Mutsuro Sasaki

Interviewed in his Tokyo office, the Japanese structural engineer reflects on the dramatic turn his work has taken since Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque, nearly eight years ago.
[ Page 1 of 2 ] By Russell Fortmeyer In his collaboration with the architect Arata Isozaki on the 2002 design competition for a new train station for Florence, Italy, the Japanese structural engineer Mutsuro Sasaki reversed his traditional role. He started with what he calls the “target values” for stress and deformation loads, and then worked back to the final structure. Instead of taking a given form and optimizing its structural conditions based on calculated stress loads, Sasaki generated an otherwise unknowable form by applying those “target values” on individual components of the structure. Each application rippled through the structure until a definitive form emerged.

Mutsuro Sasaki

“I like to take a different position for each project,” Sasaki says, which rather simplistically summarizes a working process that largely depends on theoretical research he conducts as a professor in the department of architecture at Tokyo’s Hosei University. During the interview, Sasaki quietly speaks through the voice of his translator, Hiraiwa Yoshiyuki, one of a few architects in his employ. Meetings like this occur at the small conference table in the surprisingly diminutive offices of his Tokyo firm, Sasaki Structural Consultants, surrounded by books and other publications featuring his work. Fewer than a dozen employees—engineers, architects, and assistants, many of them his former students—sit at workstations and ponder designs for some of the most exciting contemporary buildings in architecture today. Nothing about the fluorescent-lit surroundings suggests this as an office where a structure like that of the Florence station could emerge. “I don’t think so much about the future, about some clear idea of what I’m going to do next,” he says. What Sasaki is doing next is surely a question more architects must be asking, as the engineer’s hand has been involved in some of the most complex—and extraordinary—new buildings of the past decade. record has featured several of them: In Japan, Sendai Mediatheque [May 2001, page 190] and Tama Art University Library [January 2008, page 88]—both with Toyo Ito—as well as the Louis Vuitton Omotesando store [February 2004, page 145], with Jun Aoki; and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art [February 2005, page 88], and, in Ohio, the Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion [January 2007, page 78], both with SANAA and, in Toledo, Guy Nordenson.

since the organization of the building consists of stacked flat slabs made of thin steel plates with steel ribs sandwiched between. The story of the Sendai Mediatheque has the ring of legend. is anything but straightforward. For him. to put it as broadly as possible in terms of Sasaki’s work. although the vertical structure is a set of connected tubes forming webbed columns that sinuously flow through the building. an abstract structure is straightforward. Rendering courtesy Arata Isozaki and Associates The webbed “columns” branch across the station depending on how the structure could be optimized to address stress and deformation loads for the flat roof in an almost sideways version of what he had designed for Sendai Mediatheque. his collaborations with Ito and other leading Japanese architects stem from competing ideas introduced at Sendai. Sasaki divides architecture into two categories: abstract and spatial. Similar methodologies thread through many of Sasaki’s projects. Sendai represents both of these strains. repeated as necessary. but the turning point in his recent career came with the 2001 completion of the Sendai Mediatheque. “Ito had faxed me a sketch from Narita (Tokyo’s airport). as Sasaki colors it in the way of so much fastpaced. globally connected design. and I responded . In a way. Yet. a spatial structure.Rendering courtesy Arata Isozaki and Associates Sasaki devised an erection scheme that proposed building out the sides before fabricating the central structure on grade to then lift it into place. like Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino—flat Miesian slabs supported by simple columns.

in addition to that of European Modernism. “We have to make a form that is reasonable. who with Kenzo Tange designed Tokyo’s National Indoor Gymnasiums in 1964—you have the high-end of recent Japanese structural engineering. Sasaki wrote that. suggests a strong precedent for the so-called “flux structure” that Sasaki designed for Isozaki’s Florence train station. whose firm is known for its work with Isozaki. which combines a billowing roof and columns into a single. the two designers had submitted a proposal for the project competition that reflected what was ultimately built: At the corners of the building.” A few years earlier in Fukuoka. In the digital EESO model. This is Sasaki’s own version of ESO (he added “Extended”). Nina Rappaport compares the garden building to a “piece of fabric that moves to spread and stretch in tension but then is stiffened for stability and captured. it’s close. I had never considered a structure like that. Sasaki implemented this “pure form” approach on a 2003 house in Tokyo. “With this project. “And the computer makes that happen. as well as the organic inspiration of seaweed transformed digitally into structure. a concrete topping slab hides those steel plates. but the approach has proved quite successful when transposed to concrete. but the thickness of the steel ribbing between each plate varies depending on shifting load conditions (thicker near the tube columns. viewing his work as being within a tradition of design vanguard in Japan. but did so with the least amount of materials. Kimura’s 1989 design for the Tokyo Sea Life Park. At Sendai.000 years ago.300-by-130-foot structure.” Sasaki says. He implemented a new shape-analysis approach. and another one of Sasaki’s key sources of inspiration—the late Japanese structural engineer Yoshikatsu Tsuboi. In her 2007 book. vegetated roofs. Sasaki undoubtedly prizes this historical context.” says Sasaki. March 2007. but rather with the origins of the arch more than 3. where the single structural and architectural surface consisted of 2-inch-thick steel plates. theoretically inspired by the way seaweed sways underwater. to generate rational structural shapes within a computer.” While his design for Florence clearly relates to Sendai’s tubular columns. “It’s not necessary to restrict material.” The constraints of the Florence station design called for the top roof to remain flat while the underside could fluctuate up to 40 feet below the roof surface for the span of the 1. designed with Kazuyo Sejima (of SANAA). to resist the seismic forces of the building. “Before a few days with the structural concept. he uses “the principles of evolution and selforganization of living creatures. adapted from an engineering standpoint. thinner elsewhere). that he calls Extended Evolutionary Structural Optimization (EESO). page 166]. Fumihiko Maki. Sasaki designed a reinforced-concrete shell structure for the Kakamigahara Crematorium in Japan [RECORD. The other remaining columns.” . uniform surface. If it’s not quite turning Sendai on its side. All columns connect to each steel-plate sandwich slab at ring beams.” or the continuous surface as a structural element.” Sasaki says. Ito and Sasaki arranged four large columns. which is a relatively established methodology of efficient structural design in engineering. of Structural Design Office OAK. “There has been nothing new with the arch since Roman times. “So. with EESO. an aquarium. midmotion.” Following his studies at Nagoya University and before founding his own firm in 1980. with Taniguchi. To discuss one of his latest built projects. ranging between 20 and 30 feet in diameter and consisting of tubes that vary from 5 to 10 inches in diameter. and Yoshio Taniguchi. designed with Ito. the details of Sendai’s steel-plate slabs conceal Sasaki’s other main interest: the pursuit of “pure form. Sasaki tweaked each individual component of a grid structure for the primary form (the flat roof plane) with localized forces until a web of “columns” emerged that not only addressed the targeted structural load profile. In a catalog for a 2007 exhibition of his work at London’s Architectural Association. includes a massive octagonal glass dome and several tensile fabric structures that indicate the willingness for experimentation and research as part of practice. the Tama Library. simply carry vertical loads. which allows some movement during seismic events. The house exists as somewhat of a one-off model.” he says. at its most efficient form. I wanted to take my theoretical studies and apply them. Taken together with the engineer Masato Araya. Working again with Ito. The seemingly random arrangement of columns at Sendai. referring to Ito’s drawing. he leads not with an explanation of how he designed concrete fire-proofing around a steel-plate structure to form the project’s distinctive arches. He laughs when he says the doors were thicker than the walls. which are as small as 7 feet in diameter. broadly described at the beginning of this article. Sasaki and Ito had collaborated on a similar project for a botanical garden—a flowing reinforced-concrete-shell structure with walkable. Support and Resist: Structural Engineers and Design Innovation. Japan. but he’s not joking.” One month later. Sasaki worked for the great Japanese structural engineer Toshihiko Kimura. I went back to its origin and looked at it with 21st-century computer technology.

saying.” . The EPFL project expands the plate-structure approach that Sasaki employed on earlier museum projects with SANAA. warping them into a sloping interior landscape. as well as work with SANAA that includes the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale Learning Center in Lausanne. Switzerland (EPFL). including a museum at the University of California at Berkeley with Ito. you have to take more time to understand the need to make the project. “Architects have a reason to make a building. Sasaki was recently asked to propose a conceptual structure for a project by the New York artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.” His practice has also increasingly expanded to foreign work. but with an artist. Further afield. first conceived in 1977 for the United Arab Emirates. Sasaki finds himself in an enviable position where he can say. “If it’s not interesting to me. The Mastaba. Sasaki says.” He awaits a decision on whether his solution will be selected from a set of other proposals. “These projects are sometimes beyond our description and imagination and can be a very big surprise to understand. then I don’t take the work. Of the project.Lately. and 984-foot-wide permanent structure of 390. but he is clearly delighted by the opportunity. 738-foot-deep.500 stacked. and New York’s New Museum (see page 132). empty oil barrels. like a topographical map of structural forces. will be a 492-foot-high.

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