designMENA Summit 2015: Sou Fujimoto inspires Dubai design community

Panel Discussions - DesignMENA Summit 2015 taken on the 8th of December 2015 at Grosvenor House, United Arab Emirates, (Photo by Sharon Haridas /ITP Images)

Hailed by members of the audience as “the most inspirational design speech made in Dubai for 20 years” urbanist Sou Fujimoto took to the stage at designMENA Summit to highlight the relationship between nature and architecture.

Following a whirlwind trip from his native Japan to Chicago, then onto Dubai via New York, the 43-year-old – named by The Wall Street Journal as “Architecture Innovator of the Year” – laughed as he told the assembled members of the Middle East’s exterior and interior design community “I run and run and run and finally I get here”.

Fujimoto opened his keynote address by saying: “It is more and more exciting to see that architecture is becoming the equal of nature.


“What I am trying to do is to create architecture as a representation of nature.”

He explained that much of his formative years had been spent in a rural part of Japan’s northern major island, Hokkaido, before moving to urban environments including Tokyo.

“I spent much of my time when I was young playing in the forest,” he said. “Then it was the opposite. I had 20 years of nature then 20 years of urban living. This is a nice blend in my mind. For me, nature is comfortable – but open. Among the trees there are cosy spaces and you feel protected.

“In Tokyo it appears that things are completely different. The messy city is made of artificial things – lots of small pieces. But you are surrounded by them. So again you can feel protected, but in an open environment. This creates an atmosphere – and space is created organically almost the same way as in the forest. It was very exciting for me to realise this.

“I tried to see how to treat architecture and nature in such a way that they mix together – to form a new integration.”

Fujimoto then took the audience on a tour of some of his projects using slides and his commentary, starting with London’s Serpentine Gallery – a temporary structure designed by a different architect each year which houses concerts and art exhibitions in London’s Hyde Park.

He said his two initial designs were rejected as being “too Sou Fujimoto” and “not enough Sou Fujimoto” – before his idea of using white steel pipes to form a grid-like structure largely open to its surroundings was accepted.

“The site is surrounded by beautiful green grass and trees and I wanted people to experience that,” he said. “I created a multi-use café where people could relax – but which could also function as an auditorium or night club. Everything about the design was straight and 90% was super-artificial but the whole impression was also really soft – like a cloud.

“There were no walls and no windows – sometimes it was really transparent – but also sometimes really opaque. The landscape was also made by the people. Some would find a cosy narrow space to be alone, others, maybe five friends, would find a dynamic space for dynamic conversation.”

A Middle Eastern project Fujimoto highlighted was a towering shopping mall designed for the desert – which won a competition but has never been built.

“I use it in all my presentations in the hope that there is a client in the audience who likes it enough to want to commission it, so if anyone is interested, please email me,” he told the assembly.

“The whole structure would be made of arch shapes, in a repeating grid” he said. “The site is big with a huge void inside the building which would bring in cooler air for natural ventilation. The structure itself would work as a sunshade.

“The Middle East climate and culture were all new to me but in the region everything is possible. Crazy ideas can be realised.”

A public toilet in Japan in a glass box surrounded by grass and trees but shielded by a black fence which rapidly became a tourist attraction, was the next project Fujimoto highlighted.

He then outlined his design for a library which he likened to a forest, but packed with books instead of trees.

“It’s artificial but the experience is organic” he explained. “Through openings in the bookshelves you can see into the spaces beyond, you can see somethings but not everything. As you walk through you can experience endless sensations.”

Fujimoto then showcased a residential project in Montpellier, southern France, which featured two or three balconies projecting out of each apartment to highlight the region’s outdoor lifestyle.

“This part of France, on the Mediterranean coast, has very good weather,” he said. “Traditionally life is lived out-of-doors and I wanted to bring this into contemporary architecture with these big balconies. They are the main part of the design, the inside rooms are a supporting factor.

“I am looking forward to the time when the building becomes occupied, with people who want to live their lives outside, placing their deck chairs on the balconies. This will be when I feel the project is finally completed.”

Fujimoto also focused on his Forest of Music hall outside the Hungarian capital of Budapest which was inspired by a woodland canopy with sunlight entering through apertures in its roof.

“It’s a museum of music and an auditorium,” he explained. “The forest itself was already like a music hall, with light coming down through the trees. I recreated this feeling with a perforated roof and transparent walls at ground level. Some trees even penetrate the roof.

“What I am trying to do is recreate the essence nature and bring it into architecture.”


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