Toshiko Mori: Mentor and Master in the Making

Combining teaching and practice, history and material innovation, Toshiko Mori emerges as an architect and educator.

The student projects arranged on the floor, walls, and benches and hung from the upper-deck railing in Gund Hall at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) are hardly architecture. There is some lingerie—ribbons of blue fabric like a shredded teddy sliding off a hanger; jointed wood dolls outfitted in stretchy Trekkie caftans; origami paper reinforced and folded into pods, tubes, and parabolas. A chicken-wire mannequin wrapped in cloth dangles from above. One group seems to have cheated, entering with a cardboard-and-foam-core box that splits apart like a 3-D puzzle. But this—despite its suspicious resemblance to a Rem Koolhaas building—later turns out to be merely a mold for a fiberglass-reinforced bentwood chair.

The common element here is craft, or a lack thereof. Each of the students—for this is a midterm review—has sewn, woven, knitted, glued, Velcroed, or digitized materials homely and high-tech in their search for new structural paradigms. If the stitches are clumsy, the curves sloppy, so be it. It is all for the best, according to the workshop’s leader, architecture department chair Toshiko Mori. “Architects often think only about what you call hard things,” she says, “hard and heavy and strong things. So it is interesting to have them think about something soft and light and weak.” Mori has divided the students in her class, “Weaving, Materials, and Habitation,” into seven groups to deal with the overflow enrollment of 25 students. Two have devoted themselves to a theory of weaving, while the rest concentrate on hands-on topics—illustrated by the alternately crude and elegant objects described above. “Habitation” produced the origami, “Digital Weaving” the mold, “House as a Sweater” the dolls, and “Body,” naturally, the slinky lingerie and the prickly wire figure.

The “Habitation” group goes first, presenting their models, arranged in rows like a flower bed, to a group of critics that includes Issey Miyake textile engineer Dai Fujiwara, John Maeda and Maggie Orth of the MIT Media Lab, MoMA design curator Paola Antonelli, and theorist Sanford Kwinter. (Pierre de Meuron drops by later on for a look.) The concept that attracts the most attention is that of “the floppy wall,” a piece of fabric with stiff tiles first glued then Velcroed to it that, when flipped tile-side down, holds a gentle curve. “Through the subtraction,” says Vivian Lee, ripping tiles from the fabric, “flop is created.” Antonelli says, “I see the possibility for real beauty in structure here.” Kwinter calls it “a tunable wall.” Mori adds, “This shows how we can use quote, unquote weakness as an advantage.”

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What Mori calls weakness may be the future of architecture. Last semester, for example, GSD students made full-scale models of several works by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban out of his favorite weak material, cardboard tubes. Several of the students in Ban’s workshop signed up for Mori’s seminar because his work illustrates her point precisely: Ban has figured out how to make a cheap, lightweight, and almost universally available product into both refugee housing and buildings of great beauty. Mori’s own work has begun to incorporate the fiberglass and carbon fibers of boat-building, leaving the heavy beams of traditional architecture behind. “It is a trend to think of structure as dynamic structure as opposed to static,” she explains. “In dynamic structure, when you apply force it travels through the material, it doesn’t just sit in one place. That means you don’t need as much material. That is the direction we are going in the future. If students don’t start thinking about [new structural systems], ten years from now certain knowledge might become obsolete.”

For Mori the challenge for architects today is keeping up with the consultants—materials engineers, structural engineers, boatbuilders, even fabric innovators like Fujiwara, whose 3-D weaving techniques can, and will, be adapted to architecture. At the GSD, where she has been chair since July 2002, she has brought in many of her collaborators to give students at one of the country’s most professionally oriented programs a chance to experiment.

“I just keep saying, I want to slow it down a little bit. You can be narrow and go through the process like this,” Mori says, placing her palms together like a diver and darting them across the table. “I can’t make it longer”—Harvard’s program is already an atypical three-and-a-half years—“but I can make it thicker,” she says, moving her hands apart. “I can actually make it denser, by creating more different opportunities for students to experience architecture.”

The fact that Mori strays back to the textile world for metaphor is no accident. The thrust of her research for the last ten years has been the combination of material and making, fabric and fabrication, seen in publications like Immaterial/Ultramaterial (2002), derived from discussions at the GSD; in exhibition designs for Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles at MoMA and an upcoming show on Josef and Anni Albers at the Cooper-Hewitt; even in the use of the polymer film, which turned her Soho Pleats Please store for Miyake into a now translucent, now transparent aqueous box. Workshops like Mori’s current one, or the studio she has cotaught with German engineer Matthias Schuler (of Transsolar) that combined her input on design with his on sustainable technology, are the beginnings of her influence on the school.

“In her introduction to the studio, she said: ‘We are teaching as an architect and an engineer, a Japanese and a German, a man and a woman,’” Schuler says. “If you don’t connect engineering to design for students, they learn it but they forget it tomorrow. If they integrate it into design, it gets much deeper into their minds and creative processes.”

Mori’s didactic strategies come from her own education at Cooper Union. “My ideas come from John Hejduk,” Mori says, citing the late legendary head of the school’s architecture department. “He actually invented what you would call parallel curriculum. He had writers, poets, even doctors and judges coming to teach courses. That’s the base I am coming from, the education of an architect as humanist rather than as technocrat.”

When Mori was appointed, she became, along with Nasrine Seraji of Cornell one of two female academic leaders for the profession in the Ivy League. Her turn as a role model, however, seems to have taken her by surprise. When Mori went to Cooper Union (she earned her B.Arch. in 1976 and an honorary M.Arch. from Harvard in 1996), she was one of a handful of female students.

“We were all called by our last names. We weren’t conscious about gender issues at all because there were so few of us. It didn’t matter who you were, you just had to do the work,” Mori says. “All my mentors were men.”

In the last five years women have pulled even with, and sometimes surpassed, the number of entering male students at leading graduate architecture programs. Men are still the majority at B.Arch. and advanced-placement programs, however. “Women tend to start architecture at the graduate level, so obviously there is a slow awareness of this particular profession and of women thinking it is an appropriate thing to do,” Mori says. “All of a sudden it became clear that it is a flexible discipline. I have a small firm so it is flexible in terms of hours—I can work long hours one day, but then if I have to take the kids to school in the morning, that’s OK. You have to put in the time, but you can control it.”

Asked about the prospects for women in architecture, Mori describes her own path as the multitrack ideal: corporate work, solo practice, academia. She has a 20-year-old daughter, now in college, with husband James Carpenter, a well-known architectural glass designer. Mori worked for Edward Larrabee Barnes after graduating from Cooper Union, then opened her own practice in 1981. She began teaching, at her alma mater, in 1980.

Mori’s positive attitude may be derived from her slow but steady progress upward but also from her sense that any success is gratuitous. “I have a double stigma: I am a woman and a minority. Either way, I can’t win!” she says, smiling. Mori gets asked far more often about her Japanese heritage than about her gender. She says people view her design sensibility, in a term coined by Fredric Jameson to discuss that of Tadao Ando, as “Japanese exceptionalism.” “It is late Modern, but at the same time it has more of a cultural language imbued into it that is slightly different than traditional American Modernism. People point out that I deal a lot with horizontal elements and issues of floor, and it’s true.”

Mori’s Tribeca office is an oasis of calm in a neighborhood in which every second building is being converted into condominiums. Excavators may whine next door, but in her white cube—gray carpet, translucent blinds, workspaces for six—even the telephone seems to ring less often. The only color in the room is Mori’s turquoise shirt, a stretchy self-customized turtleneck from the Fujiwara-designed A-POC line whose weaving innovations she is happy to demonstrate. “You can buy it and cut it here and make it sleeveless,” she says, pulling the knit away from her shoulder, “or cut this here to make it cardigan,” pulling out the front, “cut this here to make a V-neck, or cut this here to make a funny sleeve.” Although apparently a perfect saleswoman for the garment, she doesn’t have stacks at home. “They used to give me samples, but I don’t like to take advantage.” A week later she’s turned the same sweater into a polo neck with one scissor slice.

Pinned up on the wall are presentation boards for her largest original commission to date, a 15,000-square-foot garden pavilion-cum-visitors’ center for Frank Lloyd Wright’s sweeping, secretive 1903-5 Darwin D. Martin House, in Buffalo, New York (due to be completed in 2005).

“The hipped roof is very expressive,” Mori says, pointing to the Martin house elevation. “This is a house—it’s introverted, private, protected—so to express similar horizontality but to express that the visitors’ center is public, I inverted the roof.” Her roof has the same shallow hip but is turned up like a basin with a butterfly profile. It is nearly the same width and depth, but makes a welcoming gesture.

Mark Mendell, president of Cannon Design and chair of the Visitors’ Center planning committee, takes credit for turning the center commission into a competition among emerging architects. “When Martin decided to engage Wright around 1902, Wright was certainly not the figure of iconic stature he became later. It took an awful lot of vision to engage someone he knew would turn the neighborhood upside down,” Mendell says. “If you had to do that again, wouldn’t you be looking for some relatively young practitioner who would see this as the perfect opportunity to showcase their own career?”

Given the complexities of the project—sitting next to a Wright house; fitting into a Frederick Law Olmsted-planned Victorian neighborhood; and providing space for gallery, auditorium, and the bookshop without which no Wright site would be complete—the committee wanted someone who would give their building high priority. Despite the fact that she has had her own practice since 1981, Mori is at the emerging-architect stage of designers a decade younger. She was first known for her elegant screened stores and showrooms for Miyake, Marimekko, Onward Kashiyama, and the Fabric Workshop, and more recently for neo-Modern houses in glass and concrete. The visitors’ center will be Mori’s first freestanding institution. She is also in the process of transforming a mill building into a 30,000-square-foot art foundation and studios in Porterdale, Georgia.

“We liked the restraint and the deceptive simplicity of the scheme,” Mendell says. “It was a wonderful foil to the house—understated yet embodied with a lot of Wrightian principles interpreted in a twenty-first-century vocabulary that was friendly to the neighborhood.”

Mori adapted the roof shape from the house but based the pavilion’s proportions on the distance between the columns of Martin house’s pergola. This pergola, which will soon be rebuilt by the Restoration Corporation, will stand in front of the long axis of Mori’s building, acting as a sort of elaborate screen. Tucked behind the Martin house, the upper floor of the visitors’ center will have three walls made of water-clear glass for maximum transparency, while the western elevation will be coated to bounce back late afternoon sunlight. A skylight at the center of the roof will funnel daylight down a central staircase to the underground gallery, lit by a set of skinny skylights that pop out of the garden like a series of glass planting beds. The final Wrightian influence is in the visitors’ center’s very structure: the roof is supported by four hollow piers that house wiring, pipes, and other utilities. Wright employed such hollow-pier construction in both the Martin house and his most famous Buffalo building, the now demolished Larkin Building of 1909 (the Larkins were Darwin Martin’s employers).

It is in the material of the piers and roof that Mori asserts her own aesthetic: she plans to have the whole uplifted shape cast in a few pieces of carbon-fiber-reinforced fiberglass by her longtime friend Eric Goetz, whose Bristol, Rhode Island boat shop manufactures America’s Cup competitors. “Using that technology, one can actually create an integrated interior and exterior structure with insulation in it so it just arrives in one piece or several pieces, and all you do is assemble them,” Mori says. “Wright talks about organic architecture, but that’s in a more naturalistic or romantic sense. What we want to do is interpret organic architecture in our time.”

This isn’t the first time Mori has tangled with a modern master. Outside Sarasota, on a Gulf Coast key, she is currently constructing an addition to Paul Rudolph’s 1957 Burkhardt Residence—a sprawling horizontal structure with an extremely Japanese roofline. She completed a guest house for the same owners on the property in 1999. In 1994 she renovated and updated the 1956 John Black Lee House in New Canaan, Connecticut, making a symmetrical, almost entirely see-through Miesian pavilion more livable. The playful aura of New Canaan Modernism clings as well to her brand-new Silverstein House, also near Sarasota. “It is a strange fate I have,” Mori says, laughing. “I really have to confront the history and the legacy behind it. It is like studying modern architecture history all the time.”

Designing next door to a Rudolph house challenged both her design language and her knowledge of materials, for despite the tropical seduction of the Gulf Coast site—palms, bamboo, water on both sides—the extreme environment is lethal to architecture. “It’s just like owning a boat, except you can’t take it out of the water,” says client Betsy Cohen of the main house, whose wood structure has slowly rotted away. Cohen met Mori as a board member of the Farnsworth Art Museum, in Rockland, Maine, for which Mori developed a master plan. “She’s fabulous with materials that are not expensive but are durable. The kitchen counter is cement. She’s very sensible.” Then Cohen pauses. “There are some ways she’s not sensible. There are no closets to hang the broom in, but we just let that go. It’s livable, and you don’t feel that it is fragile.”

Mori says, “When I did the Cohen guest house, I used stainless steel, which is supposed to be marine grade and salt resistant, for the staircase. But some people are very careless with the saw in the shop, and if they don’t clean the blade to cut the steel it can contaminate it. In regular weather it doesn’t matter, but with salt tiny little bits of rust develop.”

Such small flaws—chinks in the material armor—clearly irk her. “Boats you clean on a daily basis, but houses don’t get that much maintenance. People don’t spend all their time cleaning because they have better things to do.” And so, for the Cohens’ new addition—designed so that the owners can relinquish the high-maintenance main house and Mori’s guest house to their growing brood of children and grandchildren—Mori and her employees looked for something stronger than steel.

“We were looking for a strong but maintenance-free material—waterproof, rustproof, that doesn’t rot and can resist heat, wind, rain,” she says. The answer: fiberglass, just as in the visitors’ center. “We came up with a fiberglass stair, only one folded plate that is like a textile draping down and wrapping,” Mori explains, pointing to a model. The stair seems to dance, or float, off the side of the elevated bar. Another butterfly roof, this time made of cheaper steel, levitates on top. “These rods that are connected to the roof are fiberglass too, and it will have a fiberglass handrail.” She’ll use slip-resistant deck paint on the treads, just like a boat. At the same time as Mori is pushing the domestic envelope materially, she hasn’t forgotten about Rudolph. “Rudolph did stairs like that. He liked the use of suspension—like in his Beekman Place house, with suspended platforms, suspended glass stairs.”

Mori’s work, both academic and architectural, keeps cycling between two concerns commonly described as poles: history and innovation. She knows the history of the Modern movement now, from the inside out, but is adapting its shapes (and a few of her own) to new concerns about sustainability and old ideas about the importance of craft. “Students have become removed from the actual reality of building and making,” she says. “Something like weaving is very immediate. You can get a tactile sense about how things behave, something that is soft and pliable as opposed to rigid and heavy. You can talk about brick until you die,” Mori grips an imaginary one, “but you still won’t understand it until you hold it.”

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