Innovation That Matters

Photo credit: Kai Nakamura

Hiroyuki Unemori on how architects must respond creatively and pragmatically to environmental challenges

Wise Words

Hiroyuki Unemori from Unemori Architects, discusses creating a balanced relationship with the environment and keeping in mind that the construction of the building also influences the environment.

In recent years, the world has experienced an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events. During this year alone we have seen cyclones, flooding, record temperatures and wildfires amongst others. Designing houses that can withstand harsh weather conditions is becoming crucial in the face of climate change.

Tokyo-based studio Unemori Architects is amongst the designers exploring how to build architecture that can adapt and respond to our changing and adverse environment.

The studio recently incorporated concrete stilts into a house they designed in the Japanese city of Takaoka, with the aim of protecting it from the region’s harsh climate, which often includes flooding and heavy snowfall. The entire house has been raised by 70 centimetres and is supported by concrete piles that extend a depth of nine metres into the earth. 

To understand better what it means to create architecture that responds to the environment, we spoke to Hiroyuki Unemori, principal architect and owner of Unemori Architects.

1. Can you share a bit more about what Unemori Architects does, its purpose, and what change it aims to facilitate?

We are aiming to create an architecture that connects everything, comprising human beings and natural environments. We cannot live alone. How can we recognize others and realize that we are living together through architecture? This is the great potential that a real architectural space can have. Therefore, we incorporate various impacts into our architecture. Brightness and darkness. Bigness and smallness. Liveliness and silence. Our goal is to create different environments and situations in a building and establish an open architecture where these differences are acknowledged.

2. What does it mean to create architecture that responds to the environment?

Creating a flow of light and wind. Incorporating the changing seasons into architecture. It is about creating a balanced relationship where subtle and sometimes significant changes in the environment influence the structure and construction of a building, while the construction of the building influences the environment.

3. What was your background prior to this, and how does it shape your work?

Our first project was a small residential building of less than 100 metres squared. Since then, we have also built large public buildings of more than 10,000 metres squared. The different scales, the number of people involved and the different owners are connected by a common theme that is central to our architecture, namely “scale” and “structure”. Through this approach, we create versatile houses that function like cities and build public buildings where everyone can find their place.

4. And what are the key components that you believe designers and architects need to be mindful of when designing for a climate-changing future?

We need to focus on the environmental conditions for our architectural approach. It is important to ask again from given conditions such as range of site, functions, costs and users. We think that the questions and answers for the future must be found by thinking about the conditions.

Photo Credit: Kai Nakamura

5. What are the key challenges you face in your efforts to produce climate-resilient architecture?

Not to make architecture exclusive. It is important to be able to develop creative architecture and to take natural environments into account, rather than creating architecture that is like a closed box and shut off from its surroundings.

6. Where does sustainability fit into your approach to creating resilient designs?

I try to be conscious of time. Sociologist Takashi Uchiyama advocated a circular “horizontal axis of time” in the same way that the seasons go around in a mountain village, as opposed to a linear “vertical axis of time” that passes by without returning. For sustainability, it is important to have these two time-axes, especially the “horizontal axis of time”, and I see architecture in the time when environments change slowly and go around.

7. What is one book, podcast, documentary, etc. that has inspired you and that you might recommend?

“A climate” written by philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji. It is a book that considers the human mental structure, culture, and architecture of the natural environment. I was greatly influenced by it.

8. Who or what inspires you personally?

Parks and cities as well as villages. For example, Cisternino in Italy, a small city that is like a labyrinth, is really inspiring. I’m drawn to the places where I can take such different perspectives and make new discoveries.

9. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for architects and designers?

In the coronavirus crisis, new ways of living and working are being explored. It is important that we can choose our ways of living and working freely and that we can live with the natural environment. It is also important that we acknowledge others. Our responsibility as architects is to express these contemporary values through tangible things, which is very great, but that is precisely why I am strongly inspired by this work.