A modern eccentric with an architectural sensibility drawn from ancient Japanese traditions, Terunobu Fujimori designs projects that are exercises in playful experimentation and sophisticated craft.
A longtime professor at the Institute of Industrial Science at the University of Tokyo, Fujimori came to designing late—he got his first commission at age 44, 19 years ago—but he has since conceived some of Japan’s most startlingly original buildings, on average one per year.
Little about the way Fujimori works is conventional. He doesn’t have a firm per se but rather recruits promising graduate students to help him flesh out the details of each project after he’s done all the drawing. He makes his architectural models by hacking tree stumps into abstract, sculptural shapes using a chainsaw. Galleries abroad have offered to buy them, but he refuses. And when he’s completed the final drawings for a project, he invites his clients to his weekend house in Nagano for a little ceremony he’s devised. Sitting in his private Too-High Tea House, perched 20 feet in the air and wavering on two forked tree trunks, he hands them a hand-rendered version of the final plans. “If they don’t like my design, I shake the building!” he says, laughing heartily.
Fujimori hires professionals to do all the structural and electrical work on his buildings but handles many of the interior finish details himself, with a motley group of volunteers that he calls the Jomon Company—so named for the Neolithic period of Japanese history and for the primitive tools they use to give Fujimori’s interiors a warm, roughed-up feel. When the structure is nearly complete, this loose collective of close friends—a painter, a novelist, a book publisher, a sake brewer, a priest—gather to do whatever unusual task Fujimori has set aside for them: planting hundreds of leeks in individual pots atop a gabled roof; weaving a bamboo screen for a copper-plated pottery studio; or cutting irregular chunks of wood with stone-carving tools and embedding them in a tea house’s vaulted ceiling. “Instead of playing golf that weekend, they work,” says Fujimori, hastening to add, “I never pay them. If you pay, it’s labor!”
Fujimori clearly relishes his iconoclast role, even as he receives increasing recognition and respect as a designer: At the 2006 Venice Biennale he exhibited his unconventional architectural models, and in 2007 the Japanese publishing company Toto released a monograph of his work. But increasing fame and more prestigious commissions don’t mean he’ll change his unconventional working methods anytime soon. He’s spent the past several years roaming the globe for new ideas, applying his historian’s mind to collect inspiration from ancient models: mud architecture in Mali, adobe buildings in the American West, and the famous Caves of Lascaux in southwest France. These spare, stripped-down structures remind us that we all share primal instincts that can be aroused and satisfied through design: for shelter, warmth, and community. Fujimori may dismiss sustainability as a side note in his buildings, but his modern interpretation of the Neolithic captures a truth too often lost in our scramble for eco-credibility: Working with nature is sometimes the most radically green approach an architect can take.