Toshiko Mori and healthy curiosity in the practice of architecture
Context in architecture is what concerns human existence in a certain place. Climate, culture, geography, previous existence, to name a few. For Toshiko Mori, a Japanese architect based in the United States, context is everything that sparks curiosity about the people we design for. In nearly four decades at the helm of his New York office, Mori has had the opportunity to apply his curiosity to design practice and academia, managing to construct his buildings in contexts as diverse as China, Italy and Senegal.
Together with Toshiko Mori and Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge, Gabriela Carrillo is part of the new documentary “Women in Architecture” that will be released on November 3, 2022. The filming is promoted by Sky-Frame, in exclusive collaboration with ArchDaily and directed by Boris Noir, it is an incentive for inspiration, discussion and reflection on one of the most urgent issues in architecture.
Toshiko Mori (1951) was born in Kobe, in post-war Japan still occupied by American troops. In a context of scarcity, it is common for communities to have to grow their own food, and even as a child and under the influence of his grandmother, Mori became interested in gardening and agriculture. “It’s amazing how people in the city don’t know where their food comes from. When I was a kid, we grew food in the backyard, I was responsible for feeding the chickens. We ate what we grew and shared what was left with our neighbors.” , says Mory. Coexistence with other family groups was common, “there was only one house in the neighborhood with a telephone, and mine was the only one with a television, so we were always at each other’s houses,” he recalls. In 1966, his father was transferred to the United States, and Mori moved to New York at the age of 14.
Interest in drawing, latent since childhood, drifted towards art and Mori entered the prestigious Cooper Union School of Arts. A little later, he transferred to study at the School of Architecture of the same institution, where he graduated in 1976. Immediately after graduation, at the age of 25, Mori entered the architecture industry in one of the most unlikely ways: working for the architectural office of Edward Larrabee Barnes, she got a job at the construction site. At a time of economic hardship stemming from the oil crisis of the 1970s and a lack of jobs, a young Asian architect took a leading role in the construction of skyscrapers in New York.
Years later, in 1982, he founded his own office —Toshiko Mori Architects— where for four decades he developed works on different levels, programs, materials and contexts. His practice is nourished by empathy and healthy curiosity towards the other, something that, according to his own words, is the driver of intellectual activity in architecture. In addition to the drawing board, in 1995 Mori was the first woman to become a full professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and in 2002 she became the first woman to serve as chair of the Department of Architecture. – and only one remains, despite the fact that two decades have passed.
In his extensive portfolio, works performed in Senegal stand out: the School and Teaching Residency in Fass (2019) and the New Artist Residency in Sinthian (2015). Developed in collaboration with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, in both projects Mori implements the community spirit learned in his childhood in Kobe and works in collaboration with local entities and community members. “It’s very challenging to import materials and labor, it’s much more meaningful to involve communities and look at locally available materials,” says the architect.
His most recent work includes a master plan for the Brooklyn Public Library, the Maine Center for Contemporary Art, and the Watson International Institute for Public Affairs at Brown University. Due to his design rigor and sensitivity to context, his buildings have already been recognized with the Architizer, The Plan and AIA awards and have already been exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2012, 2014 and 2018. His artist residency at Sinthian was a finalist for the International Award for In 2019, the Royal Canadian Institute of Architecture and its Fass School was named to Architectural Digest magazine’s list of 13 buildings that have redefined architecture in the past five years. Most recently, the master plan for the Brooklyn Public Library received the 2022 MASterworks Best Restoration Award from the Society of the Arts of the City of New York.
An Asian immigrant on American soil, the professional success of someone like Toshiko Mori in the field of architecture is not the rule, but the exception. What distinguishes an architect, it can be said, is the sensitivity to recognize in architecture the terrain where subjectivity has space and can flourish, but it must always be at the service of the collective: “it is about handing over to the outside world a unique, individual way that only you can achieve.
This article is part of the ArchDaily topics: women in architecture. Every month we explore a topic in detail through articles, interviews, news and plays. Learn more about our topics. As always, we at ArchDaily appreciate the contributions of our readers. If you want to submit an article or work, contact us.
In addition, we invite you to attend the presentation “Women in Architecture”, a documentary launched by Sky-Frame about three inspiring female architects: Gabriela Carrillo, Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge and Toshiko Mori. The documentary will be released on November 3, 2022.