Interview: Katsuhiro Yamazaki


Bibliothèque Raymond-Lévesque courtyard; photography credits: Photo © Marc Cramer

Atelier TAG “seeks to reinterpret the civic function of architecture through the careful study of sociocultural context…in order to create evocative spaces where society as a collective can express itself.” Building primarily in the public realm, the firm has completed projects, including the Bibliothéque Raymond-Levésque in 2011, as well as the Théâtre du Vieux-Terrebonne, and the Bibliothéque Municipale de Chateauguay. Based in Montreal, Atelier TAG is led by Manon Asselin and Katsuhiro Yamazaki.

Gabriel Silberblatt: As an emerging firm, what do you see as the advantages and challenges to practice in today’s economic, professional, and intellectual climate?

Katsuhiro Yamazaki: The biggest challenge, obviously, is finding the opportunity to execute any significant public work. Up until recently, in Canada, particularly in Quebec, there had been competitions that were open to anybody registered at the Order of Architects. That’s actually what gave us our first public commission, an anonymous competition that came about right about when we started as a firm. However, that system is closing up due to a culture that is trying to gain more control over how money is spent. The idea is that because the Ministry of Culture foots half of the cost of the projects, the competition ought to be open; however, recently they’ve been more selective about who can enter. So I think that is the biggest challenge.

Also, I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have practiced in New York, who actually deal with the contractor side of the profession, and they talk about how interesting it is that in North America, contracts are drafted assuming things will go wrong. As opposed to in Europe where it’s a little more optimistic. So it’s a very litigious profession, which poses obvious challenges for a young office. As a means of redress, the approach we took early on was to team up with a more senior office—since we knew we didn’t have enough experience to deal with all the complexities of actually completing a public project. We have a really good relationship with one in particualr: we come in to ask the designers for input, but never hand over the project completely. But it’s not a clear separation between execution-architect and design-architect, which is more common in in the United States. So we established a nice relationship and they like working with us because their firm has become so big that now they have to take on a lot of not-so-interesting projects—bathroom renovations, or brick restorations, or dealing with the red tape associated with these huge government buildings—it’s construction, but it’s not really architecture. So it is good that they have people like us that allow them to get their staff motivated and kind of keep on getting invested in the profession and eventually carry on the practice itself.

GS: Can you tell me more about the interview project you undertook, talking to emerging architects of the Global North? How did you choose where you were going and who to sit down with? What did you learn from the experience?

KY: It was a lecture by Michael Rock of 2×4 that we saw that really spurred the project. He talked about this diagram where he said, “As opportunity to execute important work increases, there seems to be decline in intelligence and exuberance,” and he talked about this critical intersection-point at the mid-point of the architect’s career: either you become a more profit-oriented practice, which you see a lot or you try to maintain a certain critical level of thinking. I think you could almost say that the separation of OMA and AMO is natural in recognizing these two aspects of the profession, and that you cannot ignore either of them. At the same time we were seeing that a lot of the young offices were doing the most interesting work out there. We wanted to know why that is, why in a profession where experience should be paramount, the success of the work doesn’t seem to translate directly from the experience of the firm…

As opportunity to execute important work increases, there seems to be decline in intelligence and exuberance

 

But going back to the initial question: we didn’t want to interview everybody who was well-known, even though we did a few of them, but we thought a lot of these interesting practices happen in under-the-radar networks. I started in New York, and and through a few people that had contacts here I met a lot of people that were teaching at Columbia. Eventhough these young people all maintain their independent practice, if ever there’s a project they’ll be interested in participating, they merge and collaborate together. That is something that I’ve always been interested in: how to maintain a practice that doesn’t require a lot of staff, and that is still able to be selective, without aiming to be big that you have to do everything. It’s a big challenge because a lot of clients, especially governments, don’t want to deal with multiple heads. They want one company and they want one person that will be liable for the whole process—as I said before, it’s a very litigious profession. And it was quite interesting, when you go Europe, you see people collaborating.

So as I was saying, that’s how the interview project kind of developed. The most interesting part was to go from Spain, which has seen a complete decline in the profession in terms of opportunity to work, to places like China where it was booming, you could come out of school and suddenly have an office of 30 people busy doing hundred-thousand square meter buildings. It’s been a good experience for us, there’s a lot of “white noise” in architectural culture, which is so image-driven now, and so much publication going on that you don’t have much of that time to isolate and think what would it be that you want to do. There’s this constant bombardment of the mainstream. Sousuke Fujimoto took a lot of time off at the beginning of his career and he talks a lot about this kind of primitive architecture or going back to spatial relationships that are compelling. Obviously, he had certain opportunities that a lot of people do not, but still I think it’s nice to be able to see these things. So we’re in preparation; we did a lot of interviews—we have hundreds of hours of interviews so we’re trying isolate certain topics to come up with a way of presenting it.

GS: One of the questions we ask of all the firms has to do with voice: because this series emphasizes the voice of practitioners: how would you describe your voice?

KY: I think it was essentially shaped by what was put in front of us, and we engaged the profession with the opportunities that were presented to us. We could be very different, or the relevance of what we have to say might differ significantly from place to place. Montreal, as I said, is very distinct, young people can still manage to find their own way—it’s not very expensive to live in Montreal, like it is in New York. But perhaps one important issue that was significant to the development of our practice is that we address the issue of the “image”. My partner teaches in the University of Montreal, and she sees the students are becoming more and more fascinated with the image, to the extent that they essentially read architecture like postcards. They don’t really get deep into the meaning of why certain things are done, and there seems to be less engagement in the construction, in the syntax of the building itself. Now it’s so easy to create amazing images with all the software to the point where, if you cannot build it, you can make it look like it’s already built. Or you take a photograph, and you can photoshop the things you don’t like, so there’s a convergence of two complete extremes. Anyway, I hope our voice is one that has been shaped by the realities of construction and the concrete challenges that were brought and put in front of us, how we dealt with them, and how we tried to create meaningful interventions.

Extending the physicality of the design, you can actually design something start to finish and still carry on that experimentation

 

GS: Yes, I am interested in the importance of “building the building.” For example, in your design methodology, could you talk about the importance of the physical model?

KY: It is so important. When my partner Manon worked for Koolhaas in the eighties, she would make a huge model, look at it with a camera and try to find accidental or serendipitous opportunities where she could enrich the project. It was a methodology learned in the office. We still like to use a lot of those big models. When we were going through school, being a shop person was a status thing: we admired the few people who were really good at it. There was this fascination with being able to use the tools, know the materials, make sure the wood doesn’t split and with making something very clean or effortless out of something that’s quite complex. We were very fascinated with LTL as one of the first young architects who presented architectural practice as something really fun and messy as opposed to this kind of very professional, tight, clean thing that everybody at that time was focusing on. That was so much about control; we wanted to find solutions through  making mistakes.

GS: Were you using tools before you decided to become an architect?

KY: No, actually I was terrible at using tools.

GS: It was a necessity?

KY: Yeah, I actually almost cut my finger off when I was at school, and I learned how to use a table saw from that experience. But no, I wasn’t trained before I went to school. Now I really like building on my own. I just read a book called Building Solo, it’s a manual for building a house on your own—how to hoist that first truss and that kind of thing; it really fascinates me. It’s interesting because of course building is such a collaborative effort, and yet, sometimes you need that isolation. Especially when there are many involved in a project, you need to have that moment to reflect on what you’re doing, and maybe that’s why I’m interested in Building Solo, extending physically the design process…you can actually design something from start to finish and never stop designing..

GS: On the other hand, your young firm has actually had a remarkable number of opportunities to execute work on a larger scale—there are at least two civic works on your resume…

KY: The scale that we practice is actually perfect for us because we are not urbanists. We cannot think on that scale; that’s one thing we recognize. Our buildings have been usually around 4,000 sq. meters, relatively small in scale, but where you can still exercise a fair bit of control on all aspects of the design itself. It’s not a project that’s so large that you completely lose touch with the periphery of what’s happening. In our first project, we did partner with a production office, but we actually did 90% of the working drawings and they did some of the spec writing and more of the legal aspects of how to sign the contract to give to the contractor

GS: You say that you don’t want to work on an urban scale, but then with some of your civic structures like the Raymond-Levésque library and others, they’re still so intensely interested in communities of people—inside and out—and how they are relating to one another. So it’s not exactly urban design, but it seems to be moving in that direction, no?

KY: Yes, at the level of the immediate context, we cannot have a building that is completely complacent with its surroundings. Interestingly enough, all three projects that were completed are within the context of a park. So the idea of the landscape has become quite central; the relationship of the immediate landscape to the building itself. It’s an especially interesting question in a context of Canada where “landscape” doesn’t have the kind of history it does in England. I mean, in Canada, the notion of landscape is less culturally constructed and less about national heritage; its more about nature itself. So a lot of our projects have dealt with landscape as nature, how we can have people experience the landscape, and ultimately, how the architecture can calibrate itself so as to become a richer part of it.

 

This interview was conducted on March 30, 2012.