Sou Fujimoto | This Secret Garden Isn’t a Secret
“It is like a dream of a butterfly in a Chinese city.” Tokyo-based architect Sou Fujimoto is fluent in the language of fantasy.
When I ask him about the materials used in his work, he references a passage from a Taoist text written in 300BC. In this story, the author recalls a night where he dreamt he was a butterfly: “I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly...suddenly I awoke, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”
The fable illustrates that fantasy and reality aren’t as far apart as they may seem. This is certainly the case in Fujimoto’s work, which somehow manages to marry functionality with fantastical designs that make any written description sound like an excerpt from a dream journal. Take his newest project, the multipurpose residential/commercial structure “Mille Arbres” (Thousand Trees), to be built in Paris, for example: from a butterfly’s-eye-view you’re confronted with the confounding vision of a floating thousand-tree- strong forest enshrouding a futuristic village of white houses, while from the ground you encounter a large amoebic building mushrooming out of its base over lanes of traffic. His buildings are simultaneously ethereal and futuristic, natural and synthetic, fantastic yet practical, challenging viewers’ expectations and inviting endless exploration.
Even as a child, Fujimoto possessed the unique ability to identify the fantastical dimensions within his quotidian surroundings. Before attending architectural school in Tokyo, Fujimoto lived in the countryside of Hokkaido. He recalls, “I spent my childhood playing in the trees of the forest. And for me, Tokyo is the opposite of Hokkaido—it is a place that is reversing and continuing at the same time. Because I felt like Tokyo’s crowded streets were like a forest made of artificial objects...nature and the artificial blend together.”
For Fujimoto, organic forms and urban density are complementary, both growing intuitively in response to the environment. It comes as no surprise that the dynamic and ornately playful buildings of Antoni Gaudí made a distinct impression on a 12-year-old Fujimoto upon his first visit to Spain. “It was the first time I felt I was seeing architecture rather than just a building,” he fondly recalls. Although he set his architectural interests aside to pursue physics, his passion was rekindled after seeing the modernist masterpieces of Le Corbusier in France. It was at that point that he knew he was going to pursue architecture “for a lifetime.”
One of the best examples of his signature vision can be found in his first commissioned project in London: The Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park. The structure transcends traditional architectural vocabulary. Standing inside the pavilion, it appears to be a three-dimensional white grid with glass paneling that can serve as both steps or chairs—its function is necessitated by the needs of the visitors. From far away, the modular density of the Pavilion dissolves and it takes on the appearance of a weightless, translucent cloud evaporating into the surrounding landscape. Looking forward to new projects, Fujimoto continues to build in that liminal space between fantasy and reality.
The aforementioned “Mille Arbres” (Thousand Trees) project is on its way, after winning a coveted commission as a part of the “Réinventer Paris” competition. It’s an unmistakable Fujimoto design: the structure consists of layered functionalities expanding upward in a sort of inverted pyramid, including an art gallery, restaurants, a hotel, park space, and residencies. For another upcoming project, entitled “L’Arbre Blanc” (White Tree), Fujimoto again draws from natural forms to serve an urban purpose. Sprouting from a central “trunk,” the apartments fan out from the structure into the air like leaves on a tree, maximizing outdoor space and sun exposure. The gigantic structure seems to effortlessly rise and expand, as though built with helium instead of steel.
When I ask Fujimoto how he would personally define ‘new fantasy,’ he answered in two words:“primitive future.”To elaborate on this philosophy, I will borrow one of Fujimoto’s elegant analogies: “the nest vs. the cave.” The nest is constructed by the bird; the behavior necessitates its form. The cave, conversely, is a found space. Behavior is determined by its arbitrary form. Primitive future means a return to a primordial, intuitive process of design, drawing inspiration both from humanity’s advancements and from the essential wisdom of nature. From butterfly to man, dreams to waking life, fantasy to reality, Fujimoto continues his quest for “endless reinvention and reinterpretation.”
Written by Andie Eisen