Teppei Fujiwara is an architect whose work transcends the traditional realms of architecture. Alongside Fujiwalabo, an interdisciplinary architecture studio based in Tokyo, he has been involved in projects that connect art, sculpture, performing arts, urban planning, industrial regeneration, and education.
By Shibaura House
Fujiwara was a guest speaker at the What Design Can Do event ‘The Design the World Needs’ held at Shibaura House last October. Here, he discusses his views on architecture and society, and what kind of vision he has for the future of the discipline, based on his understanding of people’s needs and the communities in which they live. Rather than simply designing a space, Fujiwara captures the essence of what it needs to flourish.
Inspired by what it means to be human, his work strives to define a new form of architecture that is inclusive, and positively contributes to our built environment by considering people’s actual needs and social environments. Through this pursuit, Fujiwara has transformed Fujiwalabo into a family of architects, engineers, landscape designers, researchers, editors, curators and musicians, all working together in constant collaboration.
The Kurkku Fields project is a terraced landscape that includes an agricultural factory, an edible garden, shops selling local produce and a dining hall. Through this work Fujiwara has tried to explore possibilities of community-building outside of the mega-city, for example through new ways of farming. First image ©️Shinkenchiku, second image by Yurika Kono.
JAPAN’S POPULATION AND MEGA-CITY CRISES
Fujiwara follows this path of transformative architecture because he believes Japan is currently facing its greatest crisis to date: “The country’s declining birth rate means that Japan, as a modern state, will be unable to sustain itself. From a structuralist perspective, this problem is nothing more than a way to reproduce the work force in order to keep building more cities and infrastructure. However, I personally dislike this way of thinking. If that is the reality we are facing today, there needs to be a more sustainable solution.”
Believing that the fault lies with a national government that is Tokyo-centric, he repudiates the belief that we need mega-cities in order to keep our nations alive: “Mega-cities are, in fact, an effective way of lowering the birth rate. A few days ago, I read a newspaper article that stated that the birth rate in South Korea was declining rapidly, and currently sits around 0.8 children per couple. In Japan, we are at 1.3 children. The author of the article argued that countries with high density cities are in particular danger, in Seoul younger generations cannot even afford to buy a house anymore. So, it is not that younger generations do not want children, the problem is that they are unable to raise children under these circumstances.”
Fujiwara suggests that we refocus our efforts, in order to create more sustainable social environments. “In Japan we still have mid-sized cities like Sapporo and Nagoya. There are on-going debates about how we can achieve a long-term and more sustainable solution to this problem, one that is not based on the idea of having a city like Tokyo, densely populated to the extreme. Continuing to build mega-cities is nothing more than an act of suicide.”
“Continuing to build mega-cities is nothing more than an act of suicide.”
On the Fujiwalabo website, three categories are prominently displayed in the top-menu: cultural actions, living environments, and social landscapes. They are a symbol of how Fujiwara views his work: “A while ago, I was asked to participate in a renovation project at a traditional Japanese resort in Toba City, Mie Prefecture. When I first talked to the client, we only talked about a small project; building a playground for children in front of the main building. I asked if they could show me the whole facility, and when we went around the back I discovered that there was a mountain.”
The discovery of this natural resource sparked in him a whole new idea: “I went hiking up the mountain with the client, and there I suggested building a playground on the mountain, a much more interesting and sustainable use of space. The owner told me that he actually used to play on the mountain when he was a child.” A happy coincidence that shows the relevance of considering the social landscape of a specific place when taking on a job. A step to creating a more human-based architecture.
Plans for a revitalisation project in Toba City, Mie Prefecture. By looking at both the content of his projects, and the physical landscapes surrounding them, Fujiwara constructs new ideas about architecture by rediscovering old artefacts, and combining them into a human-based social landscape.
“When I further investigated the mountain, I discovered that there was a shrine there, and an unused pilgrimage path. The land belonged to a railway company, Kintetsu, and the shrine was in fact the most important place of worship for them and for our client. I suggested renovating the path, and I received their approval. In negotiating with the city office, I had a setback at first, but if a project becomes this big, your heart starts to flutter. Every small step might lead to much bigger things, is what I should say. I consider that to be very valuable. Those are the kind of things I want to connect to urban planning.”
In developing his work in this way, Fujiwara is taking a step towards a more sustainable future that recentres architecture away from the consumption-based mega-city. “If we continue on our current path, we are simply pushing our problems into the future.”
“I think we must consider whether, and how, we will return to nature, or if we want to continue to play the game of industrialisation as it is.”
Fujiwara hails from a heavily industrialised area, an artificially constructed piece of land called Honmoku in Yokohama City, close to Tokyo. “I was raised watching the industry grow around the Tokyo and Yokohama area. The waterside, now only consists of tower mansions, and living costs are expensive, making it difficult for people to have children. In 30 years, it will simply be a town of elderly people.”
It wasn’t just the growth of Japan’s industry that affected him: “I also saw the destruction caused by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe, the city my father is from. As a volunteer during the aftermath of the disaster, I experienced how it was to build a city from the ground up, and understood how amazing that is.”
This is also the reason why he feels he cannot leave architecture, and why he aspires to create a more sustainable living environment: “Architecture is connected to how we build our society. In the modern age, Tokyo Bay was completely reconstructed, and at the price of losing a beautiful waterside, we achieved a high level of industrialisation. While I am moved to a certain degree by the efforts the previous generation put into this, I think we must properly consider whether, and how, we will return to nature, or if we want to continue to play the game of industrialisation as it is.”
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Fujiwalabo designed a pavilion for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics that focused on the relationship between people, the city and nature. The result is an open structure they describe as a ‘street garden for all living things.’
What becomes clear from talking with Fujiwara, is that he has a comprehensive view of what kind of architecture the world needs to become sustainable. In his designs, he incorporates a rich tradition of Japanese culture, while integrating modern needs in order to create more sustainable spaces. His wish to move away from the mega-city will likely require a paradigm shift in architectural thinking, but it is a step that needs to be taken if the world is to move forward without relying on the destruction caused by continuous industrialisation.