Japanese Architect Hiroshi Naito Believes In Designing Architecture for the People
Hiroshi Naito is a quietly acclaimed Japanese architect known for a large body of work that spans everything from intimate dwellings to vast train stations and museums. His work is understated—and so is the man himself. “I have never been marked by any exceptional talent,” he wrote in the introduction to an exhibition he curated in 2014. “I thus believe that the things that I can do can be done by anybody.”
During his Body & Soul of Architecture talk organised by Toto Oceania in November, Naito explains that the same humility applies to the buildings he creates. “The purpose of architecture is for the people,” he says. “I’m not very interested in the work of star architects. These appear like buildings from outer space.” Instead, he is interested in designing spaces where people can live “in a more relaxed manner.”
Driven by a Purpose
It’s a conviction that was reinforced by the destruction caused by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which—as with other architects like Kazuyo Sejima and Toyo Ito—convinced Naito that architects need to recommit themselves to improving society. But his pursuit of happiness through architecture began decades earlier. Born in Tokyo in 1950, he studied architecture at Waseda University and practiced in Madrid and Tokyo for several years before founding his own firm, Naito Architects & Associates, in 1981.
Since then, Naito has designed a number of projects defined by their minimalism, but also by their warmth and human scale. “Humans are creatures that have a lot of wants and desires,” he says. “On a flat surface, we’ll tend to put a lot of furniture because of the desire to assert control in space. In my case, I pay more attention to how to use that space. Perhaps that’s how I see minimalism.”
Compared to Tadao Ando, Japan’s most famous minimalist, “I am not that much of a minimalist,” he says. “Ando is all about concrete.” By contrast, Naito is all about wood. From the beginning, his work has been defined by an intricate balance between wood and concrete.
“Wood is the middle ground between what is artificial and natural,” he says. It can be a difficult material to handle, but that difficulty is something Naito relishes. It’s easy enough to make a steel frame for a building, he says, but “wood doesn’t perform exactly how we want it to.” He likens it to the inherent unpredictability of life.
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Naito takes a similar approach to his large-scale works, including museums and public transport. He is particularly smitten by train stations, which he views as a stepping stone to domestic spaces.
“(People) should have the feeling that they’re on the way back home,” he says. He also likes them because of their outsized impact. “One of the biggest museums I have designed so far gets 500,000 visitors a year,” he says. “Whereas a station I recently designed has more than 20 million using it a year.”
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The human side of architecture is what Naito relished most about working on the Bethlehem Library in Medellín, which was completed in 2008 in a neighbourhood hard hit by Colombia’s long-running conflict between paramilitary groups, the government and drug lords. Designed in his capacity as a professor at the University of Tokyo, rather than by his personal practice, the library combines serene public spaces on the exterior with a bustling interior embraced by a curving wood ceiling.
When it opened, “a few thousand people came,” he recalls. “I shook hands, hugged and took photos with all of them. That’s something you don’t see and experience in Japan.” He says he was charmed by the experience, which affirmed a central tenet of his career: “I believe architecture is a tool of communication.”
The Body & Soul of Architecture talk by Hiroshi Naito was organised by Toto Oceania and held at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in November 2019