Takashi Yanai has been the Partner in Charge of the Residential Studio since 2004 at Ehrlich Architects, where he focuses on the design of custom single-family, multi-family and mixed-use residential projects. Takashi believes that the best solutions start with an understanding of how to use the land. He then adds to this a keen interest in craft and materials. But most of all there is a deep conviction that the residential projects, while aspiring to the highest standards of art, are ultimately vessels for the enhancement of the lives being lived within. He has taught for the Career Discovery Program for the Harvard GSD and the USC School of Architecture and served on juries at the GSD, Boston Architectural Center, the MIT School of Architecture, OTIS, Woodbury University and the USC School of Architecture. He currently serves on the AIA Committee on Design and was the Chair for the 2014 AIA COD Conference in Palm Springs. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Takashi's unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
It’s a two-sided answer. I’m one of those kids who always knew they wanted to be an architect. But that’s only a half-truth because I was also pulled into the direction of fine art, specifically photography. When it came time to go to school there was a crossroads and I ended up choosing architecture. Early on though in my architectural education I had a very influential professor who was holding court in a cafe at Berkeley. He told us all that we should all drop out of architecture school and study other things and explore the world and then come back. Being naive and young, that’s exactly what I did. I dropped out of architecture school even though I was excelling in studio and all of that and I kind of explored everything. History, art history, philosophy, literature. Eventually I graduated in literature. Next I worked for an architecture magazine in Japan called GA and that sort of reengaged me with the architectural world. Being there I met some of the brightest luminaries in architecture. When they would come to Japan they would always stop by GA. That reignited my passion for architecture. It was a bit round-about and after four years as serving on the editorial staff I went back to grad school. I think that professor way back when who gave us that advice was absolutely right. That detour really rounded out the way I looked at the world and my thinking and my understanding of the humanities. I’m a better architect for it.
On his biggest influences in discovering his own voice
Part of what we do here is try to incorporate different, what we call cultural points of view into our work. Two artists or creative people who really have been influential for me are sculptor Isamu Noguchi and fashion designer, Issey Miyake. Their work tried to negotiate between Eastern and Western culture. As a creative person I feel my own work for myself does that a little bit. For my clients I’m always looking for what I call the culture of the project, whether that is the culture of the client or of the place, genius loci. We try to understand the culture of a project and mine that for clues and add our own little creative twist onto that.
On how his role has evolved in his thirteen years at Ehrlich
This goes back to my time as an editor at GA, so a little more than twenty years ago. I became aware of the work of Steven Ehrlich, the founder of the firm. When I was an editor, we featured his residential work and at that point his work already had this type of embracing of the client’s culture. Maybe I didn’t think deeply about it at that time or wasn’t able to articulate it at the time but somehow it resonated with me. I became aware of his practice that way and at the same time I knew as an architect that I wanted to focus on residential because it’s my passion. I think it’s a much more intimate relationship with your clients. So I sacrifice working with the public in a way but I like getting to know the people who are going to inhabit the spaces on a very personal level.
Early on in my career I became aware that Steven was looking for someone to work with him in his studio on the houses. I came here with an express interest in working in the residential studio. Fast forward thirteen years: we developed a very strong rapport and whether said or unsaid, our thinking about the work and how to create the work was very similar. There are differences (of course) and we each have our own voice but we understood what each other were up to. It just quickly fell into place, and I became the leader of the studio ten years ago.
On principles and tenets across each project
There are a few for sure. We’re very spoiled first off living in Southern California. I think all of our work embraces the relationship to the outdoors, whether that’s visual or more. There are often direct connections between the interior spaces and exterior spaces. When able, we have walls that open up, like walls of glass that slide away. For example, a living room: the way we’re designing them to be used all of the windows are completely gone, so it’s basically covered outdoor space. There’s an idea of continuity between indoor and outdoor space that I’d say is consistent throughout the firm’s work. Even if we’re working in a climate like Houston or we’re building a residential tower in Taipei, maybe we can’t do it to the extent that we do it in California, but we’re always looking for ways to incorporate nature and light and air and bring that sense of nature and the outdoors into the interior experience.
We also believe in the honesty of materiality. We like to use materials for their own characteristics. We don’t like to use materials that are painted. If a material patinas in a certain way, we embrace that, we don’t try to artificially sustain that. We find steel that rusts or wood that is let go to weather very beautiful. We try not to use too much paint. We call that an honesty of materials and I think that’s pretty consistent throughout the work. We like unobstructed, natural spaces instead of chopping things up into smaller rooms. We think that houses should be like a social mixer and so people should learn to live with each other and enjoy each other’s company.
On projects that represent the firm’s unique approach
There’s a house called the Carrillo Residence, which is a house for a young family in the Palisades. That’s a good example of how we’ve used the land well. Typically in suburban setups you have a front yard, you have a house and a backyard. What we tried to do in this case was move the house over to the side and make it as narrow as possible so that the side yard becomes this connecting piece between front and back. This exposes more of the house to the exterior. This lot also happened to have a canyon view on the back end. We developed a living room that was essentially a glass box. So now what happens when you step on this property is that you can see all the way through the property through the living room to the canyon. So it’s all about accessing the site and understanding the assets and the limitations.
After understanding the client we developed a very calming very simple material palette for the house. If you were to see a photograph of the living room for instance it would be a good illustration of these indoor outdoor connections. On one side of the living room the entire side opens up to the outside with these full height glass doors. The interior ceiling material, the wood runs from the inside to the outside and the stone cladding from the exterior runs from the outside to the inside. There are all these ways we’re trying to blur the boundaries if you will.
Another example would be the Waldfogel Residence which is in Palo Alto, CA. I use this because it is a very high finish house. Again, as far as land use goes the house is in a corner lot. We developed what we call a pinwheel plan so the house sits in the middle of these four distinct courtyards. There’s an entryway court, a dining courtyard, a court for the client’s study and a main family court. The idea is we’re trying to use all of the land effectively and experientially, not throwing away anything. This house also has great examples of materials that run from the indoors to the outdoors. We have this metal ceiling that runs in and out and also the wood paneling on the ground floor runs inside and outside blurring the boundaries between the two spaces. In this case it’s in Northern California where it’s a little cooler so the house doesn’t open completely up, but we try to do it visually so you have this sense of extension. The spaces are not huge but by having this visual connection to the outdoors it makes us feel much larger.
On his design process
We have a thorough process. The first part is a very personal interview with the client. We ask our clients to write us a letter asking for what they want in the house and it is very telling. Some people just provide us with a laundry list of requirements. Some people are much more forthcoming. They talk about how they want to wake up and feel the sun on their face and things like that. Then we usually start with sketching big ideas freehand. We’ll even start with what we call sketch models. These are models that are handmade and rough. They’re just sort of about ideas. We’ll feel like this analog process early on is really important. But at the same time we completely embrace the digital. We use Revit. That’s our software platform. But we also have people who are very capable in other platforms, Rhino, Grasshopper and others. We use those all as tools and bounce back and forth. Once we’re digital and the plans or drawings are hard-lined we don’t abandon the analog or the sketching or the model making. There’s a constant dialogue between the two and I think that’s telling to how we look at the profession and how we’re leveraging the different levels of experience in the office. There are people who have been doing this for decades and there people who are just out of school that are amazing wizards on the computer. We want to take advantage of all those sorts of talents.
On the firm’s aspirations for the next 5-10 years
That’s a really interesting topic. This past year we were the National AIA’s firm award winner. There’s only one a year. The AIA is putting us on a pedestal and saying “this is a model firm.” This both honors our past and what we’ve accomplished over the past 35 years but it’s also giving a nod to our future potential. Right now we’re undergoing a transition in the practice where the founder, Steven Ehrlich, brought on myself as a Partner as well as Mathew Chaney and Patricia Rhee. It’s evolving. We want there to be a legacy. I think what we do see is that our approach, the cultural approach to architecture has value and there is a timeless quality to it. That’s what we have embraced. Technologies can be part of this larger ethos of how to create architecture. That’s what we find exciting. We’re proponents of architecture that is really grounded in spaces and location and in my case with the residential studio grounded in the people who are going to occupy them.
On the future of architecture in the next 5-10 years
There are two things that come to mind. First is digital fabrication, the way architecture can produce. Of all the creative disciplines I think architecture is lagging behind the furthest. We’re still relying on old ways that builders are building buildings. I think that’s slowly changing obviously. I think that will change, so when we create a digital model there is going to be a more direct process between art and design and how things are fabricated. The technology is still nascent. There’s the promise of it there but it’s not there yet. We embrace that completely. At the same time we want to be mindful that there’s this thing called craft and humanity so I think our architecture is one of humanism. We always want to balance technology with that understanding that we’re building for people. People ultimately build the buildings for people as well. Technology is just a tool. That tool in the hands of a craftsperson is better used. It’s not just technology.
The other part about technology that I think is fascinating is social media. Architects believe in public space. Even a house is a series of spaces that bring people together. I think social media is interesting because it’s a sort of technology-driven digital space that brings people together. I think as architects we need to understand that this social media is as real as real space. What that means I’m not quite sure yet, but I think that our analog between digital space and real space will affect architecture. In the meantime, I’m a huge proponent of social media. I think it’s important to get out there and connect like-minded people.
On advice he would give his younger self
I think it would be very similar to what that professor told me, which is don’t be in a hurry. Being in architecture and being a creative person requires a broad perspective. Being a young architect in particular is really hard. They used to say you’re not truly an architect until you’re 60 or something like that. I think there’s truth to that. You need a perspective on the world and a perspective on life. That’s impossible to impart on a twenty-something year old, but you can encourage them to get out there and explore. Don’t be holed up in studio 24 hours a day. Don’t forget there’s a whole world outside studio. Travel. Explore. Meet people with different points of view.
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