Japan is a design powerhouse, we’ll all been left in awe at the artful conceptions brought to life by Japan’s architects. From minimalist sleek surfaces to naturalistic representations of our environment, Japanese architects have done it all.
Post WW2, Japan has made an extremely profound impression on the international architectural scene. We only have to look at the theoretical movement of Japanese Metabolism to know this. Metabolism is just one of many examples that showcase the philosophical game-changers in architecture – fusing modernist megastructures with organic biological growth.
Japanese architects can be collectively categorised as having eccentric taste and the utmost creative and personal expression. Something that, even today, pushes the boundaries of architecture, housing, aesthetics and living space.
Check out our favourite Japanese architects below as an introduction into their designs, philosophy and work.
Tadao Ando: Japan’s Self-Taught Master Architect
Tadao Ando’s story of Japan’s most acclaimed contemporary architect is astonishing. You can’t help but be astonished as you digest the modernist work of Tadao Ando, who was self-taught and preceded his architecture career with stints as a professional boxer and a truck driver.
Known for his determination and tenacity, traits that empowered him to teach himself 4 years of worth architectural reading within 12 months! Opening his firm in Osaka in 1969, Tadao Ando went against the convention of operating in Tokyo to seek success.
With 200 buildings and counting, to his name, Tadao Ando is one of Japan’s most celebrated architects. Winning the Pritzker Prize, in 1995, the architecture world’s most distinguished award. Ando honourably donated the prize money 100K USD to victims of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake.
AKA The King of Concrete. But don’t let that stone-cold moniker fool you. Tadao Ando has always stressed the importance of creating architecture as ‘a home for people’s hearts’. Ando’s most recognised work typically features minimalist designed grand buildings built with smooth concrete slabs.
Tadao Ando is also known for his geometric shapes, subtle lighting to guide the mood, and use of space within his buildings as a means of encouraging visitors to reflect within.
“…If you give people nothingness, they can ponder what can be achieved from that nothingness”
Tadao Ando was influenced by Mid-Century European architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn and, profoundly, by the Swiss-French Architect Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier was known for building structures out of reinforced concrete and revolutionising urban planning.
Kazuyo Sejima: Spatial Harmoniser
A former apprentice of Toyo Ito. Kazuyo Sejima rose to prominence in the mid-90s having partnered with one of her first hires, Ryue Nishizawa to form SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates).
Kazuyo Sejima is a winner of the illustrious Pritzker Prize in 2010 alongside Nishizawa. She is also the first woman to be appointed director of the architecture sector for the Venice Biennale.
Kazuyo Sejima is known to successfully combine her buildings with its surrounding areas. This is achieved through the extensive use of sheer and clear glass within curved structures that invite inhabitants to gaze at the outside world whilst, simultaneously, catching sight of themselves. Sejima is a true believer in blending a building’s outdoor space with the interior.
“I have a dream that architecture can bring something to contemporary society. Architecture is how people meet in space.”
Sejima’s buildings are known for their smooth-surfaced modernist style of assimilated glass and marble. Sejima, however, does not consider her designs finished until the occupants have breathed life into them by settling in.
Kazuyo Sejima has been known to challenge the traditional conventions of the design process. At the core of her craft is the experience of the occupant, and the relationship with their surroundings. It’s been stated on most occasions that Sejima takes inspiration from the building’s site and its surroundings before starting off any project.
Sejima designs her buildings to integrate and bring people together through open spaces that connect the interior and exterior.
“In the past, I would try to understand the overall character of a building’s environment and use this abstract idea to develop a design. Today, I try to create spaces that are more precisely adapted to the variable character of a neighbourhood.”
Kengo Kuma: The Innovative Traditionalist
World-renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and his firm “Spatial Design Studio” have completed 300 architectural projects. He is an alumnus of Columbia University, University of Illinois and Keio University.
Kengo Kuma designs buildings with an emphasis on nature and natural light, believing that the combination creates a connection between the physical and non-physical comfort of inhabitants.
“My buildings are always part of the place, part of the location. I want to merge buildings into the environment as best I can. Harmony is always the goal of my practice”
Kengo Kuma is known for his use of wood material. In fact, Kuma used wood to construct the 2021 Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, something he refers to as a ‘living tree’.
In addition to wood, Kuma favours working with “alternative” locally sourced materials such as bamboo, stone, vinyl and ceramics. Kuma’s projects are deeply rooted in traditional Japanese building design; insisting on the spiritual rather than physical.
Fundamental to Kuma’s body of work is the use of light, which can be seen in his design Marseilles (2012) which features distinctive facades covered with semi-transparent glass panels.
Sunny Hills Minami-Aoyama
Kuma has an inseparable connection between the ‘emotional content’ of the materials he utilises and the qualities of his construction projects. Kuma sees his style of design as in direct opposition to ‘Western architecture,’ which he considers to be characterised by “excessive objectification” that inhibits a healthy contact with the outer environment.
Kuma continues to reimagine traditional Japanese architecture and architectural elements for the 21st century. Rather than designing buildings that blend in with their environment like his contemporaries, Kuma manipulates the traditional elements into statement-making buildings.
Itsuko Hasegawa: The Utopian Urbanist
Winner of the inaugural Royal Academy Architecture Prize and an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Itsuko Hasegawa has designed a number of award-winning buildings in Japan and abroad through her firm the Itsuko Hasegawa Atelier.
A fundamental principle of Itsuko Hasegawa’s architecture is communication. Her buildings are designed to enable the interaction of space and interaction. Hasegawa views this relationship as a positively reinforcing feedback loop.
Over the years Hasegawa has designed many residential and public buildings that are considered ‘social buildings’.
“My interest is in making a place where different people can come together and can enjoy a range of activities. I see the role of the architect as creating a place where this kind of inclusiveness can occur.”
Sumida Culture Factory
Itsuko Hasegawa’s experimental architectural form has its roots in the post-war Japanese architectural movement of Metabolism; which was built upon the foundation of cultural resilience.
In keeping with the tenets of Japan Metabolism, Hasegawa approaches her work as a combination of architecture and urban design. Her buildings serve to act as a dialogue with the community, with the inclusiveness of the people being a priority.
“I start by thinking of those people rather than of the brief that’s been written by the politicians or whoever is sponsoring the competition. Even though architecture is fundamentally a public entity, often the needs of the public are not well represented.”
Shigeru Ban: The People’s Architect
Another recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, Shigeru Ban is a Japanese architect who pioneers a change in priorities of today’s architects. Shigeru Ban is, by most accounts, humanitarian in his pursuit of architecture.
From refugee shelters to earthquake-resistant churches, Ban’s resourcefulness and affinity towards unorthodox building materials have resulted in unique, temporary and charitable structures.
Shigeru Ban’s innovative work with paper and cardboard tubes produces structurally sound impressive buildings all over the world. Ban first used paper tubes back in the 1980s, in a gallery for famous Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake.
It was in the mid-80s that Ban realised that paper and paper-based material could be used effectively to build weight-bearing structures – enabling Ban to develop his own brand of architecture.
Shigeru Ban’s primary philosophy is that an architect must come up with distinct concepts to create their projects in order to be free of fleeting trends and external influence.
Ban’s work is built on compassion and kindness, as well as a solution-oriented approach to architecture that responds to inescapable disasters and climate change challenges.
“An architect does not need to spend his whole career making monuments for rich people.”
Kumiko Inui: The Sketch Illusionist
A graduate of the ‘class of 92’ at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Kumiko Inui is perhaps best known for her optical illusions and trademark facades. An acclaimed contemporary artist whose work has been featured in exhibitions at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.
As an architect, Kumiko Inui has been commended nationally and internationally. In 2012 she received, together with Toyo Ito, the Golden Lion for the Best Pavilion at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale.
Kumiko made her name making eye-catching facades for luxury brand boutiques. A skill she developed whilst working under the tutelage of Jun Aoki, one of Japan’s most famous high-end retail designers.
Optical illusions in some of her buildings elicit awe from visitors and residents, with designs that appear to be solid structures from afar yet dematerialize when approached.
Inui enjoys her creative process tremendously. Drawing intuitively and almost automatically, she creates a repetitive pattern of the same drawing, which she refers to as “unconscious creation.”
Kumiko Inui’s sketches reveal the individuality of her designs. She describes her sketching method as “drawing without thinking,” an impromptu method for developing abstract notions. Inui would constantly go back to her first sketches, reinterpret them, and come up with a new concept.
Sou Fujimoto: The Primitive Futurist
Born Fujimoto Sōsuke in 1971 in Hokkaido and graduated from Tokyo University in 1994. Sou Fujimoto has risen to prominence as one of Japan’s most influential architects since he founded Sou Fujimoto Architects, in 2000.
Sou Fujimoto approaches his work with the goal of never interfering with or disrupting the natural environment. Fujimoto regards nature as having an integral influence on his background, upbringing, and inspiration, and is fascinated by natural structures such as woods, caverns, and bird nests.
“The forest has many different layers and meanings. For me personally, the forest is my background. I grew up in Hokkaido, and as a child, I often played in a wild forest…when I started to study architecture, I felt that the experience of staying in the woods has many meanings in relation to the scale and diversity and something beyond the functionality…”
Sou Fujimoto is also regarded as a conceptual artist, as he seeks to combine new forms. He takes a deconstructed approach to his art, which is heavily influenced by the natural world and landscapes.
Interior and outdoor, residential space and street, constructed environment and nature are all blurred in his art. Sou Fujimoto’s boldly innovative approach to design is obsessed with the necessity to strike a balance between privacy and visibility for the residents.
Fujimoto views the marriage of architecture and nature to be essential, thinking that only by achieving complete integration of the two can superior design be created. Nature and architecture are intimately connected, resulting in one-of-a-kind buildings.
Fujimoto thinks that by combining the two components, they must be treated in the same way. Plant life, like the architecture that supports and integrates with it, requires daily maintenance; a design concept that he dubs “primitive future.”
“…I believe that architecture should be linked to people’s lives, so everyday life and everyday care for nature as well as for the building itself should be in harmony…I believe that if people love their environment they take better care of it…”
Toyo Ito: The Merging Naturalist
Known for designs that project an air of optimism and joy, Toyo Ito was taught by Japanese Metabolist architect – Kikutake Kiyonori. A recipient of numerous awards such as the Pritzker Prize and Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2002 Venice Biennale.
Toyo Ito influenced Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, and gained a reputation for fusing minimalism with cutting-edge technology. The mix of traditional and contemporary elements has long been associated with Japanese culture.
Having developed projects for 40 years, Toyo Ito’s experimental body of work is hard to classify. He is known for his attraction to organic and natural geometric shapes; a contrast to the prevailing landscape of modernism. Seen in one of his most famous works the Sendai Mediatheque which features 13 high-tech latticed columns.
Ito’s application of natural shapes and patterns in his work comes in direct conflict with the artificial and generic grid-like shapes formed in 21st-century cities and buildings.
“The natural world is extremely complicated and variable, and its systems are fluid – it is built on a fluid world. In contrast to this, architecture has always tried to establish a more stable system.”
Toyo Ito’s use of minimalist methods defies convention and creates a sense of ‘lightness’ in buildings, similar to that of air and wind.
Ito’s architecture, like the natural world, is characterised by its intricacies. He is always pushing and questioning the shape architecture will and should take in the current period.
“The natural world is extremely complicated and variable, and its systems are fluid – it is built on a fluid world. In contrast to this, architecture has always tried to establish a more stable system…by modifying the grid slightly I have been attempting to find a way of creating relationships that bring buildings closer to their surroundings and environment.”