Fumihiko Maki, Renowned Architect And Mind Behind Bihar Museum, Dies at 95

A Pritzker Prize winner, he designed notable projects in his native Japan and in the U.S., including 4 World Trade Center and the M.I.T. Media Lab’s new home.
Fumihiko Maki, Renowned Architect And Mind Behind Bihar Museum, Dies at 95
Anjali Raj / Jaano Junction

Fumihiko Maki, an architect who designed many notable, subtly detailed buildings in his native Japan and several in the United States, including a new home for M.I.T.’s renowned Media Lab, a university art museum in St. Louis and Tower 4 of the World Trade Center, died on June 6 at home in Tokyo. He was 95.

His death was announced on Wednesday in a statement by his firm, Maki and Associates.

Mr. Maki won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, in 1993. But of the dozens of Pritzker laureates, he was one of the least known, in part because his buildings were, like Mr. Maki himself, soft-spoken and impeccably polite. They had none of the bravado of buildings by Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid or even his countryman Tadao Ando, who used concrete to sometimes thrilling effect.

In an interview for this obituary in 2010, Mr. Maki said his goal was not to make his buildings beautiful — an elusive quality, he said — but to delight their users.

He succeeded with the M.I.T. Media Lab extension, completed in 2009 in Cambridge, Mass., to rave reviews. It abuts at one edge the original Media Lab building, designed by I.M. Pei.

For the extension, Mr. Maki created a series of glass-enclosed spaces that open onto large internal courtyards. Work areas are connected by zigzagging stairways, less steep than normal flights, to encourage scientists to saunter from level to level rather than take elevators. The goal, Mr. Maki said, was to get people — and ideas — circulating through the building.

In 2006, Mr. Maki was chosen to design 4 World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan as part of the rebuilding effort after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The building, a 1.8 million-square-foot behemoth, is nearly 1,000 feet tall. But Mr. Maki said he focused in particular on the building’s base, which visitors would experience up close.

“Unlike the rest of the tower, which is skinned in reflective glass, the building’s 47-foot-high lobby is clad in clear glass,” David W. Dunlap wrote in The New York Times when the building opened in 2013. “It almost seems to embrace the street.”

Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for The Los Angeles Times at the time, called the building a “deft, thoughtful and well-made piece.”

“The design of the building suggests that ground zero is a singular location,” he added, “demanding unusually restrained, well-wrought and public-minded architecture and a commitment to something more important than the bottom line.”

That year Mr. Maki also completed 51 Astor Place, a 13-story office building in Manhattan’s East Village. Covered in dark, reflective glass, the project was widely criticized as being out of place in a neighborhood of low-rise brick and brownstone buildings.

“Locals,” The Village Voice reported, “have dubbed it the Death Star.” Justin Davidson, the architecture critic for New York magazine, called it “a brooding, elegant, sharply folded office building that would be the pride of Midtown and looks utterly foreign to the East Village.”

Mr. Maki completed a number of notable buildings in Japan, including a gymnasium in the coastal city of Fujisawa with a metal roof that, as Julie V. Iovine wrote in The New York Times in 2004, “suggests both an ancient warrior helmet and a hovering spaceship.” His buildings in Tokyo include another spectacular gymnasium, a sword museum, a synagogue and the Spiral gallery and arts complex.

Mr. Maki’s late career resurgence — he was almost 80 when construction began on the World Trade Center project — benefited in part from globalization. To create the facade of the tower, glass from Minnesota and aluminum mullions from South Korea were shipped to Singapore for assembly; the windows were then shipped to New York. The process allowed Mr. Maki to achieve refined details in a city where construction standards sometimes left architects disappointed.

“I am proud that, to see Maki architecture, you don’t have to go to Japan,” he said in the 2010 interview. “You can see it now in the United States.”

Fumihiko Maki was born in Tokyo on Sept. 6, 1928. His father was a banker; his mother a homemaker and a member of the Takenaka family, which has controlled one of Japan’s five major construction companies since the early 17th century.

After studying at the University of Tokyo, where he received a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1952, and the Cranbrook Academy, the art school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Mr. Maki attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where he was a protégé of the architect Josep Lluís Sert, then the dean.

After completing a master’s degree at Harvard, he took a job as an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis. While there, he was asked by the university to sketch ideas for a new museum project. As Mr. Maki told the story, the benefactor, Etta Eiseman Steinberg, saw his sketches and insisted that he be allowed to design the building, which was named for her late husband. Opening in 1960, Steinberg Hall (containing a museum and library) was Mr. Maki’s only building in the United States until 1993, when he completed the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

In the intervening years, he practiced in Tokyo, where he was an early member of the Metabolist movement, which proposed flexible, expandable structures simulating organic growth. He was one of the authors of the manifesto “Metabolism 1960: The Proposals for a New Urbanism,” published in Japanese and English.

His Hillside Terrace, a housing complex in Tokyo completed in six phases from 1969 to 1992, exemplified Metabolist ideas as the project grew and changed over the decades.

“Maki is as much an urbanist as an architect,” going beyond single buildings to create whole neighborhoods, said Toshiko Mori, a New York-based architect who was born in Japan and who became chair of the architecture program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “In Japan, his projects that embody urbanism are the most successful ones.”

In 1960, Mr. Maki married Misao Matsumoto, a graduate of Vassar College. She survives him, along with their two daughters, Naomi Kobayashi and Midori Tsuboi, and three grandchildren.

In 2003, the United Nations invited a number of Pritzker Prize winners to submit designs for a new office tower just south of its existing Manhattan headquarters. Mr. Maki won the contest with his proposal for a white glass building. Marred by a long series of complications, the project was never built.

Though travel was essential to his career, Mr. Maki said he envied premodern architects, who could devote their whole lives to contemplating a single place and enhancing its qualities. So he built his office overlooking Hillside Terrace in order to see it evolve over time. That decades-long experience was humbling, he said.

But there were many other places he returned to again and again, including Washington University, for which he designed two additional buildings. Other repeat clients included Novartis, the pharmaceutical company, which hired him for buildings in both Europe and the United States, and the Aga Khan Foundation, for which he designed several in Canada.

“That I could be a repeater for many clients,” he said, with characteristic modesty in the 2010 interview, “was the most satisfactory aspect of my career.”

Source: The New York Times

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