Architect’s floating future vision

by C.B. Liddell and c.b.liddell

The inexorable rise of Tokyo Sky Tree on the city’s skyline has once again raised the question of what a future Tokyo might look like. The exhibition “Sousuke Fujimoto Architects: Future Visions — Forest, Cloud, Mountain” at the Watarium Museum attempts to get people thinking along these lines, while at the same time introducing them to the work of Sousuke Fujimoto, an up-and-coming architect who is fast making a name for himself in the world of architecture.

If you’re already thinking, “Not another architecture exhibition!” and mentally picturing a neat but uninspiring arrangement of models and plans, then prepare to be pleasantly surprised, because Fujimoto has created a breathtaking exhibition that is more akin to modern art than architecture. This is all the more remarkable because he has done so with nothing more than several hundred interlocking tubes of clear plastic and thousands of bits of Styrofoam — and, yes, plenty of architectural models, but presented in a most unexpected way.

“I wanted other people besides architects to enjoy the exhibition,” the architect tells The Japan Times. “Also, I wanted to physically express the fun of having an idea in architecture, not just lots of architectural plans and models in the conventional way. The Watarium Museum has a characteristic space, so it was a good hint in making the exhibition.”

As anyone who’s ever been there knows, the Watarium provides quite an unusual exhibition space. There are three relatively small exhibition floors, above a shop and reception area, that can only be accessed by using a single elevator.

However, Fujimoto has turned this apparent weakness into a strength. Each time the elevator door opens — rather like curtains parting — we are greeted by a distinct exhibition space on a different scale from the others.

The first part of the exhibition, on the second floor, is at 1:1 scale with a kind of cave-like structure made from the plastic tubes. But unlike a real cave, which is flooded in darkness, this cave allows in the light. This gives the visitor a life-sized, visceral experience of one of Fujimoto’s as-yet-unrealized architectural concepts.

The next floor carries most of the informational burden of the exhibit, with a great variety of architectural models showing various projects, both tentative and actualized, in which the architect has been involved. These include House N, with its internalized garden, and Tokyo Apartment, a building that seems to have been constructed by simply piling lots of small houses on top of each other. But what could so easily have been the dry and factual part of the exhibition is brought to life by the placing of models on the ends of long, thin bendy poles, so that they sprout all around you like exotic flowers in a surreal architectural jungle.

The top floor is, in Fujimoto’s words, “city scale,” with a metropolis made of small blocks of Styrofoam that each represent a building. These are set at waist height, giving visitors a kind of Godzilla’s-eye view of possible future urban development. Here you are also offered a print showing Tokyo’s present skyline, which you are invited to embellish in order to answer the set question: “In what kind of place will people be living in 10 years, 50 years, and 100 years?” Fujimoto’s own answer is that Tokyo will perhaps become “like a man-made forest.” The Styrofoam city shows how he envisages this, with structures that allow buildings and trees to live together, while also colonizing the sky.

This of course brings to mind Tokyo Sky Tree, a vast, imposing piece of essentially modernist architecture with a cute, eco-friendly name that doesn’t ring true. Ever since Japan was awarded the 2005 Expo (held in Nagoya) by promising an entirely ecological event and then backtracked on the original concept, there has been a growing tendency in Japanese architecture to overuse such eco-friendly terminology.

With concepts at this exhibition such as “Cloud City,” “Forests in the Sky” and “Mountain-like Tokyo,” Fujimoto, who once described his architectural style as “primitive future,” has definitely mastered the kind of green semantics needed by modern architects to get the greenlight of planning permission. So, does he see a conflict between eco thoughts and yet more steel and concrete?

“Although Tokyo is full of artificial things, I feel the same way about it as the forest in Hokkaido where I was brought up,” he says. “It’s not as simple as man-made versus nature. I think that there’s definitely something new that comes into being between nature and man-made things. Contemporary architecture is a man-made thing, but even though it is artificial, it can become connected to nature. I think it is best to look for connections and fusions between the two.”

This show definitely does that, and offers plenty of entertainment as well.

“Sousuke Fujimoto Architects: Future Visions — Forest, Cloud, Mountain” at The Watarium Museum of Contemporary Art till Jan. 16, 2011; admission ¥1,000; open daily 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Wed. till 9 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, call (03) 3402-3001 or visit www.watarium.co.jp.