When I meet Waro Kishi in his office, it’s the week before the announced beginning of the Hanami, the explosion of the cherry blossoms in the streets, and the whole Japan is waiting for this moment. The office is located in the heart of Kyoto, one step from the main market of the city, two steps from the river that divides the town from North to South. It’s also the week after the end of his exhibition in Gallery MA in Tokyo, the most prestigious place where an Architect can show his works in Japan. We start this conversation in front of an excellent cup of green tea.
May I start with my questions?
From an easy one, please.
Ha-ha, ok. I’ll ask a personal one. Last Friday I went to your exhibition in Gallery MA, Tokyo. First, congratulation, I liked it.
So, why did you decide to call it “Home Away from Home”?
So, you have studied Architecture in Italy, I think many of the Italian Architects could understand the meaning of my thoughts. I graduated from Kyoto University but I began working in Tokyo. You know, Tokyo is a contemporary city, everything is moving and there you feel as you can do everything. I wanted to be a contemporary architect, but, by chance, one day a colleague of mine invited me to teach in Kyoto. So, after three years of practice in Tokyo, I came back to Kyoto again in order to become a teacher, I decided to live here and I established my own office in Kyoto too. From the financial point of view, Kyoto is just the 1% of Tokyo, so economically this is a very small city, but culturally it is a magnificent town. In fact, the culture is the richness of Kyoto: we are surrounded by the historical heritage.
How was working in Kyoto?
At the beginning we had just small projects to do, mostly as interior designer. I decided to escape from the traditional building models of Kyoto, because I wanted to be a contemporary architect, and in those years I didn’t care too much about history. Those were my younger days, the thirties. Then, in 1994, I had a commission from a historical Japanese temple, Daitoku-ji, one of the most important temple in Kyoto, that was the owner of the site too, and they decided to demolish an old wooden structure and create a new concrete building. They decided to invite also the “Wakuden”, an old pretty expensive Japanese Restaurant, to have there an elegant restaurant. The contractor was Nakamura Sotoji Komuten, human treasure of Japan nominated by the Japanese Government, the most skilled carpenter you can find in Japan. So, the team was super. Right now the restaurant has three stars Michelin. I was invited by them to make a design because in those years I was famous for small buildings in urban situations, and the site of that restaurant was about 60 square meters, so I was a kind of expert of those circumstances. That was a kind of training in the field of Japanese Architecture for me, to study the Japanese-ness. In Kyoto you can find many contemporary architecture, which resemble the historical ones, the elements are historical, but the space is not historical at all. You may call it “fake”. I was looking for a Japanese-ness in a contemporary way.
Which were the main architects who influenced you during your education?
In my last book I wrote about it. I give several examples of buildings which inspired me, but the first one is “Spedale degli Innocenti”, in Firenze, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.
I noticed so many pictures in your exhibition in Gallery MA about Tuscany.
I took those pictures during my first travel in Italy, in 1981. My post-graduate studies were in History of Architecture and not in Architecture design. While I was studying Architecture History I decided to visit Italy as soon as possible, and the first destination must have been Firenze and the Renaissance. For me “Spedale degli Innocenti” is so important. When I reached that square in Florence that building appeared to me so contemporary I thought it wasn’t real, it should have been another one, built in 19th century. So I thought “Where is the real Spedale degli Innocenti? This is a copy!”. But it was a real one. Of course you know the facade, the composition is very geometrical, the columns are so thin, and I noticed the use of the metal tie-rod. A very reasonable structure. That facade was conceived with the reasonableness of a great man.
Which other project do you mention in your last book?
The second project I mention is the Daitokuji Kohoan Tea House. That building opened my eyes to the historical buildings of Japan. I studied it for the restaurant project. At the beginning I didn’t know what to do in order to create a Japanese contemporary space, but from that point I had my way clear. You know, Kazuyo Sejima and I have been published at the same time in El Croquis, and we become international in those years as world known architects. She pursues the issue of being contemporary in a very sharp way, as also Toyo Ito or other famous architects do. But compared to them, I lived in Kyoto, I had less projects, and also different theme: I had to find coexistence between history and contemporany-ness. In Kyoto, history isn’t in the museums, it’s all around you, and you should live in that history, but at the same time you should live in a contemporary way, because so we are. So, this became my theme since Wakuden Restaurant project.
I’ve another personal question. When did you decide to become an architect?
While I was studying in the high school they said that the age of the computer was coming. I didn’t know what the computer was, but I tried to get into that field. I entered in Kyoto University as a student of Electronics Engineering. In high school days I thought I was good at mathematics, and it was really important for Electronics. Actually, I was good just at arithmetic.
And it is just a part of Math.
Yes, a very small part. Actually mathematics is like a philosophy, and it was hard for me to understand because I’m a practical man. One day I visited a friend’s of mine apartment: he was studying Architecture and I discovered that he played the flute, it seemed a very cultural thing. We belonged to the same faculty of Engineering, but he played the flute! On his shelf I found also the monograph of Le Corbusier, I was surprised and I asked him “is this Architecture? can we make it?”. My friend also explained me that in his department he just calculated the square meters, the heights, and it was the beginning of arithmetic. In that moment, when I saw Le Corbusier’s Monograph I decided to become an Architect, and after I had graduated in the department of electronics, I moved to Architecture’s one.
In your works we can appreciate an elegant and conscious use of the construction elements, the anatomy of the building is most of the time exposed, as you want to create a poetical structure. Can you explain the meaning of this language?
It’s a long story. I began studying Architecture in late ‘70s, during the age of Postmodernism. In that period they talked about the rebirth of decoration and the historical style, like Micheal Graves’ works. I’m a curious man: in general, if everybody goes right, I always turn left. The Postmodern architects taught me the importance of Historical Architecture. When I read for the first time Robert Venturi’s book “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”, I was still a student and I couldn’t understand his words at all, because I didn’t know the History of Architecture, not even Michelangelo Buonarroti’s works. So I decided to study Architecture’s History. But I refused the style and the expression of Postmodern Architecture. Instead, I really appreciated the works of Modern Architecture, their way looks straight and direct. In those years there was also the New Brutalism, and none cared about it, also Case Study Houses in California, which are so fashionable even now. I studied Giuseppe Terragni’s works too. I found in a library stock some magazines from ‘30es and ‘60es, and it was a cultural shock for me. My way of dealing with structure is influenced by the modernism, to be sensible to the materials, and I continued with this attitude, I treat the materials so as to reveal the structure, like Brunelleschi did in Spedale degli Innocenti. Most of the architects don’t know that there is a black sharp iron element inside the arc. Brunelleschi didn’t hide it, he just showed it. My work is influenced by this masterpiece. We should thank those men from the Renaissance if we have the modern way to conceive the role of the architect: until the medieval period no one cared about who was the designer, but after Brunelleschi and Michelangelo the name of the individual has become renown to the world. Sometimes I say that Modernism began in the 16th century in Italy, and we are under the influence of that. Like I do.
It’s incredible to hear that in the other side of the world. In your works I can feel also a particular attention to materiality, as you want to invoke a sort of body experience. In your exhibition you showed few samples of your material modules, as a vocabulary. Can you explain your relation with them?
As I mentioned before, dealing the material sensibility is the way modern architects suggested us. I liked it and I studied it. I don’t like Architecture made by fake material. Sometimes I feel attraction to fake Architecture, but I can’t design it. As an individual citizen, I like Disneyland and the Universal Studio, they are entertainment architecture, we need it to enjoy, but it is not the Architecture I want to pursue.
I would like to talk a bit about Nature. In your opinion, which is the role of nature in today’s Architecture?
Light and wind are Nature in a metaphorical way. May I ask you where do you live in Pisa? In a historical house? Where is it?
My house was build at the beginning of the 20th century, eclectic style. I live in the countryside, near the sea, not in the historical centre of the town.
I understand. It’s not your case, but if you live in the city centre, in one of those buildings that face each other, and in the middle there is just a narrow road, the role of the windows is to make you feel Nature. Japanese architects try to expand the meaning of light and wind in a wider expression. This is why in my work the courtyard is very important, it’s a place where you can feel Nature. And it’s a very historical way to do it. You can find the courtyard system in Pompei to make the urban plan, in old Chinese villages, in Kyoto as well, everybody used the courtyard to feel Nature. The courtyard is 4000 years old. Then, in 20th century, we found another way: the roof garden, proposed by Le Corbusier, and, as you can see in Ville Savoye, it is a different way to feel Nature. But, do you know the problem of roof garden?
No, which is it?
The problem is privacy. Everyone can see you.
Except if you are the tallest, right?
Yes! So, if you ever been in Hong Kong, according to the roof garden concept, this city is a very good example. They make blocks of buildings, between seven and twenty storey building. If you stay in high raise hotel, and there you can see many illegal additional rooftops with wooden structures. For those who live on the roof top, the road just in front of them is like a valley, the higher building back of them is like a mountain, and wind blows, sunlight comes in. The problem is still privacy. Privacy is a modern concept, it concerns the individual, and everyone can live in his own way. A friend of mine lives on the top of one of those buildings, we had a party there, so I experienced the roof garden in the city context. I have to say it, most of these spaces are illegal, but he has a penthouse, so his roof garden is legal.
Do you want that I turn off the recorder for a while?
Ah-ah, no, it’s ok. Trough that experience, I discovered a new space for living nature, after the courtyard. While we were having the party, there was a host-track downstairs, and Chinese people, as you may know, like to bet, so in general they scream a lot, and the evening should have been quite noisy, but I noticed that there were no sounds because of the heights’ difference. There was just the sound of the wind.From that point, I realized that I had two tools to make Architecture in urban situations, in my left hand I had the courtyard, in a historical meaning, in the other hand I had the roof garden concept.
The roof garden concept is so developed in Asian cities. Have you aver experienced it?
No. I experience some rooftops in Milano, Paris and Tokyo, but they are lower than Asian cities, I suppose. So, you should go to Bangkok, Baiyoke Sky Hotel is a great example. It is a sixty storey building, about 300 meters height. At the beginning the roof was just a mechanical space, then they decided to do another roof on the top of those buildings, above the machines, as a restaurant and bar space. The result is that you can have a 360° view of the city, an amazing experience. Last year, I visited Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam, and there was a new hotel just constructed. I stayed there. In South-east Asia is hot, but the wind on the top was incredible.
In Japan you have a word that doesn’t exist in the rest of the world, and it is MA. The western translated it in “space” but we know that word is not enough to explain the concept of MA. How do you think this concept influences your work?
In my opinion space is equal to Architecture. Architecture is not an object, like sculptures are. You can’t touch Architecture, you can feel it. MA, of course, is different from space. My interpretation of MA is “in-between-ness” of course sometime space, in-between the walls, in-between the floors. But we use it not just in-between objects, also in-between culture, in-between the aesthetics, etc. So the most honest interpretation of the word MA is “in-between”.
Do you think it is still possible for Japanese Architects to feel and create the MA while they are designing?
Only if they care. As I told you, I decided to live in Kyoto and I cared about Japanese-ness in my work. I do care of MA, but I’m a rare example. Architecture concerns the place where you stay, It influences you, and at the same time the designer should care about his place. Most of the new Japanese architects just care about new shapes, and sadly they don’t care about MA anymore.
Do you have a particular site approach? How do you consider the surrounding during the design phase?
Only through my experience. Experience means how many spaces you have experienced as a background. I’m used to travel twice a year, sometime to see famous architectures, sometime just to feel the space. This experience suggests me what to do in my project. When I face the project, first I go to the site, I walk around, I spend some time there, I try to understand what happens from the morning to the evening, and that kind of body experience teaches me what to do there, and to have a deep body experience. You need experience as an architect, it concerns how much space have you experienced in your life. The more you have experienced, the better you can deeply analyse the site. So there is no rule. About the same site, different architects can have different interpretations, simply because their experiences are different.
After the digital revolution the Architecture world has changed so much. Which is the role of today’s strength of Architecture identity, as Japanese one has?
Contemporary Architecture in Japan is facing a crisis. Thanks to the computer they can do every shape. Let’s image Zaha Hadid’s Architecture without the computer. None can make it. It means 30 years ago we could make them just as drawings, not in the reality. Consider Guangzhou Opera House in China or Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Seoul, in South Korea. Those projects are completed thanks to the computer, and, of course, their details are so well done. The key of this process is Zaha Hadid, who makes the sketches, but everyone of her team manages the digital data, from an architect of her office to the constructor. In the digital era we have this problem, copyright: “who’s the designer of this project?” It’s a result of the whole team, the sash maker, the panel maker, the steel maker, etc. everyone could deal the BIM data. So in your opinion, who’s should be nominated as the architect? Zaha?
I don’t think so. Maybe the whole team. Or the softwares.
Yes, to be honest, is the whole team. But right know the paternity of the project belongs to the one who makes the paper drawings, the sketches. It’s easier to define it in this way. Copyright belongs to the Renaissance way of understanding, it belongs to the modernism too. We are living a destroying phase of this concept. We really need to define again the concept of copyright. It’s too easy to say “it’s Zaha Hadid’s building”, but is it true?
Which is your mission as an architect? Do you have a particular theme that you’re trying to develop during your life?
Actually we have to say that Architecture is always facing the public domain, society, even if we are talking of private houses, it is part of the public domain too. Even a small building, when completed, it changes the society where it is built. I mention to you the experience I had designing a small bridge in Kumamoto. After that bridge was built, the citizens began having handmade boat race on the river, that is not so deep, so even if the boat is collapsed, the players could walk inside, and the bridge become a kind of goal for those races. From a social point of view, it was very successful for me because it changed the society of that city. Even a private house, or every kind of project that is not public, can change the community. When I was young I didn’t understand why, but now I know, architects have a very big responsibility inside the communities.
The Last question. If I ask you to leave me a word to take with me at home and to reflect about it, a kind of massage for this young generation of architects, what would you say?
Just a word? What about a sentence?
If you prefer, it’s ok.
I follow Isozaki’s way: Architecture with big A. It means that it is not a fashion issue, it is not a private issue, it’s a social and historical issue, so we need the big A in the head of the word Architecture. In my view, the Pantheon in Rome is the best space in the world. A simple geometry, just the drum and the dome, and the lights come in. This is Architecture. Every time I have the possibility to come to Europe, I usually try to have a transfer to visit Rome, and I quickly take a cab directly to the Pantheon, and just there I find energy and power to be an architect. Then I go back immediately to the airport and fly again to my final destination. I heard that many famous architects have a house in front of the Pantheon.
With a roof garden, maybe.
[laughing] Would you like a coffee?