Style & Design

Architect Fumihiko Maki: Finding intimacy in the city

by Greg Logan

Contributing Writer

Fumihiko Maki has practiced architecture for six decades now. His firm, Maki and Associates, has designed iconic buildings both within Japan, including the Spiral Building in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, and abroad, such as the 4 World Trade Center in New York. In 1993, he received the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor. At the time, he was the second Japanese architect to have won the award, preceded only by his mentor Kenzo Tange who won it in 1987.

At a recent meeting in his Daikanyama office, I sat down with Maki to discuss “City with a Hidden Past,” the first English edition of the landmark book “Miegakure-suru Toshi.” Originally published more than 30 years ago, the book has gone through 21 printings in Japanese. Maki and his coauthors wrote it as a way to understand the hidden factors that make the seemingly inscrutable city of Tokyo legible. It is a guide to the city’s idiosyncratic streets, the many layers of its urban facade, and the microtopology that brings a sense of place to its many neighborhoods.

How has Tokyo changed since the you first wrote “City With a Hidden Past”?

Tokyo has changed just like other cities. It’s not an exception. But it has happened mostly along the major streets of the city. There are still many smaller neighborhoods that endure. Of course, when we wrote this book almost 50 years ago, Japan had more of these small spaces. This book is mainly an analysis of these areas, the layout of their streets, the residual space, strategies for place making, and what we call the “urban facade.”

How do smaller spaces contribute to the larger urban experience of Tokyo?

In their homes and offices, Japanese people must make do with very limited space. You see this in the chapter on the layers of the urban facade by Hidetoshi Ono. A property owner can do any number of things just with screens, overhangs or potted plants. And these things are very important for making the place distinct and identifiable. Of course, Tokyo has large buildings too, but living in Tokyo means living in two worlds (among busy streets and high rises and in quiet, low-rise residential neighborhoods).

How does the pedestrian experience these smaller spaces?

When I choose to walk back to my home in Gotanda, it sometimes takes about one hour, but I always take the time to walk through the back streets. I find these walks very pleasant, watching the streets go this way and that. Tokyo still has a number of very intimate places and I think they bring a necessary diversity to the city.

You are largely responsible for the urban character of Daikanyama. In what ways has the long experiment of Hillside Terrace allowed you to test your theories on urban design?

Torajiro Asakura (1859-1944), a local politician and also the owner of a large piece of property in Daikanyama (of which Hillside Terrace is a part), recommended that the government widen the front street, which was very narrow, and he offered a substantial part of his property to do so. He also suggested keeping the height of buildings at a maximum of 10 meters. That height limit makes Hillside Terrace very intimate and relaxed, and is unique in Tokyo. I have been lucky to have worked on a site like this and next year we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first phase of Hillside Terrace.

Tokyo has a complicated relationship to public and green space. How have you tried to create such spaces in your work? And what obligation does a city have to provide such open space?

Statistically, Tokyo has a very small percentage of public spaces compared to other cities. I think for this reason we have put a lot of effort into making the most of what small open spaces we have. At Hillside Terrace, we were able to make many public-oriented spaces inside private property. But it has never felt like private property. And these open spaces allow for a variety of experiences. Of course, people can enjoy shops and restaurants. But they can also find places of solitude or sites for communal festivities.

Do you know T-Site? There was a competition to determine the design. We didn’t enter but we strongly recommended that the winning design keep some of the existing trees on the site. This is exactly what the winning firm, Klein Dytham, did. So now you always see people in front of T-Site chatting, eating or resting under the trees. This is one of the benefits of having a wooded public road with a low building density.

In the book you have a chapter on oku, or the innermost spaces nested in the many thin layers of the Tokyo streetscape. This is a theme that comes up often in your writing. Can you explain why oku are so important to how you understand space in Japan?

The important thing is that oku must be felt; it is an ambience. You couldn’t say, “Where is oku?” and then point to it. In the baroque city plan, you have straight streets that connect important landmarks. You don’t have this in Japan. Here, we are more interested in the approach, in the timing, and how you never get a frontal view of a building. Even if your final destination is undramatic, that’s OK. We tried to bring this experience to Hillside Terrace. We created many layers of screening between the street and the interior of the building. This includes a screen of trees. These layers provide a sense of depth. That is oku-ness.

Zooming out to the urban scale, what role does Tokyo’s center (i.e. the Imperial Palace) play in the experience of Tokyo?

The Imperial Palace plays an important function by giving order to its surroundings. To the east is the commercial district. To the west is the seat of government. To the north there are universities and cultural institutions. Central Park does the same thing for New York. It divides the city into the east side, the west side, Harlem, and mid-Manhattan. If we were to imagine that there was no palace, everything would come together in a confusing way, and the city might not be very legible or attractive any more.

How do you determine a sense of place for your projects?

Of course, when you are trying to understand a site you need to do a complete examination of the history of a place, its geography, its economy, et cetera. But, in architecture the most important thing is an understanding of human behavior and the knowledge of what kind of spaces people like. We have learned this through 60 years of practice. We have learned from the work we have done. And we try to bring this experience into buildings we may design later.

What do you see as the future of Tokyo? What role will the Olympics play?

Japan is facing a big problem with rapid population decline. So, under these circumstances, I don’t think Tokyo will continue to develop as it is today. The Olympics will change some places, like Odaiba, but not the small spaces analyzed in this book. I cannot give you a rosy picture, but I believe we should maintain these interesting small spaces that characterize Tokyo and keep it livable.

Japanese residential areas are unique because of their broad economic diversity; they do not stratify their citizens based on a spectrum of rich versus poor. This makes the neighborhoods of Tokyo diverse, vibrant, and comfortable. Many people outside Japan go their whole lives without knowing the small, intimate places hidden in these neighborhoods. So although Tokyo has its own problems — like any other city — I feel very lucky to be here.

For more information on “City With a Hidden Past,” visit www.kajima-publishing.co.jp.