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INTERVIEW | Architect Sou Fujimoto on Using In-Between Spaces Post-Pandemic

Future cities “will not lose meaning but become more diverse by offering more options. People will not just be ushered into one area, but all kinds of people can enjoy an array of activities.”



Architect Sou Fujimoto (Photo by David Vintiner)



2021 has undoubtedly shaken our relationship with the daily spaces we occupy, including where we work, commute, relax, and learn. For many of us, and at varying degrees around the globe, our lives became restricted to the spaces within the walls of our homes, eliminating the shared, porous spaces that we once wove in and out of on a typical pre-corona day. 

While the disorienting effects and disadvantages of these pandemic restrictions are clearly evident, this interruption also provides an opportunity to reconsider how we relate to our spaces. 

Even more broadly, how do we relate to the makeup of the cities and neighborhoods we live in?

As designers that mark the spaces we occupy, architects must grasp the broader shifts and transitions in lifestyles long before they begin to take root.  

Sou Fujimoto, is a Tokyo – and Paris – based architect, renowned for his structures characterized by lightness, transparency, and simplicity. As seen through his 2013 breakthrough project, the Serpentine Pavilion consisting of a curiously geometric but formless structure made with slender steel bars, Fujimoto seeks out what exists between the fine lines. The delicate forms of his design not only attempt to capture and anchor, but to playfully embody concepts that are momentary, specifically the “in-between spaces” of daily life.  

Serpentine Gallery, credit: IWAN BAAN

His ideas on medial spaces shows that the future of urban architecture has much potential through utilizing what we have experienced, hoped for, and contemplated in a season of staying put during the pandemic. At the same time, Fujimoto’s ideas have been nurtured through his own background and their relevance tested before and after embarking on an architectural career. 

JAPAN Forward sat down with Sou Fujimoto to hear more about his experimental design philosophy, which has become of special and growing interest as we consider the future cities and lifestyle of the post-corona age. 

How does he see architecture’s role in redefining our relationships with spaces? Excerpts of the interview follow.

First of all, you said in a recent JAPAN Forward article, “The future is choices” when it comes to our relationships with spaces. Can you elaborate more on what you mean by this?  

Due to this corona situation, we are realizing that things can still go on without having to get on a packed train for our daily commute to an office building in the city. What we can choose right now might feel limited due to the coronavirus, but possibilities are actually expanding as we think about alternative work models and lifestyles. I think that is a really good thing. 

The key here is that, as we continue building cities, we have to make sure we can keep up with all of the possibilities that have expanded in our minds. 

Before, there were established views on what works and what doesn’t, and what should or shouldn’t coexist [in a space]. But, we should think about that more flexibly and openly. There are all kinds of possibilities for where to work, where to live, and what to do after work. Do we just eat out somewhere? Or go to an onsen? Or is there a library space that is open for us to use? I think a city that makes all of that possible is attractive. 

In such a way, cities will not lose meaning, but become more diverse by offering more options. People will not just be ushered into one area, but all kinds of people can enjoy an array of activities. By realizing this, I think the city of the future will become really interesting.

Perhaps related to the importance of choices, ever since starting your design firm, Sou Fujimoto Architects in 2000, you have experimented with how to make in-between (chuukan) spaces. These are spaces which blur the divide between inside and outside, private and public, the natural and the artificial. Can you share more about the roots of in-between spaces in a context like Japan? 

Traditional architecture of Japan abundantly utilizes in-between spaces. I think that it probably has to do with the climate of Japan, which gets very hot and humid in the summer and very cold in the winter. Most traditional, older homes stand within a garden full of nature, so the inside and outside isn’t clearly divided, but is left connected and ambiguous in a good way. 

Of course, in modern lifestyles, the traditional way of building can’t just be replicated, but I feel that this in-between space has potential. 

How can this be used in a contemporary form? This isn’t simply about the physical interior and exterior and the space in between, but also the medial connections between private and public, as well as the building and the street. 

There are all kinds of in-betweens found everywhere. 

Serpentine Gallery, credit: IWAN BAAN
Serpentine Gallery, credit: IWAN BAAN

How do you see in-between spaces fitting into today’s architecture?

When talking and thinking about diversity, which is increasingly manifested in the 21st century, the question arises as to whether it is okay to split inside and outside. Or, if clearly separating public and private is even possible, which it isn’t. 

Instead, and in a positive way, I realize that there is the constant presence of “in-between” space. This is like noticing the various gradation of colors instead of stark differences between black and white. 

As more value is attributed to diversity and diverse lifestyles, I think that it is important to revisit and get a stable, positive grip on this ambiguous in-between space. Instead of simply replacing traditional architectural styles with contemporary, brand-new architecture, I think we can revisit physical and conceptual qualities and grasp various connections and understandings. 

Shiroiya Hotel, credit: Katsumasa Tanaka

Shiroiya Hotel is one of your recent projects involving the renovation of a former ryokan transformed into an art-inspired contemporary hotel in Maebashi City, Gunma, which opened in December 2020. Can you share your thoughts about how this hotel is a prime example of the in-between?  

Yes, Shiroiya Hotel presents an approach to comfort in the private realm, along with various meanings of urban architecture. These elements are all important in their own way, so I wanted to somehow nicely connect the relationships. 

As a building, I wanted it to have openness, but because it is in the city, I also wanted it to encapsulate an intimate closeness. As a hotel, all kinds of guests from various places in the world come so I wanted it to be a place for locals and international visitors to meet, communicate, and coexist. 

There is also a lot of art on display at the hotel. It is like an art museum, but one that is in close proximity to the everyday.

Shiroiya Hotel, credit: Katsumasa Tanaka
Shiroiya Hotel, credit: Katsumasa Tanaka

Therefore, it is not only one specific connection that is made, but an extension of various connections. In that way, I believe the in-between domain is meant to connect abundant and diverse relationships. 

That includes the city and people as well as the architecture and nature, inside and outside, and us and others. All kinds of boundaries are crossed, or in other words, dissolved to fit contemporary needs.


Shiroiya Hotel credit Daici Ano and Tomoyuki Kusunose


Note: Excerpts of the interview have been translated and edited for clarity and length.

Read a related article based on this interview and dig deeper into Fujimoto’s inspirational approach reflected in many of his recent projects, here. Enjoy exploring what is the singularly unique and essential role of architecture’s physicality that can open up more choices for how a space is utilized.

Related Reading:

Sou Fujimoto’s Architecture: Capturing, Nurturing Every Site’s Identity

[Bookmark] After the Crisis, People Will Return to Renewed Cities

Author: Mariko Azuma

Arielle Busetto contributed to this article.