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One-on-One: Architecture is an Endless Process for Learning: Interview with Fumihiko Maki

The multi-award-winning architect talks about why he avoids using exposed concrete outside of Japan, why the Metabolist movement didn't quite catch on, and Yoshio Taniguchi's buildings: "He is our Mies van der Rohe."

By Vladimir Belogolovsky
April 5, 2018

Vladimir Belogolovsky: I know that you were aware of architecture from an early age because you grew up in a house designed by an architect. When did the idea of one day becoming an architect first occur to you?


Fumihiko Maki: Yes, I grew up in a house designed by my uncle, an architect, and I went to an elementary school designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi, the father of Yoshio Taniguchi. Of course, I didn’t know it then, but I remember that I was intrigued by the space and I felt that it was different from most other buildings. It was very enjoyable to be there. I spent my high school years during the Second World War and I was interested in building airplane models. But when the war ended, Japan was prohibited from doing anything that had any relation with aeronautical engineering. Since I was interested in making, building, and designing things, I thought that the closest thing to that would be architecture. And I was already exposed to the work of some of Japan’s Modernist architects, particularly their houses. That’s how it all started.


VB: Are you now as busy as ever? What are some of the projects that you are working on, and what is it that you are most concerned about at this stage of your career?


FM: I just completed the Japanese Sword Museum here in Tokyo. The latest foreign projects, Shenzhen Sea World Culture and Arts Center in China and the Bihar Museum in India, were built last year. I am working on several large projects now, including a new City Hall for Yokohama, a gallery of modern art in Wiesbaden, and my third project with Aga Khan in London. My concerns, when designing architecture are basic – to deliver quality design and construction, to express my buildings’ unique locations, to address my clients’ briefs and programs, and to fit into given budgets. Well, here in Japan it is not so difficult to achieve good construction quality. But when you work abroad it is not that easy. For example, I try to avoid using exposed concrete outside of Japan. There is a high chance it will not be done well. Here in Japan, we enjoy a very high level of craftsmanship and rarely do we import any techniques that cannot be done right here.


VB: Years ago, you said, “I have no inspiration, just hard work.” You also said, “Architecture is not about invention, but about discovery.” Could you elaborate? What are the main intentions of your architecture?


FM: I think architecture is not like art. It must be used. So, if any, it is a kind of social art. For me architecture is an endless process for learning. I observe how people use our buildings and I try to incorporate those findings in the next project. So my architecture is done through accumulation of knowledge and experience of designing and building for many decades now. Testing ideas is important. From the beginning, we do many sketches and discuss ideas. Then we pick what we like and pursue those directions. And if we have a few options, I am the person who makes the final decision.


VB: You worked with Kenzo Tange. Could you talk about that experience?


FM: I worked for him for a short period of time, just for a few months. But I knew him well and went to his office often. I learned from him simply by observing his design process. His architecture was his own and none of the architects who worked for him and later became independent tried to imitate his work. Isozaki, Kurokawa, Taniguchi, myself, and many others – we all wanted to be ourselves. We all respected him, but we wanted to be different. Of course, there are architects who choose to imitate their masters, such as in the case of many followers of Wright, Mies, or Le Corbusier. Perhaps that was Tange’s lesson – the process itself was important, but there should be many ways to express architecture. That’s each architect’s own choice.


VB: Along with such architects as Isozaki, Kurokawa, and Kikutake, you were one of the founding members of the Metabolist movement, concerned with organic urban growth. Why do you think it didn’t quite take off with so few projects built?


FM: I suppose, we each had different ideas and soon we became busy with individual projects, so we simply went our own ways. I was predominantly interested in high-density living, which was explored in my Golgi Structure project of 1968. Also, I think we realized early on that cities need to evolve over time and not planned in any forced way. So, we decided not to interfere. All collaborative efforts come to an end, eventually, as was in the case of Archigram and Team X. And individually, we all had very different ideas about the future of cities. As it turned out, Metabolism was really the last architectural movement in Japan and one of the last in the world.


VB: How would you describe the recurring theme of your work?


FM: My recurring theme is to design an environment and buildings in a humane way.


VB: What single words would you use to describe your architecture?


FM: I don’t use single words to describe my architecture. Let’s just say, to create a humane environment through each project is my primary goal.


VB: When I ask architects about what kind of architecture they like, many cite buildings designed by Japanese architects. What about you?


FM: I really like Yoshio Taniguchi’s buildings. He is our Mies van der Rohe.



Vladimir Belogolovsky, founder of New York City-based Intercontinental Curatorial Project, curates and designs architectural exhibitions worldwide, and writes for Arquitectura Viva (Madrid) and SPEECH (Berlin) magazines,, and Trained as an architect at Cooper Union, he has interviewed more than 250 leading international architects and is the author of eight books, including Harry Seidler: The Exhibition (Oscar Riera Ojeda Publishers, 2017); Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015); Harry Seidler: Lifework (Rizzoli, 2014); and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). He has curated more than 50 international exhibitions, including “Emilio Ambasz: Architecture Toward Nature” (World Tour since 2017), “Architects’ Voices & Visions” (World Tour since 2016), and “Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture” (World Tour since 2012).


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One-on-One: A Cult of Objectivity: Interview with Massimo Vignelli
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One-on-One: Revolution in Architecture: Interview with Gregg Pasquarelli, SHoP Architects
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"Harry Seidler: Architecture, Art and Collaborative Design"

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One-on-One: Architecture of Emotion and Place: Interview with Bartholomew Voorsanger, FAIA, MAIBC

The architect's aspiration to create expressive, dynamic spaces is absolutely the key to his work.


One-on-One: Architecture as a Social Instrument: Interview with Bjarke Ingels of BIG

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One-on-One: Putting Colors Together: An Interview with Will Alsop

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One-on-One: The Art of Ennobling Communities: Interview with Sara Caples and Everardo Jefferson

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One on One: Elusive Architecture: Interview with Kengo Kuma

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(click on pictures to enlarge)

Tomio Ohashi, courtesy of Maki and Associates

Golgi Structure, 1968

Toshiharu Kitajima, courtesy of Maki and Associates

The Japanese Sword Museum, Tokyo, 2018

Maki and Associates

Shenzhen Sea World Culture and Arts Center, 2017

Shinkenchiku-sha, courtesy of Maki and Associates

Aga Kahn Museum, Ontario, Canada, 2014 

Tectonic, courtesy of Maki and Associates

4 World Trade Center, New York City, as seen when completed in 2013

Kristen Richards

4 World Trade Center, right, with Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ 80-story 3 World Trade Center, left, as viewed from the 9/11 Memorial, September 2017

Maki and Associates

51 Astor Place in New York City, 2013

Toshiharu Kitajima, courtesy of Maki and Associates

Makuhari Convention Center, Chiba, Japan, 1989, 1998

Toshiharu Kitajima, courtesy of Maki and Associates

Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, 1990

Toshiharu Kitajima, courtesy of Maki and Associates

Spiral Art Center, Minato-ku,Tokyo, 1985