New Normal Toshiko Mori
Toshiko Mori

The New Normal interview series: Designing a better tomorrow

Architect Toshiko Mori on the role of design in shaping life after the pandemic. By Marcus Webb

By Time Out Tokyo Editors
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The ongoing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic is changing our world in unprecedented ways. In this series of conversations with movers and shakers from both Japan and elsewhere, we’re taking a look at how the pandemic is already transforming city life and what changes are still on the horizon. Hoping to find out what’s to come for society, daily life and the environment, and eager to hear how urban space will accommodate and leverage the ‘new normal’, we’ve lined up interviews with experts from a wide range of fields. This time we’re talking with Toshiko Mori, Founder and Principal of Toshiko Mori Architect and one of the world’s most prominent architects.

This is part of the New Normal interview series. For the list of features, click here.

We need to change the spaces we live and work in

‘Architects are very busy at the moment because of this crisis. There are many new challenges that we must adapt to, and we are working with clients to make informed decisions with regard to spatial use. The big question is how to create public spaces which include social distancing measures, improved ventilation and sanitation, and generally a better experience for everybody. How will this work in libraries? Botanical gardens? Museums? Schools? I think it’s completely possible and we can adapt.

‘Open spaces for public use are essential, and I think we need to be finding open spaces in a variety of facilities, such as plazas – why have a large, purely decorative tulip bed, when you can instead create a space that encourages people to walk around, where the flowers are able to be enjoyed? We’re currently working on a project with the aim of transforming a pier into a public park. A pier is an interesting typology because it’s long and narrow, making it easier to control social distancing and how many people are let in at a time. It’s a lucky accident, but this park fits these times.

‘The crisis is also changing people’s homes. I work on residential projects, and nearly every one of my past clients has moved to working from home, specifically to the vacation homes we designed for them, all in remote locations outside the city. I think this will continue in the future. People are realising that they don’t necessarily need to come to work, they can in fact be productive working from home. Moving forward, there will certainly be a heightened demand for the creation of spaces that allow residents to comfortably work from home so that your kids and pets are not all over you.’

Creating more inclusive cities

‘More people working from home means a huge transformation in the function and use of office buildings. I live in New York and it’s crazy to think that skyscrapers may be empty because of social distancing. The same in Tokyo. But I don’t think this crisis will be the end of cities.

‘Cities are desirable because you can walk everywhere, and there is inherently a higher density of amenities. Museums will still continue, there will still be concerts – maybe with fewer people – but culture is not going to die. The food business is booming with deliveries, and this is again a specifically urban phenomenon; in fact we’re getting everything delivered. This goes beyond Amazon: local farmers, local delis, local small businesses, are all delivering in New York and I think that will continue. Urban communities can also support improvements and upgrades for hospitals and medical systems. So I’m a firm believer in urban communities. If we empty [office] spaces, we will need to remake these places so people might actually start living in them.

‘I think one of the things we are most heartbroken about in New York is the very clear division the virus has exposed in terms of income inequality. The cases are highest in lower income communities, which include the vast majority of essential workers, and where health care and living conditions are statistically worse. It just cannot continue like this. We really have to focus on concrete actions to create equality though increased access to resources, quality health care, and affordable housing, to name a few. We can’t continue to accept this gap. Everybody in the city can help to support better facilities and strengthened infrastructure, but if people disperse from urban centers, we will lose this potential that density can facilitate. We are completely interdependent; we can’t live without each other. So how can cities get citizens, communities and small businesses involved so they can feel they are part of a larger community and that they have a role to play?’

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The time to act is now

‘I think architects have a huge role to play [in shaping the future], but we have to be more flexible and adaptable. I think the old masterplan, in which it took us 10-15 years for things to be built, needs to go out the window. We have to get into the mindset of using existing resources more efficiently, adapting them and coming up with short term strategies. Look for the low hanging fruit – in a day you can fix an office layout. In another week you can have more hand sanitizing systems. Architects now have to think in terms of time, as well as space… We can’t wait any longer to adapt to these phenomena which caught us by surprise.’

What Tokyo can teach the world

‘Tokyo should probably be more vocal about how and why it has lower death rates [from Covid-19 than many other dense urban environments]. I think it has to do with some culturally Asian habits. Frequent handwashing is a habit, mask wearing is a habit, gargling is a habit, taking one’s shoes off when inside, having one’s own personal bowl, set of chopsticks etc. at home, are all habits. There’s ancient and contemporary wisdom in these sanitary customs that can be broken down into specific pieces of advice to be practiced outside of Japan.

‘Tokyo should also publicise its public sanitation practices as guidelines for other global cities, I think they’re some of the best in the world. These overall protocols result in healthier urban spaces, streets free of garbage, and cleaner public transportation. It took this pandemic for New York City to even begin to implement a plan for disinfecting the subway regularly! Especially now, no one trusts public spaces in New York to be clean— as the city begins to re-open, people still don’t feel comfortable riding the subway. We could learn a lot from Tokyo.’ 

New Normal
Photo: Ralph Gibson

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Toshiko Mori

Toshiko Mori is one of the world’s most respected architects. Her firm Toshiko Mori Architect was founded in New York City in 1981 and is known for an innovative approach to ecologically sensitive siting strategies, historical context, and a blending of new and traditional materials. Recent projects include master plans for the Brooklyn Public Library and Buffalo Botanical Gardens; the Thread Cultural Center and Artists’ Residences in Sinthian, Senegal; and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Stephen Robert ’62 Hall at Brown University. Mori is also the Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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