Words and Pictures

Recent books by architects Fumihiko Maki and Shigeru Ban.

Ban and Maki
Left: Shigeru Ban. Right: Fumihiko Maki.

Fumihiko Maki and Shigeru Ban, both Japanese by birth, American by training, global in operation and important figures in world architecture, have each recently published books that merit our attention. Fumihiko Maki, born in 1928, came of age in U.S.-occupied Tokyo, and Shigeru Ban was born in 1957, a full generation later. Maki studied at Cranbrook in 1952 and at the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 1953–56. Ban studied at the Southern California Institute of Architecture from 1977–80 and Cooper Union from 1980–82. Both mix cultural traditions east and west, and, unbound to either, create architecture that matters to architects everywhere.

Yet their work bears almost no obvious visual resemblance. Maki works primarily in rectilinear shapes of concrete, steel and glass, creating buildings of fine detail and nuance that humanize the mainline language of international modernism. Ban creates curvilinear forms of paper, bamboo, fabric and tensile cables, visually dramatic structures that relate to organic systems in the tradition of Buckminister Fuller and Frei Otto. Both believe that architecture must benefit society, not merely engage it, though they approach that ideal differently too. Maki’s true north is how buildings combine into urban fabric to enhance city life. Ban’s is combining impermanent materials to create visually stunning structures, and he has channeled that talent to create instant shelter for the destitute.

Fumihiko Maki and Shigeru Ban have made two totally different books, representing two types of architectural bookmaking. Ban’s 1985–2007 belongs to the tradition of the complete works; Maki’s Nurturing Dreams to the tradition of the collected essays. These two volumes compare to their respective book types more easily than they relate to each other.

Maki’s Nurturing Dreams: Collected Essays on Architecture and the City [MIT Press, 2008] gathers 21 essays written between 1964 and 2006 into four thematic chapters. The essays range from 2,000 to 10,000 words, most translated from Japanese but some composed in English, with minimal black and white illustrations. Lucid and highly readable, these autobiographical reflections on core issues of architecture, inscribed by an architect engaged in significant building commissions, are devoid of jargon and the insufferable tendency among architectural writers to attempt literary theory or philosophy. A collection of fine essays by an accomplished architect is a rare thing.

Hillside Terrace

Hillside Terrace
Top and Bottom: Hillside Terrace, Tokyo, Japan, Fumihiko Maki. [Courtesy of ASPI and Maki and Associates]

The title begs comparison to Also Rossi’s groundbreaking treatise Architecture of the City (1966), which focused on the city as a collective work of architecture more significant than individual works, as “the repository of collective memory.” But Rossi wrote as an academic prior to serious engagement in the difficulty of construction. Alan Colquhoun’s Collected Essays (2008) also comes to mind, but that talented writer has a more modest portfolio of built work. Eduard Sekler, in his illuminating forward, observes about the writings of architects that “they have been accepted with greater attention when coming from an author backed up with an impressive record of professional achievement, as is the case with Fumihiko Maki.”

The heart of the book is the middle two chapters, “Collective Form” and “The City,” so the comparison to Rossi stands up. Maki offers a dozen crisp essays, his point of view formed in earshot of Josep Lluis Sert, Team X, Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs, Edmund Bacon, all mid-60’s urbanists contemporaneous with Rossi. These writings reveal the core of Maki, urban architect, on broad subjects such as urban form, American cities and the problems of instant places like Brasilia and Dubai. One essay concerns Hillside Terrace, a 250-meter-long slice of central Tokyo that Maki was commissioned to design upon returning to Japan in 1967 after 15 years abroad. This central work of his long career was made over 27 years, from 1965 to ’92. Twelve abstract buildings precisely and delicately shape multiple outdoor spaces that interweave with surrounding city fabric. Maki says urbanism is the “tolerance of myriad views in space of competition,” where the sequential experience of movement through space is a “fundamental joy.” Hillside Terrace brings Maki’s (and modern urbanism’s) most humane ideals to life in the middle of a great metropolis. One sentence says it all: “Over time I have come to think of the buildings I have designed there as extensions of myself.” This should be basic in every creative endeavor, but rarely can one traverse contemporary urban space and believe its maker brought to the task a core duty to satisfy the “collective desire for delight.” Maki’s “nurturing dreams” in the “collective form” resonates with Rossi’s theory of “collective memory” of the city.

Maki’s collection also compares to Raphael Moneo’s recent Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects (2004), which queries the formal strategies of his most important colleagues. Maki’s fourth chapter addresses the influence of elders and colleagues, including Corbusier, Togo Murano, Yoshio Taniguchi and others. One of the more important essays in the book, “The Corbusier Syndrome: The Development of Modern Architecture in Japan,” illuminates the enormous influence of Corb in Japan, and the Japanese talent for assimilating western influences into a seemingly eternal easternism. “Artistic influence, like the shadow of cloud, is elusive and difficult for someone underneath it to discern,” Maki writes, capturing the spell all artists sense at some point of development, as well as the climate change Corb effected upon the architects of Japan.

Paper House
Paper House, Lake Yamanaka, Yamanashi, Japan, 1995. [Courtesy of Shigeru Ban Architects]

Maki is currently engaged in significant commissions across the U.S. and Canada, after a forty-year hiatus. His opening essay, “Formative Years,” reflects upon his career launch in America and the imprint from momentous passages of mid-century modernism. A student of Kenzo Tange at postwar Tokyo University, his intermittent stints at Harvard between 1952 and 1965 with Sert shaped the young architect and introduced him to Paul Rudolph, Aldo Van Eyck, and Peter and Alison Smithson. Maki’s diplomatic grace bridging cultural differences, together with talent, hard work, perfect timing and luck, combine for amazing early success. 1960, for example, was a very good year: a 32-year-old professor at Washington University, Maki is commissioned to design the Wash U. art and architecture school, Steinberg Hall; he contributes to the hugely influential manifesto and exhibit Metabolism 1960; and he attends the pivotal Team X conference in France, as guest of the Smithsons. This early lift-off is hard to imagine today with the profession of architecture much more clogged now than it was then by octogenarians like, well, Maki, still competing for the better commissions.

Fumuhiko Maki’s voice as writer is reason enough to read these essays. Often starting from direct experience of familiar places, or details in a colleague’s work, he connects very personal perceptions to architectural ideas in broad circulation. He develops ideas through keen observation, stories, mature judgments and worthy digressions, filtered through the charisma and hard measure requisite for making architecture of the highest caliber.

Shigeru Ban’s compact, self-published book [2008] is the mid-career portfolio of a prolific architect, at 52 relatively young for the profession. It presents the work of his firm in chronological order, some 100 projects, most built, with straightforward architectural color photography, minimal text and full credit to collaborators in Japanese and English. Its compendium manner expresses minimal personal authorship; not a bad thing, as it is refreshingly devoid of the marketing aroma that too often spoils the contemporary architectural monograph. At 6 x 8 x 0.75 inches, it is sized for the student budget and backpack more than the boardroom or coffee table, a paperback flip-book documenting with efficient economy the author’s creativity and parsimony.

The book is crammed with images, too many too small, perhaps, a consequence of packing prolix into a small volume. More drawings would help, especially details of the connections that hold these structures taut. No story, theory or reflection is offered here to explain the work. Visual literacy is required to understand what Ban is up to. The book documents Ban’s take on formal and social matters that have excited architects perennially throughout the modern era: the detached single house as an object of formal invention, and housing for the less fortunate. He pursues both social and formal agendas with technical prowess and a good measure of wit and élan. He works in numbered series, including the Paper Tube Structures 1 through 16, and the Case Study Houses 1 through 13. This book is a handy guide to the full output.

Curtain Wall House
Curtain Wall House, Tokyo, Japan, 1995. [Courtesy of Shigeru Ban Architects]

Ban’s temporary houses and community buildings for disaster victims constitute an extraordinary body of work in themselves, but especially considering how they directly relate to his most significant commissions. Exemplary are the paper log homes for the 1995 Hanshin earthquake (paper tube structure nos. 7 & 8), and the 1999 Turkey earthquake (no. 11). These simple compositions are readily erected of paper tubes, for most architects the item tossed when the plotter runs out. It is rare that famous architects give practical relief to human suffering. In so doing Ban has added to his fame, producing notable buildings that vividly demonstrate the social utility of an industrial product intended for a single use and quick discard. But these relief efforts feed directly into his paper tube vault over the Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2000 (no. 13) and his Vaserly Pavilion for the Cezanne Festival in 2006, demonstrating Ban’s architectural mastery of the same simple item, creating structures of extraordinary sculptural power and grace.

Ban’s case study homes each advance the art of construction. For example, the Curtain Wall House encloses structured private space in Tokyo with billowing curtains, making dramatic display of the diaphanous, dynamic membrane between public and private space. As with the paper-log structures, Ban connects in a deep way with shoji-screen, paper-thin architecture. Picture Window House, on the Japanese ocean shore, uses a daring structural span to frame the seascape view, exploring ideas of house as a window, of private view and public vista. These case study houses are aesthetic and formal adventures, built icons of contemporary architectural thought.

Ban’s book is more commonplace than Maki’s, which is not to comment on the architecture. It is more like a printed website than an oeuvre complète in the traditional sense. With bookshelves across the profession groaning with massive monographs, this tome is a perfect presentation of the light-footprint architect.

Robert Taylor, “Words and Pictures,” Places Journal, March 2010. Accessed 25 Jun 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/100314

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