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Tokyo on Thames: Sou Fujimoto's Serpentine Pavillion

  • PROJECT NAME Serpentine Pavillion
  • LOCATION London
  • FIRM Sou Fujimoto
An architectural apparition rising from the landscape, Sou Fujimoto’s Serpentine Pavilion is the 13th in a series of summer installations in London’s Kensington Gardens. Fujimoto has assembled 27,000 lengths of white-painted tubular steel into a kind of high-tech latticework that pixelates views of the redbrick Serpentine Gallery and the greenery around. But Fujimoto is more than a sculptor. With judicious placement of clear, colorless glass panels over parts of the grid, he crafted benches, tables, floors, and ceilings, allowing function to float effortlessly on form. The result blurs the boundaries between indoors and out and encourages visitors to shape their own experiences, the way children might choose different perches on an especially inviting tree.

Fujimoto says his influences are both the forest he knew as a child, near his home on rural Hokkaido, the north island of Japan, and the forestlike density of Tokyo, which he has come to know as an adult. He describes that cityscape as “a natural order made by artificial means.” Melding the two opposites, creating a tension between them, he says, was his goal for the Serpentine.

At 41 years old, Fujimoto is the youngest architect ever honored with a Serpentine commission. He is also the only one whose work consists almost entirely of houses. They include several in the form of 3-D grids that presaged his Serpentine design. Over the last decade, Sou Fujimoto Architects has built a dozen gossamer, pavilionlike houses. They’re frequently all white or all black, seemingly too open or too closed, with curtains for walls, ladders for stairways, and oddly placed ramps and skylights. Interior balconies and ingenious built-ins let each room serve multiple functions.

One house, in Tokyo, is a gridded structure like the Serpentine Pavilion—as much jungle gym as dwelling, with surfaces that serve countless different purposes depending, Fujimoto says, “on the weather, on your activities of the moment, and on your mood.” A Kumamoto house, as dark as the Tokyo house is light, is an intriguingly puzzlelike series of caves built from chunky cedar beams. A third example, in Oita, consists of a box within a box within a box: Three enclosures, each with windows that are large but cleverly offset to provide privacy, compel playful engagement with architecture and, he says, “multiply the possibilities” of everyday life.

What makes Fujimoto’s clients, generally young families, willing to pay for his experiments—and inhabit them? One answer is that Japanese dwellings have always been compact, with few furnishings other than tatami mats and the shoji screens that enable rooms to take on multiple configurations. The Japanese have never had the expectation of single-purpose rooms, of walls that serve as barriers, or of furniture that gets used only once a day, if that. While the French were building the Château de Versailles, the Japanese were building the Katsura Imperial Villa, where princes lived in flexible spaces with paper-thin partitions that could be positioned as needed. So, given that history of domestic architecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design professor Toshiko Mori points out, a Fujimoto house’s “experimental” characteristics, as perceived by Western eyes, are really quite traditional.

Then there are conditions unique to today’s Japan, where high real-estate prices make virtually any piece of land worth building on, even a triangle between a gas station and a convenience store. And, according to Fujimoto, there is the popularity of public buildings by another Serpentine Pavilion firm, Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects. Considered a national treasure, Toyo Ito, among others, has persuaded people of the value of contemporary architecture and, Fujimoto says, “taught them to find the potential in special living environments.”

Indeed, there is a desire, on the part of young couples, for homes that shape family rituals. Everything from the way you wake up to the way you place your teacup on the table and where you look while drinking the tea—through a window meant to frame a very particular view—is a form of artistic expression, Mori explains. As Fujimoto puts it, he likes creating houses that “allow people to behave in special ways.” A unique house lends itself to unique methods of doing things, which to the Japanese isn’t a restriction so much as an opportunity to heighten the aesthetic experience embedded in everyday life.

Fujimoto doesn’t believe that Japan is the only place with gutsy clients. He recently won two commissions for houses in the U.S., one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast. But only time will tell if the Americans are as bold as the Japanese who have enabled his ongoing investigations—or if the American bugaboo, resale value, gets in the way of true innovation. Meanwhile, the Serpentine Pavilion, open through October 20, is giving hundreds of thousands of visitors a chance to sample the kind of glorious architectural experimentation that a few families get to experience every day.