Featured Member - Yuji Kishimoto, AIA
As both architect and educator, Yuji Kishimoto has spent his career bridging gaps between cultures and passing on lessons taught to him by Jacob Bakema, Louis Kahn, and Kiyonori Kikutake.
A recent recipient of the Japanese National Medal of Distinction, Yuji Kishimoto, AIA, has spent decades promoting academic and economic relations between the United States and Japan. Born and raised in Tokyo, he led a recent Architectural Adventures tour of his homeland and plans to lead another in September 2019. He has also been a professor at Clemson University for over 30 years, where he basks in the work of his students just as he would his own.
If you know anything about Japanese traditional culture, you realize that we are supposed to master all the concepts and techniques of our craft before moving forward. Once you grasp them, your master allows you to do your own creative work. When it comes to architectural education, it is very similar: Once we master such great precedents as Le Corbusier, Mies Van del Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright, we can begin applying them.
Since around the eighth century, Japanese people have proven themselves in taking incoming culture from either China, Europe, or America, and making it better. Japan continues this tradition through contemporary companies like Toyota, Sony, and Mitsubishi; they are impeccable, particularly in regard to the details. I believe the phrase “God lives in the details” explains a great deal about Japanese tradition.
I came to study architecture at Harvard in 1964; my first class was conducted by famed architect Jacob Bakema of Holland. Our first project was in the very poor neighborhood in Charlestown, right outside of Boston. Bakema took us—15 students from many different countries—to Charlestown and said, “Sort through all the misery in this area and come up with your way to improve it, one that is conceptually your own.” Wow. I didn’t know what to do. At that moment, I realized, “OK, now I am all by myself. My professors from Japan are not here. I just have to sink into what I see, and I have to solve it.” That was a huge moment in my life. Literally, I challenged myself, “I am going to come up with a solution of my own, philosophically and architecturally.”
To plan your own adventure, visit ArchitecturalAdventures.org and view all upcoming tours.
After I graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree, I went to work for Louis Kahn. Kahn also said, “Yuji, creativity is when you are engaged with real projects, not in a studio or a protected environment. In real situations, that’s where your creativity matters.” My mentor in Japan, Kiyonori Kikutake, shared a similar sentiment. All three of my mentors preached something along the lines of, “Creativity and usefulness need to come together when you are facing real problems.” This was the beginning of my new life.
I began operating my own design firm with my partner in Boston. We had many clients, and some of them were big developers. They gave us very little time and not much budget; they just wanted finished projects. And I decided that’s not quite what I wanted to do. I knew my work in those scenarios wouldn’t satisfy the people who would live in and use what we’re creating. With such limitations, I was not really solving the problems. I decided, “OK, I am going to take my ideals and educate future decision-makers. They will be making decisions on building codes, zoning codes, and infrastructure, all of which has to be done before architects get involved.” Then I can wisely spread the value of my contribution and make society a better place, even more than I could as just one practicing architect.
But where to do that? I learned that prep school is where many future decision-makers get their start. Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts was willing to take me on, so my wife and I moved there. My first class of 15 students included the sons of such famous people as a TV anchorman, a famed lawyer, the owner of a large international industry, and so on. I knew I came to the right place. They were going to become decision-makers who would learn the importance of built environment.
Eventually, I ended up in South Carolina, where I taught ideals in architecture for 32 years at Clemson University until my retirement in 2011. I’ve done so many things I wanted to do, including supporting my students, area architects, and even many clients. For example, I was working as a member of the Board of Trustees for a well-known prep school in South Carolina. This school wanted to have a new theater built, so I, as chair of the building committee, announced to the board that we are going to have a professional design competition. Around 7 or 8 projects were presented at the final selection review, which was attended by the headmaster of the school, the mayor, the president of the local AIA chapter, myself, and one of my students. We selected one architect as the winner; he happened to be my former student. This was my architectural contribution to the community.
The essence of my teaching has been centered around the idea of the 3Cs, which are creativity, collaboration and common sense. My design class was often called the “3C Studio.” I realize how lucky I have been able to search for the truth in the 3Cs ever since I met Professor Jacob Bakema, Mr. Louis Kahn, and Mr. Kiyonori Kikutake. I owe them so much. —As told to Steve Cimino
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