Lecture Note: Japan / Vienna / Los Angeles – Dr. Hitoshi Abe, UCLA, Nov 10, 2009

Nibei Abe

Architect Dr. Hitoshi Abe of UCLA

Nibei Foundation Japan Study Club

“Japan / Vienna / Los Angeles”

Presenter: Dr. Hitoshi Abe, Professor and Chair, Department of Architecture and Urban Design, School of Arts and Architecture, UCLA

November 10, 2009 at Terasaki Foundation Laboratory Building, West Los Angeles

Japan Study Club Lecture Note is compiled by Cultural News

Dr. Hitoshi Abe is a famous Japanese architect that is particularly known for his interesting mix of Japanese, American and Venetian architecture.  He received a Ph.D. from Tohoku University in Japan and currently resides in Los Angeles and teaches at UCLA.  His type of architecture is characterized by his use of space that is sensitive to human activity and the outside environment.  Therefore, Dr. Abe’s architectural designs are both spatially complex and quite innovative.  His body of works include private homes, restaurants, museums and a grand stadium among others.

He is often asked about how his knowledge of Japanese traditional architecture has influenced his present designs.  He says that the key is to never to just try to imitate Japanese architecture; this would only result in a non-realistic kind of “Japanese Disneyland.”  His goal is more to bring in his own experience and use it with an “honest eye” to generate his own unique style.  It is a style heavily influenced also by the American architect William Lloyd Wright and the Venetian architect Wendell Schindler (spelling???).  In fact, William Lloyd Wright himself designed Japan’s famous Imperial Hotel and therefore had strong ties to Japanese architecture.  Dr. Abe also studied and worked for a professor from Vienna for four years.

Dr. Abe’s architectural designs are based on what he considered the most important key points in his overall architectural designs.  One of the most important of these concepts is to reflect the conditions that constitute a given place.  He emphasized the difference between Western and Japanese architecture.  In Western architecture, the end product building is more like an object that is manifested within a set boundary.  In this type of architecture, there is a separation between the designated space and nature as an art form.

In Japanese architecture, design is based more on an interplay between the inside of the building structure and its blending with the outside environment.  The end result is an interior environment that offers a stronger sense of “comfort.”  This type of “soft medium” is a basic concept in the Japanese style of architecture.  An example of this principle is the Japanese engawa where a porch-like area  within the interior of a house seems to blend and connect to the outside garden or environment.  The unique Japanese roofline and use of wallpaper also further enhance this blending of the outside environment to the inside environment.

Another key aesthetic  concept is the “open plan.”  This concept incorporates a more “flexible” type of architectural design that takes into account the human activity within a given space.  For example, even a small house can be designed so its limited space and rooms can be used to accommodate different functions for the people living in that particular dwelling.  In this scenario, rooms can be adjusted for different events like weddings, funerals and various types of ceremonies.

This can be accomplished through the use of Japanese shoji screens.  By simply adding, removing and moving screens, one can attain a sense of openness within a flexible framework.  So even a small house can reflect the outer landscape in this type of open plan.  Also, the use of the Japanese woven straw floor mats called tatami give a more open feeling where the rooms seem much larger than they actually are.

Utilizing this open type of plan, Dr. Abe designed a small house that incorporates both the Western and Japanese style of architecture.  In this example, he uses the bottom portion of the house as an “open”  space that lends itself more to the traditional Japanese style of architecture with its shoji screens that separate desired space units and yet is done with a Western flair. The upper portion of the house accommodates four bedrooms.

In this particular case, the owner of the house is very fond of his Alfa Romeo sports car. The house is therefore designed with many clear glass walls in carefully calculated angles so the owner can enjoy the view of his car from multiple rooms. This was accomplished through a series of box-like components and courtyards.  The individual units of space are separated with glass so one can see the adjacent areas of the house from various positions.

One of Dr. Abe’s major and quite famous architectural designs is the Miyagi Stadium in Sendai, Japan. This stadium accommodates 50,000 people and was the site of Japan’s World Cup.  The basic concept of an “open” design can clearly be seen in this magnificent piece of architecture.  Despite a confined interior that is isolated from its surroundings, one can still feel and get a sense of the outside surroundings from looking out from within.  The roof also swings in a set directional pattern and one gets the sense that the roof is “flying.”  Another interesting aspect of this building is its multiple functionalities.

When the stadium is not used as a major stadium, it can also hold other types of events and activities.  For example, it can also be used as a park that can be enjoyed by many people who would just enjoy going for a stroll here.  Therefore, this type of “hybrid” plan of multiple uses is also quite practical.  In this way, the bridge that connects the stadium to the park was part of the initial planning.

Another project of Dr. Abe’s is the Restaurant and Bar Tower in Sendai. The key concept of materiality is well illustrated with this structure.  The key idea here is to use  a modality where basic material can be generated in innovative  ways to produce a new type of material.

This building consists of separate elevators that separate the individual floors.  The skywalk here gives a three-dimensional appeal that feels like the interior is an extension of the exterior street.  Therefore, there is a connection between the floors and the glass terrace.

The tricky problem here was to accomplish this goal utilizing basic and inexpensive warehouse-type of materials in new ways that are cost-effective.  This was accomplished by using basic squares and machining a repetitive, yet pleasant pattern on each piece.  The eye is then taken in by the beauty of the pattern without being aware of the unsightly joints that connect the individual pieces.  The end result is a very abstract and attractive pattern.  The beauty of the this pattern transcends the mundaneness of the basic material.

Another interesting design is displayed in the Kanno Museum in Shiogama near Sendai.  This museum was built to exhibit an artist’s egg sculptures.  The goal in this case was to showcase the pieces of art in a special way to connect the piece of art within the space of the building itself.  This was accomplished through a type of “soap-bubble” analogy; the idea was to put the egg shapes inside the bubble.

This was done through the use of embossed panels. Three rooms were reinforced with steel panels that were connected and embossed; the end result was a material that was strong, supportive and yet attractive.  To accomplish this feat, special shipbuilders were brought in because this could not be done with regular architectural methods of construction.

This was a difficult, yet necessary methodology.  This was no small feat as the basic material needed to be created with a new embossed texture that offered much aesthetic interest.  The overall interior is white and lights were used to showcase the sculptures, highlighted by embossed walls that provide a beautiful backing to emphasize the sculptures themselves.

Another interesting project also built in Sendai is a beautiful restaurant. This restaurant was created to give the sense that the building itself was connected to and an extension of the outside street environment. This was accomplished by shipbuilders perforating hollowed dots on steel. This allowed lights and patterns to come in from specific areas that created a “forest-like” setting.  When one sits inside this restaurant, one feels light he is inside a forest.  Unfortunately, this restaurant has yet to be open to the public.

Phenomenal is another basic concept of Dr. Abe’s architectural designs. Here he incorporates physical factors such as lights, sounds, shadows, and air humidity to form a connection with human activity.

For example, his “sound-scape” uses special hidden speakers in sculptured walls to generate the sound of a river.  Light and color also come into play to create a most unique art form.  In this case, he uses color plastic on different windows that create different colors.

In a small Tokyo house, he used a sloped ceiling that became a kind of 2nd colored sky that gave the illusion of a bigger and wider space.  Again the play on physical factors are joined to pieces of art to create a unique blend of interior space with the exterior space.

Responsive is the last basic concept of Mr. Abe’s architectural design. As the life of one human being changes throughout his lifetime, so too should the house that he lives in change.  Dr. Abe took a previous prototype house that was designed by another architect in 1954.  This old prototype was a type of house known as “minimal” house.

Dr. Abe was asked to redesign this house in a newer 21st version.  He took the original house and transformed it to a design that could be easily modified to the changing lifestyles needs of the people who lived within it.  In his newer version, it had a bedroom, small studio and a kitchen.  He also added a 2nd floor that allowed the house to be used for many different activities.  Different colors, crafted walls and numerous windows were also used to create this house.

Another interesting project was to design a house for actor Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right Foundation.” A new type of house needed to be designed for the victims of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans.  The goal was to design a house that was simple to frame, environmentally sound and cost-effective.  Many other architects were involved in this major undertaking.  To keep construction costs down, the architects were asked to utilize only all basically donated materials.

Dr. Abe helped create new and beautiful material out of warehouse-like material.  The traditional and typical “double-shotgun” design was transformed to a new type of “triple-shotgun” house that lent itself more to the changing life patterns, particularly of the African-American family.  Family members may increase or decrease and events such as marriage, divorce and death would require a house that could accommodate such changing conditions.  Laminated plywood with styrofoam, coupled with simple construction, made for a design and construction that could be easily modified.  This allowed for flexibility for different areas of function.

A question and answer session soon followed this most interesting and informative architectural design lecture.  Dr. Abe further elaborated on questions regarding his method of embossing patterns on basic material; the Katrina construction materials and how he came to choose LA as the area he would now settle in.

Dr. Abe added that he felt he was very fortunate to live in a house between one designed by William Lloyd Wright and one designed by Wendell Swindler (spelling???).  He said both the American and Venetian types of architecture, together with his love of Japanese architecture, has help create his own unique style of “global” architectural design.

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