OMA Architect Shohei Shigematsu Speaks of Building Confidence with Critic Fred Bernstein

The OMA architect mulls over his Japanese identity and the changing architectural needs of art world with Fred Bernstein in Document's Spring / Summer 2017 issue.

Rem Koolhaas, who founded the firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is regarded as the most influential architect of the last 40 years, known not only for his buildings, but also for a working method in which every possibility is exhaustively investigated, where research and design go hand in hand. Architects trained at OMA gain invaluable experience, but often have a hard time establishing themselves as independent voices without going off on their own. This may be changing.

Shohei Shigematsu, 43, went to work for OMA in 1998, and has been running its New York office since 2006. (There are also offices in Dubai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Doha, and Australia.) Recently, a number of high-profile projects, conceived independently of the Rotterdam mothership, have been credited to Shigematsu and OMA New York. Many involve cultural institutions: Last spring, Shigematsu masterminded the astonishing installation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute show, “Manus × Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” which turned the museum’s heavy masonry Robert Lehman Wing into a gossamer cathedral. Then, in November, he debuted the Faena Forum, a center for visual and performing arts adjacent to the Faena hotel-and-condo complex in Miami Beach. He is designing an addition to the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, and was chosen by Sotheby’s to transform its Upper East Side building into a new type of cultural institution. Shigematsu works out of an office at 180 Varick Street— New York’s architecture ghetto—where he presides over 70 or so employees from 15 countries.

Fred Bernstein—You’ve designed a condo building near Gramercy Park. Is that a milestone?

Shohei Shigematsu—Yes, it will be OMA’s first ground- up building in Manhattan. But it isn’t Rem’s first building in Manhattan. His is yet to come. He has his own relationship to New York. So while I’m quite happy that we’re doing this building, I don’t want it to bear too much historical weight.

Fred—I wrote an article not long ago about the disciples of Rem Koolhaas who have gone off on their own successfully: Jeanne Gang, Bjarke Ingels, Joshua Prince-Ramus, Dan Wood and Amale Andraos, Fernando Romero, and others. You weren’t included in the article—because you hadn’t gone off on your own—but now that I think about it, you should have been. Although you have remained at OMA, you really are quite independent.

Shohei—Mentally I am. But that’s happened just in the last year, which feels late, because I took over the New York office 10 years ago. Part of that is because, soon after I took over, the bubble burst, economically, and things were stagnant, but a bigger part has to do with my own mentality. I didn’t have the confidence in myself, and perhaps Rem didn’t have the confidence in me.

Fred—Last year, after your Metropolitan Museum installation, I asked you whether Rem liked it and you said, “I’m not worried about pleasing Rem. I’m worried about pleasing the client,” which seemed cheeky to me. Don’t you ultimately answer to Rem?

Shohei—The firm has nine partners, including Rem. Every three months or so, we all gather to show each other projects. It used to be a critique, but now it’s more of an update. When a design-oriented firm expands to also become a global one, it requires new organizational centers. It’s no longer capable of being curated by a single mind.

Fred—Is that new organization helping the firm prepare for the inevitable?

Shohei—We’re interested in how we will run this office after Rem retires. When Zaha Hadid died, several journalists asked Rem about succession and he said that it’s already happening, that some partners are becoming more independent. It used to be seen as a sign of success to leave OMA while you were still young and set up your own firm, but now, for the first time, you can go off in an individual direction within OMA.

Fred—Did Zaha’s death cause you to reflect on the future?

Shohei—Well, of course we watched what happened at her firm. There was a smooth transition from Zaha to Patrik Schumacher. It was lucky that it was just one person.

Fred—Smooth, except that he made a number of statements that have angered the architecture community.

Shohei—He needed to establish his own voice, so I think it needed to be done. I’m not talking about the content of the provocation, but the fact that he did provoke.

Fred—You’re not the type to issue provocative public statements.

Shohei—There was a time when, to be a great architect, you had to have a manifesto. Today it’s not about that one big idea—it’s more about observing the changes in society and making architecture that incorporates the changes. For me, that is a good thing. Having one big idea wasn’t something I thought I could do.

“What used to be the ‘Bilbao effect’ is now the ‘biennial effect,’ which is alarming for an architect but makes this a really interesting moment to do a museum.”

Fred—Do you compete against other OMA offices for projects?

Shohei—Not yet, but there is a competitive spirit. When I started in Rotterdam, there was competition between the teams in that one office. Now it’s just expanded to multiple offices. I think it’s healthy.

Fred—Do you feel you need to be working on every continent?

Shohei—When I took over the office, it was at the height of globalization, when people believed you had to touch every part of the world. Now you see backlash on many levels. It was rewarding to start out at a time when people thought the world could be united through economic cooperation. Now that there is some doubt about that proposition, the homogeneity that architects were creating all over the world will be closely interrogated. One reason there is so much interest in sustainability is that responding to the environment is a way to make a building highly local and highly global at the same time.

Fred—Yet at least half your work today is outside of the U.S.?

Shohei—Yes. We’re doing a huge master plan in Toronto. It’s a transit-oriented development, 10 million square feet of office space attached to a hub for regional rail, two streetcar lines, and a future metro station. Politically, Canada is going in a completely different direction from the U.S., and I think it is searching for its own architectural and urban direction as well. The great thing about a master plan is that it’s a framework. Now that it’s in place, we can think a little deeper on locality.

Fred—You’re also working in Japan, where you grew up.

Shohei—Yes. I’m doing a high-rise in the middle of Tokyo for the Mori Building Co., Ltd., a design competition against Foster + Partners and [Kohn Pedersen Fox]. The tower sits above the Olympic spine, a kind of greenway that connects the planned Olympic Village in Tokyo Bay to the Olympic Stadium. We let the elevated park, which is something like the High Line, continue through the center of the building, and above that are the special elements—retail, hotel, office, and a proposed mediatheque. It was very meaningful for me to win this project, because I’ve been trying to do something in Japan since I left in 1995.

Fred—Did you leave because of the economic situation?

Shohei—That and the fact that architecture in Japan is controlled by big corporate firms like Nikken Sekkei, Nihon Sekkei, and large construction companies. It’s really a very conservative environment, architecturally.

Fred—What about architects like Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, and Sou Fujimoto, who were recently the subject of a show at the Museum of Modern Art? Their work doesn’t seem conservative at all.

Shohei—That is one small school of architects in Japan that happens to be quite dominant in the media, but the majority of architecture is very different. People who read architecture magazines say that Japan has such great, creative houses, but that’s a sign that in Japan even if you’re a great architect, you can only do houses. That’s why they’re looking all over the world for bigger projects.

Fred—And yet now you have a bigger project in Japan than Ito, Sejima, or Fujimoto have ever had. That seems ironic, since you’re the one who left.

Shohei—As I became more independent and more known in New York, I became a unique figure in Japan. I somehow belonged outside the Japanese system, but I could speak Japanese. For Japanese clients who want a taste of the outside world, I’m a stepping-stone. I have never put my identity forward when I’m designing. Now that I am working in Japan, though, I am thinking about my Japanese identity.

Fred—You’ve never made a “Japanese” contribution to OMA?

Shohei—OMA appreciates people’s cultural knowledge and sensitivity, but knowing a culture is one thing; promoting an architectural language derived from that culture is something else entirely. Our approach is to be very specific to the givens of a project—site, budget, client, program, climate—but to not be stylistic. Still, now I’m contemplating what my “Japanese-ness” is.

Fred—What have you decided?

Shohei—I don’t know; I’m searching. Maybe, ironically, it’s openness to ideas from the West. In Japan, the architectural profession was born quite recently. So there had to be willingness to accept foreign ideas. Let’s say that I’ve entered the moment where I’ve started to think about it. Probably I need to do that for my personal development.

Shohei Shigematsu photographed at OMA’s office in New York. Photography by Andreas Laszlo Konrath.

Fred—Is it coincidence to you that Rem has spent a good deal of time studying the Metabolists, postwar Japanese architects who developed systems by which architecture could grow almost organically?

Shohei—I think he was interested in the Metabolists because they were the first avant-garde group outside the West. In the postwar years, they undertook a serious investigation of how architectural systems could deal with increasing density. It was a way of showing that Japan could have its own visual language.

Fred—Rem has also built in Japan.

Shohei—Twenty-six years ago, he did a project in Fukuoka, called Nexus World Housing. Now I’m doing a big office building in the center of Fukuoka for the same developer. But I’m working for the C.E.O. who succeeded Rem’s client, who’s around the same age as me. So this is the second generation of that relationship.

Fred—You may be in demand in Tokyo and Fukuoka because you speak Japanese, but you speak perfect English as well.

Shohei—I lived in Boston as a child; my father was a materials scientist at M.I.T.

Fred—But when you finished college in Japan, you decided to study architecture in Europe?

Shohei—I had already lived in the U.S.—I wanted to try something different. Besides, I couldn’t afford the tuition at an American university. One of my professors in Japan had gone to the Berlage Institute, which was in Amsterdam. So I went. When it was time to look for a job, I applied to 10 firms in Holland, and only OMA responded. I knew from talking to people at Berlage that the office was highly competitive and if Rem didn’t know you you’d be miserable. I told Dan Wood, who was interviewing me, that I really had to see Rem. Dan was nice enough to bring Rem in, and I managed to show him my work. I was hired on the spot.

Fred—While in Rotterdam, you worked on OMA’s proposal for the expansion of the Whitney Museum in 2001. It included a huge cantilevered structure that looked like it was shaking a fist at the Upper East Side.

Shohei—It was a provocation. Now that I am really engaging with the art world, I take a more nuanced approach.

Fred—What’s your impression of the art world these days?

Shohei—After a period when a lot of institutions undertook major physical expansions, there’s a turn toward biennials and triennials and art fairs, as opposed to buildings. What used to be the “Bilbao effect” is now the “biennial effect,” which is alarming for an architect but makes this a really interesting moment to do a museum.

Fred—And you’re doing one in Buffalo. How are you responding to new ideas about the role of the museum?

Shohei—The museum is becoming as much a community gathering space as merely a place for art. There is room for specificity, in some galleries, but also a need for spaces that are very flexible. A balance of unique experiences and universal spaces—that’s what we’re working towards. We’ve spent years developing the program, which involves interviewing the staff, meeting with the board. It takes time; there’s a lot of back-and-forth.

Fred—When will we see a design?

Shohei—The design is moving quite fast now, and we’re going to show something to the public later this spring. I think there may be a strong reaction. Anytime you touch existing buildings, some people won’t like it; but, while the design is going to be strong, I think it’s also quite respectful.

Fred—What do you hope your contribution to the architecture world will be?

Shohei—My ambition is to capture the conditions that are specific to our generation, and through that observation create new architectural typologies.

Fred—Does Faena represent a new typology?

Shohei—I’d like to believe that the types of activities that can go on there, the diversity of the art forms it can accommodate, makes it quite unique. As architects, we have a role in demonstrating the ways buildings can be used. For the opening, we made a huge stage that included pockets for audience seating. As dancers moved around the stage, the audience was immersed in the movement of light and shadow, which we based on the path of the sun across the building, and of course the movement of the performers.

Fred—Sotheby’s is going to be a new typology as well?

Shohei—Yes. I’m working with them to envision a new kind of cultural space where you can see art, like in a museum, but also buy art. It’s exciting to be part of the moment when an institution is trying to change. The fact that they chose me reflects their belief that I can contribute to that evolution.

Fred—It’s getting late. What time does your workday typically end?

Shohei—Our work habits are intense. We believe in the eureka moment, where something new emerges. We believe that continuous investigation brings us closer to that moment.