Harvard's New Chair Remains a Creator Despite High-Profile Demands

February 14, 2003 · by Vladimir Belogolovsky

It is only natural in speaking of this female architect to think of other women in the profession. What sort of mark have they left on architecture?

As my first architecture professor at the Cooper Union, Toshiko Mori was the person who introduced me—a Russian émigré—to the Russian Constructivists. Names such as Vesnin brothers, Konstantin Melnikov, and Ivan Leonidov, I first heard in English with a Japanese accent.

Today I write about her success as an architect, researcher, and educator. Her experimental architectural projects and teaching career at some of the world’s most advanced schools have long attracted lively interest in professional circles as her work repeatedly earns international awards. Her completed projects include museums, galleries, corporate interiors, boutiques, exhibits, and private residences in the United States and Israel. She has initiated a number of important symposia and seminars and she is often invited to jury prestigious international competitions. In September 2002, Mori was selected by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to participate on a committee that later selected seven teams of architects to redesign the World Trade Center site. Clearly her voice counts. Mori’s work is regularly published and she lectures frequently in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.

It is only natural in speaking of this female architect to think of other women in the profession. What sort of mark have they left on architecture? Open one of the most popular textbooks on the subject, the voluminous A History of Architecture by Spiro Kostof, and about the only women you come across are such goddesses as Athena, Minerva, and Queen Hatchepsut. It is a fact that talented female architects have for centuries remained in the shadow of their male colleagues.

Despite this, more and more women break into architecture with their outstanding talent. In 1982 a prestigious international competition for the Vietnam War Memorial was won by 21-year-old Yale University student Maya Lin. Today her memorials, landscape architecture, and interiors are considered to be among the most beautiful and poetic. Since the 1980s, the Iraqi-born and London-based Zaha Hadid has won one prestigious international competition after another. The unique geometry of Hadid’s work, with its projecting straight lines and angular forms inspired by the projects of Russian Constructivists, catapulted her into the level of first-tier architectural stars. Her enormous multilevel Contemporary Arts Centre project is now taking shape in Rome.

Recent news of Mori’s promotion to Chair of the Department of Architecture at one of the leaders of higher learning—the Harvard University Graduate School of Design—is a convincing assertion of the current role of women in architecture. Mori is the first woman to head this world-renowned school, that has been led by important architects such as Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Rafael Moneo.I recently spoke with Mori at her office in TriBeCa. It is located back to back with the studio of her husband, the well-known sculptor and architect James Carpenter whose interest and expertise is in glass composition technologies and coatings on glass, as well its use as a structural material. They work independently yet occasionally collaborate on projects.

Mori grew up in Japan and her family moved to the U.S. in 1966. After high school she was admitted to the Art School at Cooper Union. Her first year there she had an interesting experience when she and a few students decided to repaint a school corridor white for an installation—no permission asked. As they proceeded, they were spotted by John Hejduk, then dean of the School of Architecture. Always a supporter of a bold creative initiative, Hejduk approved of the rebellion. That is how the acquaintance between Mori and Hejduk began; it later grew into a warm friendship. Meeting Hejduk influenced the choice Mori soon made to transfer to the School of Architecture at Cooper Union the next year.

John Hejduk exerted an invaluable influence on Mori. He infected her with the most important thing—a love for architecture. “He was my mentor,” says Mori, pointing to a framed watercolor by Hejduk that occupies the most prominent spot in her office. She helped organize the exhibition “Sanctuaries: The Last Works by John Hejduk” at the Whitney Museum and wrote the forward to the catalog that accompanies the beautiful show which closed last month. Mori is also working toward establishing a fellowship to honor John Hejduk at the GSD.

After graduation Mori worked for a few years in New York before establishing her own practice in 1981. Her first project was the boutique Comme des Garcons in the uptown department store Henri Bendel, which no longer exists. On this project Mori collaborated with world-renowned couture Rei Kawakubo, marking the beginning of a long-term working relationship with her and later with Issey Miyake with whom she designed a number of stores, including Pleats Please boutique in SoHo. Throughout this period, Mori was teaching. Fourteen years at her alma mater, then at Columbia and Yale Universities. Since 1995, Mori has been teaching at Harvard, where she was awarded an honorary master’s degree in 1996.

Besides teaching, her responsibilities as chair at the GSD include hiring new faculty, inviting lecturers, developing study programs and organizing student exhibits. Her schedule does not inspire envy—family and office are in New York, while the university and students are in Boston, which entails frequent commutes.

At Harvard Mori conducts a seminar called “Immaterial/Ultramaterial” in which students experiment with various construction materials, study their characteristics and develop new construction techniques. Mori is convinced that a study of materials deserves as much attention as the design of forms and spaces. “Material is a universal language. It is tactile and everyone can understand it.” Mori says that a theory is not engaging as much as the study of a specific material and its use in construction, which immediately raises the level of understanding about different possibilities.

What are ultramaterials? Ultramaterials result from manipulating such static and widely used construction materials as “Homasote,” thin plywood, mesh, foam, felt, and rubber. In her class students experiment with combining, laminating, casting, splitting, and weaving these materials in new ways to discover new tactile qualities. For example, in one experiment intended to study the relationship between structure and surface, liquid rubber was poured into a foam mold and reinforced with fiberglass mesh.

In effect, the designers invented a new paneling system—translucent rubber panels with visible reinforcement. The reinforced concrete of the future! Such strange but beautiful panels can be used as decorative interior partitions or cast in structural blocks to withstand the most severe weather conditions.

In Mori’s new book (that shares the same title as her seminar) she states: “An era of ultramaterials has arrived. Instead of designing according to the inherent limitations in the properties of given materials, designers can use technology to extend our capacity beyond what was once imagined possible—one can theoretically design materials to meet any performance criteria.”

Despite her responsibilities at Harvard, Mori still works full time at her office. Without much hesitation, she admits that working on her own projects brings her more satisfaction than teaching. “I’m first of all a maker,” she said.

Is there a difference between how architectural projects are approached by men and women? According to Mori, “Women in architecture are minorities. But it would be a mistake to look for how different is the work done by men and women. The difference should be seen not in what is the gender, race, or religion of a person, but in his or her creative talent.” Of course, she is absolutely right, but I would argue a woman’s world outlook and innate sense of beauty influences the expression of her architectural language. Often women are designated to design interiors where it is essential to have a sensitive choice of palate and materials. I think it is not coincidental that architectural firms run by husband-and-wife teams, such as Ricardo Scofidio with Elizabeth Diller and Tod Williams with Billy Tsien, are recognized as among the most progressive, perhaps because of these dual sensibilities.

Among her favorite projects, Mori recalls working on the exhibition “Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles” which showed at the Museum of Modern Art through January 1999. It demonstrated the revolutionary changes that took place in the last decade in textile design. Collaboration between designers and scientists, making use of industrial materials and the latest technologies, resulted in the production of textiles with original structures, textures, and finishes having an extraordinary impact on textile design, interior design, and world fashion. The works on display were such unexpected combinations as newspaper and silk with feathers, copper with polyester, and banana fiber with wool.

She is also very fond of another project—Comme des Garcons Shirt—built in the early 80s in SoHo. This boutique’s straight and wavy lines, extruded along the entire narrow volume, create an unusually strong impression of weightlessness and impetuous flight forward. Unfortunately, interiors have a short life. Today the beauty of this no longer existing futuristic space can only be admired in rare photographs.

On my way from Mori’s office I couldn’t refuse myself the pleasure of paying a visit to Pleats Please boutique in SoHo, created by her in 1998. This tiny store on the corner of Wooster and Prince Streets makes an ephemeral impression. Occupying a typical SoHo historical building, the space is defined by a simplified glass volume. Its edges are diffused by frameless surfaces of similar palate. The floor blends with the walls and the walls seamlessly merge with the ceiling. The resulting effect is to expand the boundaries of the limited space of the store. In the state of suspension you will find a green-color construction that serves as a counter and hides the cash register inside. Boutique Pleats Please literally fades away with the help of a special polymer film applied to the inner side of the display window glass. Only by looking straight at the vitrine does the interior appear to be in focus. But if you move slightly on an angle the image becomes foggy and intriguing.

Mori feels a particular satisfaction working on freestanding single-family houses. She especially likes the Silverstein Residence in Florida, designed in collaboration with James Carpenter, which features a stair with a skylight directly above. Mori says a house is a point of reference in architecture. Such projects encompass all basic elements of architectural planning.

Mori’s house designs are conceptually clear and contextual. They represent a balance between interior and exterior. To create an artistic dialog between her projects and their surroundings, Mori often collaborates with artists, designers, and landscape architects. The result successfully integrates architecture, light, and site.

Among projects by other architects that interest Mori are those that are carefully crafted, skillfully combine various materials, and use natural light. Namely, Mori is inspired by the work of such masters as Carlo Scarpa, Alvaro Siza, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. She cites the Austrian Cultural Forum by Raimund Abraham as the most interesting of recent New York projects. Mori even goes so far as to admit that before the Abraham’s tower her most admired project in New York was the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe. But she now feels more drawn to the Forum for its futuristic features and for its surprises in the plan layout which, despite occupying such a miniature site, gives the impression of spaciousness.

Currently, Mori is working on several projects, including a Garden Pavilion, a visitor’s center for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y. What kind of project does Mori dream about?

“I don’t dream of a big heroic project,” says the architect. “I just try to do my best working on one project at a time and pay attention to the finest details.”

—Vladimir Belogolovsky

Belogolovsky emigrated to the U.S. in 1989, and obtained his citizenship in1995; a year later he graduated from The Cooper Union School of Architecture. He then worked in Spain and Germany and presently is a project architect at Alexander Gorlin Architect in New York City. He writes about architecture for the New York-based Russian newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo, or New Russian World and a number of professional magazines in Russia. Belogolovsky is also a member of the Design Futures Council.

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