From The Sublime To the Meticulous

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – May 3, 1993

From The Sublime To the Meticulous

Japan’s Fumihiko Maki, the greatest living modernist, wins architecture’s de facto Nobel Prize

The most celebrated architects tend toward extremism, stylistically speaking. It is the novelty and even freakishness of their visions that get them noticed in the first place, and followers of middle roads are usually middling talents. Fumihiko Maki is that rare designer whose buildings are decorous but also fetchingly strange, a little dreamlike. His rather subtle work has never got as much press as has the work of his more voguish Japanese peers Arata Isozaki and Tadao Ando (whose buildings are, respectively, Tokyo-by-way-of- Holl ywood lollapaloozas and ascetic Zen bunkers), but now that inequity seems moot: this week Maki was to be named the winner of the 1993 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the field’s de facto Nobel.

Maki, 64, may be the most talented modernist practicing anywhere today, and his achievement probably could not be duplicated in any other country. “Modern architecture,” Maki notes, “having rejected ornament, leaves an unbearable void if shorn of details and a sense of material, no matter how expressive its forms.” Thus the proliferation of unbearable voids in downtowns all over the world, where builders have used modernism to justify cheap, uninteresting materials and shoddy construction detailing. Maki’s buildings are extraordinary not just because they are intriguingly conceived but also because they are so meticulously made.

 Although he has practiced since 1965 in Tokyo, Maki spent a decade studying and teaching in America. His only two buildings outside Japan are in the U.S., the first built 33 years ago on the Washington University campus in St. Louis, Missouri, the second now under construction in San Francisco over the subterranean Moscone Convention Center. Building the Yerba Buena Gardens Visual Arts Center hasn’t been at all easy for an architect accustomed to Japanese standards of construction. “American craft at this moment is very low,” he says. “We really struggled in San Francisco to achieve a certain quality.”

 Maki’s masterwork, a municipal gymnasium complex in Fujisawa, Japan, finished in 1984, is a marvel of engineering and fabrication. Inside the main, 2,000-seat gym, a vaulting span of 262 ft. 6 in. seems to levitate the roof just off the walls, creating an intense ribbon of natural light instead of some ordinary bolts-and-concrete seam. Outside, the pair of connected buildings, both clad in perfect, curved, wafer-thin sheets of stainless steel, look like 21st century allusions to 16th century Japanese armor, at once futuristic and resonant with the past. “One of architecture’s functions,” Maki has said, “is to awaken subconscious memories of shapes.” He does so, at Fujisawa and elsewhere, by means of a sort of New Age Gothic, in which romantic form follows rational function, in which the architecture and the state-of-the-art construction are one.

With reporting by Daniel S. Levy/New York