This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Internationally acclaimed architect has designs on inspiring the next generation

Hitoshi Abe
[Photo by Jason Odell]
When Hitoshi Abe was named chair of UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design in 2007 — becoming the first Japanese [national] chair of architecture in an American university — he was already an internationally acclaimed architect and winner of numerous prestigious awards, including the 2007 World Architecture Award for his design of the Kanno Museum in Shiogama, Japan.

Last October, he captured yet another esteemed award: The SIA-Getz Architecture Prize for Emergent Architecture in Asia. The prize, awarded biannually in Singapore, recognizes Asian architects who have made a significant contribution to shaping the changing landscape of Asia.

“I am honored to be the second recipient of this award,” Abe said. “The idea of honoring an Asian architect promotes public involvement, appreciation of Asian architecture, and encourages future generations of Asian architects.”

A native of Sendai, Japan, Abe was only 12 years old when he decided to choose architecture as his future career. “I don’t remember why I thought I would become an architect, but I did enjoy putting pieces together. I liked to paint, and I have always been intrigued by building things,” he said.

Abe received undergraduate and graduate degrees at Tohoku University in Sendai, then came to Los Angeles to attend SCI-Arc for his M.Arch. degree, which he received in 1988. He chose SCI-Arc, he said, because he wanted to go to a place where “architectural design was happening, and at that time, in the late ’80s, Los Angeles was an exciting place to study.” He earned a Ph.D. in 1993 from Tohoku University.

Stadium by Hitoshi Abe.
Miyagi Stadium [Photo by MAP Systems]
While still a student at SCI-Arc, Abe started working for a professor named Wolf Prix, whose firm, Coop Himmelblau, was handling many projects for Japanese clients. After graduation, Abe continued to work at Coop Himmelblau until 1992, when he entered and won a major competition in Japan to design Miyagi Stadium, a 50,000-seat facility that was used for the 2001 National Sports Festival of Japan and for the 2002 World Cup.

"Winning that competition started my career,” said Abe, who founded his own firm, Atelier Hitoshi Abe, in 1993. Since then, Abe has designed a variety of structures, from stadiums to galleries to restaurants. And he has continued to teach, first at the Tohoku Institute of Technology in Sendai, then at UC Berkeley, and currently at UCLA.

Abe with Associate Professor-in-Residence Neil Denari (left) and students.
Abe with Associate Professor-in-Residence Neil Denari (left) and students.
“I have been involved in academia since I started my career, so it is integrated inside of me,” Abe said. “UCLA is renowned in the field of architecture and known for its powerful blend of avant-garde thinking and innovative design. And I was attracted to the opportunity to become the first Japanese (national) chair of architecture in an American university."

With the completion of his first 18 months as chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design, Abe announced three new initiatives that concentrate on design culture, design and technology, and critical practice. The first initiative features SUPRASTUDIO, a newly revised M.Arch. II degree program that promotes critical practice by emphasizing applied research in Los Angeles. The studio, taught by one professor for the entire year, is currently being led by Associate Professor-in-Residence Neil Denari and will be led by Professor Greg Lynn in 2009–2010.

Kanno Museum by Hitoshi Abe.
Kanno Museum [2006]
The second initiative involves the creation of a Laboratory for Cross-Cultural Studies in Architecture and Urban Design, in which design culture is expanded through the development of cross-cultural programs. The city chosen as the center’s first focus of study is Tokyo, an area Abe knows well.

“Each year, UCLA will collaborate with one city outside the U.S. to create a new architectural and urban design methodology,” Abe said. “Large-scale cities along the Pacific Rim, like Tokyo, offer amazing opportunities for research because they are designed differently than current designs based in Western culture.”

The third initiative centers on the creation of a Laboratory for Design and Technology, which will explore the idea of moving beyond the architecture industry and collaborating with companies in the hopes of transferring their technologies — such as robotic technology — to the architecture field.

“My goal is to raise the profile of the school to create an environment where our students and faculty will redefine the provocative opportunities confronting the next generation of architects,” Abe said. “Hopefully, these initiatives will provide a didactic and innovative research environment to make that happen.”
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