My New Challenges in Pursuing the Architect’s Mission
A pioneer of participatory design, Itsuko Hasegawa engages with her own educational programs to catalyze a countermove against an urbanization that increasingly marginalizes small architectural firms.
Itsuko Hasegawa interviewed by Mohsen Mostafavi
Mohsen Mostafavi: Good morning, Hasegawa-san. It’s wonderful to be with you today. As part of our research project on urbanization in Japan, we’re very interested to hear from you because, from the beginning of your career, you have explored the intersection of architecture and the city. What are your thoughts about the nature of Japanese urbanization today? Where is it going?
Itsuko Hasegawa: Tokyo has become the base for economic activity in Japan. It’s major corporations and big-name architects that are involved there, and myself less so. If individual architects do get work, the jobs seem to go to those with international standing.
I feel that architecture is gradually becoming removed from our daily lives. As it becomes more driven by economics, the fascination of architecture itself is fading. This growing division in Tokyo also extends to regional cities, and I don’t see that as a good thing.
In other big cities, such as Osaka, Fukuoka, and Sendai, many high-rise residential towers and office buildings are being built, and I feel these cities are all becoming mini Tokyos. In regional cities, however, you can still find incredible history, and I wonder why people are not trying to make a unique city around that, instead of building similar towers all over.
Mohsen Mostafavi: What are some things you feel you can do in these smaller cities that you cannot do in the larger ones? What specifically attracted you to the smaller cities?
Itsuko Hasegawa: Up until the Meiji era, Japan was divided into many provinces, each with a castle in its center. The samurai rulers strove to make their provinces unique and thriving by fostering local culture, food, industry, and craftsmanship. Regional cities throughout Japan have such histories, and it is amazing how deeply the memory of the past permeates the daily lives, emotions, and words of the people who live there. Drawing on these rich layers of the past, one could potentially create something wonderful for the future. In other words, building the same thing as in Tokyo won’t really suit people living in regional cities.
Active Engagement by the Users
Mohsen Mostafavi: The kinds of projects that you have done in the past often had a utopian dimension to them while still remaining very focused on people. But now, with this emphasis on the provinces, on the smaller scale, do you feel that you have the same opportunities for experimentation? Does your architecture need to change when you’re working in smaller towns compared to when you’re working, let’s say, in Osaka or Tokyo?
My designs in regional cities may seem extraordinary, but they were always based on a deliberate process of meetings with citizens. I wouldn’t have made anything that anyone had objections to. Listening to the townspeople, the underlying voices of the collective…that is where the futuristic vision is.
Itsuko Hasegawa: Most of my work is in public architecture, and the project starts when I win a design competition. With each competition entry, my goal is to bring new hope—a vision of the future—to the town I’ll be designing for. I try to represent what people remember of the town in the interiors and so on. But the overall image tends to be futuristic when you design a building for a competition.
It was at the Shonandai Cultural Center where my futuristic proposal met the strongest resistance by citizens who had envisioned a building with an imposing appearance. The local people thought my idea of burying most of the building program underground was too drastic. But after nearly 100 discussions with the citizens, my proposal was accepted by them, and it was realized. I have since come to believe that it is quite important to engage in listening to the real voices of people. When designing public buildings in smaller regional cities, I have always placed great importance on listening to the citizens’ opinions.
This was especially true for the public theater complex in Niigata (Niigata City Performing Arts Center). In preparing the program I ran so many workshops that it became a job in itself, but I believe that these sessions contributed to the building’s lasting appeal and very active use. So my designs in regional cities may seem extraordinary, but they were always based on a deliberate process of meetings with citizens. I wouldn’t have made anything that anyone had objections to. Listening to the townspeople, the underlying voices of the collective…that is where the futuristic vision is. While the building responds to the collective voices in terms of its usability, I keep in mind that, in architecture, people are seeking a new image of the future.
Mohsen Mostafavi: But based on what you said before—that Tokyo has become a difficult, complicated city for architects—do you think that projects like the Shonandai Cultural Center, which you designed 30 years ago, are still possible in Tokyo today?
Itsuko Hasegawa: After Shonandai Cultural Center, I won a competition for the Sumida Lifetime Learning Center, a public building in Tokyo. It was the first of a new typology of public building for citizens’ education, as prescribed by the national government. But the public administration who was the client restricted my direct communication with citizens. I couldn’t talk to them openly and had to do it in secret. I was really puzzled by the politics I encountered then. It was a frightful experience.
I remember that I revised the location of programs and placed a children’s facility on the ground level so that the children could be watched, as opposed to the original plan which placed it at the top so they wouldn’t be visible. This proposal was completely rejected. When I told Kikutake-sensei about it, he said sympathetically, “Well, that’s the way it is in Tokyo.”
Mohsen Mostafavi: Yes, I’ve heard from other architects that Tokyo is a very difficult place. As a result, many people are now doing projects in the countryside, away from Tokyo. All the well-known architects are experimenting outside of Tokyo. And I also hear from young people that they are moving to the suburbs because it’s very hard for their voices to be heard in the city. Why is the political situation in Tokyo so complex?
Itsuko Hasegawa: In this past decade or so, even public building has become the domain of corporate design firms or globally celebrated architects. So young architects really aren’t getting work in Tokyo—only a few specific people get the commissions, and that’s why young architects are working in regional areas and also trying to revitalize the towns. And if their parents and friends live there, so much the better for them. I think it’s good that young people are now willing to work in their hometowns and reconnect with where they’re from. It’s good that they get a sense of fulfilment by being involved with the future of the town.
As with politics, Japan is still very much a male-driven society, though female students of architecture are now growing in number. So there has been some change since my youth. It’s a very tough country for women.
Women in Architecture
Mohsen Mostafavi: Itsuko-san, I was delighted when you won the first prize given by the Royal Academy—the life recognition award. I remember in an interview that you gave in London at the time, you told the newspaper reporter that when you started your career, people said it was not right for a woman to join a technical university. And so many years later, this problem persists, not only in Japan, but also in the United States and in Europe. Do you feel that any progress has been made in terms of the cause of women in architecture?
Itsuko Hasegawa: As with politics, Japan is still very much a male-driven society, though female students of architecture are now growing in number. So there has been some change since my youth. It’s a very tough country for women. I myself was not allowed to go to Tokyo University or Kyoto University, so my poor academic background created many challenges for me as an architect. Unless you are a graduate of Tokyo University, you are nobody. But fortunately there was the Shonandai Cultural Center competition.
Whereas commissions for public buildings used to be limited to few big-name architects, such as Tange or Isozaki, an open competition was suddenly introduced, and competition entries were submitted anonymously. I have survived through competitions up to now, especially those in other Asian countries. No one gives me commissions in my own country anymore—I guess it is thought that I have won too many competitions.
Even in Western countries—specifically in Britain, France, and Switzerland—when I went there to interview as a short-listed candidate, they would ask me why I didn’t bring my male partner, and they’d drop me. I wonder how it is in the States. I see a lot of women in American universities, and I wonder why there are few notable female architects.
Mohsen Mostafavi: This is a valid point. In the United States—for example, at Harvard—we now have more women studying architecture than men. But it’s often very difficult for women—for the same proportion, for the same number—to stay in the profession. One reason is because of the competing demands of architecture as it is and family. I suspect this is partly because women are always the ones asked to sacrifice. The deadlines of projects and the whole timetable of offices are not really suited to family. In architecture it seems very difficult to have control over your time.
Two Virtuoso Mentors
Mohsen Mostafavi: Going back to the beginning. You had an incredible opportunity to work with Kikutake-san for a number of years, then you studied with Mr. Shinohara and continued to work with him. Part of our research project is to explore the differences between architects of this generation. What do you see as the main differences between Kikutake and Shinohara, especially in relation to their ideas about the city? And what specifically did you learn from each?
Itsuko Hasegawa: When Kikutake-sensei was creating his Marine City, and even for his public buildings, he would do a lot of research, just like I do now. He had a department in his office dedicated to creating a sweeping overview of the city where he planned to work. So rather than designing a building as an independent entity, he began with comprehensive research about the city before moving to the drawing board.
And when I went to work with Kazuo Shinohara, he would never say the word “house”; he’d speak of “housing architecture.” “A house is the absolute origin of architecture,” Shinohara said. He’d always insist that he could “design an office building or public building anytime.”
Bit by bit, he began turning his attention to cities. Instead of considering major architectural issues or urban planning issues, he was more interested in the modality of a city, or in what way a city could be pleasing. Shinohara-sensei discussed the softer aspects of cities, unlike Kikutake-sensei.
Much later, when he was close to retiring as a professor, Shinohara-sensei, who’d never been overseas, started traveling to see cities abroad. And he would spend time with his students around Shibuya Station or around the station near Tokyo Tech, analyzing these areas. Bit by bit, he began turning his attention to cities. Instead of considering major architectural issues or urban planning issues, he was more interested in the modality of a city, or in what way a city could be pleasing. Shinohara-sensei discussed the softer aspects of cities, unlike Kikutake-sensei.
Mohsen Mostafavi: What do you think you received from the two of them? How do you think the complementarity of the two formed your ideas about the city?
Itsuko Hasegawa: When designing architecture, I take the urban context into consideration, following Kikutake-san’s approach. It’s not just about designing a single entity. And before preparing a competition entry, I always spend a week or so in the city to learn about the history, talk with the people there, and do various kinds of research. As Shinohara-sensei would say, a city isn’t just about the hard elements; it’s also very much about the atmosphere or mood. That’s one of many things that I learned from Shinohara-sensei. A public building usually has a wide area, so you need to think of not just a single structure but how it will fit into the surrounding landscape. I always try to design a building and its surroundings as a whole.
Encouraging Young Architects to Engage
Mohsen Mostafavi: For now, I would like to return to the issue of the city and the future. We have been discussing this situation in Tokyo, where large-scale developers are doing many of the big projects. You said there aren’t many opportunities for smaller practices to intervene in the city, but I’m also conscious of the fact that you mentioned Kikutake-san and the importance of research. I would love to know if you are imagining the future of Tokyo. What would be some of the things that you would do? What would be your recommendations, your thoughts, for the future of the city?
I want to preserve these areas. I would like to make plans for these areas and for those surrounding cities that are different from central Tokyo. I don’t have a role to play in central Tokyo. So I want to focus on making the periphery livable again.
Itsuko Hasegawa: In Tokyo there is a borough called Sumida, and there is a district called Kyojima, half of which was burned during the war and later rebuilt into a grid structure. The other half was an agrarian field that turned into a messy, mazelike town. There, you can still see wooden rowhouses carrying the imprint of the prewar era. You can still see original alleyways from those times. Benches and potted plants are placed outside, and elderly people relax and children and cats play there. Such scenes are likely reminiscent of how towns were in Tokyo before the war. Once you experience such a lovely place, it remains with you, which is probably why so many artists, performers, and foreigners choose to live in Sumida. The atmosphere of olden times remains there, and it is totally different from central Tokyo.
I want to preserve these areas. I would like to make plans for these areas and for those surrounding cities that are different from central Tokyo. I don’t have a role to play in central Tokyo. So I want to focus on making the periphery livable again. I will be happy if I can do that.
There are lots of small plots of vacant land in the district called Mukojima. Some have become parking lots. I surveyed about 40 of those small plots of land myself and had about 35 students design a house on one of them, with the premise that the house would be open to the public—anyone can drop by anytime. A small public project could be run or guests invited. So, a small house open to the neighborhood.
There are so many talented young architects based in regional cities now, who are making interesting architecture rooted in the regions, and I really want to support them.
Mohsen Mostafavi: Finally, Hasegawa-san, do you have any recommendations for the younger generation of architects who are thinking about the built environment or thinking about Japanese cities or Japanese urban space? What advice can you give to them?
Itsuko Hasegawa: I think there are so many talented young architects based in regional cities now, who are making interesting architecture rooted in the regions, and I really want to support them. I’m collecting their works so that I can share them with many others, by way of reviews, for example. This would allow us to think how the city should be, how we could live, and what a new kind of architecture could be. I want us to move ahead debating these issues.
Mohsen Mostafavi: I really want to thank you for your time today and for your dedication to this field. I’m honored to have been able to have this conversation with you.
Itsuko Hasegawa: Thank you.
is an architect. Principal of Itsuko Hasegawa Atelier, she has pioneered architecture design through participatory process in Japan since the 1980s. She received the Royal Academy Architecture Prize in 2018 and an honorary degree from University College London in 2001.