Beyond Buildings


Does Maki Deserve the Gold Medal?

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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.



Comments (3 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:44 PM Thursday, January 06, 2011

    Mr Maki has five centuries of work to his credit, and not a decade has passed without a couple of world-class buildings. He has a long, long history of designs that includes not only Mr. Betsky's older examples, but the Anneberg (an unusually warm and welcoming academic building completed very fast), the Roppongi Hills T.V. Asahi building ('03), Kaze no Oka Crematorium ('97), & Hillside Terrace & Hillside West, built over thirty years and the center of what has, thanks to him, became a lively part of Tokyo. His Word Trade Center Tower has been described as the best of the lot by a group of marquee architects, and his U.N. (rarely published) was one he and his staff poured their hearts into making a special symbol. His work is not only subtle, but delicately built, with an awareness of craft that a flash-junkie like Mr. Betsy may not fully appreciate, but many practicing architects hold in awe. Then we have Maki's role in the Metabolists, his essays advocating city form at a time when structuralism was the greater goal for many, his discourse on "oku," his effort in the 1980s to advance an international Modernism that was comfortably open to Asian influences. And, of course, the grace with which he met with every Western visitor, student or scholar, if he was able to (likely including Mr. Betsky more than once) - and encouraged all to be humanistic builders and thoughtful critics in their own cities. Mr. Betsky, you have a reputation for being overly enthralled with youth and the latest seductive shape,. As a critic, you are welcome to the position - but the snideness here seems needlessly out of place. To many, including myself, your works are of far less consequence than Mr. Maki's half a century of activity. Or perhaps you knew that, and just hoped for the controversy??

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:46 PM Monday, January 03, 2011

    Vlaid points - just an embarrasing comparison of architects. Did Mr. Betsky not work across the street from those 2 buildings at the Yurba Buena complex for 6 years? I happen to really enjoy that Polshek-designed building.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:27 PM Monday, January 03, 2011

    Aaron, Your frankness is refreshing as this magazine enters it's first month as the AIA's official publication. I know you'll continue to call things as you see them. One small correction related to your editor's choice of a photo for YBCA - that's Polshek's building, not Maki's - as you know his is north of that one. Cheers, David Meckel San Francisco

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.