Less is more for Harvard architect Mori

Some might call architect Toshiko Mori a minimalist. She, however, describes herself as “cheap.”

Mori, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and chairwoman of the Department of Architecture, gave a presentation at Yale on Monday called “Immaterial/Ultramaterial.” She spoke to a crowd of local architects, professors and architecture students about using innovative materials and traditional materials in new ways.

Known for her sleek, minimalist designs, Mori began the lecture by showing slides of some of her projects, including the storefront and interior design of the Issey Miyake boutique on Madison Avenue on New York City. Mori emphasized her interest in exploring creative and economic uses of materials.

“It is economy of means. I’m basically very cheap,” Mori joked.

She also talked about her research and exploration of new materials through hybrid techniques like recycling, casting and embedding newer materials and chemicals into traditional elements. Mori pointed out that clothing and food-manufacturing industries already use much of the technology, but architects seldom do. She described her use of computers in these hybrid designs.

“I see the computer as a fabrication tool, not design tool, because of its precision,” Mori said.

John Durkin ’03, an architecture major, agreed with Mori’s ideas about the use of computers.

“It’s the trend to have the computer think and design for you; she’s going against that trend,” Durkin said. “We’re so removed from the actual building process that we forget about the materials and how things are made. Thinking about the materials comes too late, as an afterthought.”

Kyle Konis ARC ’04 said he would like to see Mori’s focus on inexpensive materials applied to an economically limited setting.

“I would be interested in applying those to a different arena where economy would be necessary,”Konis said. “We only saw how she applied it to her commissioned work.”

Konis said he thought Mori’s work was interesting but he questioned its functionality.

“The picture of the house with stairs and the multiple horizons had almost no furniture in the room. I wonder about its ability to be used for multiple things and its ability to be merged into domestic life,” he said.

In addition to hybrid technology, Mori also explained how she used weather-resistant materials to renovate a Florida home. She said preserving the original architectural spirit and working in harmony with the environment were major considerations.

“She had a more metaphoric view, like how the house reflected light, how raising the house higher above ground worked with the trees,” said Eduardo Quintero, an architect at Cesar Pelli and Associates.

But Olaf Recktenwald ARC ’03 questioned the focus on new weather-resistant materials.

“There is value also in the ability of a material to express its passage through time,” he said.

In 1981, Mori started her own architecture firm in New York City called Toshiko Mori Architect. She graduated from and taught at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art before becoming an architecture professor at Harvard in 1995. She was also a visiting professor at the Yale Architecture School in 1992.

According to several undergraduate architecture students, Mori’s interest and focus on material choice and usage reflects what they are learning in their classes.

“Her ideas are pretty much in line with what our professor has said to us,” Swati Salgaocar ’03 said.

While many Yalies attending the lecture had heard of Toshiko Mori and her association with Harvard, they were not very familiar with her work. But despite this unfamiliarity, many of the students interviewed enjoyed the talk immensely.

“She brings fresh approach and a good balance between theoretical architecture and practical architecture,” said architecture major Ravi D’Cruz ’03.

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