Exploring Boundaries with
Japan’s Leading Architects, Artists
Architect Robert Hutchison has forged important ties with some leading Japanese architects and artists in the last decade, thanks to a 2010 Japan/US Friendship Commission Fellowship. For five months, Hutchison traveled to Japan and interviewed leading architects, photographers, and artists. During the ensuing years, his friendships with many of these people deepened, and in 2019, he had a chance to re-acquaint himself with some of them during his trip to Japan as a Runstad Fellow, a University of Washington program that brings together people from the College of Built Environments and master’s students in the university’s real estate program. We spoke to Hutchison about his Japan ties. Excerpts from the interview follow.
Interview by Bruce Rutledge
I’d like to ask you first about your most recent fellowship, where you looked at social infrastructure and resiliency lessons from Japan.
The Runstad program tries to bring together different people. Typically, there’s an architect, there’s a landscape architect, there’s a developer, someone in policy, and then there are two real estate students whom we chose to become fellows with us. The premise is about the built environment and coming to understand the relevancy of the built environment to real estate. After we’re chosen as fellows, we decide what we want to study. Resiliency became the topic we thought was relevant. Japan became the obvious place to go when it comes to earthquakes in particular. We were interested in infrastructure and went to Japan for that reason, but after we talked to more people, we became interested in other things that we think are related to resiliency including cultural issues and how you deal with something after it has happened, not from a large, infrastructural point of view, but in terms of grief, loss. It was quite an interesting experience. We had heard about it before we went, but I don’t think we expected it to influence us as much as it did.
Seattle is behind the times, as is most of America, when it comes to infrastructural setup, but Seattle is taking steps to deal with preparation, especially in the aftermath. But the question of what you do with the communities when there is death and other things is not something that typically is discussed when you talk about preparing for these things.
The Japanese are doing that because they deal with it all the time. The “aha moment” for all of us was connecting to that level of thinking. They had museums for a specific event. The museums are about explaining what happened, but through that, they talk about lessons learned. When you go through these museums, there are a lot of displays that are set up to communicate to people the importance of doing certain things in preparation. It’s an interesting connection with memory being used to better prepare society and culture.
With the Tokyo quake in 1923, fire was the thing. I think about that. We are a timber town that also experienced fire at the turn of the century, but no one ever talks about that. I wonder if that is going to be an issue.
Tell me about your 2010 fellowship.
That was the first time I went to Japan. I had been following Japanese architects and a number of photographers. I knew a lot of their work. With that fellowship, my own creative practice was starting to look at ways to think about architecture and the boundaries of our discipline. I was starting to do installation projects that were doing things to existing buildings that investigate architectural issues like space or light or materials. But there’s no program, no budget, no client asking for those things, no codes.
I started to realize that I can make my own projects and explore boundaries in ways I can’t on a regular project. I became interested in how that was happening in Japan as well. Particularly, they have these amazing art festivals in the countryside.
You traveled around the country interviewing architects and artists. Your interview with Jun Aoki really stands out. Wow. It’s like listening to Miles Davis in the 60s.
Yeah, that’s actually my favorite architect interview. I spoke with Kengo Kuma, who is very well-known now and was becoming well known at that time. I had met him before, but he has done all these amazing installation projects.
I was interested in the work of photographers like (Naoya) Hatakeyama-san, and how he approaches his conceptual practice of photography. It deals with architecture. His mother actually died in the Tohoku earthquake. He grew up in a town north of Sendai where the worst of the tsunami went through. His town was completely wiped out. His work now is trying to understand and make a connection to something that is no longer there. Now he is taking photographs of trees. Some trees remain there, but what they look like now compared with what they used to look like is quite interesting. They used to be with a bunch of other trees, and now they’re the only tree, or they’ve been hit by all this debris.
The 2010 fellowship was about meeting artists and architects whose works are standing across disciplines, like Kato Tsubasa, who has become a close friend. He designs a large structure and ties ropes to it and, as a communal act, has people pull the structure up. I was blown away by his exhibition “Can There Be Art?” in 2010, so I contacted him.
How did you find them all?
Some I already knew, like Kengo Kuma. I had a book of Hatakeyama’s. I had read one or two books on the works of Jun Aoki. Atelier Bow Wow was well known. Ichiro and Yu (Ogata) are a delightful couple whose book I had found shortly before I applied (to the fellowship). It’s a really interesting book exploring what “house” means.
Some of the people I found through research after deciding to submit for the fellowship. Tomohiro Tachi is an origamist who makes origami with one sheet of paper and is able to flatten it and scan it and create a program that allowed him to tweak the design. He has an origami bunny, and in the program, he can tweak the bunny, and it tweaks the drawing. Then you can print out the drawing again with the cuts and scores and create a different type of bunny. He was making the jump to buildings, making flat-pack origami emergency shelters for disaster relief. The idea is that you could have a single building flat-packed, delivered to the site, unravel it, and you have a building.
Tell me about the projects you did, the series on fluorescents, the video of parking garages around Kichijoji. They are fascinating.
The fellowship is an interesting one because you have to propose why you want to go and what you want to do. So if you get it, you can do what you want to do. I said that I wanted to meet with these people. When I got there, I thought I should record the interviews. They were so interesting.
I love to walk cities, so I walked and walked and walked. Tokyo is an amazing place to walk. The city is dense, but the back streets are awesome. I started walking in the evening. My family wasn’t there for three months, so I was all alone, and I started walking later and later at night. I would stay out until three or four in the morning, walking. And in Japan, you can do that safely. I started becoming interested in the fluorescent lights, the way the parking garages work, the theatrics.
Yeah, those videos focused on the entrance of the parking garage are fascinating.
It’s like a stage play. I was fascinated. The car comes down on its own. The lights come on. And the guy is there waiting for his car. The bowing and other cultural things that happen.
*See those videos here: http://robhutcharch.com/automated-parking-towers
What motivated you to take those late-night walks through different Japanese cities?
That’s a good question. For me, it was very much about the architecture. After doing it enough, I started thinking about the differences in space and quality of light as you experience it in Japan, particularly in an urban condition versus in Seattle or another US city.
That weird fluorescent light and the way it puts light out to the side—it’s a completely different sense of experiencing space. For me, it’s a very specific contextual realization making me understand the differences. And it comes back to my interest in infrastructure and noticing funny things about that infrastructure. The Japanese set up this flexible armature so that the pelican lamp can be rotated wherever it is needed, whereas in the US, the light shines down.
*See Hutchison’s work on fluorescent lights here: http://robhutcharch.com/japan-fluorescent
You not only were inspired by Japan and its architects and artists, but over the last decade, you’ve been able to introduce them to us through lectures at the University.
Kato Tsubasa came to Seattle for two years through a related fellowship. I was basically his sponsor through the university. That’s how I got to know him pretty well. I interviewed him in Japan once, and he didn’t speak English at all. I interviewed him in a Starbuck’s, and my friend Sachiko translated for me. We connected and stayed in touch, and he started taking English lessons. He ended up staying in Seattle for two years. He’s into setting up things that are very difficult to do because you have to work together, like the pull-and-raise structures. He took a drummer, a guitarist, and a bass player who were tied together with rope so tight so that if the guitar player plays, it would impact the drummer. He made a video of them playing while he was here.
All of these people were crossing over one side or the other, and I was fascinated by that.
To explore Hutchison’s work further and see some of the projects mentioned in this article, go to http://robhutcharch.com and http://robhutcharch.com/blog/.
Robert Hutchison is a practitioner, researcher, and educator whose interests and practice overlap the fields of architecture, installation, and photography. Since 2013, Hutchison has been principal of the architecture studio Robert Hutchison Architecture. Hutchison is an affiliate associate professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington, where he teaches architectural design studios at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Honors and awards include the 2009 Emerging Voices awarded by the Architectural League of New York, the 2010 Creative Artists Fellowship awarded by the Japan-US Friendship Commission & National Endowment for the Arts, and the 2016-2017 Rome Prize in Architecture awarded by the American Academy in Rome.