The roots of reinvention

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Times Staff Writer


There is something gleefully childlike about the mayhem in Terunobu Fujimori’s architecture, as if he is beckoning you to play in the dirt, to get a splinter in your finger.

It can be seen in his houses with dandelions peeking out of walls, or on rooftops where leeks (yes, leeks!) poke through like stubble.

It’s visible in the teahouse, perched shakily atop stilts made of chestnut trees, looking ready to careen away at any moment.


And it’s in the buildings shaped like oven mitts and teapots, plunked down in a globally warmed Tokyo struggling to keep its skyline above water.

No one can accuse Fujimori of not having fun with his designs.

But don’t mistake this 61-year-old academic for the court jester of Japanese architecture. These primitive oddities, covered with materials such as turf and crooked wood, are a well-thought-out riposte to Japan’s constellation of superstar architects with their global fame and allegiance to steel and glass and (sigh) all those right angles.

“Because it’s architecture, my buildings have to be real; but I don’t feel like designing something unless it has fantasy elements,” Fujimori says, thumbing through a thin catalog of his work published earlier this year to coincide with his first major exhibition in Japan.

It is a modest body of work because until 1990, Fujimori had been content to watch and chronicle what was going up -- and what was being lost -- in Japan. While his contemporaries such as Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito were building landmarks and reputations around the world, Fujimori remained in academia, specializing in the Meiji-era architecture of the late 19th century when Japan was applying the lessons of the West in its rush to modernize.

Not that life was all spent in the ivory tower. Fujimori hit the streets too, casting himself in the 1980s as an “architecture detective” with the “roadway observation study,” which hunted down the strange and the overlooked in buildings and materials. But he didn’t pick up a pencil with intent to design something of his own until 1990.

“I didn’t start designing buildings until my 40s, so the condition I set for myself is that I shouldn’t just repeat the same things that my colleagues or professors were doing,” he says. “I don’t like steel or glass or concrete. I know they can’t be helped. But they need critics. That’s why I’ve been saying for 15 years that I want to build a high-rise tower of dandelions.”


No developer has cut the check for the dandelion tower commission just yet. But Fujimori is basking in a rush of attention. After his work anchored the Japanese Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, a larger version of the exhibition was mounted in Tokyo and played to mostly laudatory reviews this summer. Fujimori’s designs were also included in a separate summer exhibition and book, “The Contemporary Teahouse,” an attempt by several major Japanese architects to redefine what constitutes the traditional Japanese teahouse.

The shows have given Fujimori a higher public profile, though his penchant for beams that veer off at awkward angles and use of materials such as plants, mud and bark has long been sending ripples -- of conscience, perhaps -- through Japan’s architectural community. The choice of these materials asks whether architecture can put us back in touch, literally, with the natural world. And it broadens the scale of what constitutes incorporating the traditional into the modern, beyond merely adding a bit of bamboo.

Fujimori says his inspiration springs from his knowledge and love of history. He argues that the 20th century was actually the second era in which architectural style was internationalized. The first occurred several thousand years ago when people in traditional societies in different parts of the world set about building shelter for themselves and all came up with about the same style of architecture: roughly speaking, the hut.

“I finally realized that if you go back far enough everywhere in the world, whether Japan, Europe, native America or sub-Saharan Africa, people were making pretty much the same thing,” he says. The search for the primitive in Japan sent him back before the age of tatami and bamboo to the Jomon period that began more than 10,500 years ago, a time when some of the world’s first sedentary peoples lived in pits or small above-ground buildings.

Fujimori says his interest is piqued by what followed that primitive stage: the local variations in building styles that emerged when different peoples “came out of this native phase to the start of something more sophisticated.” The result is a body of work that could spring from Tolkien’s Middle-earth, influenced by such diverse abodes as the Paleolithic caves of Lascaux, France, a treehouse in Shropshire, England, a Portuguese stone house and the sun-dried mud bricks of the Great Mosque in Djenne, Mali.

He is especially influenced by mud. Fujimori loves mud. “Mud blends into nature,” he says.

When Fujimori received his first commission, the Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum on the grounds of a Shinto shrine in his hometown of Chino City in Nagano Prefecture, he sought out traditional artisans, including a retired craftsman living in a rest home whom he describes as the last man then alive who knew how to split wood by hand. He still describes the finished museum as his best work from a purely architectural perspective.


That was followed by teahouses, where his only adherence to tradition is that the rooms are small, have low entrances and a fireplace to boil water. One sits in the corner of a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, with an arch in the garden in tribute to Le Corbusier. Another, designed for a former Japanese prime minister, is covered in cedar bark and sits independently in the woods.

Fujimori hasn’t dumped modern science and technology altogether. Buildings have to stand, after all, and in Japan, they are supposed to withstand an earthquake or typhoon. He admits that while grass, soil and stone may be preferable to the human touch, they aren’t much good against a quake, nor for conducting heat.

He compromised (a point any critic would seize upon) by using modern technology for the building frames, then covering them with natural materials. But that raises other problems: How do you make that grass grow?

Fujimori chuckles when he describes the tribulations of a childless couple who commissioned a castle-like home covered with greenery. “They complained that it was really hard work, all that weeding,” he says. “They said it was like having children.”

He believes that his buildings would thrive in Southern California’s climate -- lots of sun, just the right amount of rain -- but acknowledges that gardening a building is hardly a blueprint for life. “It’s possible, but you always have to pay attention,” he says.

This doesn’t exactly leave Fujimori in line to design the next big Tokyo fashion house. He says friends such as Ando and Ito enjoy watching what he produces, and even give him occasional commissions. But he is under no illusions that he is at the vanguard of any new movement.


“There is no one in the world doing what I’m doing,” Fujimori says. “I’m alone. The only one. So it’s quite difficult to have a revolution.”