gehry one. [However] I’m trying to create something completely different, yet matching closely to the circumstances.
Did the commission intimidate you?
Yes, but at the same time it’s exciting. We had many sketches and models to develop the design, both within the practice and with the Serpentine Gallery staff. There has been a really dense discussion and a nice process.
How long have you worked on the pavilion?
I came to London at the end of November to discuss the basic conditions with Julia Peyton-Jones and the staff at the Serpentine Gallery. There were two months of ‘first ideas’ and design development. Then, in February, we started to work on the detailed design. Now we are checking the mock-ups and working on technical issues. We’ve been working on the project for three months in total.
Did you think much about different approaches to landscape design in Japan and the UK?
The basic attitude [to the pavilion] is of course informed by my Japanese background. In Kensington Gardens, the nature is beautiful and very carefully designed. I tried to create something in-between – not completely artificial and not completely natural. The white frames represent quite an artificial order but the whole shape is like a cloud. [The concept] lies between order and disorder. It is an experiment.
The playful aspect of my architecture is very important because that’s how I think about life
Your work is often quite playful. Is that something that you try to do or does it just happen?
The playful aspect of my architecture is very important because that’s how I think about life. Our behaviour is not like a machine. We are full of life and the way that buildings are designed should reflect that. Being playful is not the final goal. I hope this sense of joy is combined with more practical issues.
Do you plan to build any other work in the UK?
Not at the moment. We’ve many projects in Europe, though – more than we have in Japan.
How many people work in your studio?
Thirty, plus interns. It’s a medium-sized practice, a bit like a family.
When you’re travelling, how do you find the space to focus on projects?
Within the office, we have six or seven groups and each has a more experienced group leader. The group leaders have responsibility for their projects. Of course, I have discussions with them about each project. For me travelling around is calming and gives me time to think about the projects. There has to be a balance, I think, between being involved in the office and being separated from the office.
Did the long recession in Japan effect your development as an architect?
It actually worked well, many of our projects were not in Japan, and many of our clients have a vision and they want to make something special. Those kinds of people are less influenced by the economic situation, not because they are very rich necessarily, but because they have a strong vision. Of course, if the client is also rich, that helps. Fortunately in China and Taiwan the economy is good, so we have a lot of projects coming from there. In Europe, I haven’t really felt the recession as we are working on relatively small projects.
Typically what is the scale of projects you are working on in Europe?
The smallest one we are working on is 2-3m2 – a bus stop in Austria. I am also working on a small art gallery in Provence, a private house in Normandy and some other private houses in Spain. Generally the private houses are about 150-200m2, so small but exciting.
How old were you when you set up your own practice?
About 30. After I graduated I worked alone and after six or seven years I got a licence and started my own practice. At the beginning I didn’t have any projects so I did a lot of competitions. It was tough, because I didn’t have any experience to draw on, I had to learn by myself. It’s a slow way to become an architect.
Do you have any tips for young architects?
To be excited about architecture, to enjoy architectural design and to work hard. There is no clear way to become an architect, everybody has their own way. You have to be brave. You have to think of it as a journey.
There is no clear way to become an architect - you have to think of it as a journey
Do you work mainly on paper, or on the computer, or both?
Personally I work with sketching and discussion. In my office, we make many physical models; sometimes I make models myself to understand what is happening or to have an expression from my hand. And, of course, we work on the computer too, especially as our projects are getting more complicated. We like to work in parallel with physical models and drawing on the computer. But discussion is the most important aspect of all; it’s from discussion that you get inspiration.
In the UK we don’t have enough houses. Are you interested in working in mass housing?
In Japan most clients want to have private houses but I am interested in the relationship between urban situations and private areas. I’m interested in finding a new relationship between the private small scale and larger scales. My interest is in blurring boundaries between the larger scale, the smaller scale, the artificial, city and landscape architecture.
Have architects been very involved with the reconstruction after the tsunami?
Yes, I joined the project with Toyo Ito, exhibited last year at the Venice Biennale. It was a trial to create a small, social community house for places of natural disaster. I worked on that project for a year and we worked closely with the local people. The whole process was very exciting and an opportunity to rethink what is architecture.
Sou Fujimoto: selected works
Located in Oita, Japan, House N is a house for a couple and their dog. The house is formed of three layers that nestle inside each other with varying degrees of privacy; the outer shell forms a partly-sheltered garden with large rectilinear openings, open to the elements.
Final wooden house
This private timber house is formed by stacking 350mm square cedar sections. In the resulting spaces, floor, ceiling, wall and seating become interchangeable elements. Fujimoto describes the house as ‘prototypical place from the time before architecture became architecture’.
Musashino art university library
Fujimoto’s first large-scale institutional building is a 6,500m² facility library in Musashino, Tokyo. The steel-framed building contains a series of independent rectilinear book stacks, dispersed to create a field – or forest – of monolithic blocks. Within this ‘forest’, timber predominates, giving the impression that the walls will eventually become full of books.