Fumihiko Maki Awarded the 2011 AIA Gold Medal

The Wacoal Company Spiral building in Tokyo. Image courtesy of Maki and Associates.

AIArchitect | Zach Mortice

Click here to read the original article at aia.org.

The American Institute of Architect’s Board of Directors yesterday awarded the AIA Gold Medal to Fumihiko Maki, Hon. FAIA, the Tokyo-based architect whose international body of work has served as an extended meditation on the relationship of the part to the whole in architecture and in cities. The AIA Gold Medal is the highest honor the AIA confers on an architect. It acknowledges an individual whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture. Maki will be honored at the 2011 AIA National Convention in New Orleans.

AIA President George H. Miller, FAIA, notified Maki by telephone after the Board made its decision. “The United States is my second country,” Maki said. “I am very very honored by this distinguished award.”

What’s in between the part and the whole

Fumihiko Maki, perhaps Japan’s most pre-eminent living architect, began his career in the 1960s as a charter member of the Metabolists—a group of Japanese architects who first and foremost believed in the obsolescence of fixed forms and the endless possibilities offered by flexible and expandable modular structures. Throughout his long career, Maki carried with him this fascination with the expansion and arrangement of discrete formal elements, but over time it loosened and evolved into a theoretical approach to design he calls “collective” or “group forms.”

Maki’s approach to design is to assemble disparate collages of forms in his buildings; free-form, abstract volumes as well as elemental shapes—spheres, cones, cubes, cylinders. His buildings are multifaceted juxtapositions of both discordant unity and synchronized disarray. The intent in binding varied forms together is to draw attention to the exposed links between these ensemble compositions’ individual elements and exploit them as dramatic and revelatory markers of time and place, full of immediacy (and a bit of whimsy). It’s a much more liberal, humanist aspiration for architecture than his Metabolist roots, allowing for–and inviting–the ambiguity, conflict, and harmonious co-existence of diverse architectural ideals that color any successful building project. But it’s an approach that’s survived long past its theoretical forebears.

“Architecture must produce tension,” Maki wrote in his 1988 monograph, Fumihiko Maki: An Aesthetic of Fragmentation, “and the tension must be created from unstable orders.”

But Maki has never amplified the intensity of spaces by heedlessly slamming one form into another. He applies a balanced, painterly approach that owes as much to Cubism as it does to architectural Modernism. In his detail-oriented method of design, he makes sure that each element of a composition has a coherent and vital statement to make about the whole.

For longtime colleague Toshiko Mori, FAIA, the reference to painting and the arts is especially apt. “He is able to articulate, through architecture, the significance of science, education, arts, music, culture, and media in our society,” she wrote in a letter of recommendation.

In another recommendation letter, Cynthia Weese, FAIA, praised Maki’s ability to poeticize human existence through architecture. “Fumihiko Maki is one of the few architects today whose work actually does that,” she wrote.

Maki’s body of work (which garnered him a Pritzker Prize in 1993) is renowned for its quality of details and refined technical sensibilities. Adele Naude Santos, FAIA, dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, has been both a mentee and client of Maki, commissioning him to design MIT’s new Media Lab, which she praised in a recommendation letter as “[exemplifying] the profession at the highest possible level of performance—responsive to the program, technically sophisticated, spatially creative, with [a] formal outcome that is beautiful and timeless.”

Other examples of his work include:

–The Spiral in Tokyo, an arts complex for the Wacoal company that assembles a multitude of strong iconic forms into a Cubist composition of varying materials and depths.

– The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, a museum and multi-purpose arts center that transforms Maki’s signature ensemble of disparate volumes into a unified conceptual motif: a ship floating into the city from the harbor.

–The Kaze-No-Oka Crematorium in Kyushu, Japan, which takes Maki’s language of diverse formal elements down a somber path, filled with elemental material expressions, the play of light and shadow, and a sculptural sparseness that’s integrated into the surrounding ancient burial ground landscape.

–Triad in Nagano Japan, a series of small buildings for Harmonic Drive Systems that exemplify Maki’s approach to Modernist object-in-space site plans by presenting three separate buildings in a formal dialogue with nature and each other.

–The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which provides a rich glass and wood contrast to the historic masonry buildings that surround it.

Discovery, not invention

Maki has lived most of his life in Tokyo, though he studied in the United States (at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and at Cranbrook), and frequently teaches here, as well as in Japan. He has always maintained an Eastern influence in his work, often exhibited in his comfort with irrational, asymmetrical arrangements of space. “He has a unique style of Modernism that is infused with an ephemeral quality and elegance which reflects his Japanese origin,” wrote Mori in her recommendation letter. “What stands out most about Mr. Maki is the consistent quality of his work at the highest caliber, and the creation of ineffable atmospheres; his buildings convey a quiet and elegant moment of reflection.”

His appreciation of the diverse play of forms in relation to the unified whole has given Maki a deep understanding of how individual buildings come together to make a city, and the constantly shifting, endlessly democratic patterns of urban fabric that clothe a culture. “The city,” Maki said in Architect: The Work of the Pritzker Prize Laureates in Their Own Words, “can be seen as the sum total of countless events being generated simultaneously.”

The fractious collage of ideas that organize his buildings also run his practice. Despite being one of Japan’s most well-known architects, Maki has kept his firm, Maki and Associates, relatively small, at no more than 40 people—sizeable enough to tackle large projects but small enough so that he can personally touch every project. Within this intimate group, Maki encourages the forge of conflict and disagreement to refine his designs objectively and honestly. Design is an evolutionary, not revolutionary, thing—as he calls it–“a process of constant discovery rather than mere invention.”