A Reprise of Toshiko Mori

Toshiko Mori recently went to Buffalo, NY, and took part in the opening of the Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion, the visitor’s center at the Darwin Martin House Complex that she and her office designed. [Coverage: Buffalo Rising: TM; Buffalo Rising: A room with a view; Buffalo News; Interior Design]

For this occasion, let me take you back to an interview with Ms Mori that I did about two years ago. It was published and well-illustrated in Entorno #03 (link to covers), a magazine published by el Colegio de Arquitectios y Arquitectos Paisajistas de Puerto Rico (something akin to the architects’ and landscape architects’ association). A PDF used to be available, but the Colegio has moved websites—a typical problem—and didn’t take the old archives with them. This piece was commissioned and edited by Celina Nogueras Cuevas and assistant editor Alfredo Nieves Moreno. I’ve made some minor edits here. Intro is in español and English. The text itself was published in English.


La arquitecto Toshiko Mori recientemente visitó Puerto Rico y dictó una conferencia el 24 de febrero en el auditorio de la Escuela de Arquitectura de la Universidad de Puerto Rico. La cita fue parte del calendario de actividades en celebración del cuadragésimo aniversario de la Escuela. Mori es Fellow del AIA desde el 2005 y dirige el Departamento de Arquitectura en la Universidad de Harvard. Visité su despacho en Manhattan para dialogar con ella sobre su obra e investigaciones.

Toshiko Mori recently visited Puerto Rico and gave a conference on February 24, 2006, at the School of Architecture, University of Puerto Rico. The date was part of a calendar of events celebrating the school’s fortieth anniversary. Mori is a Fellow of the AIA since 2005 and formerly chaired the Department of Architecture at Harvard University’s Design School.

En medio del bullicio de las firmas célebres y los proyectos aparentemente cada vez más arriesgados formalmente, Toshiko Mori practica una arquitectura comedida y a veces hasta etérea, cuando un contexto parece reclamarlo. Quizás por eso ha tenido la fortuna de recibir comisiones en algunos de los sitios más intimidantes pero apremiantes, ya sea por su vulnerabilidad ecológica o su legado construido. Por ejemplo, le ha correspondido diseñar el Centro de Visitantes para la casa Martin de Frank Lloyd Wright en Buffalo, Nueva York. En su charla, describió ese proyecto como “diminutivo pero monumental,” aunque así mismo podría estar hablando de varios edificios suyos.

In the midst of the celebrated firms and projects seemingly more and more risqué in terms of form, Toshiko Mori practices architecture that seems restrained and even ethereal, especially when a context seems to really call for that. Perhaps for this reason she has had the good fortune of receiving commissions in some sites that would seem most intimidating—but also rewarding—be it for their ecological precariousness or their built legacy. For example, she took on the Visitor’s Center for the Frank Lloyd Wright Martin house in Buffalo, NY. In her talk she described this project as “small but monumental” (she could have been referring to many of her projects).

A lo largo de su carrera pedagógica y profesional, Toshiko Mori ha buscado enraizar sus criterios arquitectónicos—la pureza de la línea, la liviandad visual, el anclaje en el entorno, el comportamiento térmico de la obra—con una investigación rigurosa en las propiedades de materiales, especialmente aquellos sintéticos. El resultado es un corpus fiel a sus antepasados modernistas como Edward Larabee Barnes y simultáneamente un trabajo fresco, distinto y atrevido. Con ese tema abrimos nuestra conversación.

Throughout her career in education and practice, Toshiko Mori has sought to tie her architectural concerns—the purity of the line, visual lightness, contextual anchoring, thermal performance—with a rigorous investigation into the properties of materials, especially synthetic ones. The result is a body of work that is faithful to her mentors like Edward Larabee Barnes and also fresh, different, and daring. With this topic we opened our conversation.

Javier Arbona: I know that you worked for Barnes and for Isamu Noguchi. There you have two ends of a spectrum, but both very modern. On one end, very rational and on the other hand, more intuitive and sort of sensual ways of working with material. I want to ask you to respond to that and do you see it in your work with materials.

Toshiko Mori: Edward Larabee Barnes, whom I worked for, is a really classic modernist. Now I teach at Harvard but I never studied there, but it really is a Walter Gropius tradition of more of a European—classic—European modernism. Gropius, Breuer coming in here, doing all this, more box-like; very rational and very clean. It’s actually…It’s interesting; someone that I studied with and I taught with, John Hejduk in Cooper Union, was also at Harvard. And then he has a more intuitive, more poetic approach—direct—but there is a sort of rigor about tectonics, really, that comes from that particular tradition. And then I worked for Noguchi…I was at architecture school, a student.

JA: When you were at Cooper Union…

TM: Yeah. And then I was doing drawings or models. He would do sketches, and site plan and he shared an office with Bucky Fuller. They had a company called Noguchi Fountain and Plaza, Inc. They would go and try to get large public projects together. It’s an interesting studio. It’s actually artists and visionary architects…much more technology-oriented. Bucky Fuller was really not interested in natural materials because he thought there were limits. Whereas Noguchi, of course, was totally reaching into the potential and rediscovering potential in natural materials. So you see Bucky Fuller’s inventions, it really is all about (the) artificial and all about going beyond the limit of materiality. Very theoretically based. So it was kind of interesting to see these polar opposites having an office together. And then someone like Barnes is more of a rationalist but he was also very sensitive to climate. Not necessarily more of a classical modernist like (Philip) Johnson who was interested in the form itself and more of a formal approach to modernism. Where he—Barnes—site and climate was very intuitive. So that kind of variety in different modernist positions was very interesting to me.

JA: The Case Study houses (California) after the war: in that moment in history there was perhaps a cultural willingness and there was an economy that allowed a certain amount of experimentation in architecture. How do you feel in trying to establish a lab in that way? Is it possible to do that today?

TM: I think so. I think what is very different from the profession from maybe 10, 15 years ago is that practice has more research in it. There is more exploration, more study, from programming to materials to technology. So it is much more speculative. Before, design was more linear…The structural engineers, figuring out the materials, making the shape work, but I think there is much more in-depth discourse within the practice which allows emergence of materials, practice including technologies, to arrive at a solution that is much more integrated.

JA: The fruits of that kind of collaboration and research that goes into doing a project like yours at Syracuse (the Center for Excellence); who benefits afterwards? Does the research somehow become proprietary for someone involved? Do you ever patent anything that is discovered or done during the process of designing a project like this?

TM: Me? I am really for open-source. And it’s…Patent, yes, I think everyone is entitled to their patent. But, unless you share the research for the benefit of the rest of the world, it’s kind of strange: the research for your own financial gain. It’s really not…Some people do it. Yes. Most people do it. But for architects, why can’t we share it? Why can’t we share the results? Because there is no copyright in architecture.

JA: You discuss this issue with, I think, it’s (Jacques) Herzog in Immaterial/Ultramaterial. Right? They (Herzog and DeMeuron) were very bitter that they didn’t put a patent on the photographic glass-etching system that they developed for the Riccola project and they were saying that they would have liked to somehow benefit, but you disagree?

TM: Well…I think eventually results can go…it’s not…If technology and materials are open source anyway, no matter how much you try to limit it, it can come out with a solution. So why the hurdle, the unnecessary hurdle? Right? People copying? I don’t know. I don’t agree with Herzog and maybe I may not be being so… I understand that’s how you make money, really. I think you should be… If somebody copies what you do, you should be flattered. (Laughs). It can actually help for cost savings on another project and make architecture better.

JA: You’re moving into bigger, institutional projects but are you still taking domestic, residential projects?

TM: Oh Yeah. That’s really important to us. I haven’t shown it but the house that we built on the Hudson River. And then also there is an addition to a Marcel Breuer house. And we have one which is a house upstate. So we have three houses and we’re working on a new housing project in Beijing. That’s 64 units with Young Ho Chang and a housing competition in Salzburg.

JA: This is always an important part for your practice and for your personal delight, in a way.

TM: Ultimately houses are the basic unit of habitation. A lot of issues deal with the idea of living in a house. It’s actually the simplest yet the most complex program. Houses.

JA: Are you interested at all in…Have you done prefab dwelling?

TM: No, not yet…

JA: Are you interested in doing any? There seem to be several firms in the United States positing this as a very environmentally-sensitive way of doing things. What do you think?

TM: What do I think? (Pause) There are two problems with it. Couple of prefab projects that I have seen—it’s not inexpensive. So if you have to spend money to buy small house, you could easily make it work—custom-wise. I think it’s not cost-effective. Secondly, a lot of materials used for prefab are consumer products, which means it’s got massive waste. And I don’t believe in making houses into consumer products because they can be discarded very easily. I think one should build houses that can actually last. It’s just not do-able. It’s not economical and non-sustainable. A building like this that can be used and converted into classrooms later; you have a basic form. I think that is forgotten. Third, it (prefab) actually comes from standardization, which is like an early-20th century, late-19th century mode of production. Now we have CNC (computer-numerical control). We have mass-customization, in which you can customize fairly easily different parts. So the issue of pre-fabrication really dooms you to standardized parts and manufactured parts and you assemble parts. With mass-customization, you don’t have to make stock. You can actually really “make” customized parts. It’s actually more economical to mass-customize.

JA: You have done a lot of projects—residential houses—next to masterworks: Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer…How do you see the dialog with those works and what have you learned about durability and construction in those projects? Are there mistakes? Are there things that are not that durable?

TM: Rudolph is very fragile and then…because he is experimenting in the Florida houses. But the problem is not a “mistake” because he’s experimenting and so forth. Frank Lloyd Wright is a master builder. It’s about 100 years old and the whole thing is solid.

JA: The Martin House?

TM: The Martin House. Really a master work. And the Breuer, too, is very incredibly well-built. So too, interesting craft of building; detailing is masterful.

JA: Where perhaps the house hasn’t lasted as well as it should have or would have, is there any fear of changing it? Is it a precious object or have you transformed parts of those dwellings?

TM: It’s actually really figuring what to preserve and what to make new. That’s the aesthetic. What can we do without destroying it? (Toshiko Mori gets up and goes to a model in her office) Breuer… I think…This is original Breuer and what I do is–this is the addition and we have this geometry where one stair goes down and one stair goes up. Connecting this. And I kept…restored this completely…And what I did was that I kept the perimeter but raised the ceiling and made a clerestory so that spatialy it is much more… Really it is incident to it, but spatialy it’s pretty light but from the exterior it doesn’t interfere. And then this geometry really shows that it is not just a difference. It’s a break, but a connection at the same time. And there’s a pool house in the back. So ah… site model…? I gave site model to the client…

JA: In Immaterial/Ultramaterial at several moments in the conversation, different architects talk about this notion of “liberation” that would seem to be coming after the year 2000 because of CAD-CAM technologies for firms. Do you think that has happened in the last five or six years and has it opened up the practice in the way that the book predicted?

I do believe computer is not really a rendering tool. It’s a fabrication tool and it’s very precise and Frank Gehry has a lot to do with it. The other thing that’s happening, most important is actually working format. Because one is sharing files. We will have this project like so. We have so many consultants involved. I think we can process so much more information than ever before and what we call the “intuitive design process” is much more liberating and much revolutionary right now.

Toshiko Mori Architect: http://www.tmarch.com/

Header image via Buffalo Rising.