by Michael Webb
Some architects pursue consistent themes that can be adjusted to any site or building type, while others take a fresh approach to every project, giving each a distinctive expression. FOBA, the firm that Katsu Umebayashi established on the outskirts of Kyoto in 1994, has a foot in both camps.
It is instructive to compare FOBA's strategies with those of other contemporary Japanese architects, especially in its home city of Kyoto, where buildings range from discreet wooden rowhouses to garish, misshapen towers — often on adjoining blocks. During the boom years of the 1980s, when extravagance of every kind was prized in Japan, architects went to extremes of showiness and stealth in their buildings.
Shin Takamatsu, the Kyoto-based architect with whom Umebayashi spent his formative years, attacked the visual chaos head on with sculptural forms that drew attention to themselves and away from their prosaic neighbors.
Fumihiko Maki, the mandarin of minimalism, is responsible for the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto (1986), a building that respects the scale of its neighbors but also seems to disdain them. Cool, harmonious, and bloodless, it is a universal building that could have been located anywhere in Japan or abroad.
In contrast to such work, FOBA seeks to engage the urban context — to play to the strengths rather than the weaknesses of the surroundings and to locate the enduring amid the ephemeral.
Continuity of space and respect for context are always evident, but Umebayashi eschews a signature style or concept. "I always want to try something unconventional," he observes, "otherwise, why take on a job at all? It should be new every time."
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This article is excerpted from FOBA/ Buildings by Katsu Umebayashi, Thomas Daniell, and Michael Webb, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.
Organ, designed by Katsu Umebayashi, is an office building that houses his firm FOBA in Uji, southeast of Kyoto, Japan.
Photo: Osamu Tsuda
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Organ "megastructure" overview.
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