—— Can you tell us what made you pursue a career in architecture?
The head family of my mother’s family runs a pottery making Kiyomizu Pottery based in Higashiyama Shichijo in Kyoto. Since I was very young, I have been watching craftspersons drawing blue patterns onto newly baked cups and bowls. As a child, I naturally became interested in work involving making shapes by hand. My hands were deft, so when I got my allowance, I would always buy a plastic model and enjoy assembling it. Not surprisingly, upon going to college, I chose to study architecture which requires detail work.
—— What brought you to the United States?
At university in Japan, I studied environmental engineering, which is the creation of comfortable living environments in architectural designs. While involved in some projects, such as adding air conditioning and plumbing after the design of an entire building was done, I became interested in design itself. Then I started participating in design competitions by myself and learning how to give presentations on my own. I thought about pursuing a design career after college and my father supported it, saying “Go overseas and polish up your sensitivity.” My father, who had studied in Sweden, had been teaching my two brothers and me the importance of seeing and experiencing more of life abroad. I had never even had a passport, but I made up my mind to study at graduate school in America, experiencing the country which people say has high standards in the field of architectural design, comparable to Japan. I came to know that SDSU offered an environmental design program, one of the few such programs in the nation, specializing in architectural methods of realizing the coexistence of the city and nature. So I came to the U.S. in 1977 I still unable to speak English well and did not even know where San Diego was located. Early on, I intended to go home and work in Japan after finishing my graduate studies, but...
—— What made you decide to continue living in San Diego after your graduation, rather than return to Japan?
When I was graduating, a professor, who was one of my teachers, invited me to become a part-time instructor. I was so fearless that I said “yes” without hesitation and gave up my intention of going back to Japan. So, I started my teaching career at SDSU in 1980. At the same time, I got a job from an architectural firm. That’s how I made a new start as a professional in San Diego. The year 1980 marked a turning point in my life. Actually, I also got married in the same year. I had met my future wife while attending SDSU. One day, I was playing a Takuro Yoshida song on the guitar at a party at a friend’s home. There, an American girl, majoring in Asian studies, was listening to my singing attentively... that’s how I met her. Later on, we started dating, then decided to get married, which helped me make up my mind to settle down in America. I had never imagined that I, who could not speak English well, would get married and live in America. Life is a mystery, really...
So, I worked for the architectural firm for two years. After that, I worked as a freelance designer for a year, designing various items including houses and furniture, while helping another firm. During that time, I met another architectural designer, Ralph Roesling. We clicked and started talking about founding a partnership. Young and full of life, we founded Roesling Nakamura Architects in 1983.
—— I would say working as a college associate professor and an architect simultaneously
is not easy...
Well, even associate professors get long summer vacations like students, and the union’s regulations limit us to three classes per semester to teach. So, I don’t feel it is too much for me. But, when I started teaching in the fourth year of my living in the U.S. before acquiring sufficient English skills, I struggled to communicate in the language. Early on, I gave my students handouts listing the details of what I would teach and conducted the class by following them. Even when my English was difficult for the students, they seemed to understand the content of the class with the help of these handouts. Different from my student days when all that I had needed to do was draw up plans, I was in a situation where I had to give lectures in English. Accordingly, my language skills improved rapidly. It was as if I were forced to acquire English without choice, rather than learning it. When we were kids in our hometown in Shimane Prefecture, my elder brother pushed me into the Hakuta River, although I could not swim. That made me work hard to learn how to swim. In the same way, I have acquired skill in operating my computer on my own, while making many mistakes. I think human beings learn more quickly by practice than by theory.
Also, I guess this is my nature inherited from my father, but I would feel kind of guilty if I did not keep working. My father received his doctorate from the present Seoul National University in Korea for a study of metals and worked as an executive for Hitachi Metals until his retirement at the age of 60. He was always working. For example, when the workforce at the National Railways went on strike, he would stay overnight at a hotel near his company so as not to miss going to work the next day. Or, on weekends, he would retreat to his study at home and work on his book about management. Even after his retirement, he set up his own office and kept working without breaks. Having watched my father, I take it for granted that I live an extremely busy life.
—— What do you keep in mind when teaching your students?
I believe that, rather than instructing them in technical matters such as “Draw a plan in this way,” providing students with discipline will help them develop their ability to learn by themselves. For example, it is most important to keep in mind the proper things to do, including “Avoid submitting a project right before the deadline,” or “Avoid drawing a sloppy line,” but few students actually have such discipline.
Also, in architectural design, what I seek is not an “answer to the question,” but the “fruit of the meaning.” So, we always discuss the meaning of design in my classes. Say, even a mere line includes various meanings, such as “a straight line means strength” and “a curved line means gentleness.” When I was a student in Japan, I got hooked on philosophy books. For about half a year after entering the university, I had been reading such books at home and skipping classes. That made me become interested in the “meaning of a thing” rather than the “result of a thing.” My way of thinking in those days may be the foundation for my beliefs today.
I always tell my students an ancient Chinese. Once upon a time, a young archery master, who had never been defeated, was going to compete with an experienced Zen master on a bridge hanging on the cliffs on mountain tops. The bridge was falling apart and ready to collapse. As soon as the young toxophilite stepped on the bridge, his legs were trembling with fear, so he could not shoot any arrows. Inevitably, the Zen master won, who took up the challenge without fear. We can say the same thing for architecture. Without conquering the bridge, or the fear, it is impossible
to progress. “Will this design be laughed off?” “Will this project cost more than originally estimated?” “Does this fail to meet the standard?” Every architect has such worries and can almost crack under the responsibility and pressure. But, if you cannot shoot arrows forever, you can never expect growth. I pass that fact on to not only my students but also young architects.
—— Can you tell us about your current project as an architect?
I am currently working on a project to construct a DMV building in San Ysidro, which will be completed around spring 2005. This time, the design was inspired by Native American caves. When I was envisioning architecture to describe the “Birth from Soil,” a Native American pueblo came to mind. In design, you can’t always predict when and what will be born. I usually take a year to develop my vision into a blueprint.
—— Do you sense a difference in the way architects are recognized in Japan and in the US?
If I went back to Japan, I would be a mere architect. No uniqueness there. But here in America, I think, many people show an interest in me because a Japanese architect, I am distinct. Certainly this has given me chances to meet many people. Also, I believe that because I have been based in America, I have been granted a variety of opportunities. If I had not come to the US and wanted to get a teaching position at a Japanese university, no school would have hired me, judging me only on my academic background. I would, by now, have been working for some architectural firm there, spending my days. Japan is a competitive society where titles are still overly emphasized. I don’t think it has matured yet into a society where true abilities and skills, rather than titles, would be appreciated. Looking at Japan like this from the outside, I feel frustrated.
—— Can you tell us about your dream for the future?
Reaching my fifties soon, I would like to pass on the “meaning” from now on. For me, the “meaning” represents the “relationship.” Say, I would value “to work for a nonprofit organization” more than “to buy a mansion.” In other words, by connecting myself to other people, I make the meaning of my own existence more solid. I would like to live such a life. There are some architects who love to show off their works, like, “Look! I have accomplished such a great job!” But for me, it seems a mere exhibition of ego. Without my showing off, if somebody passes by an architectural structure that I worked on and thinks it is a good building without knowing who built it, that moment produces a solid relationship between that person and the creator of the building. I would like to keep producing works that define my existence, or put this way, architectural structures that communicate with people heart to heart.
Another dream is, well, this may be the influence of my father who published his own books, that I will someday publish my own account of life experiences and thoughts, although it won’t be an autobiography. I hope it will become an inspiration to the readers̶ ”This book opened my eyes. It tells me how I can realize the value of life that I have been looking for.”