Fred A. Bernstein

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Building on Sacred Ground

Toshiko Mori's architectural dialogues with the masters

Published in The New York Times, May 8, 2005

TOSHIKO MORI may be glad that Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer and Paul Rudolph are not around to critique her work. These days, Ms. Mori is spending much of her time building onto and around houses by those 20th-century masters. And architects -- especially celebrated architects -- rarely like changes to their buildings.

Not that Ms. Mori is intimidated. "I like challenging strong men," she said of her architecture. "I'm respectful but not subservient."

John Black Lee, a modernist architect who did live long enough to see her rebuild one of his houses, found himself pleasantly surprised by the experience. Under her direction, ceilings at the New Canaan, Conn. house were raised and wooden posts were replaced with graceful stainless steel columns. Rebuilt, it looks almost as it did in 1950's photos -- but with a new lightness and elegance. It's as if Ms. Mori changed everything and nothing. She "captured the underlying logic of midcentury modernism," Mr. Lee, 80, said, "while giving the building new life."

Ms. Mori, 53, commutes between her Manhattan office and Cambridge, Mass., where she chairs Harvard's Graduate School of Design. She describes herself as a "researcher" who, before modifying a building, explores the architect's ideas and then responds to them on an intellectual level. By sharing her insights, through articles and lectures, into the likes of Wright and Rudolph, she is expanding not only their buildings, but the relevance of their ideas to a new generation of designers.

So when she describes Wright's Darwin D. Martin House, in Buffalo, where she has designed a 15,000-square-foot visitor center (expected to break ground next year), Ms. Mori doesn't mention the pattern of the stained-glass windows; she talks about Wright's relationship to transcendentalism. Later, when she darts across her studio on Varick Street (where seven of the eight architects who work for her are women) to consult her daily planner, it isn't to check her schedule, which has her greeting Harvard alumni in Tokyo one day, conferring with clients in Korea the next. She is trying to locate a passage about "where ideas come from" that she had copied from a Lawrence Durrell novel.

METAPHORICALLY and often literally, Ms. Mori's work involves weaving. It as if she wove her steel columns into the lattice of Mr. Lee's house; in 1999, she designed buildings woven from polyester and fleece to shelter victims of earthquakes (including one that struck her native Kobe, Japan). At Harvard, she has her students create new materials based on weaving, knitting and braiding. For a Paul Rudolph house in Florida, she worked with a boat manufacturer to weave layers of that kind of fiberglass into a one-piece stairway.

For now, fiberglass is too expensive for most architectural applications, but in Ms. Mori's view architecture's future is not so much about steel beams or wooden trusses as materials from other disciplines, from medicine to aeronautics. She points to the "Extreme Textiles" show, for which she designed the installation, at the Cooper-Hewitt national design museum. "If the technology already exists, albeit in some other field, then it seems wasteful not to use it," she said. Both Wright and Rudolph pushed the limits of new materials, she notes, adding that she is doing what they might have done if they had lived a few years longer.


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Ms. Mori's recent addition to the Paul Rudolph house in Florida, her second on the same property, resembles a pagoda but it uses thin strips of metal instead of wood, and bluish glass instead of rice paper. Her aesthetic was formed in childhood visits to Zen gardens and ancient Kyoto temples. Still, she says, her work is more about concepts than styles. Pressed on the striking similarity of the Rudolph addition -- with its puzzle-piece structure and its gravity-defying cantilevers -- to the temple of the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto, Ms. Mori said the influence must have been unconscious.

She has benefited from mentors on both sides of the Pacific. Her first great teacher, the Kobe architect Kazuo Shinohara, advised her to practice in the United States, where he said she would enjoy more freedom as a woman. Studying at the Cooper Union in the 1970's, she became a protégé of John Hejduk, the school's legendary dean. When Tadao Ando came to New York for his first lecture, circa 1980, she was his translator, a portent of a career that would seem an extended exercise in architectural translation.

For her first full-time job as an architect, she signed on with Edward Larrabee Barnes, the modernist who designed the I.B.M. Building at 57th Street and Madison Avenue. (While interviewing artists who were vying to design the fountain outside the I.B.M. building, she met James Carpenter, an artist who works with glass and collaborates on architectural projects; they have been married for 25 years.)

Ms. Mori is organizing a symposium this fall with the Museum of Modern Art at which such design stars as Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, designers of the expanded Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the new de Young Museum in San Francisco, will re-evaluate Mr. Barnes's oeuvre. It is another effort to bring the work of one century into another -- by reinterpreting her predecessors' ideas in the language of current architectural theory.

The visitors center adjacent to the Martin House in Buffalo may be her biggest challenge yet. Wright created a closed universe, making sure that every aspect of the house and grounds -- from the arrangement of the buildings, pergolas and gardens to the tiniest piece of hardware -- was part of a single, unified composition.

The corporation that runs the Martin house asked five architects who were "on the verge of doing something great," to compete for the commission, recalled John C. Courtin, its executive director. When her model was complete, Ms. Mori flew to Buffalo herself to deliver it, impressing the judges even before they saw the design. "She has a combination of humility and very intense focus," Mr. Courtin said.

Ms. Mori said she was energized by Wright's tight grip on every element of his design: "A client saying, 'Here's some land; do anything you want,' doesn't interest me. I like hard problems." She tried to enter his mindset, she said; it helped that he was studying Japanese culture when he designed the house. Then, too, she learned about Wright's belief, derived from Emerson, that people are energized by natural forces, including sunlight. Ms. Mori set out to incorporate that transcendentalist belief into her building, with a skylight that brings light not just to the ground floor, but to the galleries below it, too.


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Rather than imitate his architecture, however, she engaged in what she calls "a chess game" with him. Where he was convex, she went concave: her roof is the inverse of Wright's. Where he was opaque (the Martin House is mostly brick), she went transparent. Mr. Courtin said: "The building contains some interesting references to Wright. At the same time, it is so light and airy that it practically floats on the site."

In her two additions to Rudolph's Burkhardt House in Casey Key, Fla., Ms. Mori took a different tack. Rudolph is best known for buildings like his Brutalist architecture school at Yale, designed in a period when Ms. Mori says he appeared to be "ego-driven and tortured."

But in the 1950's, when he was designing houses in the Sarasota area, she said, he was "benign, responding to tropical climate and leisurely lifestyle; you can tell he was at peace." So Ms. Mori set out to start a "casual conversation" with Rudolph. Her pagoda-like addition engages his building playfully; the fiberglass stair mimics his own translucent flights, and her gently curved roof is a doodle based on his broad eaves.

In New Canaan, just a few miles from the Lee house she renovated, Ms. Mori is trying to solve another puzzle. A 1956 house designed by Breuer, the architect of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a compact composition of stone and glass, a structure that seems as inviolate as Philip Johnson's Glass House. But the new owners need more space, and without an addition, they might have opted to tear the house down.

Ms. Mori, who is still in the research phase of that project, said she might cut a skylight through the ceiling. "Instead of an addition, I'm actually doing a subtraction," she said. "The skylight will create a path of light that will lead you into a passageway," she said. The passageway and the new building at the other end will look nothing like Breuer's house: they will be angled to distinguish them from his rectilinear forms. "You can't extend Breuer," she said, "but you can complement him."

Some people would prefer that houses by architects like Rudolph and Breuer not be extended or otherwise modified at all, however. Ms. Mori believes a few truly great specimens -- Wright's Martin House, for example -- deserve to be preserved in amber. But generally, she said: "I'm not sure making a house a museum is healthy. Without a family, it's morbid."

The best way to honor the architect's intent, she believes, is to have a house exist as a house, even if that means making changes.

Ms. Mori grew up in a house built by her father, a businessman who dabbled in design. (Though she has fond memories of the site, which had views of Kobe Bay, she doesn't think much of ersatz Spanish colonial architecture.) When she was 14, her father's career took the family to New York, where she attended a convent school. When her parents moved to London, and then back to Japan, Ms. Mori remained in Manhattan to attend Cooper Union.

After graduating, she was recruited to design a Commes des Garcons boutique in Henri Bendel; she also did stores for Charivari and Issey Miyake. "People in fashion are great patrons of architecture," she said, "because they understand experimentation." They also got her thinking about architectural uses for textiles.

The architecture world's introduction of woven, knitted and braided materials might be viewed as a belated embrace of what was once dismissed as women's work. "It's a paradigm shift, in terms of gender," Ms. Mori observed. Where structures of metal and steel required heavy equipment to manufacture and erect, many buildings being designed today are graceful, light and transparent, she said. Suddenly, architectural technology itself is less about materials and more about imagination.

For architects like Wright, Rudolph and Breuer, it's a whole new era.