In Milan, one man builds a fleeting forest of light

At Salone del Mobile 2016, critically-acclaimed Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto collaborates with COS to spectacular effect

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Sou Fujimoto, centre, pictured above with head of womenswear design at COS, Karin Gustafsson and head of menswear design, Martin Andersson
Credit: Courtesy of COS

If Salone del Mobile were a storm, the Sou Fujimoto is surely the unmoving eye.

An unerring island of calm when I met him amidst the chaos of Milan's annual design week, Fujimoto's soft spoken nature and quiet presence belied an immense passion for his craft - a passion that has seen him rise to the top of his field as one of the world's most critically-adored and important working architects.

Through his cerebral and innovative practice, Fujimoto interrogates our relationship with built and natural environments through appropriating natural concepts such as the forests and caves of his childhood. From those touchstones he extrapolates structures that appear at once to be both entirely organic and yet are unmistakably manmade. In the process, boundaries between interior and exterior spaces are either diminished or obliterated entirely, opening up a world of possibilities in design and architecture.

In 2013, Fujimoto became the youngest architect to design the Serpentine Gallery's annual summer pavilion (that is, until Bjarke Ingels was appointed this year), an mantle that in the past has been helmed by the late Zaha Hadid and Oscar Niemayer as well as the iconic Frank Gehry. The resulting transparent lattice-like structure in London's Kensington Gardens caught the eyes of Martin Andersson and Karin Gustafsson, the head designers at COS, who for many years prior had derived inspiration for their quiet, considered designs from his work.

Finding a kindred spirit in his clean lines, honest use of materials and attachment to nature, the brand this year enlisted Fujimoto to create the titular Forest of Light for their fifth installation at Milan Design Week - an immersive multi-sensory experience that drew on recurring themes from throughout Fujimoto's life to date and gave him a great deal to ponder going forward. Housed in Milan's Cinema Arti, a dilapidated theatre built in the 1930s by Italian architect Mario Cereghini, Forest of Light's spotlights took their cues not only from cinematic history but from the towering forests of Fujimoto's childhood. Smoke, mirrors, music and motion sensitive sensors triggered by the movement of the crowd created the illusion of intimacy, transience and limitlessness in endless configurations.

Below, Fujimoto reflects on his career, his creative process and why he has eyes for architecture and architecture only.



Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up? On the northern island of Hokkaido. My home was in the middle of a small forest, and the island itself is like a field. I grew up playing in the forests, and that in turn is related to this forest of lights. Forests and nature have always been very important to me since my childhood days. At the same time, I still want to create something new as part of my profession.

When did you first become conscious of architecture in your life? When I was 10-years-old I found a book in my father’s shelf. My father is a doctor, but he always wanted to be an artist – a painter, or a sculptor. He had many art books, but the only architecture book he had was of Antoni Gaudí’s work. When I found it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is crazy, but it’s really exciting,’ and that was my first contact with architecture. Before that, I thought architecture was just about buildings, I didn’t realise it could be something so creative.

Do you see any similarities between your work and Gaudi’s, despite the obvious differences in style? [Laughs] Wow! Not realistically. I still love Gaudi's works, and I went to Barcelona several times to see his works. It's amazing, but it's something beyond my thinking. Still, like the rooftop of the Casa Mira, it's like the architectural landscape, and there’s a clear connection between nature and architecture. In that sense, it's really related to my architectural practices.

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COS x Sou Fujimoto's Forest of Light installation for Salone del Mobile 2016
Credit: Courtesy of COS
To whom, or to what, do you attribute the development of that style and the development of your unique perspective? At the beginning of architecture school, I was so fascinated and influenced by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier and by the way they reinvented very basic things. That question still lingers in my mind. Every time I start a project, I question the most basic things and try to re-understand what they are: what is a house? What is fashion? What is the relationship between fashion and architecture? That attitude is inspired by their way of doing things.

What questions did you ask yourself when you began working with COS on this project? There were several different starting points. One is the COS philosophy: it’s timeless and quite simple, but we wanted to go deeper. Simple is not merely ‘simple’, it has an elegance to it in how it relates to the human body. From those basic elements, the interaction starts to become really dynamic. It excites me to see that kind of perspective. Not only what’s visible on the surface, but the interaction between fashion and architecture, and how they relate to our daily lives. Both rely on interactions with our bodies.

"Fashion and architecture are never far from our lives – everyone wears something, and everyone is always somewhere." 
At the beginning, we had many ideas. In the process of refining them, I wanted to bring themes of architecture and fashion to the installation without using the exact materials of both. It was quite curious. I asked myself, ‘what kind of materials can we use? Nothing but light itself’. It was a striking idea, using non-physical materials that were clearly visible to create spaces and experiences that interacted with your behaviour. It wasn’t simple, but step-by-step we reached the idea of making a forest of light. It was an evolution of ideas.

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An aerial view of Forest of Light, in situ at Cinema Arti, a 1930s theatre in Milan's San Babila district
Credit: Courtesy of COS
The 2013 Serpentine Pavilion was your first major international project. You’ve created a considerable body of work overseas since then. How does the reception to your work differ internationally from its reception in Japan? I don’t see too many differences, but I do feel there are greater expectations being abroad. In Japan, unfortunately, society is becoming more conservative.

Why do you think that is? I don’t know. The economical situation is declining. After the earthquake five years ago, the whole of society was so depressed. It’s coming back, but there are less expectations on architecture. It’s quite a strange feeling [because] architecture has such an important role in society. We’re still based in Tokyo, and Tokyo is still an important part of our architectural practice, but we are spending more and more time abroad.

You mentioned the important role architecture plays in society. What role do you see collaborations like this having? What do you want people to take away from this experience? I hope they feel different from how they usually feel. I want them to feel something new, and to have a clam mindset. We call it a forest of light without trees, an open field, so I want people to relax and take a break; to feel that it’s okay to stay for a while and feel something beyond the physical, because it’s related to human behaviour and the interaction between the space and the body. I don’t want to limit [anyone] – it’s an open field.

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Fujimoto's 2013 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in situ at London's Kensington Gardens
Credit: Serpentine Galleries
Your designs are so site specific and respond to their surrounding environments, both built and natural. Can you see an installation like this working elsewhere in the world, or is its success as an experience contingent on its location here in Milan, in this old cinema? While the spotlights are inspired by fashion, my thinking around non-physical materials, and cinema itself, the site integrates all of these things. Of course, we could make a similar affect in another area, but I feel that for this place, and only for a few days, it has a deeper and stronger meaning.

And what happens to it after Salone is finished?
It’s just gone.

How does that make you feel? For me, it’s not a problem. Architecture sometimes only lasts 10 years, 50 years, or 100 years. Or only for four months, in the case of the Serpentine Pavillion, or a few days here. So while the time span is fixed, the ideas we’ve developed can survive beyond physical time. The important thing for me is to have new ideas and a new understanding for the future.

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"The purest realisation of the forest concept" that the architect Sou Fujimoto has been fascinated by since his childhood, which finds apotheosis in Forest of Light
Credit: Courtesy of COS
How important is the idea of harmony, and the harmony between the built and natural environments, to your practice? I think the definition of harmony should be redefined. Sometimes strange mixtures or contradictions can create something new. We always question how to make these balances, and how to make an impression through nature and artefacts. How to propose and create a better environment is the main purpose.

What has this process taught you about design? What will you take from this experience and apply to your work going forward?
I’m not really sure yet. Its been a good situation and the whole process has allowed me to question what we think when we think about certain words, concepts and interactions. Through architecturally representing a forest, we’re trying to create a different viewpoint. I don’t know what will come of this, but every time we try to create a new way of seeing things we make our thinking bigger.

"The experience of this installation has been quite amazing. Something beyond my thinking. It’s a beautiful thing to see."
Could you ever see yourself designing a collection of clothing? How would the Fujimoto ideal be realised in textile form?
I don’t have any idea! I only have time for understanding architecture. For example, thinking about space and our relationship with out surroundings, the relationship between nature and architecture, inside and outside, boundaries and non-boundaries. That is the important study for me -questioning history. Unexpected collaborations are always very exciting, and I like to work with people who have knowledge beyond my perception. I didn’t have any expectations beyond this. It was so sudden and unexpected and that’s where the more surprising interactions happen.

That’s where the magic is. Exactly.


Tile image: Courtesy of COS
Cover image: Courtesy of COS