By Nick Cecchi
Architect Toshiko Mori recently gave a talk as part of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust’s annual program, “Thinking Into the Future: The Robie House Series on Architecture, Design and Ideas.” Her lecture, “Dialogue in Architecture,” described a masterful process of engaging with the constraints we build and think within. Her perspective of engaging with the past while looking forward is imminently instructive for how we build in Chicago, and deals with the changing nature of space in historic cities. Mori’s integration of craft and hand-production with advanced structural and parametric design yields a rigorous yet forgiving and humane architecture, much as Wright’s own work did.
Mori’s process is borne of and informed by a constant dialogue between architecture and its context, materials, site and history. Mori addresses these intrinsic and extrinsic constraints of a project through a rigorous, dialectic process, leading to an immediate yet subtle reading in the finished architecture. Her embrace and understanding of history was emphasized in her talk, focusing on her visitor center at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York. A minimal glass pavilion from a distance, it reveals itself to be a superbly textured and subtle response to the impossibility of building next to Wright’s masterpiece. Each element of the building is considered by Mori in its own way through the history permeating the project. This exchange is joined with others about materials, details, structures and forces at play to create a whole that is irreducible in its complexity and the interrelationship of parts and architectural language.
Mori also presented work spanning scales and typologies—from residential renovations and additions at Richard Neutra and Marcel Breuer houses to new construction on high-tech lab buildings for Novartis and a collectively built community center and artist residence in Senegal. Each project is unique in its own way; the common thread linking these projects is not materials, formalism or style, but Mori’s indefatigable process—the creation of a dialogue through deployment and adaptation of architectural forms, ideas, history and details.
Mori’s community center and artist residence in Sinthian, Senegal is perhaps the most complete realization yet of her architectural process. This tour-de-force combines parametric modeling with simulations of structure, wind and water collection strategies while using local materials, techniques, and craft to produce the architecture. It offers good design to a community in need not by arrogantly imposing a foreign architectural order but by organically analyzing and engaging with the constraints of the project. Mori finished with a resonant quote, “How to bind society together seems far from Frank Lloyd Wright, but it really is ‘Organic Architecture.’”
In addition to her countless achievements, awards, accolades and honors, Mori has allowed herself to explore global issues of sustainability, development and access to resources through the lens of design. Mori has a non-profit, Paracoustica, dedicated to providing low-cost, adaptable venues for musical performance, and a think-tank, VisionArc, oriented toward linking local and global resources for more sustainable futures. In these ventures, her work takes the same spirit of engagement and interrelation that defines her architecture and applies it to design solutions to far-ranging social problems.
A tenured professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design since 1995, her work is clearly reflective of and informed by the dialectic core of academic discourse. Mori’s ability to explore deeply intellectual and technical topics in architecture without getting lost in self-referential ideas is impressive and sometimes too rare in academics. Representationally, Mori also showed impressive dexterity and subtlety. In each project, the drawings changed to reflect the interplay that was occurring in the architecture, yet always receded into the background to leave only the purity of the idea visible, an anodyne antidote to the overwrought representational styles abounding in Chicago.
Beyond academia, representation and intellectual arguments, there is an immediate impression that every piece of architecture makes a sort of assessment carried out to judge the work in relation to our own bodies, needs and aspirations. Mori’s work addresses all of these needs, offering welcoming and comfortable space, stimulating ideas and immediately applicable solutions. Her work is immediately welcoming without being easy. It is subtle, highly textured, sometimes symbolic, mutable, by contrast grounded and ephemeral, yet it always appears to be exactly what the particular site, time, place and project needs. None of her work begets the kind of show-stopping iconographic buildings that many leading architects are known for, but her ability to expose the inherent beauty, contradiction, complexity and ephemerality in every site and project makes Mori’s work stimulating, beautiful, and more durable than much of what is built and drawn today.
Author: Nick Cecchi
Nicholas Cecchi is an architectural designer born in Denver, educated in New Orleans and currently practicing in Chicago. He led the design department of a Denver-based boutique architectural and sculptural fabrication studio for three years after graduating from Tulane University with a Master of Architecture. Following this experience in design-build and digital fabrication he decamped for Chicago to finish the process of architectural licensure while working on various projects in commercial, multi-family residential, educational and civic architecture.
He is a published architecture writer, contributing pieces to leading publications as well as a regular column of architecture criticism to Newcity. Nicholas lives in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago where he can be found experimenting with new fabrication and design techniques, writing about architecture and urbanism, and watching the endless interplay of urban life from the stoop of his studio.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | Website: nicholascecchi.com