Arts: Modernism with a Human Face ; the Japanese Architect Fumihiko Maki Spent 28 Years Building an Award-Winning Development in Tokyo. Jay Merrick Charts a Major Architectural Odyssey

By Merrick, Jay | The Independent (London, England), April 2, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Arts: Modernism with a Human Face ; the Japanese Architect Fumihiko Maki Spent 28 Years Building an Award-Winning Development in Tokyo. Jay Merrick Charts a Major Architectural Odyssey


Merrick, Jay, The Independent (London, England)


Sometimes, there is a kind of perfection in the arc of a working life. For the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki that arc is not only distinct but solid. The history of this master of articulated Modernism begins and ends - well, perhaps not quite yet - in a 500m stretch of Hachiyama- cho, which lies at the posher end of Tokyo's Shibuya district. And any visit to Maki, who will soon be visiting London to present and explain his Pritzker Prize-winning work, must begin in 1969.

A time-machine is not required because, in this case, history is conveniently horizontal. One simply walks to the far end of Hachiyama-cho, where it hits the main junction, and retraces one's steps. There, on the left, is the first element of the Hillside Terrace development - Maki's breakthrough project. In those days, forested land stood in the way of any further development of the fashionable Daikanyama district. The owners of the land were the Asakura family and they, rather remarkably in a climate of rapidly escalating land values, invited Maki to develop a masterplan for the site that would set up a strategic development that did not depend on rapid paybacks.

This confluence of a wealthy landowner and a young architect with unusual ideas was to produce remarkable results. None of the participants could have imagined the six-phase architectural odyssey that would follow - a 28-year voyage that reached a gleamingly pared- down point of perfection three years ago with the creation of Hillside Terrace West, a mixed-use building which contains the offices of Maki and Associates.

When Maki first contemplated the site his reputation was founded on an acute, intellectual grasp of architecture that had been honed at Tokyo and Harvard universities; and, in particular, in a two- essay booklet that he published in 1964. It carried the title Investigations in Collective Form, and in it he said something of enduring prescience: "We have so long accustomed ourselves to conceiving of buildings as separate entities, that today we suffer from an inadequacy of spatial language to make meaningful environments." The words still ring true.

It was a mission statement whose physical starting point was the first phase of Hillside Terrace. Maki's aim was to bring a rigorously detailed and carefully articulated approach to architecture; new buildings could be utterly Modernist, but they had to relate to what was around them in organic, step-by-step developments rather than the sudden pyrotechnics of Big Bang design.

Maki's desire might, at first, seem unremarkable. And yet, just how far are architects, of any stylistic or philosophical persuasion, prepared to go? How much are they willing to take into account before developing a design? Maki likens the culture of architecture to the movement of waves: "The different waves collide and interfere with one another, some disappearing and others merging to form a bigger wave. Every day we experience and participate in the waves that began in the early years of the 20th century."

The challenge for Maki at Hillside Terrace was to insert radical architecture that made sense, that fitted and fractalised itself acceptably. Gazing along the facades of the first three phases of the buildings - apartments above retail, circulation and small plazas - two things strike home. First, that Maki understood just how far Modernist concrete and glass could be pushed before control over detail was lost; no showing off, in other words. From the start, he was confident enough in his approach not to seek embellishment.

The second issue is the brilliantly successful mixture of forms. No two phases in the early developments are the same. But stand anywhere - on the pavement, across the street - and gaze along the facades: they just flow. The projections, indents, scribed lines in the concrete, the tiling and the shadow angles are all part of tightly controlled, actual, and inferred, perspectives.

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Arts: Modernism with a Human Face ; the Japanese Architect Fumihiko Maki Spent 28 Years Building an Award-Winning Development in Tokyo. Jay Merrick Charts a Major Architectural Odyssey
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