An Interview with Ken Fukushima

October 18, 2013 at 4:19 am

by David Fujino
September 2013

kfukushima-profile-photoBorn in Toronto in 1959, and raised in Rexdale, Ken Fukushima is a man of many parts. Better known as an architect, he has designed projects like the Art Gallery of Windsor, the Public Library at Jane and Sheppard, and a pavilion for the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. He’s taught judo at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre four times a week for years in a true spirit of volunteerism. And in the last few years, Ken has been exhibiting his artwork more regularly, including at annual community art shows like Artsu Matsuri at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. While his landscapes — such as those in Calendar Room — are based on classic Japanese landscapes by the 15th century painter, Toyo Sesshu, Ken’s drawings are independent — they are the product of a thinking eye and a disciplined intelligence and his drawings combine his architect and artist personalities. The conceptual content in Ken’s work is impressive. With their dense blacks, reds, and sparkling whites, his drawings often look like wood block or silkscreen prints. But these are traditional hand and eye drawings and the solid black areas are all drawn in by hand. His recent solo art show of drawings and box constructions, Ken Fukushima: Near and Far, at the JCCC Art Gallery, from May 2 to June 29, 2013, heralded the arrival of a fine talent. The wooden box constructions were inspired by Kobo Abe’s novel, The Boxman, in which the character declares, “Instead of leaving the box, I shall enclose the world within it. Now the world must have closed its eyes.” Of course, we`re not suggesting that Ken Fukushima  is trying to box himself in and keep the world out. Far from it, but I do feel he`s succeeded in practising his art in a box of his own making.

In general, do you work well with deadlines?

I work great with deadlines. Put it this way, I think I need deadlines, although, as I get older, I’m trying to avoid referring to them as deadlines, I prefer to call them targets.

A popular view is that architects like Frank Gehry — a sculptor, in my view — are more creative than many architects who work with box forms, box forms like Toronto’s twin black TD towers. And yet, Toshio Yaniguchi’s 2004 redesign of MOMA in New York — essentially a series of box structures — has been highly praised for its serenity, its openness to the street , and for its beauty. Where do you stand, or lean towards, on boxes?

I can appreciate both. The attention to detail describes Taniguchi’s work. Paul Valery, the writer-philosopher in [Eupalinos, or The Architect?] said that in architecture there are no details. I’ve taken that to heart.  But to name a detail, you also name its opposite. In architecture, something should work near and far, and inside and outside, so therefore it’s all details, and it addresses the notion of craft, as in the case of a box. The craft needs to be exquisite, otherwise, it’s just a box. In the case of Gehry, there might be limitations in crafting the form. As architects, we rely on others to craft our work. We don’t cut stone or titanium. We envision how others can do it for us. I really admire the work of Tadao Ando — simple geometry, purity, craftsmanship, clarity of vision.

What do you think about loyalty?

I highly value loyalty. I find this a hard question to answer. I can’t think of what I value more than loyalty. I have a problem dealing with a lack of loyalty, but I highly respect different points of view — different loyalties. That’s fundamental to bushido.

Love … discipline … devotion — these words speak to the different things you do. For example, what part does love — or something that’s a labour of love — play in your multi-level-and-multi-part drawings and box constructions? Can we start with love — and your art?

You can’t define love —it’s not quantifiable or reducible to words — but we know it. We experience it, we believe it, we believe it’s real. I think love is the reason to be, and love defines us — as individuals and as a society. I think love is the reason we do what we do.

Public libraries and community centres are places where community can form, or in extreme cases like Jane and Sheppard, public libraries also become a place of community and refuge for citizens.  You’re the architect of these buildings. Was the Jane and Sheppard Library project partly about trying to create some form of community?

Libraries can be enablers as well as —or more than — places of refuge. Jane-Sheppard library was a  cathartic experience in my career. From a business point of view, it took 7 years from start to opening. From a business perspective, it was a financial disaster. But on the day it opened, there was a line-up to get in and there were 900 people within an hour. It made me realize — before this library was built — that there was no here, here. Now, I’m not a doctor or a first responder. I don’t save lives. I’m not a pilot — I don’t take off and land planes safely. But it made me realize that as an architect I’d taken part in doing something to help people and community. I realized then, that it was all worthwhile.

As an architect, artist, husband and father, and a judoka, what part does devotion and discipline play in your life?

I find the question provocative in the best sense. I come back to the root of love. In personal relationships, this crazy thing we do called love gives meaning to the things we do. At the same time, it defines our ‘normal.’ In my architectural work, I analyze ‘things’ — spaces, uses, materials, colours, even dollars and time. In my architecture, art, and teaching, I work hard to find a balance, a balance that is dynamic, and therefore I think I need to be open-minded about it.

Does ambition ever figure into your practices?

Not so much. My ambition as an architect and teacher is for others: a building enabled people to do something they couldn’t do before. Did I teach a student to do something they couldn’t do before? Can I make the student achieve more than me?

What made you go off and establish your own architectural practise?

See the answer to question five. I worked in a corporate environment for 20 plus years. The chief financial officer of my former firm was a businessman. He wasn’t an architect. He commented that the architecture business is a fundamentally stupid business because we work really hard to put ourselves out of business. We’re hired to devote our talent and resources to design a facility for our clients, and when it’s done, the client benefits going forward, and we’re looking for another job. I started my own business because, after 25 years of working in a corporate environment —which was fundamentally flawed from a business point of view — I thought I should devote the rest of my career to be in a small business where I can devote my personal attention to helping clients and communities, directly, in order to effect positive change.

What do you expect of your son?

I expect him to take responsibility for his actions and I hope he will always know that I will stand by himbecause I love him. I’m glad he’s in university, and I’m glad we can talk about mixed martial arts. And I’m glad that he’s seen and been effected by seeing the favellas [shanty towns] in Brazil and poverty in the Amazon. He’s formulating his own view of economic and environmental imbalances and the luxury we have of living in Canada. But with luxury should come come political responsibility to help others. I believe my life has been easier than my parents’, and way easier than my grandparents’. I remind myself of that, and I hope my son will appreciate this without having to experience the same hardships as my parents and grandparents.

Would you please explain what you mean when you say you’re ‘always drawing the same drawing?’

The French writer, Maurice Blanchot, said — and I’m paraphrasing — that for the writer, the piece of work is an external description of a continuous endeavour. The work is of one piece. My drawings are explorations of perspective drawings. I see my drawings and mixed media constructions as a continuous exploration into capturing different points of view in drawing.

Why is art the ‘ultimate’ form of expression for you?

It’s the ultimate form of inspiration. Art exists in the real world and artists make — or do — something to provoke thought, feeling, actions:  in other words, they work to inspire other people.

You’ve been a judoka since the age of nine — what keeps you involved with judo?

Judo — like shodo [calligraphy]and chanoyu [tea ceremony] — you do to become enlightened through studying something as a way of life, as a way of learning. The vehicle —whether martial arts or  calligraphy — is simply that, a vehicle. The goal is to become a better person and a better member of society. Judo is a lifelong pursuit. It keeps me grounded and aware of how little I know. At the same time, I’m teaching people who are taking the same path. In a way, I wonder whether I’ve helped more people in judo than in architecture. The more I teach, the more I have more to learn.

Friendship … I wondered … are you still friends with anyone from high school?

Yes, I am. Through technology [the internet and social media], I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to re-connect with them at the age of 54, and it’s easy to say I love them, which is not something I could have said at age 18. I know now that friendship is love, and even if I’ve drifted apart from some friends over a 35-year period, I know that I loved them when I was 17. I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to re-connect with some of them through social media. When we were 18, speaking cell phones and digital watches were the stuff of science fiction. [See Ramon Roussel’s novel, The Banquet Years] Yes, I’ve maintained friendships with people I’ve known since high school, and I love them. I appreciate that social media enables us to stay connected with and re-connect with friends because time can be the enemy of friendship. Through no bad intentions, people drift apart. I think we’re so lucky because— for example, Facebook — enables us to reconnect and stay connected with our friends in ways that were not previously possible.

Ken Fukushima links

JCCC Judo Kai

Ken Fukushima Art

Ken Fukushima Architecture