Mori shares her keys to success in architecture lecture

March 31, 2017

Renowned architect Toshiko Mori has a lot to say about her field. As part of the Department of Fine Arts’ Richard Saivetz ’69 Annual Memorial Lecture Series, Mori shared her wealth of knowledge on architecture to students, professors and community members, on Tuesday, March 28 in the Presentation Room of the Shapiro Campus Center.

Mori’s lecture and presentation followed the theme of “dialogue in architecture.” At the moment, Mori is the Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She also runs her own architecture firm, Toshiko Mori Architect (TMA), in New York City. Mori’s firm has been operating since 1981, allowing the creation and completion of residential, institutional, cultural and commercial projects.

By far, Mori’s most fascinating project in terms of design, aesthetic, process and purpose is the THREAD: Artists’ Residency and Cultural Center in Sinthian, Senegal. TMA collaborated with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation to transform this idea into a reality two years ago. At 11,285 square feet, the center includes an exhibition space, a workshop area, an artists’ residence, a marketplace, a classroom, a communal gathering space, a courtyard and water collection.

Most eye-catching is the structure’s roof, which incorporates curvature and geometry. The roof’s curvy shape may initially seem like an aesthetic choice but actually has a much larger purpose. The water collection has covered water reservoirs and sloped water canals so that the rain flows down the roof, to the canal and into the reservoir. Mori collaborated with nonprofit organizations Sinthian Medical Center and Le Korsa (AFLK) to bring her ideas to life, according to Designboom. The center is made of bamboo, brick and thatch, keeping everything local, even the workers, said Designboom.

There are 12 tribes in the Sinthian area. The tribes practice art and perform skits, music and plays, a fitting environment for an artists’ residency. Mori said this community may be impoverished, but it has an amazing state of mind and approach to life. The foundation and Mori wanted to train locals in medicine, as health is a big issue in this region.

Both parties also wanted to teach locals how to secure water. The curvy roof demonstrates how to procure rain water by using a mere roof. Sinthian people used to obtain water by wells, an unreliable source. The new roof supplies community members with water for agriculture, laundry and animals, not drinking water. However, anything helps and goes a long way since Sinthian has extreme dry seasons and is very remote. And because of this isolation, Mori employed 40 local workers as well as local materials, resources and skills to complete this project. She utilized a local thatching technique that used bamboo, but built upon this foundation by teaching workers how to make the roof denser and more durable. They also kept practicality in mind: the grass in the roof could be blown off easily, but could be repaired easily. In some places, bricks were used for ventilation.

Besides the uniquely shaped roof, there were subtler local touches. Community members created mosaics with tiles that ultimately formed the ground they walked, worked and lived on. The furniture was also made locally.

Mori said this project involved an unlikely combination but resulted in necessary dialogue between the foundation and the tribal or indigenous people. Although Mori could not produce an answer to “Which was your favorite project?” during the Q&A, she did say that the Senegal project was the most challenging project for her.

Mori visited Sinthian four or five times, she said. Twice, her Harvard students accompanied her to the project and “nearly died,” according to Mori. Medical shots, lethal animals, scarce water and the dry weather—Sinthian is certainly no Cambridge. The new environment was something she and her students had to get used to. The building phase was fast, but the preparation took even longer—four years to be exact.

But the four years of preparation plus construction time paid off. This center provides so many resources for the Sinthian community: books, art, open discussion areas, food, shelter and water. Mori received several awards for this project as well.

Another one of Mori’s projects was adding a guest house to a Casey Key, FL, house that Paul Rudolph designed in 1957. Mori had to update the house so that the expanding family could continue to live together in one place. The final product was made of steel and concrete and consisted of a lot of glass. The add-on was also elevated 17 feet above sea level due to flood and hurricane risks. This particular project relates to the “dialogue in architecture” theme since Mori made a conscious effort to not completely disrupt Rudolph’s original structure. She instead aimed to foster dialogue between her design and the preexisting house.

Mori also expanded upon Marcel Breuer’s house in New Canaan, CT. Breuer designed it himself in 1951 and Mori renovated it in 1976. Breuer had very tall children, so Mori made sure to enlarge the addition. Mori’s marriage of the materials, glass and stone, highlight the structure’s prominence, contrast and elegance. The addition, which contains the master bedroom suite, another bedroom and a garage or utility room, doubles the square footage. Breuer’s original work remains in dialogue with Mori’s work through a connecting stairway.

TMA additionally worked on the Poe Park Visitor Center in the Bronx. Poet Edgar Allen Poe used to have a little cottage house in the park. Inside of the center houses an “assembly space, an information desk, learning areas and support spaces for Poe Park,” according to TMA’s website. “The building is composed of two separate volumes that slip between each other to express the state of flux that is characteristic of many of Poe’s stories,” the website explains. The building even contains low windows, allowing children to look through the glass and into the center.

One lecture attendee asked Mori about the influence of her Japanese heritage on her work. Mori grew up with her grandmother taking her to Japanese gardens in Kyoto. Mori said that her Japanese background is “innate.” She acknowledges the fact that she tends to favor horizontal over vertical as well as the connectivity of planes. However, Mori said she never intentionally inserts her “innate” Japanese heritage into her work.

Ultimately, Mori’s modern, sleek, refined, simple designs speak loudly in the sphere of architecture. Mori and TMA have already accomplished so much, and it will be interesting to see what they do next.

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