An Asian influence on Milwaukee

UWM architecture students learn from a Japanese master

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Even when you have your marching orders from a world-class architect, design and construction don’t always align as expected. That was lesson one for a group of UWM students enrolled in the Marcus Prize studio, a course this semester that was co-taught by rising architectural star Sou Fujimoto.

Fujimoto is noted for his open structures that fit into the urban sphere but also communicates with the natural environment. He was awarded the fifth Marcus Prize for Architecture, a biennial award supported by the Marcus Corporation Foundation and administered by the School of Architecture and Urban Planning (SARUP).

For the course, Fujimoto and Associate Dean Mo Zell asked the students to design and build a pavilion using a local material – Cream City brick – and begin the process with a circular shape.

marcus_prize_j2“Choosing a local material, we thought, could be a nice connection,” said Fujimoto, whose firm is based in Tokyo, Japan. “It relates to the history of Milwaukee.”

Students soon learned, however, that Cream City brick is a fragile species, crumbling easily when held together with nuts and bolts rather than mortar.

“We were trying so hard to do something unique and different with that brick,” said graduate student Laura Gainer. “But we found it was too troublesome and expensive. So it ultimately became less about the brick. In this process you come to understand the disconnect between design and construction.”

Their design, which linked stronger red bricks horizontally in a “chain-mail” effect, resembling a long, “wavy” walkway, stretching out as an extension of the city sidewalk and moving people to the lake access at the back of the lot.

“One of the questions we asked students was, ‘What’s a pavilion?” said Zell. “Even late in the semester, we struggled with that question. It isn’t always about a roof and seating. It’s about gathering.”

Accolades

The $100,000 Marcus Prize – one of the most lucrative in the world – recognizes an emerging global talent whose work is on a trajectory to greatness, a status Fujimoto has arguably achieved, says SARUP Dean Robert Greenstreet. Only last year the Japanese architect was chosen to design the Serpentine Pavilion in London, a project usually only designed by the world’s top architects.

In addition to a cash prize to the recipient, the award also supports the studio.

Graduate student Jared Kraft jumped at enrolling in the course. Although he was attracted by the famous instructor, he says, a larger issue for him was the opportunity to build their design.

“While the studio is reliant on the design process, we were actually able to build this, giving us the chance to troubleshoot problems that cropped up in reality,” said Kraft. “Not many students get that experience.”

Located in a large vacant lot at the corner of Odgen and Prospect avenues that is owned by Milwaukee developer Barry Mandel, the structure is surrounded by high-density apartment buildings which produce a high volume of foot traffic. It’s a perfect spot for people to cluster and discover an alcove for viewing the lake.

“I wanted students to find their own way. I didn’t want them to do a Fujimoto-like thing,” said the architect. “They did learn from my work, but ultimately I wanted to give simple guidance.”

This year, a visit to Fujimoto’s firm in Tokyo has been added to SARUP’s existing study abroad program in Japan. Seven of the studio’s 10 graduate students are taking the trip, including Gainer and Kraft.

Fujimoto’s advice to them? Walk the lesser traveled parts of the city and take in the street atmosphere, which he described as “crazy.”

“The structure of the city is so different from Milwaukee,” he said. “I hope they will take time to walk into the small passways in older, traditional neighborhoods, and also notice how the Japanese combine gardens and traditional architecture.”

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