Hisao Suzuki: Documenting Buildings and Their Environment

JA+U : Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Museum by SANAA "Hisao Suzuki: Documenting Buildings and Their Environment - conversation with Ryue Nishizawa and Hisao Suzuki" © Hisao Suzuki

Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Museum by SANAA

Architecture and Urbanism Magazine September 2012This interview is contained in the September 2012 issue of A+U Magazine:

a+u: Mr. Suzuki, you’ve taken photographs of practically every work by Mr. Nishizawa, starting with Weekend House, his debut work. I understand that when Mr. Nishizawa received the Pritzker Prize, he asked you to take his portrait for use by the media. Mr. Suzuki, tell us how the two of you met, and your views of Mr. Suzuki’s photography.

Ryue Nishizawa (Nishizawa): When we first met, we went to a yakitori restaurant after the shoot. He told me that you can tell a good restaurant by its exterior. We were walking around when he suddenly decided on a place, and it indeed proved to be a good choice. Mr. Suzuki ate with great relish. He kept saying, “Yes, yes,” as he ate. Eating seemed a way for him to recharge his batteries. That made quite an impression on me. He had just taken photographs of Saishunkan Seiyaku Women’s Dormitory (architect: Kazuyo Sejima & Associates; 1991) in Kumamoto.

Hisao Suzuki (Suzuki): That’s right. You were present at the shoot, and we had dinner together afterwards. Mr. Nishizawa made quite an impression on me as well. I felt he was a strong individual. This is the first time for us to have a relaxed conversation, but taking photographs of his works I’ve always sensed Mr. Nishizawa’s strength. I’ve always sensed his boldness. This is something I felt when we first met, that though he is delicate and discreet, he has great inner strength.

JA+U : Model of Teshima Art Museum by Office of Ryue Nishizawa "Hisao Suzuki: Documenting Buildings and Their Environment - conversation with Ryue Nishizawa and Hisao Suzuki" © Hisao Suzuki

Model of Teshima Art Museum by Office of Ryue Nishizawa

Nishizawa: We also had a meal together in Madrid. Mr. Suzuki truly eats with relish. I think it is truly wonderful how appreciative he is of the act of eating. Mr. Suzuki’s photographs have a quiet atmosphere, but at the same time they create an impression of great dynamism. He seems to eat, shoot, and then eat again, energetically. I think for him there is a close connection between taking photographs all over the world and enjoying meals all over the world.

How did you become involved with El Croquis?

Suzuki: Around 1986, de Diseño, an interior magazine in Barcelona that is a sister publication of El Croquis, asked if it could publish model photographs I had taken of Sant Jordi Sports Hall. Two persons at El Croquis (Fernando Márquez Cecilia and Richard Levene) who saw those pictures contacted me and said they wanted to test me. El Croquis being a Madrid publication, I asked why they wanted to bother testing a photographer based in Barcelona but was asked to come to Madrid in any case to take photographs.

Nishizawa: What did you shoot?

JA+U : Hisao Suzuki: Documenting Buildings and Their Environment - conversation with Ryue Nishizawa and Hisao Suzuki © Shinkenchiku-sha

Portrait of Mr. Suzuki by Shinkenchiku-sha

Suzuki: It was a house, which no longer exists, designed by an architect named Jaime Lorenzo, built by hollowing out an old castle. As I was shooting, I heard rustling sounds behind me. I couldn’t see because of the dark cloth over my head, and I wondered what it could be. I turned around and found Fernando standing there, holding a sandwich and beer. He told me, “Rest, it’s time for a sandwich.” In Japan, a beer during a shoot would be unthinkable. But I liked that, and I thought, maybe I can work well with these people.

a+u: Sunlight is always important to an architectural photographer. Mr. Suzuki, you sometimes take photographs under an overcast sky or in mist. What do you, Mr. Nishizawa, think of such photographs by Mr. Suzuki?

JA+U : Saint James Hotel by Jean Nouvel "Hisao Suzuki: Documenting Buildings and Their Environment - conversation with Ryue Nishizawa and Hisao Suzuki" © Hisao Suzuki

Saint James Hotel by Jean Nouvel

Nishizawa: The first work by Mr. Suzuki that I came across was an exterior shot of the Saint James Hotel by Jean Nouvel. It was shot in the dusk at an angle from the lower end of a vineyard. The building is a hotel in a provincial town in Bordeaux which I too once visited. The place as depicted in the photograph was just as I had experienced it, or rather, it had even greater ambience. I remember being amazed by the shot. The work exuded the ambience of the town. It was atmospheric. You could almost hear the sound of the church bell. It captured the atmosphere of the region. It had a sense of transparency. It was quite dark, and there was no one in the photograph, but it was a quite attractive landscape. The sky in that photograph too was certainly overcast, but it was a strange shot that seemed to transcend such matters as cloudy or clear skies. The colors were amazing.

A photograph of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao also gave a sense of the entire city. It was surprisingly dark, and there was this dark building in the middle of a dark city. That photograph too had an impact on me. It wasn’t a question of the sky being overcast or not. I was amazed by its worldview. Mr. Suzuki’s perspective on the world, his worldview, was captured in blackish, blueish, brownish colors it would be impossible to describe in words. Usually, when you shoot a landscape, the photograph is beautiful as a landscape but does not work as an architectural photograph. On the other hand, if you shoot an architectural photograph, the building inevitably ends up looking like an isolated object; it loses its connection to the environment. A photograph by Mr. Suzuki, however, depicts the city or environment but is also an authentic architectural photograph at the same time. I believe there is an underlying classicism to his work.

Photographs by him of our early buildings that made a lasting impression on me – as a matter of fact, I remember most of them quite well – for example, the ones of Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Museum, though unusual in that they were taken on a very clear day, were memorable. When taken by Mr. Suzuki, a building somehow looks good. He took what we used to say in lectures “There is a mountain, and there is a river, and we will create a building standing between them” and turned those words directly into a landscape, or rather improved on what we had said.

a+u: What do you mean by “capturing atmosphere”?

JA+U : Model of Rolex Learning Center "Hisao Suzuki: Documenting Buildings and Their Environment - conversation with Ryue Nishizawa and Hisao Suzuki" © Hisao Suzuki

Model of Rolex Learning Center

Nishizawa: The photograph of the Guggenheim gave me a sense of what Bilbao is like. I got a beautiful sense of a city in northern Spain. The photograph gave a good sense of not just the building’s powerful design but the atmosphere of the city, how Gehry had grappled with the city. But I believe Mr. Suzuki’s photographs are not just photographs of environments but ultimately authentic architectural photographs. I believe he shoots genuine architectural photographs. Another thing amazing about his work is how well it suits the size of El Croquis’ format. I think it is amazing how boldly and dynamically his photographs evoke something like the true appeal of architecture, no matter what the building is. Every time I look at a work by him, I think to myself, this is what architectural photography is about. Even his photographs of not actual buildings but models seem to capture the essential power of architecture. I was amazed by the great dynamism of his model photographs of the Rolex Learning Center. The layout of El Croquis is great; it’s dynamic. In that respect, it is difficult to separate the books from the photographs. I am made keenly aware of how Mr. Suzuki, Fernando Márquez and Richard Levene work as one. There will be a shot of the model taken at a 45 degree angle, and then, bam, the next one will be shot from the opposite angle. The effect is, how should I put it, dynamic, or stylish. It’s compelling. The work is an eloquent statement of how architecture ought to be looked at.

When I look through El Croquis, I feel I am being told that architecture is no good unless it has this much impact. That comes, as might be expected, first from the strength of Mr. Suzuki’s photographs, then the dynamic critical approach to architecture of the three concerned individuals, the strength of the book’s large format, the strength of the editing – the dynamism of the three individuals discussing, shooting photographs, and creating books. Mr. Suzuki takes photographs quite quickly. The three engage in a passionate discussion, finish taking photographs in no time at all, and then go off to a restaurant. Taking photographs is much the same as eating. I think they truly love architecture.

a+u: Mr. Suzuki, did you first go to Spain to shoot Romanesque churches?

Suzuki: First it was Antoni Gaudí. Studying Gaudí, I learned that he went around visiting Romanesque churches. I decided to do that as well and began shooting them.

JA+U : Hisao Suzuki: Documenting Buildings and Their Environment - conversation with Ryue Nishizawa and Hisao Suzuki © Shinkenchiku-sha

Portrait of Mr. Nishizawa by Shinkenchiku-sha

Nishizawa: When I heard that Mr. Suzuki went around shooting Romanesque churches in Spain, I thought how like him it was to do such a thing.

Suzuki: I am always aware of the surrounding environment in my photographs. I am not trying so much to create a lasting work of my own; I think of a photograph more as a document, a record. The inclusion of the environment increases its value as a document. My belief that that is so makes it quite easy for me to take a step back. Just because it is to be an architectural photograph, I don’t just shoot the facade of the building. Stepping back a little allows me to shoot the surroundings as well. I shoot the environment as well because I myself want to see it. It isn’t something I have to make a deliberate effort to do. I include those things that I believe people will want to go back and examine after they have had their first look at a photograph. That has always been my attitude.

Nishizawa: Mr. Suzuki’s photographs give a tremendous sense of what might be called continuity with the environment. When he is shooting an overall view of the exterior, the fact that he shoots the building together with its environment makes the photograph that much more convincing. At the same time – though this may seem like a contradiction – he also shoots the building. I think it’s wonderful that he succeeds at doing both, that there is no contradiction. I sense the excellence and the love of architecture of the team of three working in perfect harmony at El Croquis. You don’t distance yourself from the work, no matter what building it is.

Suzuki: Yes. My intention is not to make my work stylish. Instead it is to do my best to engrave carefully, to stop time, to record. To turn over what is in front of me and examine it from the back as well. That is the kind of thing I am trying to do.

Nishizawa: Mr. Suzuki shoots every conceivable place. It doesn’t matter whether it is the front or the back of the building – he has no qualms about shooting it. “Why is he shooting such a place?” I sometimes wonder. However, the photographs are worth looking at because they are shot with such conviction.

A photograph by him of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, was also memorable. It was a shot of the elevation. Quite frankly, it was better than what I had imagined the museum to be like. Then, there was the first photograph on the previous page which showed the museum as seen between other buildings in the foreground. That too was quite good. I thought it was great the way it clearly showed how the new building had changed the ambience of the city. Do you remember that photograph?

JA+U : 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa by SANAA "Hisao Suzuki: Documenting Buildings and Their Environment - conversation with Ryue Nishizawa and Hisao Suzuki" © Hisao Suzuki

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa by SANAA

JA+U : 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa by SANAA "Hisao Suzuki: Documenting Buildings and Their Environment - conversation with Ryue Nishizawa and Hisao Suzuki" © Hisao Suzuki

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa by SANAA

Suzuki: Sure. I shot it after going up and down a hotel elevator a number of times. I was worried that the photograph would not turn out well because of the intervening glass, but it came out all right. I take great care with such cuts. Photographs that show a building standing all by itself in the middle of the city are good, but ones that show just a glimpse of the building are also good. The reason I think Romanesque churches are wonderful is because of those moments when you are walking around and suddenly come upon by chance a small, crumbling church. I will continue to place great value on such encounters.

Nishizawa: I see. Your photographs always prompt soul searching on my part. The fact that you take every conceivable part of a building seems to me to demonstrate the breadth and generosity of your vision of architecture.

Suzuki: The work of SANAA strongly suggests a reexamination of possibilities--whether to start at “1,” “0” or at some even lower point. You dig to a lower level and unearth new possibilities. That is why, when a model of a new project by you arrives without any explanations, I am especially amazed by its freshness. My inevitable reaction is, “What is it? Whatever it is, it’s wonderful.” It has always been like that, whether it was the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Marine Station Naoshima, or Rolex Learning Center.

Nishizawa: Another impressive aspect of your photographs is the fact that buildings in them do not look like Japanese buildings. This may contradict what I said earlier about your work being regional, but you do not seem hung up on Japan. The buildings do not suggest the tackiness of Japanese buildings. I sense a global perspective. Is this something you have made a conscious effort to adopt? Or did it simply develop because you have been shooting buildings all over the world?

Suzuki: I always take great care in shooting; I feel that I am being allowed to partake of these buildings.

Nishizawa: Partake. It really is the same for you as food, isn’t it? You partake and recharge your batteries – I sense a dynamism in this process.


Suzuki: I am truly grateful to have been your contemporary – to have been able to walk where you have walked, to have been involved from the model stage of a project by you, and to have taken photographs once more when the project was completed. To have been able to repeat this process again and again. For that I am truly grateful.


July 27, 2012, Tokyo, Japan
Translated from Japanese by Hiroshi Watanabe

Editor’s Note: We recently featured more of Mr. Suzuki’s personal reflections on his craft in an essay he wrote for this issue entitled La Luz Mágica – Magic Light and series of photographs by Mr. Suzuki of the Cistercian Abbey Le Thoronet.