About Toshi

Between now and the end of 2010, AHAlife is profiling seven of the most exciting, up-and-coming New York-based entrepreneurs we've encountered this past year—spanning each of our daily categories. Read more to learn why they’re names to follow, and hear their tips and insights into key trends for 2011.

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Toshihiro Oki is an innovative young architect who has worked on some of the most iconic new buildings in America today: the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion in Ohio. Both those projects were designed by the 2010 Pritzker Prize-winning Tokyo architecture firm SANAA, whose New York office Oki headed for several years. This year he has transitioned into establishing his own practice while collaborating with SANAA on both of fashion designer Derek Lam’s acclaimed new boutiques. Oki lives in New York and has taught at both Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture and Princeton University’s Graduate School of Architecture.
What do you do?
I’m an architect who recently established an independent practice after thinking about it for way too long.  I spend my time thinking about and building architecture that is often considered unconventional to many and impossible to others.  It takes a lot of time and energy to encourage people to believe in things that are not the norm—it often feels as if I am swimming a long distance race against an ocean current that resists my every move. Everyone has a method they use to grasp their ideas. For me, drawing is an immediate and rapid hand-eye-brain relationship. I often draw my thoughts as a way to comprehend my thinking. Seeing my ideas on paper helps me make sense of them.  Then I can begin to formulate a cohesive idea. In the end, I hope to give people a new feeling of living that they may not have experienced before.  Then they can reciprocate by reacting to the architecture and activating it, bringing it somewhere it can’t go on its own.
What are some of the projects you worked in this past year?
This past year, I recently finished another Derek Lam store in New York in collaboration with SANAA.  It is the second Lam store I worked on with them. Sejima and Nishizawa at SANAA proposed this relationship so that we could continue collaborating while helping me jump start my own office in New York. I’m grateful that they did this for me.  Taking responsibility for a project and pushing it through the gauntlet of New York City regulators makes you highly aware of the city’s power structure. I can only say that operating in this town is not for the faint-hearted.
I’m also working on a private residence with Nishizawa in upstate New York.  This house is ‘unconventional’ to say the least.  The builders who have seen the drawings have looked at me in disbelief.  So I am looking forward to seeing this one rise up from the ground.
What are some of the main trends you noticed in architecture this past year?
This may be difficult to answer since I don’t really follow architecture trends. I am more drawn to things that speak to me on a personal level.  This could be anything from a chord of music in passing, the way a beam of sunlight falls through a garden, an image that catches my eye or even a film scene that resonates. I try to be receptive to anything my senses pick up. I feel this opens up way more creative possibilities than focusing on architectural trends.
But one place where I do take notice of trends is in architecture schools, since students are the next generation of architects. One trend is heavy reliance on computer renderings for design studies in lieu of actual built-to-scale models.  When designs are developed solely through a 2-dimensional computer screen, the 3rd dimension of space is flattened and lost somewhere. This causes a kind of tone-deafness, as if the human senses were denied their full potential.  Digital technology is very powerful and opens up many possibilities, but limiting oneself just to this medium seems constricting.
Why do you think these trends are happening now?
Everything is digital these days.  I can’t even leave my house without my phone because I am so reliant on communication technology.  So I can fully understand why architecture students may be completely reliant on computer software.  In the everyday onslaught of all things digital, it’s difficult not to become conditioned. I just hope students are given a solid foundation of critical reasoning skills so they can comprehend the overall benefits/limitations of digital technology and not be swept up and dictated by it.
What trends do you foresee for the upcoming year?
I see architecture becoming more and more artificial and processed.  Rendering software has become very advanced and quite realistic, but I feel as if they hide or gloss over the realness of everyday life – which I consider the very essence of being human. The digital reality has outpaced the actual reality, because software makes it easy to create your own Disney world and conveniently erase the unwanted. It’s as if these new designs are well-packaged, glossy products targeted for fast consumption. When I have the chance to visit finished buildings of such rendered designs and see them up close, it can be quite disappointing. The realness that was erased with the computer comes back with a vengeance in the finished architecture. The digitally rendered makeup cannot hide what real sunlight can expose.
Why do you think these trends are important to know about?
Because it reflects where society might be heading.  Fast production is certainly beneficial. It has democratized the playing field.  We can do a lot more with less effort.  But I wonder if fast consumption is good, because it may limit critical thought and judgment. It’s too easy and has no resistance. Recognizing this issue is the first step in addressing it.
What developments would you like to see in your field this year?
I recently have been drawn to old photos from the 1950s and 60s that portray architecture in the post-war age.  There are broad leaps of optimism abounding from the images, yet the architecture is incredibly sensitive and humane. Works like the TWA Terminal by Eero Saarinen, airy thin-shell warehouses by Eladio Dieste in Uruguay and floating houses by Lina Bo Bardi in Brazil tell of an age when architects and engineers understood the significance of creating such an era.  
I was fortunate enough to see the original drawings done by Saarinen for the TWA Terminal. It was constructed from only a small stack of drawing sheets, but every single hand-drawn line had considerable significance. You could see the smudged fingerprints and eraser marks as they struggled to get each line just right.  But more importantly, they contained just the right amount of information for the builders to understand it well.  This is very different from today’s ‘copy and paste’ method.  I realized that the sensitivity and humanity of the design concept was carried out painstakingly, line by line, in the drawings and then carefully built brick by brick. It was as if the builders understood and appreciated the care Saarinen and his office placed in those drawings. Great architecture is not just the concept but the totality of the entire process.  If this synergy could be re-established again today, it would be a launching platform for architecture to reach a new optimism.
What is on your personal wish list for the upcoming year?
I wish to continue thinking about and putting up buildings. Having the opportunity to exercise this and be constantly challenged by it would keep me active. I hope to contribute to architecture and make optimism a reality.

And of course finding an unusual client who could give me such an opportunity to think and build wouldn’t be so bad either… 


Derek Lam Madison photo by Dean Kaufman. Derek Lam Soho photo by Iwan Baan.

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