Los Angeles is fortunate enough to be home to a number of the country's finest institutions for higher learning. Hitoshi Abe, the new chair of UCLA's School of Architecture and Urban Design is a testament to the quality of the region's schools. A former student at another Los Angeles architecture school, Sci-Arc, Hitoshi Abe's accomplishments include the design of the stadium that held the 2002 World Cup Final. In the following TPR interview, Chair Abe describes the leadership needed to improve a school already ranked as one of the nation's best, a goal that could reap benefits for metropolitan L.A. and California.
What enticed you to accept the offer from UCLA to be the chair of its Architecture and Urban Design Department?
UCLA is fascinating in so many ways. From an educator's perspective, the Department has exceptionally talented students and a truly distinguished faculty. The opportunity to engage the program in a wider and deeper conversation with the evolving international profession of architecture is truly exciting. As an architect, I made this move to have a dual view, based on two different cultures, that would enhance my experience, broaden my way of looking at the world, and give more inspiration. Los Angeles is fascinating because the city itself is so unusual, which I knew from past experience. Los Angeles is almost a future city. Its basic urban design was formed differently from European models. Just being here will give me a lot of opportunity to think about what the future of design should be.
Number two is, of course, the diversity of the culture and ethnicities. I'm from Japan, which is almost a mono-race country. If you go there, all you see is black hair. But here, there are so many different colors and languages.
Earlier in your life you came to the United States to study, but you didn't go to USC or UCLA for architecture; you went to Sci-ARC. What should a good department of architecture focus on to prepare students for their careers in architecture? What do you want to do with this opportunity as chair?
We are already running three initiatives: M.Arch. II SUPRASTUDIO, a Center for Cross Cultural Studies, and a Center for Design and Technology. When I arrived here, the National Architectural Accrediting Board report said that UCLA was one of the best programs in the United States, so my question was, "What can I do to make the best program better?" Then, as we talked, we found out that there's still some room to improve. One way is to bring in a more cross-cultural aspect to the program so that students can learn how to practice or study architecture in the global movement-their careers should be considered within a global context.
Also, in California, there are so many technologies that are unusual and can be applied to architecture.
Another way to push the program forward would be to become more involved in hands-on community issues. Since UCLA is a research institution, the community would benefit from our participation.
The first initiative, based in critical practice, is now taking the form of a so-called "SUPRASTUDIO." SUPRASTUDIO is an intensive combination of four elements vital to advanced design practice: close extended studio work with a major architect, intensive collaboration with outside consultants, in-depth study of contemporary architectural and urban issues that uses cutting-edge research, modeling, and visualization techniques, and engagement with a team of faculty and visitors that offers critical studies and technical seminars related to the studio project.
What project did you pitch for next year's studio?
Next year, Associate Professor in Residence Neil Denari, an internationally known architect, will lead the studio. The theme is "MEGAVOIDS." In L.A., there are lots of huge voids, like an old industrial area or something that needs to be dealt with. We are taking that kind of site to see what we can do on a large-scale, related to environmental and traffic issues. It's a yearlong studio, so we will basically view many kinds of urban and architectural issues throughout the year on different scales.
Right now, we are in the process of discussions with a major automotive company to become our consultant, who would offer their expertise on issues ranging from traffic and energy to architecture and urban planning. In this way, we can really engage community issues in the program, because this SUPRASTUDIO will act as a kind of device engaging the consultant, the local authority, architects, and other experts.
Will the city and county planning departments be involved? Often UCLA acts as a global institution that just happens to be in L.A. and doesn't relate to the dynamics of the land use policies of the surrounding region.
The most important thing is that UCLA is a very highly respected research institution. Sometimes it's tempting to just do research and not deal with reality. I think the most important thing is to make a balance between research and reality, and then let them play off each other, so there is an interesting synergy between practice and research.
Twenty years ago, UCLA, through its planning and architecture school, had a consulting firm called the Urban Innovations Group (UIG). What can you incorporate from that experience into what you're trying to do in the way of practice?
There was a good side and a bad side of the UIG program. The good side was that it benefited students by exposing them to the real world, and also it gave the school at the time a chance to directly interact with the community. The problem was that it became sort of an architectural office, and as a research institute that wasn't correct because the reality overwhelmed the whole institution. So the SUPRASTUDIO is, let's say, an upgraded version of that. The relationship with the client isn't involved with actual job assistance. The client doesn't pay. It's solely the research funded by different resources. It shares that spirit of UIG, but we are free to do research, so we'll be able to propose something more advanced and free from the reality and the political situation.
How does your architectural practice in Japan inform your priorities as the chair of the UCLA architectural Department?
All the work I do avoids reproducing familiar designs. I see that as a kind of research. I try to find ways to push boundaries, like in the application of technology or the use of material so that each project is very different and deals with different issues. It creates an interesting, synergistic relationship between practice and research. That's a key concept of my practice, and this is the kind of attitude you find among the faculty here and many famous architects in Los Angeles, because Los Angeles itself is a city of experimental architecture.
The general critique of those who are intent on pushing the design envelope is that they often lack a sensibility for place and context. Is place not of equal importance as building design?
There is such a tendency in particular trials, but you shouldn't limit an architect's ability to put the research aspect into practice. Let's talk about Thom Mayne's San Francisco Federal Building, a public building without air conditioning. That's certainly more research-oriented, but that aspect is not really related to personal expression. It's more than that. I'm really against an argument that limits such avant-garde architecture. We should really take such experiments positively, as a good way to push the reality forward. Of course there are criticisms like that, and we should talk about it, because there's always criticism against such a criticism, too.
What is your response to those who argue that "star" architects are often more ‘artist" than city builder? That too often the "star" architect gives less attention to context than to being toasted by peers for designing an avant garde building?
There are many different kinds of designers, and society knows how to use them. I wouldn't say that, for instance, an architect like Frank Gehry doesn't care about context. If you look at the effect caused by the Bilbao Museum, it's really amazing ,and it changed the society there in a very positive way. So I say that there are two kinds of architects, or ways to view the environment. One follows the context, lets it happen the way it is. But there is also the architect who does the research and involves the community in the design process, generating the force or the context, and directs it in different ways to activate the environment.
At the very time you agreed to come to UCLA, USC selected Qingyon Ma to be the dean of its architecture school. Dean Ma also comes from the Far East, and, like you, he has and retains an architectural practice in his home country. What, if any, significance should be ascribed to both USC and UCLA selecting practicing architects from the Far East to lead their respective architecture programs?
This happened coincidentally and wasn't planned. But it's interesting to see that these two universities invited two people from the East. You can't really talk about our countries on the same platform. China and Japan are very different. My role here is really different from Dean Ma, too. Ours roles are different as well as our backgrounds.
How is your role at UCLA different from that of Dean Ma at USC?
UCLA is public research institution and USC is more practice-oriented. That's obviously different. If you compare Japan and China, those two are totally different. China is in rapid growth, and they are seeking to make cities bigger and to increase their economic power along with the population. On the other hand, Japan already grows well. They are facing more contemporary issues like an aged or aging society. One out of four is over 75. Density-it's so small that you can't really increase the density anymore. Natural resources-it's different. So the situation of both countries is almost opposite. One is looking for more growth, and one is seeing that the maturity of the environment is key.
As a person from Japan, I can offer perspective on how to deal with this maturity issue. Environmentally, what can we do? What kind of a city do we need to develop to think about the maturity of this environment? How do we deal with this aged society? What kind of architecture should we build if natural resources are limited?
These are also issues we have to deal with here in the future, hopefully, because we know now that what we have on our globe is quite limited.
Sustainability is one of the most powerful words around the globe right now. Your department has long had a reputation for being interested in the environment. How can you knit together the varying focuses and studios of the department to create something unique in the world of sustainability?
Right now, green architecture is a very popular movement. Ecology is a magic word. Also, we all know that it should be taught among many different subjects and different professions. We can't solve this issue just by ourselves.
What I'm thinking is that the SUPRASTUDIO itself could deal with this ecology issue as part of many different issues around architecture. Then, we can try to integrate that so that we don't deal with this ecology issue in isolation. Students will practice and experience how it could be applied in a real setting.
You come from a country that, for 35 years, has been using technology to replace reliance on natural resources and fossil fuels. There's expertise across the platforms in solar, fuel development, hydrogen, transmission technologies, and there are 1,000 Japanese companies in California right now. How do the department and your initiatives incorporate all this technology innovation and energy into the training and education of this next generation of architects?
I was recently working with the consulate general of Japan to start a kind of salon for promoting Japanese design and technology. In our Double Edge lecture series we are inviting industrial designers, architects, critics, and designers to think about how we can integrate design and technology here and also to promote the Japanese culture in general to the western world.
We have invited four young architects from Tokyo, Sou Fujimoto, Yasutaka Yoshimura, Makoto Yokomizo and Kumiko Inui, to lead a week long workshop for our students, exploring how to apply the lessons learned from Tokyo density to designing a Los Angeles single-family hillside home.
Then, there is the Design and Technology initiative, which has not really started yet because we need some financial support. We could do so much more with more funding. Good technology exists outside of the architectural world; we need to create a platform to connect technology to architectural technology and to architects. We want to create a platform to tie them together, and that's the third initiative we are planning.