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Architecture in Context
Hitoshi Abe, the new chair of the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design. (Photo by Patricia Williams)

Architecture in Context

World-renowned architect Hitoshi Abe, the new chair of the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design, discusses his fascination with Los Angeles' environs and Japanese-influenced structures.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

People say I generate a unique space or design by reading the existing context of the site and the background of the project.

Hitoshi Abe admires the people and cultures of Los Angeles and is particularly fascinated with the diversity of its environment. Sun on the beach and snow on the mountain rarely come so near each other.

The backdrop provides inspiration for world-famous architects and is one of the reasons that Abe is back in Los Angeles.

Abe says he is very conscious of the setting of every project that he undertakes and strives to create unique structures that remain connected to a project's location and function.

"People say I generate a unique space or design by reading the existing context of the site and the background of the project," he says.

Abe earned his M.Arch. degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture in 1989 and worked in the Los Angeles studio of the Viennese architectural design firm Coop Himmelb(l)au from 1988 to 1992. He took a doctorate in 1993 and continued teaching at the Tohoku Institute of Technology in Sendai, Japan. As of April 1, 2007, he is chair of the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design. The selection committee voted unanimously for the appointment.

Abe's work, known for being experimental and spatially complex, is particularly suited to Los Angeles and UCLA. He is also appreciated locally because of a Perloff Gallery exhibition, "Body: Hitoshi Abe," that ran this spring. It featured six of his better-known projects.

"Los Angeles has been very famous for experimental architecture," Abe says. He adds, "UCLA is such a well-known school in our profession—especially because it's oriented in a very avant-garde direction."

Stadium on a Hill

Abe's best-known public works in Japan are Miyagi Stadium and the Reihoku Community Hall, which received the 2003 Architectural Institute of Japan award. The stadium stands out as an example of Abe's ability to transcend established architectural templates and styles with his perspective on physical settings.

MiyagiStadium

A hilltop stadium in Miyagi, Japan, is one of Abe's best-known public works. (Photo by MAP Systems)

He faced many challenges in creating a contemporary stadium.

"The basic format of a stadium hasn't been changed for a very long time," Abe says, citing the Coliseum in Rome as the classic model. It is a place where spectators focus their attention in on what is happening in the middle of the structure. "It has a very enclosed character," Abe says.

Miyagi Stadium was not to be a classic stadium because it was going to be built in a location outside of the city and, to complicate matters, on a hill. Abe says he strove to design the stadium so the hill would be integrated into the structure. Because of the setting, he attempted to create a kind of openness that would allow people to look around, not simply focus on the structure's center. And because it was located outside of the city, he also thought about accommodating smaller events.

He set aside a park for small events that could be put on when the stadium was closed—a place where people can still "visit" the stadium by walking along the park's pathways and looking down the hill at what is happening below them.

Since the Miyagi Stadium Competition in 1992, Abe has maintained a private architectural design firm, Atelier Hitoshi Abe, in Sendai, Japan, that also attends to urban and interior design.

Seeing Japan in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, "there is a strong influence of Japanese architecture, and that makes me feel very close to the architecture here," Abe says.

The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was strongly influenced by Japanese spatial arrangements and collected Japanese art. One of Wright's projects was the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan. It was designed in 1915 and suffered surprisingly little damage when the Great Kantō earthquake hit Japan in 1923. He also built several innovative houses in the Los Angeles area such as the Hollyhock House (Aline Barnsdall Residence) in Hollywood.

"Since I came here, I started to realize, more and more, the impact of the design from Japan is big in Western communities," Abe says.

Abe also recognizes and is excited about the opportunity that he has been given at UCLA.

"It is the first time a Japanese architect is taking such a position in Western academia, so I was excited about the challenge," he says.

He hopes UCLA will transform itself into a place where more cross-cultural exchanges of ideas—West meeting East—can take place among students and faculty.

Only a Pacific Rim city like Los Angeles could offer that sort of context.