sharing Abe

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“This building is very strange. It is the kind of building that makes you wonder why it is this way. It is not good or bad, ”says Hitoshi Abe as soon as he enters his office in Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles. He continues wondering about the high ceiling in the parking area, the low car entrance, and the considerable amount of void space dedicated to an open garden. Then he reveals that the original owner was American entertainer Wayne Newton.

“But why did he make these decisions? Was this his intention? Did he care?” Although he affirms that these questions have nothing to do with what his atelier does, they reveal his concern with processes. Different from the creation of designed objects, his architecture is the result of the fixation with identifying and establishing the parameters that conform reality – the juxtaposition and interrelation of found objects. This requires careful considerations as well as arbitrariness. In this manner, the decision of what to project and materialise is based on the creation of systems that incorporate tangible and intangible forces, but that are ultimately refined by the sensibility of the architect.

Hitoshi Abe was born in Sendai, Japan, in 1962. He holds a Master of Architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture and a Doctorate from Tohoku University. In 1993, after having worked for renowned architects Coop Himmelblau and having won the competition for the Miyagi Stadium in Japan, he founded his own international practice. In addition, Abe is a distinguished leader in education. He is currently professor and chair of the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design as well as the Director of the UCLA Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies.

Your work has been regarded as spatially complex. How do you define that complexity?
I have never tried to make my projects complex. I just respond to the conditions around them. Sometimes I get very simple projects and sometimes I get very complex projects. It depends not only on the context but also on all the conditions that constitute the whole project – site, client, programme. I might have a unique way to respond and turn these relationships into formal gestures that end up being seemingly complex, especially when we try to achieve this with an honest structural system. For instance, the stadium in Miyagi, designed almost 20 years ago but built in 2000, consisted of different elements dictated by geometries that responded to different conditions, such as the regulations required in athletics and the dimensions of the site. Then we collided them together on the site. The case of the Neige Lune Fleur/S-Shinpei restaurant (Sendai, Japan) is a very simple example of this. The programme was very small – entrance, sitting area, bar, toilets and reception – but because there were existing pipes and structure, I wanted to smooth that out by tweaking the main wall. We curved it and twisted it so that the wall hides all the existing plumbing. That generated a complex curve that ties everything together. Instead of responding to each condition one by one, we set an interface that responded to all of them at once. Then the formal object emerged. The bridge in Shiroishi, Japan, is another example. It was under construction and we were asked to turn it into a sculpture. We wanted to wrap it with a new sort of handrail. The limit on the extra load that you can add defined the height of the object and also the number of elements. Then we started to look at all the strange invisible geometry of the legal conditions of the bridge – the minimum height of the handrail and the curb, the maximum peak and distance between the street lamps. We made these existing conditions visible and then translated them into a visual object, a form.

Complexity is therefore the result of the interrelation of the design systems, and not an aesthetic goal …
It is not a goal. Many things around us are so complex, so we try to visualise them. In the case of the bridge, it is made visible by a set of architectural rules. It is as if I would try to paint a portrait of you. I could use pencils, watercolours or pixels and the way that the image would appear would be different depending on how the medium is actually used and designed. I am highly interested in the relationships created by what I call the conditions of the site. These do not only have to be the landscape or the physical characteristics. Many of the constitutive conditions of the project and of architecture have their own properties that help to convert these conditions into a visual object.

How can these interrelations incorporate soft systems, including social, cultural and political aspects?
Many buildings are connected to their particular building type; their history ties programme and architecture as space. For instance, for an auditorium you need a certain way of sitting, corridor dimensions and acoustic conditions; or a stadium in which all the functionalities already have a geometrical order. You are not really dealing with function but with a series of dimensions translated from function into space. We begin with these archetypes and then we use architectural vocabulary to generate an architectural idea that gives more uniqueness. The community centre and auditorium in Kumamoto, a very small community in Japan, is a hybrid of an auditorium and meeting rooms. Each element follows the simple spatial order of its corresponding building type.

The proportions were defined, but the way they are connected is different because instead of connecting them through a corridor we connected both spaces so they can be used as one, or they can be separated into two different functions. The space on the side needed to have enough clearance to house a green room. This required the wall to swing out to create the space. The detailing and the size of the exterior panel defined the maximum tilt. There was no particular reason why this wall had to be like this but I set it as that, as if I would pick a pencil to draw. The resulting shape becomes a visual log of the negotiations of the conditions of the process.

In this process, how are space and its perception conceived?
To me, space is in between. Objects with surfaces create in betweenness. In a way, the experience of space is about how you go through in between objects – how you walk through a sequence of different relationships of spaces defined by surfaces. That is your personal experience. The creation of space is how you define the surfaces in relationship with other surfaces. Space is not something solid, or contained. It is about relationships. My focus is not about creating dramatic space sequences. I am more interested in trying to be precise about tying different conditions together through my objects. Then I let it happen, so the spatial sequences come as results of such a process. It is more a found object than a designed object.

Your version of space is based on movement …
Every space is about movement. If you do not move, you do not feel any space.

How can you suggest that circulation?
I am not trying to force people to move the way I see. I design like a 3D printer, the design consists of layers of objects, but the way you want to read them is up to you. As an analogy, there is a certain logic behind the shape of a mountain, but for some people it might look like an eagle. This is because the way you read the environment has nothing to do with the way it is made. What I want to do is to create an architecture that is very precise, that records the dialogue of the rules that I set and the series of conditions that constitute the whole project.

That will create a unique condition that people can, hopefully, understand in different ways. I do not want people to look at my mountain just as an eagle, but as many things.
It has to do with a certain sensibility that favours the new. Is innovation a main drive?
Our projects are found objects because they are the result of the processes we initiate. That is why they look different and unique.

When I presented the bridge to the mayor and the board of the city, they looked at the model and they said that it looked ugly and that I should tweak it. It is not a matter of ugliness or beauty, but about logic. If we change it, then we have to change the basic premises of the project. If I change a project to please a client, then I would be applying my subjective sensibility to the system of rules that I created. I would spoil the precision of the original relations. It is like if you decide to draw with a pencil and then you decide to put another medium on top of it.

What about sustainability?
I think that one of the pressing issues in the discussion on sustainability these days is that the marketing of sustainability has started to overwhelm any critical dialogue on sustainability. Sustainability has been translated into certain products and their use. It is bigger than that. If you look at a building from the ecological point of view, then you have to design the building in a life cycle, from when it starts being built until it is demolished.

I have never seen a building perfectly designed for its entire ecology; a perfect green building has to be not only about before and during use but also about after use. Because I am interested in processes, I am curious about how this idea can open up new possibilities. Processes are about how to integrate design into the result, but if you have to extend the process beyond the design and the construction, then the process will never end. What kind of building is then possible? It is very exciting to see a building as a fluid phenomenon.

It is an organic approach …
The building has to come and has to go. Like with water, it comes, it goes and it comes back. That is a fascinating concept that nobody has been able to do in architecture, with the exception of buildings that were made out of brick, a long time ago; bricks go back to the earth and you can redo them again. Nowadays nobody knows where the parts of buildings will go after the years. In an ecological approach, you have to be in charge of the whole dynamism of the project and turn all components into a dynamic phenomenon.

Maybe I feel that way because I come from a country where houses were made out of wood and paper – the life cycle of buildings in Japan is much shorter than in the US or Europe – and also because of my interest in the idea of metabolism – of metabolising buildings.

How have these concepts been received in USA and Europe?
Ecology is a global concept. It is not 100 per cent defined but it is there. That means that it is shareable even though the way people understand it is different, so the idea of metabolising buildings is more acceptable than before. If you go to the countryside of France and if you say that your house needs to be metabolised so that it becomes part of something else, then you might get objections. Because of globalisation and the changes in the conditions of the earth, the way people feel about the built environment is changing. There is more tolerance to ideas related to ecological issues, density and urban living.

The notion of sharing entails caring, which poses ethical issues. What is your standpoint?
Everybody is sharing now, cars and houses. It is happening in many countries. Information technology is proving to us that sharing is a popular trend. That changes the way you deal with the city and buildings. In Los Angeles the largest public space is the freeway. You don’t talk to each other but there is a sense of communality. In LA there is no communicative public space, except maybe shopping malls and museums in which you have to pay for the publicness. The public space in Asia or Europe happens outside of the private space; it is a transitional space –between your house and your office. You meet people without planning.

In LA it is all destination based. There is nothing in between because everybody is in a car. You have to set a meeting and go there. What is interesting now is that even the basic conditions are different; still the 
main mode is getting similar. It is about sharing. For instance, downtown LA has become a little New York. There is a push for people to come back and live there; or now you see bicycles in LA. There is a notion of health, greenness, ecology, urban living, density and public transportation. This is an opportunity for architecture to transform itself again.

That would require a non-individualistic subjectivity…
And a romantic one too.

by Christian Parreño

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