Toshiko Mori

answers a few questions on architecture, education, and inspiration—using her thumbs.

Job description: Principal of Toshiko Mori Architect and professor and chair, Department of Architecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Current projects: We have four houses under construction, three in the planning stages. The Syracuse Center of Excellence and Brown University’s Cogut Center for the Humanities are under construction. We’re also working with the Albers Foundation on a new pavilion.

First step on a project: Research and digging into references. I’m doing the Poe Pavil­ion, which is built next to Edgar Allan Poe’s last house, and I enjoyed reading about the short stories and poetry he wrote there. I love this messy period of immersing in information.

Last step on a project: Letting my client occupy the building, which is like slowly letting your child be on their own.

How do you break a creative block? If I may be presumptuous, I never have it, because whatever problem I have, I completely dig into it. And I think one excavates the solution.

Why do you do what you do? Architecture is a discipline where you can have multivalent interests. You could be a philosopher, a geographer, a scientist, an artist, an engineer; you can be poetic about it.

Education: The Cooper Union School of Architecture

Mentor: John Hejduk, dean at the Cooper Union for 25 years, was my teacher. He hired me to teach there. I teach and practice; he always said teaching is a birthright of an architect.

World-saving mission: Global health delivery is a huge issue, and architects can help by visualizing and unknotting the problem. We have an ability that goes beyond just building buildings.

First act as “design czar”: I would make design the most important profession in the world and raise the fees of architects—like, ten times.

Dream team: Lisa Randall and Paul Steinhardt, theoretical physicists; Paul Farmer, cofounder of Partners in Health; and Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. If you assembled that team, you could probably change the world for the better.

Office chair: I have a Vitra T-Chair. It’s great because it’s smaller. All the office chairs are too big, too robust, built for 300-pound executives. We have a lot of women working here.

Office sound track: I love Brazilian music and Bach.

Favorite tchotchke: Herzog & de Meuron made this object for Ricola that is like a giant weapon for Neanderthals, but it’s really sugar. It looks like a huge clear arrowhead.

Most useful tool: BlackBerry Pearl. It’s just indispensable for me.

Best place to think: Underwater, while I’m swimming.

Current read: Project Zagreb, by Eve Blau and Ivan Rupnik. I just finished Far from Equilibrium, by Sanford Kwinter—a readable series of essays, with a waterproof cover.

Something old: My house in Maine, from 1796. It was on the market as a handyman’s special when I was young and poor a lot of the time.

Something new: MacBook Air. I love it. It’s the first truly portable laptop.

Favorite space: I love to walk along the Charles River in Cambridge.

Guilty pleasure: Swimming pools in Sydney, Australia. I should be working instead.

Underrated: The social power of the student body

Overrated: Anything luxury—hotels, condominiums, clothing. I try to convince my clients to live more frugally, in smaller spaces.

Learned the hard way: I risk too much sometimes.

Command-Z (undo): I always think I should spend more time with my mom in Japan.

Dream job: I’m pretty happy with the job I do, but I’m stepping down as chair. My term is done as of July 1, and I have a one-year sabbatical—and that to me is a dream job.

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