Japan's Master Builder: Architect Sou Fujimoto

The Tokyo-based design innovator is a visionary as well as architect.

Occasionally an architect emerges with a vision so fresh that it questions the very nature of the trade,” author Naomi Pollock tells me. “Sou Fujimoto is one of those architects.” As one pages through Pollock’s recently published monograph on Fujimoto for Phaidon Press, her reasoning becomes clear. There’s his Serpentine Gallery Pavilion from 2013, a blizzard of slender white beams, or his stacked apartments in Japan’s most populous city, childlike and sophisticated all at once. Something about the work seems familiar yet bracingly original. “Like many Japanese architects, he champions the relationship between the natural and the fabricated,” Pollock says. But unlike his contemporaries, she points out, Fujimoto actually “strives to merge his buildings with the environment.”

In April, the Tokyo-based design innovator was sitting in a room above a theater in Milan, talking about his installation there for fashion brand Cos—and about what it means to be at the forefront of Japanese architecture today. “From the outside, there are some strong tendencies among us,” Fujimoto said. “But from my viewpoint, from the inside? I couldn’t say what it is.”

Slender and bespectacled, he is a product of the elite University of Tokyo’s forward-thinking architecture program, and his name is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the Pritzker Prize–winning founders of the Tokyo firm Sanaa. The three were featured in “A Japanese Constellation,” a recent exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And yet Fujimoto remains a breed apart. At 45, considered young in this industry, he’s already established an identity all his own since founding his namesake firm in 2000.

Iwan Baan

Part of this may have to do with his background. Born and raised in Hokkaido, the northernmost island in the Japanese archipelago, Fujimoto grew up far from the bustle and swarm of the country’s main cities. Contrary to one’s vision of superurbanized postwar Japan, Hokkaido is a largely rural, occasionally quite rugged isle that wasn’t even integrated into the nation until the 1860s. Its bucolic quiet remains a part of Fujimoto’s makeup. “My childhood was just playing around in forests,” he recalled.

And then he left. Living in the capital for college, he found “it was the exact opposite situation—no trees, no nature.” A new life in the metropolis opened his eyes to architecture. “In Tokyo it’s not always gigantic buildings,” he said. “In most residential areas, small houses, strange small things, that’s always surrounding you.” Much of his career trajectory has followed this line of rural-meets-urban thinking. Take his Musashino Art University Museum & Library on the city’s western edge, completed in 2011 and also featured in the MoMA show. “The inside is made up only of bookshelves layered over each other with many openings between them,” he said. The visitor is constantly impelled to wander through the mazelike space to see what’s beyond the next layer, the next turn in the path. Or take a recent proposal for a Paris university building in collaboration with French firm Manal Rachdi Oxo Architects. It involves the planting of a thousand trees, all perched atop a Noah’s ark–like structure thrust halfway over the Boulevard Périphérique.

Uncertainty, endlessness, secretiveness, revelation—all those sensations found in the wild—that’s what Fujimoto is re-creating in his practice. His approach was on full display in Milan, where he was able to work for the first time inside a theater. Invited by Cos to create an event space during the city’s annual design fair, the architect took the aged venue, draped it in black, and placed mirrors on three sides. Above, he hung alternating spotlights, creating an ever-changing light-forest that seemed to go on forever. “In situations like this,” he said, “people’s behaviors are highlighted.” When the partygoers arrived, it all made sense: the dancers in the blackness, gliding between pools of light, a space that seemed less about containment than the uncontained.