You’ve probably never been in the middle of a big city before and thought, “This feels just like a forest.” Architecture, though imitative of nature, is inherently different from it. This is a thought that renowned architect Sou Fujimoto had in his earliest days of university in Tokyo that would serve to inform his architectural practice for the rest of his career. He visited Taubman College this past Tuesday evening to give a talk on the way his firm’s work explores the intersection of architecture and nature.

From a rural part of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, Fujimoto grew up surrounded by forests. Though comparing the city to a forest may sound like a stretch at first, Fujimoto was insistent: Both are open spaces of similar scale with vantage points in many directions that invite exploration. Architecture by necessity has elements nature does not, and he recognizes this: solid walls to block outside air and views, orthogonality to optimize structure, hybrid materials, etc. Apart from these needs, though, humans have done everything they can to make architecture imitative of nature. Critically considering the similarities and differences between a city and a forest is the process by which Fujimoto has uncovered some of the most fundamental questions of his practice.

Fujimoto’s 2013 Serpentine Pavilion in London is a perfect example of this tradeoff between nature and architecture, natural and artificial. The pavilion is a cloud-like structure given form by tens of thousands of two-centimeter-thick white beams that meet along a 3D grid. Looking outward from within, views are either opened up or obscured depending on the density of the beams ahead, much like looking through branches in a forest. While the structure’s materials and orthogonality are inherently artificial, the overall effect of the several thousand beams together is really quite soft, as their structural qualities don’t register from afar.

When working on his famous House NA project in Tokyo in 2011, Fujimoto asked: “What is a house?” The answer: “A place for people’s lives.” Although he proposed three schemes to his client, both came to an understanding that only the most radical of the three ideas was to be the solution to them having such a small site to work with. This solution was to abolish the notion of the three-story home typical to the neighborhood. Instead, there were to be 20 levels laid out about the approximately 30 foot tall space. This is how Fujimoto described his reasoning:

“The meaning of each level is always changing … sometimes it can work as a floor, or a table, or benches, or a bookshelf or sleeping areas and so on.”

In harmony, the multi-leveled plains make for a surprisingly comfortable, multi-functional space. This works particularly well in Tokyo, where small living spaces are the norm and beds are typically laid across the floor. While, yet again Fujimoto pointed out the artificial orthogonality of these plains of wood and the metal beams that run through them he stressed that, collectively, they “softly surround you to create a human scale … just like the forest.”

One of Fujimoto’s most famous works is the Musashino Art University Library, which is something out of a Haruki Murakami novel. The entire premise was to have one continuous 30 foot tall bookshelf wrap around itself until it comprised an entire building. This would allow users to meander through the space, a metaphorical sea of knowledge, not knowing where they were until they found a book and wished to read it or check it out. Quite unlike your typical monumental library, this spiral floor plan allows the building to have a constant vanishing point no matter where you stand — a symbol of the seemingly boundless knowledge ahead.

Since the founding of his office in 2000, Fujimoto has worked across nearly all scales and programs. While most architects would stray away from such an undertaking, each new context forces Fujimoto to find a new set of solutions. While his interest in incorporating the experience of nature doesn’t work equally well in all cases, Fujimoto remains steadfast in his commitment to this praxis. He concluded the talk advising faculty and staff to be honest: honest to the budget, honest to the client, honest to architectural ideology, honest to society and honest to oneself.

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