Open to all architectural possibilities but reluctant to join a movement, Fumihiko Maki was able to design with a quiet intelligence, says Daniel Miller.
Now an old man garlanded with honours, Fumihiko Maki was the most temperate of the modernist architects who rebuilt Japan. While his fleet-footed Metabolist collaborators made their names and reputations tracing out high-technology megastructures in the pages of Japan Architect, the tortoise-like Maki maintained his composure, even as he supplied his considered support. Tellingly, his own contribution to the manifesto Metabolism 1960 wasn’t an eye-catching urban redesign proposal, but a theoretical study of collective form jointly conceived with the older Masato Otaka.
This more studied approach derived from the architect’s distinct training. In contrast to his predominantly home-schooled contemporaries, Maki was one of the first Japanese architects to receive most of his own formal education in the United States, initially at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and then under the tutelage of the wandering Catalan master Josep Lluís Sert at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. After completing his doctorate, a short stint at SOM in Manhattan, and then a teaching appointment at Washington University, the young Maki picked up a generous grant from the Graham Foundation and went east, travelling to Italy, Southeast Asia, India and Lebanon, and taking in the first official Team X conference in Bagnols-sur-Cèze en route. The trip reinforced Maki’s outsider status, and his disposition for participating in many groups while committing to none. “I felt the ease,” the architect writes, “of not belonging to any organisation.”
Maki takes up the tale of his formative years in the introductory chapter of Nurturing Dreams, a richly allusive collection of essays written over the course of four decades. Focused on philosophical issues of architecture and the city, and modestly avoiding discussing Maki’s own works, the book is the first anthology of the architect’s writings to appear in English. On the whole it shows the same quiet intelligence which animates Maki’s most successful designs.
Maki’s rare talent as an architect resides in his ability to maintain a balanced relationship between the public and the personal. His finest buildings shelter oases of intimacy which manage to preserve an openness to the outside. A closely related poetic ability for combining precision and clarity, the very small and the large, comes across in Nurturing Dreams. In the finest essay in the book, the elegant “The Drawing Called Brasilia” Maki begins by describing the Brazilian capital observed from a descending night flight as like “a pearl necklace strung into space.” He ends the same piece by musing that the raw power embodied in a slashed line on a blueprint, pregnant with the power to affect millions of lives, is matched by the subtler scrawls traced in invisible ink, which point towards the improvised rhythms of individual future citizens.
Together with the insight it yields into Maki’s own philosophy, Nurturing Dreams also supplies an oblique presentation of post-war architectural history. The minor theme here is modernism, and its slow disintegration following the split in Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne, the birth of post-modernism, and the death of the Soviet Union. Maki takes stock of these changes without lamenting them and is alert to the perils of militant self-delusion. Recounting the suggestive story of the 1965 drowning of Le Corbusier off Cap Martin, the architect ends his book with some counsel: modernism “should not be thought of as some kind of rocket aimed toward the future with the avant-garde serving as the warhead”, but instead recognised to “resemble waves on the sea.” The need for wisdom and judgement remains elemental.
Nurturing Dreams, by Fumihiko Maki, MIT Press, £19.95