Does Maki Deserve the Gold Medal?
I was a bit surprised to hear that Fumihiko Maki is to be awarded the AIA’s Gold Medal. That is because I am not sure whether he is receiving the Award because he is really good, someone whose lifetime of work deserves the representative organization of American architecture’s highest honor, or because the AIA has such a history of mediocrity. The architect, who certainly is revered in Japan, has also won the Pritzker, so there must be something there, and I think there is. Having served on juries and panels with him, I can certainly attest that he is one of the most thoughtful and insightful architects I know.
The issue is that Maki’s work is thin, quite literally so: his skins are slick, his columns seem too small for the weight they support, and the spatial interest he produces often comes from just sliding one wall away from another to let a building that might be just a box open up. I can often not make up my mind whether his designs are boring or delicious, and it is that hovering between the two that makes them so interesting. What is the fundamental difference between his work and the truly mediocre productions of someone such as Rafael Viñoly or the late Charles Gwathmey?
Spiral in Tokyo. Courtesy: Wikipedia.
Maki’s buildings might be normal at first glance, but the clearest ones, such as the Spiral in Tokyo of 1983 or the Iwasaki Art Museum of 1979, have strength and yet subtlety of arrangement that makes them both hold their sites and provide beautiful spaces. They do not sport any big gestures, but use orthogonal geometries, with an occasional curve (at the Spiral) or a sloped roof when the structure demands it. Yet they do not express their grids beyond what it takes to make each box and each plane seem to be ever so slightly independent.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Courtesy: Bustler
Even less successful buildings, such as the 1994 Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, work well, and provide moments where they do more than that, as in the small courtyard sheltering at the heart of the art center. There is a formula at work here that Maki has used many times: larger volumes, often colored in different shades of gray, loom behind small entrance pavilions. On entering, one of the boxes turns out to contain a tall, thin, and long circulation volume. There are no grand spaces, but neither is everything the same—differences in scale are slight, but noticable.
MIT Media Lab. Courtesy: The Boston Globe
Maki’s larger buildings, and especially his skyscrapers, lose some of the delicacy, becoming just tubes or elongated squares in which the lobbies have to do all the work of wresting some differentiation out of the mass. The new MIT Media Lab (which I have not yet visited), however, seems to have combination of clear form dissolving into shimmering skins and and airy spaces that is the mark of what he does best. A new art center for Washington University in Saint Louis, where he did his very first building in the United States after graduating from Harvard and before returning to Japan, is a pleasantly scaled container of pleasant spaces.
If this does not sound like lavish praise, it is because I do not think Maki’s work excites that sort of response. The work is thoughtful in the sense that it almost always seems to fit into its surroundings and enhance them, is functionally ordered, and creates visual interest across its façades with minimal means. It makes few mistakes, and pulls no punches, or expressive volumes. It does not come laden with theory. That is certainly something to be grateful for, and deserves a good nod, if not a Gold Medal.
Correction, Jan. 3, 2011: This post originally displayed an incorrect image for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.