Sou Fujimoto is a Japanese architect, Born in Hokkaido in 1971, who is noted for delicate light structures and permeable enclosures. His creations are out of this world, while addressing concerns that are deeply grounded in our human lives and the environment we live in.
Sou Fujimoto’s Career
When Sou Fujimoto moved from the pastoral vistas of his home in Hokkaido, Japan to the futuristic madness of Tokyo’s urban center, something shifted inside him. The young man who left home to study physics at the University of Tokyo soon found a new passion in the form of architecture, although his love for nature and the subtle, sometimes almost invisible order that governs it remained as acute as ever. It’s the fusion of these two interests—the built environment and its natural counterpart—coupled with an uncanny ability to submit forward-thinking (and successful) proposals to clients and competitions alike that have come to characterize his output. After establishing Sou Fujimoto Architects in 2000, Fujimoto went on to design buildings across Japan and Europe. Many of his designs are built around his idea that the function of a building is decided by human behavior. In 2019, Fujimoto was selected as one of 23 architects to “reinvent” Paris. His contributions to this project include a redesign of a plot in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. In addition, he dreamed up 2006’s Final Wooden House, which stacked rudimentary large blocks of lumber to create a variety of interior scales and spaces, and 2008’s N House, which placed a cube inside a cube inside a cube—the first two being room and architecture, respectively, and the third a kind of outdoor enclosure, but all three perforated with skylights.
Fujimoto’s breakthrough project in terms of attention from the West, and the one he first discussed in Monday’s lecture, was the Serpentine Pavilion in London in 2013. Each year the Serpentine Gallery on the edge of Kensington Gardens commissions a renowned architect or artist to create a temporary summer pavilion on the grounds adjacent to the building. Since 2000, Serpentine projects have been created by a who’s who of architecture: Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Oscar Niemeyer, Daniel Libeskind, Ai Weiwei and Herzog & De Meuron, and Bjarke Ingels. Informally known as “Clouds,” Fujimoto’s pavilion did something subtly magical: it created a space that was wispy and undefinable like a cloud despite being made out of steel and nothing but right angles.
“Because I was from the countryside, playing in the forest and being immersed in nature was quite an important starting point to form my perception of space. In a natural environment, you can choose your own path. It was strange to have a similar experience in the density of Tokyo. Everything is artificial, but the scales, densities, and floating pieces are quite similar to walking in a forest. You can still choose your own way. That was when I realized that nature and artifacts, though different, can still create similar spatial experiences. And within the artificial spaces of the city, there are always natural elements.”
The point of the Serpentine project, the architect explained, was that “the boundaries between inside and outside become flexible.” That’s key in Fujimoto’s work. Sometimes the densities of the frame create more coverage, and in some places it’s more transparent to the sky. Everything is made by industrial materials, so it’s really artificial. But it’s also soft. Once you are inside, you can find more organically different places and interact with the structure. It is a place without any functions, but once you’re inside, you can find your own functions, through the interaction between your body and the space. It’s beyond the normal definition of function, but it is quite open and flexible. The transparencies and translucencies are changing according to where you stand and what you see. Then there was what’s known as Toilet In Nature from 2012, a public restroom for Ichihara, Japan in a glass box, surrounded by a fenced garden — which is actually an experiment in delineating privacy and view.
Although he may not yet be a household name in the architecture world to the same degree that an older generation of Japanese architects like Tadao Ando, Toyo Ito, Arata Isozaki and now Kengo Kuma have become, Sou Fujimoto seems to possesses similarly tremendous talent. But talent isn’t quite the right word. Fujimoto is impressively curious—about materials, about systems, about how architecture can be one big Erector Set—but his true gift is a way of seeing. Each of the projects from his past decade of work that Fujimoto discussed was utterly unique and yet part of an identifiable fingerprint. That’s appropriate, because the architect seems to celebrate dualities: first of all indoor and outdoor space, but the natural and synthetic, intimate and wide-open, public and private, familiar and strange. Ultimately I come back to something Fujimoto said in the question-and-answer session following his talk. Asked to name his architectural influences, he said, “The first was le Corbusier in school, and Mies. I still love their works a lot. And many Japanese architects too. I also like Frank Gehry. The craziness is interesting.” It’s that last bit I think could be the title of a book about his autobiography: the craziness is interesting. And yet it’s not an empty or pointless craziness. Like any designer, Fujimoto is still a problem-solver. All that craziness is in the name of creating functional, flexible architectural space.One of Fujimoto’s most eye-catching projects is set to open this spring: L’Arbre Blanc, or White Tree, an apartment complex in Montpellier France. Though it’s a fairly simple building type—apartments with outdoor decks cantilevering outward—in Fujimoto’s hands it becomes transformed. It’s a building with walls you essentially can’t see any of.
Fujimoto’s work is compelling for how it blurs the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces, something that’s also common in many Portland and Oregon buildings because of our mild climate. Yet there’s obviously something more happening. In all these projects, the architecture seems to become less the kit of parts that we think of buildings having—the traditional base, middle and top of its exterior forms, or any number of different materials and mechanical or electrical systems on the inside—and more a kind of unified organism. Fujimoto’s buildings feel ideal for the emerging era of prefabrication in architecture. It’s not to say he creates one design from which countless copies are made, but rather that he sees architecture as a kind of system, which he marries with an artist’s aesthete’s eye for elegant simplicity.
Sou Fujimoto’s 10 Most Striking Designs
The design was inspired by the site itself, especially the fog and clouds that diffused over the village. They were like buildings floating in the air, or rather, like roofs connecting nature, buildings, and various sceneries around. The continuing terraced fields created an architectural image and made the whole area very dynamic and vivid. Therefore, we proposed a floating canopy just like a cloud, hugging the landscape and being part of it. The main part of the building is an open space that will be used for exhibitions, conferences, or art galleries. The canopy starts from the main building and connects all the way down to the riverside, which provides a sense of continuity and lets the building blend in with nature. At the same time, the house floating above the canopy creates a transition between the traditional village and the new construction. The canopy is made of a naturally woven material with a very lightweight that provides the whole area a soft boundary. While distinguishing buildings and natural fields, the canopy creates a view just like a huge courtyard facing the sky. For sure we named the project “flowing Cloud” from the impression of the environment when we first time visited the site, but it also for the soft shape of the entire canopy.
The ring-shaped canopy creates a space where it not only gathers people in the main building but also allows people to fully experience the nature around the whole site. This is also why the project is more blurred into the landscape with diverse spaces rather than one box-like house. We look forward to having people come to visit, lingering around the poetic village, walking under the floating canopy, and enjoying the picturesque views of the beautiful nature.
2. Final Wooden House
Lumber is extremely versatile. In an ordinary wooden architecture, lumber is effectively differentiated according to functions in various localities precisely because it is so versatile. Columns, beams, foundations, exterior walls, interior walls, ceilings, floorings, insulations, furnishings, stairs, window frames, meaning all. However, Fujimoto thought if lumber is indeed so versatile then why not create architecture by one rule that fulfills all of these functions. He envisioned the creation of new spatiality that preserves primitive conditions of a harmonious entity before various functions and roles. There are no separations of floor, wall, and ceiling in the building. A place that one thought was a floor becomes a chair, a ceiling, or a wall from various positions. The floor levels are relative and spatiality is perceived differently according to one’s position. Here, people are distributed three-dimensionally in the space. It is an amorphous landscape presenting a new experience of various senses of distance. Inhabitants discover, rather than being prescribed, various functionalities in these iterations of use.
3. Serpentine Pavillion
At 41, Fujimoto was the youngest architect to accept the invitation to create a temporary structure for the Serpentine Gallery. The 2013 Pavilion was constructed from 20mm white steel poles in an intricate latticework pattern that seemed to rise up out of the ground like a shimmering matrix. The Pavilion was intended as a free-flowing social space that Fujimoto described as “a transparent terrain”.
Fujimoto was the 13th architect to design the Serpentine Pavilion, one of the most anticipated events in the cultural calendar, and his shape-shifting structure added to an illustrious list of past pavilions designed by architects that include Herzog & de Meuron, Frank Gehry and the late Oscar Niemeyer.
Occupying some 350 square-metres of lawn in front of the Serpentine Gallery, Fujimoto’s delicate structure had a lightweight and semi-transparent appearance that allowed it to blend, cloud-like, into the landscape and against the classical backdrop of the gallery’s colonnaded east wing. Designed as a flexible, multi-purpose social space – with a café sited inside – visitors were encouraged to enter and interact with the Pavilion in different ways throughout its four-month tenure in London’s Kensington Gardens.
“The Pavilion is a delicate, three-dimensional structure, each unit of which is composed of fine steel bars. It forms a semi-transparent, irregular ring, simultaneously protecting visitors from the elements while allowing them to remain part of the landscape. The overall footprint will be 350 square-metres and the Pavilion will have two entrances. A series of stepped terraces will provide seating areas that will allow the Pavilion to be used as a flexible, multi-purpose social space. The delicate quality of the structure, enhanced by its semi-transparency, will create a geometric, cloud-like form, as if it were mist rising from the undulations of the park. From certain vantage points, the Pavilion will appear to merge with the classical structure of the Serpentine Gallery, with visitors suspended in space.”
4. L’arbre Blanc
In 2013, Montpellier city council launched the “Folie Richter” competition. It sought to identify a blueprint for a beacon tower to enrich the city’s architectural heritage. The RFP stressed the desire for a bold project that had to fit into its environment and includes shops and homes. Manal Rachdi, Nicolas Laisné and Dimitri Roussel decided to call on the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. All three of them seek inspiration in nature even if they express it in very different ways. On the Arbre Blanc, these four visions would be mutually enriching.
To reinvent the tower, the architects focused on the human dimension, creating public spaces at the bottom and top of the building: the ground floor is a glass-walled space opening out onto the street, while on the roof there is a bar open to the public and a common area for residents, so that even the owners of first-floor apartments can enjoy the view. But what sets the project apart is its design. The four architects devised a building inspired by a tree, with balconies that branch off the trunk and shades that sprout out of and protect its façade. The attention paid to its setting, and to local lifestyles, guided the architects throughout the design phase.
The many balconies and pergolas really do promote outdoor living and enable a new type of relationship between residents. Each apartment boasts an outdoor space of at least 7m² (the largest is 35m²), with multiple levels of privacy and layout options; residents of the duplex apartments can move from one balcony to the other. So that all apartments have pleasing views, the architects sculpted the blueprint with a series of spatial experiments using physical 3D models. The many technical innovations of L’Arbre Blanc include the terraces, whose cantilevers, which are up to 7.5 metre-long, constitute a world first. These exceptional outside spaces are fully-fledged living rooms which are connected to the dwellings in such a way as to allow residents to live inside and outside, a luxury for a city bathed in the sunshine 80% of the year! The proportions of the balconies emphasise this aim to embrace the outdoors, as do the leaves that fold out in search of the sunlight. These generous balconies are also a response to the need for environmental solutions closely tailored to the “ecology of the south”. Forming an effective protective veil for the façade, they provide the necessary shade and break up skew winds to help air circulate more harmoniously. The architects adopted a new take on tower living for this mixed-use development. To cure inaccessible tower syndrome, there was a real focus on public space, including extending a landscaped park along the Lez River and opening the tower up to the public.
5. SHIRIOYA Hotel
Creative minds from Japan and abroad gathered in Maebashi, Gunma to revitalize the city once prospered in the silk industry. Shiroiya Hotel is a living room for the locals ad travelers to relax and enjoy art, food, and green. It served also as a cultural axis of Maebashi where various projects are in progress for the city to grow. Sou Fujimoto renovated the old hotel building from the ’70s and created an atrium, by taking down the floors and exposing the rough concrete surface, where his staircases interact with Leandro Erlich’s ‘Lighting Pipes’ which reminds the trace of water pipes running through the old edifice. This part is referred to as ‘Heritage Tower’ with the respect to the site where a history of more than 300 years of hotel business existed. Visitors are welcomed by the artwork of Lawrence Weiner and Hiroshi Sugimoto when entering the premises. As if visiting a museum, each guest room exhibits unique artwork of the local and internationally acclaimed artists such as Tatsuo Miyajima and Ryan Gander.
6. MUSASHINO Art university Museum and Library
This building is a new library for a highly distinguished art university in Japan. It involved designing a new library building and refurbishing the existing building into an art gallery, which ultimately create da new integration of the Library and the Art Gallery. The Musashino Art University Museum & Library proposes a new relation between the user and the books, surrounded and sheltered by them. The massing of the two-storey library at Musashino Art University is composed entirely from the shelves, which will hold the books. Circulation routes spiral around both ground and first floor between apertures cut-out of the shelving.
Acting as a huge ark, the collection of 200.000 volumes is divided into two areas: half of them are kept in a deposit and the rest are distributed in a linear container that, following a concentric law, gradually piles up the 100.000 volumes of the public area in 10-meter-high walls, perforated asymmetrically so that, when moving through them, one has the impression of being in a forest. In this spiral movement, the bookshelf covers the perimeter of the building, transforming itself, towards the exterior, into a talking facade through which it is possible to perceive the unique mechanism that shapes the library. Conceptually speaking, the project design takes inspiration from two apparently contradictory ideas: research and exploration, that is, the components that correspond, respectively, to the systemic and haphazard aspects of the action of storing and reading books.
7. House NA
Designed for a young couple in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood, the 914 square-foot transparent house contrasts the typical concrete block walls seen in most of Japan’s dense residential areas. Associated with the concept of living within a tree, the spacious interior is comprised of 21 individual floor plates, all situated at various heights, that satisfy the clients desire to live as nomads within their own home.
Described as “a unity of separation and coherence”, the house acts as both a single room and a collection of rooms. The loosely defined program and the individual floor plates create a setting for a range of activities that can take place at different scales. The house provides spaces of intimacy if two individuals choose to be close, while also accommodating for a group of guests by distributing people across the house.
Sou Fujimoto states, “The intriguing point of a tree is that these places are not hermetically isolated but are connected to one another in its unique relativity. To hear one’s voice from across and above, hopping over to another branch, a discussion taking place across branches by members from separate branches. These are some of the moments of richness encountered through such spatially dense living. Ranging in size from 21 to 81 square-feet, each floor plate is linked by a variety of stairs and ladders, including short runs of fixed and movable steps. Stratifying floor plates in a furniture-like scale allows the structure to serve many types of functions, such as providing for circulation, seating and workings spaces.
The short-spans allow for the thinness of the white steel frame. Complemented by the thin white-tinted birch flooring, many wonder where the utilities are hidden. Some floor plates are equipped with in-floor heating to help during the winter months, while strategically placed fenestration maximizes air flow and provides the only source of ventilation and cooling during summer. The HVAC and plumbing equipment, as well as storage and lateral bracing are located in the thick, north-facing wall at the rear of the house. Additional lateral bracing is provided by a full-height bookshelf and lightweight concrete panels integrated within the side elevations. Additionally, curtains were installed to provide temporary partitions that address the concern for privacy and separation.
8. Public Toilet
Japanese architect sou fujimoto took on the challenge of designing a toilet that, while still being closed, offered an openness in the context of its railway station-adjacent site in ichihara-city, chiba. Taking the picturesque location into consideration, fujimoto conceived two units — one for unisex use and people with disabilities, and the other for women only. the project merges the notions of public and private, opened and closed, nature and built architecture, and smallness and largeness. The result is a lavatory inside a glass box that has been placed in the middle of a 200 square meter garden planted with trees and flowers. this provides occupants a serene view while using the facilities. to combat the issue of seclusion, a 2 meter tall wooden log roll fence has been placed around the perimeter. a small pathway has been cleared away among the lush foliage, to reach the outhouse. this multi-layering and divergence of internal and external boundaries converge into one another while maintaining a certain ambiguity that suggests a primitive form of architecture.
9. House of Music
Nestled among the trees of budapest‘s city park is a new cultural landmark dedicated to music designed by japanese architect sou fujimoto. called ‘house of music’, the new 9,000 sqm building features a huge undulating roof with 100 crater-like perforations to accommodate surrounding trees. inside, the museum hosts a range of musical experiences including exhibitions on the history of european music and hungarian pop as well as concerts and educational music workshops.
designed as ‘a continuation of the landscape’, the building façade is clad in a curtain of glass, making the monumental roof canopy appear to hover and blurring the line between indoor and outdoor. this glazed elevational treatment is composed of 94 custom-manufactured, heat-insulated, horizontally undivided panels. slim columns between the park and the glass building echo the surrounding nature to create the sense of walking among a forest of music.
Fujimoto explains, ‘we were enchanted by the multitude of trees in the city park and inspired by the space created by them. whilst the thick and rich canopy covers and protects its surroundings, it also allows the sun’s rays to reach the ground. I envisaged the open floor plan, where boundaries between inside and outside blur, as a continuation of the natural environment.’ The underside of the roof canopy is covered in over 30,000 gold-colored ‘leaves’ and the perforations are clad in the same gold-color, which become dazzling light wells during the day. at night, the underside of the canopy is similarly illuminated by artificial light to create a glowing beacon in the city park. in addition to nature, the roof design is also informed by the varying form of sound waves.
10. House N
The house itself is comprised of three shells of progressive size nested inside one another. The outermost shell covers the entire premises, creating a covered, semi-indoor garden. Second shell encloses a limited space inside the covered outdoor space. Third shell creates a smaller interior space. Residents build their life inside this gradation of domain. A distinct boundary is nowhere to be found, except for a gradual change in the domain. Fujimoto’s ideal architecture consists of an outdoor space that feels like the indoors and an indoor space that feels like the outdoors. In a nested structure, the inside is invariably the outside, and vice versa. His intention was to make an architecture that is not about space nor about form, but simply about expressing the riches of what are `between` houses and streets.
Three nested shells eventually mean infinite nesting because the whole world is made up of infinite nesting. In House N there are only three of them that are given barely visible shape. He imagined that the city and the house are no different from one another in the essence, but are just different approaches to a continuum of a single subject, or different expressions of the same thing- an undulation of a primordial space where humans dwell.