Interview prepared with Agata Siemionow as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology Dean's Lecture Series. Photography Credits: Illinois Institute of Technology
Grou Serra You were 25 when the Osaka International exposition took place in 1970. What impact - if any, did it have on you as a young architect starting your professional career?
Riken Yamamoto It was a very strong impact. It was 1970 and I was just 25 years old. I was a graduate school student and I visited Osaka and no good architecture. The biggest architecture is the American Pavilion with the air inside. No symbolism. Inside there was only air. There were many people who wanted to come in because there was some stone from the moon in there. America had gone to the moon and picked up a very small stone and that was the only symbolic device inside. There were many Japanese people who would like to see that stone. So there was a very long, long line for that stone, not architecture. The architecture is only air and the stone. That was the early symbolism for me. That’s the architecture, it’s only air and the small stone. And other architecture is not so good architecture. The architecture for Czechoslovakia is a movie, I remember, with the actual people and just the movie image. With actual people here and I don’t know they were on the outside? They can move together. The many screens and the many images that fold so when the actors go outside. So this is the image here, and it quickly changed. So you had the actual people and the image. They worked together. That was a strong impact for me. It’s the only image and at that moment there is no actual architecture because at that moment the image is more important.
Vedran Mimica That was contemporary architecture?
Riken Yamamoto That was contemporary only. And the actors and actresses were changeable, more so than the image. That was my first experience where the image is more important than the actual architecture. That was a strong impact and I was wondering how to do that in the future. I think that other work is better. So I graduated school and I participated as a member of the Hara school, Hiroshi Hara. He studied investigations of the village community. We traveled many countries in the world. So I participated with him together.
Vedran Mimica That was presented in the last Venice Biennale. It showed how the Japanese were studying the cultures from all over the world and their different communities.
Riken Yamamoto Did you see that?
Vedran Mimica Yes, I saw that. It was very nice.
Riken Yamamoto That was my first architectural study, when I went around the world with Mr. Hara. We went to many countries.
Wiel Arets You also studied vernacular architecture with Hara.
Riken Yamamoto Yes, it was the first challenge for a Japanese student to go outside of the country. Modern architecture is very popular for Japanese architecture, but at that moment there was no interest in vernacular architecture of other countries. So we travelled. Kengo Kuma also travelled, he went to Africa with Mr. Hara.
Wiel Arets You mentioned modern architecture, and of course this building is modern architecture. That was very much on your radar at that time, yes?
Riken Yamamoto I visited many countries, and it was vernacular architecture that I was deeply interested in. And now modern architecture. I’ve visited many countries through that modern architecture. I visited Chicago a long time ago through the Shengensi tour. I was the lecturer at that moment, and I had to lecture to many students. This was my first time in America. And Chicago had a huge impact on me rather than New York because the city scape is very different from other American cities. After the fire, the situation changed very much in Chicago. For instance, there is the lower road with a higher road in some situations. And also, the Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, and the Auditorium Building by Sullivan. I was amazed at the inside of the auditorium building. Sullivan’s idea was very good, I think. It was stronger than modern architecture because it was in between the modern and the 19th century. But his idea is about spectacle.
Vedran Mimica He was proto-modern. Like Berlage.
Riken Yamamoto Right, it was something like a spectacle architecture that was Sullivan’s. The Auditorium Building that was inside had a very strong impact on me.
Wiel Arets How old were you then?
Riken Yamamoto I was maybe 40 years old then. I don’t even remember.
Vedran Mimica So in the 80’s.
Riken Yamamoto Yes, maybe. So the first modernism came from Sullivan. Of course I visited in Berlin, Mies Van der Rohe’s National Museum, but this is the first city that I experience where Mies has a very rigid site plan, and this IIT. And where all of the buildings are very rigid, square and simple. And this is my first experience that modernised the shape. There are two ways. There is Sullivan and Mies Van der Rohe. And also the cityscape. I liked Chicago at that moment rather than another city, and so that’s the reason I wanted to come again. So you invited me and I wanted to come again for the cityscape. I think now it is even better impact because it is very green and very good. Before it was a not so good situation. It’s beautiful now. So I made a book, this is Japanese. In it I explain the beginning of modernism from the Deutsche Werkbund movement, before the Bauhaus the Deutsche Werkbund movement and the Zartlichkeit. This is the starting point of modernism I think, so I explain this meaning in modernism. So it’s from the Hannah Arendt, she explains such kind of meaning of the modernism. So this is the contradiction to her, it is agreeable but not. She did not agree with the modernism. I also found the meaning of modernism it’s a little bit difficult to say that the idea of the modernism is comparable to the idea of the Nazi. She said that the Nazi and modernism idea has some similarities.
Vedran Mimica Yes, that’s what Hannah Arendt said was the viva activa, or active life. She was saying that some of the modernist structures do not allow for this function because they are too rigid.
Riken Yamamoto Right, so she said that the functionalism is a big problem because functionalism is only from the necessity. She thought that we should have an ideology rather than necessity. She said that ideology was more important than the necessity. So that’s now a contradiction inside my head. So we should now rethink the meaning of modernism again.
Grou Serra As we are preparing for the first Chicago Architecture Biennial, do you believe festivals that focus on architecture ideas more so than actual built work can still be relevant in today’s culture?
Riken Yamamoto I visited the Venice Biennale this year.
Vedran Mimica Right, Koolhaas was the director.
Riken Yamamoto I think that is the problem of how to make a connection between the city or the society and the architecture. At this moment, not only in Chicago but in Tokyo, there are many private companies that have local architecture by investors.
Vedran Mimica That is the problem all over the world.
Riken Yamamoto Right, Mexico, South America and Japan also. The local architectures, sometimes they think only inside the site. Sometimes there are whole floors that they use for the economical condition. And everywhere there is that very different shape, different structure, the architecture in Tokyo. No cityscape, only tower. Not so good of an object because it’s one tower isolated from everything else. So architects, how to do with architects for such kind of situation? For the Tokyo Olympic games, Zaha Hadid won the competition and made the Olympic Stadium. It reset again. And that’s very symbolic I think. And many judges think that only the inside of the site where some 80,000 people were supposed to gather. And so she made some very strange shape and do you know her idea? Her idea was very good. Sos this was the site and she would like to bridge over that drive and connect the parks, continuing the park situation. And she made a bridge as a strategy. After that the government refused this bridge, so that they changed the direction so that the bridge would come here. No reason. And only the shape of the arch remained like this. So it was not such a good situation for her because many people were going to come to this place. It was not her responsibility though. Because there were 80,000 people that would come here, there needed to be a lot of access.
Vedran Mimica Why did that happen?
Riken Yamamoto Because the government sectioned the area and they only cared about the inside of the site. It is impossible to mediate this many sections. There is a very strong sectionalism in Japan, you can see.
Vedran Mimica The Olympic Games usually have some kind of superstructure.
Riken Yamamoto That’s right. This is not a national work, but a bureaucracy one. And this bureaucracy would like to make only something inside the site and this is the boundary. It is impossible to connect to the other sections. So it’s a very strange and stupid situation to plan for. I would like to say to Zaha, ”I’m sorry.” Now the government would like to make a different idea, so I said that my proposal is a continuity of Zaha’s idea. The condition changed, but even now Zaha should design it again. So the Chicago Biennale, so maybe it’s the idea of the connection of architecture to the cityscape or social idea of the architecture.
Grou Serra You’re critical of the metabolist approach in its separation between infrastructure and architecture, and you advocate for a simultaneous development of both. How do you see this being developed in reality?
Riken Yamamoto The metabolism infrastructure is very big. It’s something that is horizontally or vertically, this is rigid infrastructure. Not change, but it’s a unit that this is flexible, any place they can plug-in. But this is very rigid and big infrastructure from Tokyo to Osaka, all over Japan. This is a problem. There is no flexibility. This is flexible, but a very small unit. They call this facility and infrastructure. That is the idea of the metabolists. My idea is no flexibility, only infrastructure. The big and rigid infrastructure is already impossible to use. So we need it not so big, instead smaller infrastructure. So I would like for the local community areas to have small infrastructure that can adapt to the small area. It’s much better. That is my main idea.
Grou Serra Do you think there are still some lessons that we can learn from the metabolists today?
Riken Yamamoto No. It’s not a future system, I think.
Vedran Mimica I think I understand what you’re saying, the future must be an integration with the development of building matter and infrastructure on the smaller level.
Jenna Staff You mentioned that one of your goals was to design buildings that will make people smile in 100 years, yet you design primarily for the local community of today. How do you go about designing such buildings to function in the future?
Riken Yamamoto This is something that is related to the Hannah Arendt theory. She said that the city should remain over the human life. Well one person’s life is only 100 years, maybe 80 years. But the cityscape should be longer than these people’s lives. Because these people are born in the city and die in the city. When people are born the city should exist, and when they die the city should be exist. So many people believe that their memory remains in the city. That people remember me in the city because the city is a long time of existing. If my children know that I was born in that house, then I have a memory with that house. That’s very important for architecture. Hannah Arendt said so. The world should be longer than these people’s lives. So the city has a memory. Many people know the city memory and know that it exists inside the city. I think it’s very important that architecture and the memory should exist for a very long time. But in Japan it is very different. Every single family house remains only 27 years, and then it is destroyed and then built again. It’s with the family cycle which is 27 years. Most of the house is destroyed and then built again in the Japan system because the developer would like to make a new house every time rather than maintain the existing house. So it’s a very opposite from the Hannah Arendt idea. So I totally agree with her, that we should maintain the city for a long time. And that’s where the idea comes from for smiling in 100 years.
Grou Serra Does that influence your design?
Riken Yamamoto We, the architect, design the architecture. So sometimes we say that this work is my work. But on the other side the work belongs to the city people. They do not remember that it is the architect’s work. So like with Mies Van der Rohe, we agree that it’s his architecture. You like this architecture. So this is his work. But this is also the IIT building. This is the memory of IIT, not only Mies. So it’s possible to remain a longer time in Mies’ architecture. More than a hundred years, even with maintenance. This is already more beautiful than 40 years ago. I think it’s important for people to like this architecture so that it may be used for a longer time.
Grou Serra Your work in The Circle project is based on the congested medieval city structure, how would this kind of new typology fit in with the American city where everything is thought around the use of the car?
Riken Yamamoto Sure, it’s possible. Also, the Circle is a private developer. They have a big site and they have a company. They are a well-educated client. We have very good communication with the client. And this is a mixture function. And in America it’s possible, I think it’s with the client we can make some idea or ideology and build it in the city. If the client agrees to maintain the architecture for a very long time then it’s necessary for city people to use the architecture. Then the city people are sometimes more important than the investor.
Wiel Arets Why do you raise this question? Why do you formulate this question about the car? It’s not depending on the car, it’s a very hybrid condition in a dense area where there are many modes of transit that bring people together. The Circle is very different and unique because it’s the first time that the downtown area has been designed by one architect. Where various programs are designed to be in one place. Is that the correct way to describe it?
Riken Yamamoto Yes.
Wiel Arets So you are, in a way, not just going from A to B, but you park your car and you start to walk around just like Chicago. You’re not driving from one place to another. Once you’re there, you park your car and you’re there. In the Circle you drive to it, but then you park and you’re there as well and do whatever you want. In that sense it’s extremely modern and is more American, Japanese, European in its modern downtown sense. I think you can fit more program in the surrounding to inhabit. But I think that when you ask about the car in America, that America is no longer dependent on the car anymore.
Grou Serra I don’t know if I agree with that.
Wiel Arets You shouldn’t agree with that. Let’s have a debate.
Grou Serra Okay, let’s think about Chicago which from my experience has a very good transportation system in comparison to a lot of other American cities and yet everybody still uses the car. This is something that I don’t understand because with all of the access to trains and buses, I don’t understand why you still need a car.
Wiel Arets The public transportation system is one of the best in America, but not in the world. And I can tell you that the public transit system in Zurich is very good and in Tokyo it’s very good, and still people use the car. So it’s not one or the other, it’s one and the other. So whether I’m in Tokyo or in Zurich, I myself use public transport. That doesn’t say that people don’t use the car as well. It depends on where you are. I think that in saying “and” not “or” you can take the train, the car, the bike, on foot, it’s not one or the other. In Chicago downtown you’d want to use the public transit system. It’s very good. You can use the car or the bike. Which I think we should have a bike system. But the sidewalks are good and you can walk many places. We should also mention that there is not only the street front but the alleys which create a hybrid system. So in going back to the question about the Circle, I think it’s very important in its inside-outside system hybrid, and that it’s unique in the world. We don’t have to develop these huge shopping malls, but a hybrid system. Where cars are in the program but not the program itself.
Riken Yamamoto That’s right. There was a moment in the competition where the judges said that this is not the supermarket but this is a city. But then they criticized this project as being between architecture, the city and the town. I liked to make the Circle into a downtown because of the Zurich city. Zurich city is in the mountains. So it goes up and down and up. It’s a very charming city. Every time you’re walking, not using car because you’re always climbing the stairs. I liked to propose the same in the Circle city. Like downtown Zurich has many shops and is mixed use. And it’s easy to change from the house to the hotel. And it’s changing a lot. And sometimes they connect to each other sometimes. It’s very flexible. More so than the modernized building where they are standing alone, it’s difficult to connect. This is my idea for the Circle, it’s easier to connect. It’s like the Medieval city. In America it’s the city block. It may be possible to interrupt the city block. That is one possible intervention. I don’t know Chicago too well, but I think it’s something when I think of Chicago. And I think the city block should be not so big. With a connection between places, we are able to change the inside of the building. Maybe you have this kind of task in Chicago? Where there is an old place in Chicago and you must maintain the building but propose a new use or connection. Before the American city was the colonial city. So the starting point is very slow I think. But the colonial city is the grid plan and is very similar. And also I think it’s from the architect’s idea that we can make a new city scape. I’m not sure about Chicago or whether it’s a good idea.
Wiel Arets American cities are very different. Chicago, New York, Boston, all of these cities are of course not the same. The building grid depends on how big the street is. It has a certain kind of transport. It has several strategies for the downtown area. They’re each different positions with different street widths and very different character because of this. Zurich is also different from the area across the river where also there is another character. I think what you did with the Circle then is a 3 dimensional program with a series of bridges that is more connected. I’ve never seen a city like Zurich in Switzerland where you can go up, you can go down, and sometimes there will be something like 40 meters between the levels. In a way Tokyo has that.
Riken Yamamoto Artificially, yes.
Grou Serra You advocate for diverse spaces and transparent spaces to blur the division between private and public spaces. How do the users react to it?
Riken Yamamoto For the dwellers it is very easy to read, but I sometimes struggle with the municipality. They are very afraid of privacy. And they say Mr. Yamamoto, this transparency is very difficult to use. And then they refuse this and say think again. And this is every time they attack me to change the transparency. And very recently I lost a work. But usually, people don’t care about transparency. It’s very easy to read. Sometimes I make an entrance with a face-to-face situation. The municipality said if this is here then the opposite side you enter should be here. Always it is like this, they say. I ask them then how do you use this space? And they say well there is an entrance here and there is a living room here, and the same on the other side. So this is the entrance area. And this is the living room. They want to keep this privacy. But if this is access, then many people come. This is a contradiction. So I propose like this with the living room and the living room together. And then the entrance is here. This is very good for the communal space. They think the other way is more usual. Maybe the student think this is the usual, away from the site. So this is difficult to discuss with the client or municipality, but not the dweller. This is the idea from the 20th century architects for the privacy.