This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Alvar Aalto Medal. Professor Toshiko Mori visited Finland last February for jury deliberations and gave a lecture in Helsinki House of Culture. The Finnish maestro’s work has made a mark on the New York-based architect.
“In 1976, just having graduated from Cooper Union School of Architecture, I was so saddened to hear that Alvar Aalto had passed away,” begins Toshiko Mori (b. 1951) at her lecture. “I heard about it when I was visiting my parents in London, on my way to Helsinki to apply for an internship with the architect I so greatly admired,” she continues. ”I feel honoured to speak at an event held in a building designed by him and on his birthday, February 3, no less.”
After the Architecture Day seminar, Mori shed further light on her relationship with the architecture of the Finnish maestro.
“The values represented by Aalto’s architecture, such as the balance between nature and architecture, the environment, humanity and experientialism, have been essential in my reasoning as well. As a student, I was very interested in Russian constructivism, among other things, and its social and political message, but it is more theoretical and less emotive. Aalto’s architecture is more art than theory, yet it still makes sense.”
Art is close to the heart of the Japanese-born architect. At age 15, Mori moved to the United States with her family and after finishing high school attended the Cooper Union School of Art to study sculpting and spatial installations. After the first year she switched to architecture and found a mentor in teacher John Hejduk, who also became a good friend.
“I felt that architecture was my field, as in a way it combined art with the subjects I was most interested in, mathematics, natural sciences and literature.”
Seeker of simplicity
In 1981 Mori founded her own architecture firm. Today the company, Toshiko Mori Architect, employs twelve and has designed libraries, theatres, campus areas, parks and pavilions as well as several elegant detached houses. The office’s work is known for conceptually clear architecture that forms a delicate relationship with its users and the landscape.
Mori herself describes her works as simple architecture. “Achieving simplicity is no easy task. Simple architecture is clear, practical and comfortable. The beauty of a building is born out of its use; architecture is more than a pretty container.” The building’s location on the site is a crucial starting point in Mori’s design work. She describes how she will pace the site up and down, back and forth, exploring it close up and from afar – sometimes even from the air or by boat – trying to find a location where the building and its surrounding nature can achieve harmony. “Vegetation, light and the scenery are key parts of architecture.”
The topics of natural light and scenery bring the discussion back to Aalto. However, Mori’s work hints at a more rigorous modernism; some of her detached houses strongly resemble the Farnsworth House (1951) by Mies van der Rohe or the Glass House (1949) by Philip Johnson.
“Yes, their architecture has influenced me greatly. These houses have been an inspiration, but the Glass House, for example, would be impossible to live in and it would certainly not be ecologically sustainable. My exhibition, Dialogue in Details, at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale paid homage to Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Rudolf and Marcel Breuer. I think it is important to consider how my generation has responded to the legacy of modernism – how we may preserve it and give it a new life without imitating it.”
A recurrent theme in Mori’s detached houses is combining different volumes. “I am very interested in the theories on connecting volumes. My double-volume strategy stems from the New England evolutional modernism – for example, the works of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. I experiment with different volumes – open and closed or higher and lower. I find it a practical concept for detached houses, as they contain different spaces, some more private and others more public.”
Mori’s portfolio also includes several extensions and annexes to architectural masterpieces, such as the House on the Gulf of Mexico in Sarasota, Florida by Paul Rudolph (1957) and Marcel Breuer’s home in New Canaan, Connecticut (1951). She has also designed the visitor centre for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York (1905). In her design work she analyses the existing building and context in great detail. The airy glass architecture of the visitor centre is completely different from Wright’s prairie-style brick house, but, for example, the vertical divisions in the glass wall follow the house’s modulus and the grooved back wall was inspired by the brickwork of Wright’s design. Mori aims to reinforce the original architecture through contrast, not by copying it.
Toshiko Mori Architect’s current works include the Hudson Park & Boulevard, a winning entry in a design competition, starting from High Line on Manhattan. The first stretch of the park boulevard has already been completed, along with the subway entrance canopies. In addition, the firm has designed libraries and theatres for the city of New York and a research centre for the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Spatial approach to problem-solving
The versatile architect is also active in non-profit organisations that seek to improve living conditions in impoverished countries. The award-winning Thread cultural centre and community house in Sinthian, Senegal was created in close co-operation with the locals. Mori worked on this project pro-bono. “The building was completed in 2015 and it has found many uses that are already having a positive effect on the community, for example on the status of women and the education of children.”
Digging deep into the causes of issues is typical of Mori. “It makes little sense to only treat the symptoms; it is better to find out what has created the problem. In Senegal, we found out that the well in the village no longer held water throughout the year due to climate change. The people had resigned themselves to the fact and were sending children, especially girls, on long daily journeys to fetch water, preventing them from attending school. We designed a roof for the cultural centre that collects rainwater and drains it into an underground container system, allowing the village to survive the dry season and even profit from the products they are able to grow.”
Mori employs similar problem-solving methods in the research projects of her think tank, VisionArc. “Architectural studies give excellent skills for analysing problems and finding blind spots. In Senegal, the blind spot was water. Our method is highly architectural: in a way, we slice the issue in cross sections to see its shape and inside it. This spatial approach has proven to be very effective and practical.”
Mori is also known for innovative use of materials. In the Senegal cultural centre local traditional techniques and materials, such as bamboo, brick and thatch, are combined with design innovations. The floors were made from surplus clinker of a tile factory. Ecological thinking is indeed a given for Mori. “Sustainable development is simply common sense. Sustainability must always be a part of the architecture, not something added to it. Our primary role as architects is to give shelter to people and protect them.”
Besides her design and research work, Mori is a professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. In 1995, she became the school’s first female teacher to receive tenure, and still today the number of women remains low among the teaching staff. Architecture firms founded and led by women are also a rarity, especially in the United States. Is it harder for a woman than a man to work as an architect?
“I am often mistaken for a man due to my name, because the assumption is that an architect will be a man. Half of the architectural students in the United States are women, but they make up less than one fifth of practicing architects and just over one tenth of licenced architects. We have a clear problem with this. Granted, it is more difficult for women to combine work and family. However, in my opinion, architecture is a highly suitable profession for women in particular as it is flexible and you have many paths to choose from.”
How does the designer and professor divide her time between the Lower Manhattan office and the university in Cambridge, near Boston? “Not so easily, it really feels like having two full-time jobs. Both occupations support one another, however. By practicing as an architect I stay up to date and can bring part of that to my students. In my studio courses I try to present real problems and build appreciation of different cultures. For example, we did a school project in Fukuoka, Japan, and I took my students over there so they could present their work to the city’s governors like a real project. The course was entitled Material, Atmosphere and Ambience, which describes its content well.”
What does teaching in turn bring to the design work? “The students help keep me honest because they ask a lot of questions and are curious. The current generation of students is very socially active and ready to take a stand. They question the role of an architect in society and wish to be part of the change.”
Legacy of Aalto
The Architecture Day appearance in February was Toshiko Mori’s fourth visit to Finland, and in September, for the announcement of the Alvar Aalto medallist, she is here again. “Every time I visit a building designed by Aalto, I notice something new. For example, the design of the handrails in the Helsinki House of Culture, which I had often studied from pictures, but here today I truly understood the details.”
The Alvar Aalto Medal was first awarded in 1967 to Alvar Aalto himself. To celebrate its 50th anniversary the normally triennial medal is exceptionally awarded already this year. The medal jury consists of, in addition to Mori, Copenhagen city architect Tina Saaby and Finnish architects Asmo Jaaksi and Vesa Oiva. “It is a great honour for me to be on the jury,” discribes Mori and continues: “But it is also a great responsibility. The Alvar Aalto medal is a unique award; it conveys an important message.” The winner of the 13th Alvar Aalto Medal will be announced on September 12 in Helsinki, at another masterpiece by Alvar Aalto, the Finlandia Hall.
text Miina Jutila
All images of projects by Toshiko Mori Architects are from Mori’s presentation at the lecture.
- Toshiko Mori, born 1951 in Japan.
- Studied architecture at the Cooper Union in New York and at Harvard University in Cambridge.
- Founded Toshiko Mori Architect in New York in 1981.
- First female professor of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, chair of the Department of Architecture from 2002 to 2008.
- Visiting professor to several top universities.
- Founder of the VisionArc think tank and the Paracoustica civic organisation.
- Winner of numerous academic, environmental and architectural awards.
- Exhibitions include the Venice Biennales of 2012 and 2014.