Master Maki Designs From The Heart

The Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki talks about ‘meeting’ great buildings, the trouble with too much money, and keeping the love for the profession. 

A major figure in the world of architecture, Fumihiko Maki was in Dhaka last week to speak at engageDhaka, an international architectural conference hosted by Bengal Foundation on January 15-17 at Army Museum.

He was one of 14 prominent architects who spoke at the event. Convened by Bangladeshi architect Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, the conference aimed to “raise the level of general awareness related to good design and intellectual possibilities.”

The 86-year-old Japanese legend has received several major awards, such as the International Union of Architects (UIA) Gold Medal, the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal and the Pritzker Prize – often regarded as the “Nobel Prize of architecture.”

Maki studied architecture at University of Tokyo, Cranbook Academy of Art and Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He started his practice, Maki and Associates, in Tokyo in 1965. Some of his most prominent works include: the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, World Trade Center 4 in New York, MIT Media Lab in Boston, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, and Spiral in Tokyo.

I got a chance to speak to Maki after his presentation last Friday, and was surprised to find him full of wonder about his world, and still humble after a lifetime of accolades.

I understand you visited the Bangladesh parliament. What did you think?

Oh, it’s a great building. There is more to it than what I have seen and guessed through pictures. Being there was wonderful.

As I mentioned in my presentation: To see a great building is to meet a great person.

What was it like growing up in Tokyo?

I lived in a white modern house designed by one of my uncles. After 50 years we decided to rebuild it, designed by me, on the same spot. So I’ve been living in the same place the whole my life. That’s quite rare among Tokyoites.

How did you decide to become an architect?

I originally wanted to study aeronautical engineering, but I finished high school at the end of World War II, and it was forbidden. So I picked something where I could design and make, which seemed suitable for my character.

You’ve had a long and illustrious career, with many beautiful projects. Which is your favourite?

Hillside Terrace, which took 25 years to complete in six phases. It’s an assortment of small buildings, and a very satisfying process and design, with a wonderful client who was very patient. This was one of the most sacred projects I have done in my life.

That client was a developer. How did you maintain such a good relationship with the client for so long?

[He chuckles]. Well, from the beginning we’ve been friends. We are close in age, and have a shared understanding of the changing times in Tokyo, and what we should do next. We didn’t have much argument as to how to proceed.

When you first get a commission, how do you approach it?

It’s always carte blanche. Some of the projects are very big, and we need a group of people. I just don’t impose my own idea. Instead we have a discussion – but the decision is on me.

I read that you maintain a small office of 45 people. What is the idea behind that?

You should have enough people to do a large project. But a firm so big that I lose control – this I don’t want.

When you received the Priztker Prize, what was your reaction?

Well, it was very lucky I must say. That’s all.

That’s all? Did you feel validated by the recognition?

You know, awards are not very important for me. The important thing is that the buildings I design are appreciated by users and society at large. This is more important than personal recognition.

In your presentation you mentioned that, regarding your crematorium project, people came up to you and said: “Now I can die happily.” Is that what’s important to you? Is that why you design?

Yes, exactly.

Currently there is a concern about globalisation, that architects, especially young architects, are being influenced by other designs worldwide.

I think if you are just influenced you can still correct, but the problem of globalisation is that being, sort of, uh… how should I say… the money starts to govern and direct the way architecture or city planning should go, and I think this is a problem we are all facing: Too much money going all around the world.

Do you think globalisation is resulting in the loss of cultural identity?

I think it’s threatening sometimes.

What advice would you give to a young architect like me?

(As I said on stage) It’s a long run exercise, not a 100m dash but a marathon. Don’t drop out. Architecture is a wonderful profession, as long as you keep an interest as you pursue it. You meet all kinds of people, some lousy, some wonderful, like teachers and clients. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t lose love of the profession. You can enjoy it all your life.

This article originally appeared in the Dhaka Tribune (

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