This website uses cookies to enhance the user experience.


Toshiko Mori: Shattering Expectations in Architecture

"There's no such thing as glass ceilings in architecture." Designer, educator, visionary: New York–based Toshiko Mori is one of the most respected names in her profession today.

Toshiko Mori. Photo: Ralph Gibson


Designer, educator, visionary: Toshiko Mori is one of the most respected names in architecture today. On this episode, Dan and the award-winning talent and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (and the former chair of Harvard’s Department of Architecture) chat about her influential projects in remote regions of Senegal, breaking barriers for women in the profession, her early memories of life in Japan, and more.

Listen to this episode


Toshiko Mori: There’s no such thing as glass ceilings in architecture. What exists is a fat layer of white men, and I respect them. I like strong ideas, I like challenges. And what I really like is to be challenged, and then come back with answers, and then keep continue to challenge them. That’s what I meant by, I’m not subservient, I’m never going to listen to what they tell me. Voice your own opinions, with your own set of thinking, and your own set of values.

Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. In order to be a successful architect, you need vision, taste, lots of luck and a sense of slow burn discipline, that few other career choices require. And if you are a woman in the profession in say, the 1980s, that’s something else entirely. My guest today is one of the most influential and inspiring American names in the field, who brings a sensitive and careful eye to everything she touches, while passing on her knowledge to the next generation as an educator of the highest degree, Toshiko Mori. Born in Kobe raised in post-war Japan, Toshiko came to the US to study at New York’s Cooper Union.

She started her own firm soon thereafter. And today, her practice is known for such elegantly modern, for lack of a better word which we’ll get into, buildings such as a master plan for the Brooklyn Public Library, a hall for Brown University, a pavilion for the Brooklyn Museum, various galleries and exhibition designs, private homes, and notably the award-winning and influential visitor center for the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York. As she once wrote in her monograph, architecture is a noble profession, and ultimately it exists to improve the quality of life. Each opportunity we are given to build a project we take as a gift. In return we engage each project with compassion, attempting to capture an ethereal vision that will carry it into the future. Ethereal is a great word to use when describing her work and impact. And key to that understanding is her teaching career.

She steadily taught at her alma mater until joining the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and became a tenured professor there in 1995. It’s hard to believe, but she was the first female faculty member to become tenured at GSD at the time. She then became the department chair for six years in 2002. She’s still teaching at Harvard today, while running her own firm. Toshiko has won numerous awards, and her latest is the inaugural Philip Hanson Hiss Award from Architecture Sarasota, a nod to her work in Florida, and a reputation as someone who knows the power of context in architecture. I caught up with Toshiko from her studio in New York to talk about her groundbreaking work for remote communities in Senegal, her earliest memories of life in Japan, her views on modernism, and what it’s like to take a course under the watchful eye of Professor Mori.

Well, thank you again so much for doing this. I’m so honored to speak with you. And you have such an incredible career, and an incredible body of work, and I’m going to try to get as through as much as I can today. But I wanted to start at the very beginning. You were raised in Kobe, Japan, but you moved to New York when you were about 14. So, I’m wondering what some of your earliest memories were of your childhood in Japan in that period?

I think my childhood in Japan is, I grew up post-World War II. So, Japan was still occupied by American Army, and we lived across from a site where a family of combined friends of our neighbors donated part of their land and converted them into their housing. So, from my garden in my yard, I could see them, the kids. And they were on the fence waving at us, and I waved at the kids. So, it’s occupied time, but I saw it as American family’s military life there. So, the mothers were taking care of their kids, so it looked normal. So, we didn’t feel what you call, a military pressure. And I really didn’t think or know that we were occupied. We learned much later.

Because I read somewhere that you had to farm vegetables on that land that you just described, because there was a sort of little bit of a shortage of food at the time.

Oh yeah, right, post-World War II. We had to grow our vegetables, we had our own chickens. I was in charge of the chicken coop, and we had our own eggs, so we had to supply a lot on our own. There was a shortage of food and shortage of materials. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t go buy toys. So, everything was handmade by my mother, or we made the toys. And my childhood was hard to face with scarcity. But thank goodness to the wisdom and grace of my mother and grandmother, I just never felt we are living in scarce economy. We thought this is the way it is. We learned to conserve and also save everything. And I like to draw, so they would save every wrapping paper available and straighten them out, and I would draw on the back of wrapping paper.

My grandmother would save every single string and rubber band, and everything is very neatly stored, and just no waste, including food. We ate everything, and were very creative about figuring out. But later I found out that mostly exquisite cuisine in Kyoto comes from that spirit. Because Kyoto also doesn’t have a natural resources in the middle of mountains. So, they had to aestheticize what you considered to be scarce into an amazing food culture. So, it seems to be that particular notion, aesthetics. Because we grew up in the Western part of our country, and my aunt lived in Kyoto. So, I think my grandmother was able to translate that aesthetic into the actual scarcity crisis and made something beautiful out of it.

Oh, wow. And what did your parents do?

My mother is a housewife. My father was in international trade. He would be in South America, he was in Buenos Aires for a long stretch of time, he’ll go back and forth to New York also. And at that time I think Japan was able to work scrap metal. So, he was in charge of scrap metal, which is waste from military in the Northeast. And then that will be reused or recycled into a new metal. And he will be buying scrap metal from elsewhere, and that’s beginning of a large steel factory industry in Japan. 

So, at that point you moved to New York when you were about 14. How did that happen?

Well, because my father was transferred to New York. And he was in charge of North and South America. And based in New York, he could actually do work, go to all the places in South America, and then also all the Americas. So he was stationed in New York, so we moved.

What was that culture shock like for you coming to New York at that time? I think my mom immigrated to New York around 16, and she would tell me how difficult it was and her experiences. But what was that like for you?

New York was great, and it was very exciting. We lived in Riverdale right on looking at Hudson River. So, it has a very big impact. I would just see the cliff across as majestic nature. So, my impression was really not looking at skyscrapers until later, but this incredible majestic nature of Grand Hudson River and then the cliff. Then I really felt like America is more based upon nature than industrial civilizations. That’s my first expression. And Riverdale was very leafy, and I could walk to summer school. And first I went to summer school at Fieldston, which is very progressive and liberal. It’s too liberal. And I was going to go there, I was very much looking forward to it. But I think they put me in into a girl’s Catholic school.

And how did you find yourself at going to The Cooper Union? And you mentioned you had a love of drawing. But at what point did that kind of connect to that school, after the Catholic school?

Right. During the Catholic school, there’s very not art classes, and I liked art, and I was not very happy. So, my father let me go to summer school in Paris and Florence. And in Florence, I met this amazing teacher named Leonard Meiselman, who’s a Cooper Union graduate. And he was a Cooper Union architecture graduate, but he was also teaching summer classes for American students in architectural history, art history and architecture. And he would take us through the cities and museums, and it was eyeopening for me. Because I really figured out with them the relationship between painting, sculpture and architecture in cities. And then, of course, the scientific renaissance and scientific innovation discoveries, how it’s related to arts history. 

And I was absolutely fascinated by it. And then it was both also drawing courses, too. And he recommended me to look at Cooper Union because he’s a graduate. Introduced me to the dean there, he said, “Why don’t you go and see him?” And I went to see him and talk to him. And Cooper Union even, yeah, to this day they have their own exams, so you have to sit in a great hall and take exams.

And so, do you think you kind of took to the culture there, what was that experience like going to school there? Was it a fun experience?

Oh, I loved it. So, I first got into art school. And after one year of art school I transferred to architecture school. Because I was just looking at architecture, but my background of knowing Florence and so forth, I was always interested in it, and transferred to architecture second year. So, I ended up going to Cooper Union for six years and I loved every moment of it. It was so inspiring. And in art school, Dore Ashton was a professor of modern history. She would bring in amazing people. And during school, physics, so astro-physics were taught by Nobel Prize laureates. And then architecture school was run by John Hejduk. And at that time we had amazing professors, New York five, Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meyer was there, and later on Bernard Tschumi would come, and Raimund Abraham, Peter Eisenman. I think I was in the best time I think with students, fellow students, also professors.

I was going to ask about John Hejduk, because he was this legendary dean there. And I read that you had studied under him. And I was wondering if you could explain to people who he was, aside from just being a famous educator, what do you think his legacy was on the impact of design on the students there?

So, John Hejduk is an architect, and also embraced all the other arts, literature, painting, music, photography. And he really considered architecture as part of our major culture. So, he would bring in poets, and he would bring in artists to talk to us. And he would have artist teachers. And also his concerns, he wouldn’t say it as a social, but it is very social. He’s done series of projects on victims. And also, he has this idea of society, it’s kind of predicted, a little bit kind of sad and terrible state of society we see today. He’s always had these concerns about future of the generations, and he is optimistic but also tragic. He more so as a personality, what made him an amazing educator. He had a more a spiritual aspect.

He could actually read beyond what you’re doing. And he’s tried to understand the depths of your motives. As a teacher, he’s amazing, it’s just not teaching whatever’s in the books already. But he was trying to bring up what’s unique about each of a student and have a conversation individually about it. And because of he’s incredibly well disciplined, and very strict and demanding in terms of productivity, you are supposed to be producing all the time, focused on that. And then intensity of a discipline in which you really have to think about your project from all sorts of perspectives. And not in prosaic way, but more poetic way, and more approach, personal approach.

Let me ask you this, was that approach at the time at The Cooper Union like a rare thing?

It was rare thing. Very rare thing. Because if you go to any other school, so architecture, it’s more pragmatic and prosaic, and present based, it’s very dry. But this approach is very humanistic and then personal. And it also asked us, what is your role in society? What is your role in culture? So we have to really think not only architecture as a profession, but who you are, what you’ve become, what are you contributing to society at large? So one is made to think a lot. Before you draw a line you have to think about all these things.

And I heard that you had worked for another architect, Edward Larrabee Barnes after school, is that right?

Right after school. Yes, yes.

Yeah. And what did you learn going into the corporate world, and going into to another architect studio outside of school for the first time? What was that like?

Well, at that time architects offices are more studios. I think Ed Barnes’ office was like a big family. And we had a studio which a section is doing different projects together. He would come around. And this is at the time when Ed Barnes would be one-to-one with CEO. Like, we were working on IBM, he’ll be just directly presenting and talking to Tom Watson Jr for example. And all sorts of director of museum would come in and he would have artists come in. So it wasn’t corporate in atmosphere at all. We were all included in meetings, and then going to visits or presentations. 

And we felt like this was part of it. It’s let’s say, they have done corporate work, but it never felt corporate-like. It was, yeah, so it’s very strange that way. Even though we were working skyscrapers on IBM, 590 Madison Avenue, we were just working together as a team, and going to the site and talking directly to managers. So, I don’t know, it’s very different than the offices from what you consider to be corporate offices with top management, middle management people, division of tasks. It was more blurred then.

Oh, amazing. And I guess from that early foundation to today, if someone asked you…And I know this is something that comes up a lot, and I don’t think you’re someone that likes to describe your work in specific ways, or you have a specific aesthetic that you’re always trying to push or anything like that, as probably most great architects don’t. If someone wanted to ask you about what makes one of your projects, your projects, or even from a process point of view, or a way you think about it, how would you describe your work to a completely uninitiated person?

Well I think, I hate to impose my style, but I also take amazing amount of joy by drawing essences of my client or the site. And I like to do research. I’ve always been an academic, because, well, when I was working at Ed Barnes office, John Hejduk did invite me to come back and teach at Cooper Union. And then for I’ve always taught in practice in parallel all the time. It just never stopped. So, the research part of it is very important. And every client, every site, I do a research and I love to discover new things. My style is really drawing a essence of each project, each client, to get in touch with really sensibility or aesthetics that is very…How do I say? 

It’s not tangible, but you can sense it, you can really sense the space when you actually go deep into understanding of it, and when you actually make a design out of that particular understanding. You end up a place where everybody thinks, “Oh this feels like this place, this feels like this institution,” or, “This place feels like somebody’s home.” Which is very different from anyone else. And I like that. So a lot of people would say that there is certain basics. My designs are usually more minimum, and clean and precise. But in terms of style, I really don’t have it. I know how I put it together is always there, but it’s very different from project to the project.

So, when you graduated from The Cooper Union, what did you tell yourself that your role in society was? What were you trying to…What did you think your next…

I did not know. Because, you’re so young, and at the same time you want to do a lot of things and you make a lot of mistakes. So, you’re balancing between your curiosity, your desire, and to learn and see lot of things, and against what you can do. So, before I can find out what I can do, I really have to find out what’s out there.


Toshiko Mori’s renovation of The Brooklyn Public Library. Photo: Gregg Richards, Courtesy Toshiko Mori Architect

And at what point did you switch from wanting to work for somebody else to having your own studio?

So, I think when I turned 30, I had made a very arbitrary decision to go on my own. Basically, if you don’t do it, you never do it. And I think I learned a lot from Meyer’s office. I thought that I just have to take a deep breath and then just hang up the shingles as they say.

And some of your first projects were in fashion retail. Who was your first client, your first big client?

It was Geri, Miss Stutz, who was president of Henri Bendel at that time on 57th Street.

Oh, okay, wow.

So, again-

That’s the biggest New York gig you can get at the time.

Right. So, I was like ignorant and fearless, and I wrote up my portfolio. I made an appointment and showed how my portfolio and my thesis was called Places of Transactions. It’s about history of market, and started from Greek Agora markets, and Romans and then it goes into stock market. Venice as the center of a commerce started a credit business, and things like that. And then it’s really about different prototype for markets. And that’s why I thought that she might be interested in idea. Because at that time, Henri Bendel was called Street of Markets.

She had the layout or store as one street. It’s like a classic marketplace, has different showcase of the new designers in it. And she commissioned me to do a new boutique within Henri Bendels for the first shop of Comme des Garcons. And that was my thesis really, thesis model. She said, “Why don’t you build it 160 square feet, and this probably work very well with this young designer label we are introducing.” So, that’s how it started.

And that was the total introduction of Comme des Garçons in New York I guess at the time?

Right, right, first one. And then the family called Weisers walked by, and they had a store called Charivari in New York. And you are a baby, so you won’t remember. It was a really ’80s and ’90s. And Charivari also introduced new Japanese Belgian designers. They had a whole bunch of shops on West Side and ended up on East Side also. So, they commissioned to do a store on 79th Amsterdam, and then some on Madison Avenue, and make systems or display systems. And then from there it led up to different boutiques on Madison Avenue.

So, of course, as a professor at Harvard you’ll always be noted as the first female tenured member of the graduate school there, which happened in ’95, which is not that long ago. And at the time did you ever doubt that that was going to happen at the time? Did you ever think, if you were the first in that faculty back in ’95, was it something where you kind of doubted that it could have happened, or anything like that?

No, I had no idea. I found out much later, I was a first female tenure faculty, and also first colored BIPOC member of a tenured faculty there. This is much later. I think Harvard at that time didn’t care what you are, and in their own way, as long as you qualify. This is before any…We are rare. I think I’m considered to be an accident, being a female and being colored member at that time was very accidental. That’s how somebody actually said that. And I said, “Okay.” But the whole recognition and they came, oh my God, it’s much later, maybe even 10 years later I didn’t think about it.

How were you introduced to Harvard? How did that start?

Oh, Rafael Moneo invited me to teach Ocean Studio. And Rafael, he’s very heavy Spanish accent. “I think you have to come, you have to teach a studio.” When Rafael Moneo asks you something you have to say yes, you have to say. And I say, “Okay, I’m coming.”

So, what are you like as a teacher?

I’m very strict. I’m very demanding, and really organized and disciplined. Because as I think I tend to give students more assignments and more structured assignment. Because students I have are capable of learning enormous amount of materials. And the broader materials I give them, better they’ve performed. Because it gives them brighter horizon. And as you can imagine these days, I have students from all over the world, and all sorts of different backgrounds. And they bring enormous amount of wealth to the classroom. So, as a teacher I have to really give a broader background material for them to be able to bring in. 

But I’ve always done that, because my focus was on materials and exploration of material culture, which necessarily I have to bring in example not only from Eurocentric examples and presidents known to us, but I have to do a research from Asia, especially Japan, South America and Africa, rest of the world. Material study is a world culture studies. And that’s how I always conceived of it. And I also get comment that I’m a very strict teacher because I really give them a lot of requirements, and making sure I’m not very easy. I think I like to be with students, and I like to promote what they bring.

In what way?

In a way, sometimes they may have to redo drawings or models, because they come up with a stereotypical idea what they learn from past. But somehow that’s not their personality. So, one has to invent a different ways of drawing or making models really. You’d be surprised how so many students are molded in a stereotypical way where they’re ready to burst out. So, my role as a teacher is to help them break the mold, so they can actually be on their own. Educational system has challenges and I think on all creativity, I think that’s what I do is promote creativity in an innovative way of thinking. Originality only comes from breaking the given mold into finding his or her own path.

And as someone who teaches these sort of the best and the brightest, how would you describe this upcoming next generation of architects? How is this new generation unique?

They are great. They give me hope. And they also very much want to contribute to the world in a community, in a very direct way. Is they don’t necessarily want to go work for star architects anymore. And they want to discover humanistic values. And I think it’s very, very important this shift has happened. A couple generation ago the ambition was to become a next star architect and do incredible buildings, incredible beautiful commissions, win competitions. So, those are the ambitions a couple generation ago.

Now generation gets value system change. I don’t think any of them think that way. Of course there are always a few, well let’s think that way. But they think that going into community, and also many of them are discovering a new mode in terms of founding their own nonprofit, or collaborative work, work with communities. They are finding much more different ways of working as an architect. And it only comes with confidence and their optimism of this generation. And also the mentality that they know as a crisis if they don’t do something different, working as usual will not solve equity, justice or climate change, the major crisis we are facing today.

And when do you think that shift changed? Is there-

It’s been gradual. It’s been very gradual. And I’ve been teaching material seminar classes, and I asked students to pick a material. It’s always been standard architectural materials, glass, metal, wood, concrete, stone, the catalog of materials. But the last couple years, the shift is that, I think the last one I taught, students all picked biological natural materials to see how the grass or even corn or sugar cane can convert into materials. In the back of their mind they know they are agricultural wastes, and how that could be used, how the waste can be transformed into material of architecture. 

So, the way of thinking as a lifecycle use of materials has changed a lot. And also connection, connection to nature. The resource idea of where are the resources coming from, and how the architecture becoming some of the wasteful industries, and how do we prevent that? How do we go away from using steel or concrete? So, that kind of thinking has been gradual, about 5 to 10 years.


You were recently given an award by Architecture Sarasota, the Philip Hanson Hiss Award, congratulations. I think I probably speak for most people, unless you’re a real architecture buff, that I didn’t know much about the modernist legacy out there. And what can you tell me about it?

Well, Sarasota has always attracted architects in 20th century, including Paul Rudolph, and Philip Hiss came from New York to be there. And then he became a developer, he became a patron of architecture, and became an amazing place of, at that time, experimental architecture. And climate is very nice, mild and semi-tropical. So, outdoor life is possible. So, one can actually do a type of architecture which connected inside and outside. And I think because of that, one can do buildings very quickly as experimental, and they still remain. It just became an unusual community like Palm Springs is that way in West Coast, and so is New Canaan, Connecticut is also that example. And some parts of Cape in Massachusetts also encouraged, in parts of LA near Silver Lake.

So, it was like an expression of modernism that wasn’t desert modernism. And it wasn’t New Canaan new, it was Florida tropical kind of-

Right, exactly.

A different thing.

Yep. But if you can see all the examples, they have really considered natural ventilation, and orientation to sun and shade. So, the passive solar is all considered. So, it becomes hot, but none of them have air conditioning, and it has very ideal relationship to breeze and shade. So, it’s incredibly ecologically considerate.

Before it was cool.

Yeah, yeah. So, for them it was common sense. And they are very beautiful. So, it’s actually light, the quality of light is beautiful and it’s right on the gulf.

And speaking of this award, and also from your experience teaching and your own work, I’m wondering if you could share for listeners what your own view on mid-century modernism, and modernism in architecture in general, is as a force in architecture today? As I think people now bring a lot of baggage to that and have lots of different points of view. What do you think modernism means today in the year 2023 in architecture? What are people misunderstanding about it? Or maybe they’re not, I don’t know.

Well it’s a style, and it’s a period of time from late ’40s to ’50s, ’60s, up until ’70s. Especially modernism in America is very different from more prescriptive modernism, Bauhaus space from Europe. So, when Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, they all escaped Germany to come here to be educator as Walter Gropius at my school have a GSD, and Mies van der Rohe to IIT. And also including that painter, Josef Albers and Anni Albers, as they have brought in Ethos of Bauhaus. But then it’s been Americanized in terms of vernacular. But that’s so interesting about it. You can see more in Cape. And so, same in Sarasota Spanish Colonial. There’s more fusion of culture in American modernism than a more purist version in Europe. And they have to do with particular regions, particular climate and something like I think Gropius when he did a house in Lincoln, Mass, and also houses in Cape, he does refer to New England vernacular as a basis of inspiration. 

And it’s strange because I have this vernacular house in Maine, and I understand it’s very simple, simplicity, clean plans, you won’t believe it how does that relate to each other? And of course Spanish Colonial ones has this Ethos and then planning from European typology so it’s not as difficult. So yeah, and even Mies van der Rohe when he came, he became friends with Frank Lloyd Wright. He would use the word organic architecture to transform his strict Miesian aesthetics in styles from Germany when he transports into America. So, there’s this American modernism has subtleties and connectivity to context more so than European context. And I think that’s the strength and interesting thing about it.

Photo: The Fass School in Senegal. Photo: Sofia Verzbolovskis, Courtesy Toshiko Mori Architect

And is it something where, are people thinking of modernism as too much of a rigid style that didn’t adapt and that didn’t change and connect to different cultures?

What is interesting, it started as a rigid one, and then international style. And you can actually imagine it could be colonization of different cultures if it’s taken. But then some cultures resisted: Americans did, Japanese did in a big way. Like a Tange, Kenzo Tange, when Japanese modernism incredibly Japanese to a lot of extent. And so, I think it’s more interesting for me to see how different cultures and architects in different places able to adopt it, and then evolutionalize it. I think that’s more interesting as a process than actually taking a rigid paradigm of modernism, something that can be placed anywhere. And if you also see Tel Aviv in Israel, they have adopted also to its own culture too called White City. It’s very, again, tropical, but also in the light situation. I think it’s highly much more influential when I think it’s been adopted to diverse cultures.

And speaking of the cultural interchange that occurs in architecture, two of your most regarded projects, a school and a cultural center are in remote corners of Senegal. I’m not sure if they’re close to each other at all. Or that they are.

Well, even close. But you have to drive and you have to stop. You have to wade through or cross the river, and then go again.

Okay, so relatively close but not related.

It’s relatively close again..

Right, okay. And could you describe to listeners what these projects are, and how you came to work on these projects all the way in Senegal?

Oh, so that kind of relates to modernism. Because it was from Josef and Anni Albers Foundation who commissioned me to do two projects. And Josef and Anni Albers, they were refugees from Nazi Germany, started in Black Mountain College and then later went to Yale University. He became a very influential teacher. And they decided to have a foundation in ’70s to benefit the places where they may not be receiving the benefits. And since they were refugees, they were really looking at different places. And I think current president, Nicholas Fox Weber has identified this area of Senegal where they had highest maternal mortality, highest infant mortality. Where it was lacking Western medicine to introduce clinics there, and started from doctors in Paris providing medications. And so at 20 or 25 years they have been working in the community, and stabilized, and I think built like eight clinics, and maternal centers, and kindergartens and farming schools. So, they’ve been very, very active in that area, and they invited to me to be there. And Josef Albers has this dictum, Maximum Effect for Minimum Means. 

So that’s actually, he was working with. And then they just focused on this area to provide services as part of a foundation. And so that’s the background of a client. And it does relate to modernist notion. The modernist really as a philosophy is idea of democratizing architecture, arts, and then having everything accessible and inclusive. Those are idealistic mission of architecture, modernist, which I should have prefaced it before instead of having it exclusive to wealthy communities. And idea is ideally it could be affordable, and then it could be replicated. So that’s actually have that idea, I should have said that why modernism resonate with us. And if it will continue beyond the style, that’s what it is. So this is basically essential modernist idea of to try to make medicine accessible.

But Senegal is about 90% Muslim. So, resistance. But I think they were used to now, and welcoming, and then trusting this foundation, Western medicine. And the first one was Thread, which is cultural center, and Thread, I attribute to Anni Albers whose contributions weaving. And she says if you come from anywhere, you can go everywhere. So, this again is openness and providing opportunity. It’s a cultural center. And Senegal is a progressive and liberal community, and women has many roles in it. But it’s right next to Mali, some terrorist organizations there, conservative wind is coming in. And we’ve been working with Dr. Magueye Ba, who is the doctor of a clinic, main clinic. So he became a contractor, but also his vision is that we have to have this cultural center to preserve the culture of about 12 tribes. They have different languages but they can share performance and arts together.

So, it has artists, residents, and they’re inviting artists from even neighboring communities, to international artists, musicians, filmmakers, to work with the community. And then they develop their artwork also. And then it’s basically a community center. And after all these years, I think one of our main traits I have built into it is ability for the roof of Thread to be able to collect rainwater during rain season. Because water shortage as a result of climate change is an issue. And this is where aquifer was abandoned, and there was no need of collecting rainwater, but now it’s drying up. So, girls and women are forced to go to remote places with risking dangers of bandits and animals to collect water. 

So, if one were able to collect water on your own place, then the village life, and especially for lives of women and girls can be stabilized and more safer. So, we proposed this, it kind of collects about 30% of village need, and Dr [inaudible 00:44:00] did a very extensive survey of a water use of community, about 700 people, what animals drink and so forth. But it’s really example because as opposed to Bermuda or Ethiopia, it doesn’t have architectural paradigm which collects rainwater. And now they have been using the systems to develop agriculture, that’s a woman’s architectural collaborative developed as a result, they are growing vegetables, they are selling, they are making money. And as a public health their nutrition level has increased in their growing fonio, which is a very fine, gluten-free type of couscous.

Oh, wow. Well that must feel very good to know that the idea you may have had in the office one day, like, “Let’s have this roof collect some rainwater,” it actually can improve the health of…Can lead to better couscous, and to the health of a whole community.


The 2015 Thread Artists’ Residences & Cultural Center in Sinthian, Senegal. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Toshiko Mori Architect

And what’s next for your studio? What’s your next big project?

I think we continue to be working on master plan for Brooklyn Public Library. We just finished the phase one. It’s a very large project. And we are working on phase two, we are working on Children’s Library and phase three and four, hopefully to be able to connect us to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Brooklyn Museum, that area. So, that area, East Parkway becomes the Fifth Avenue of Brooklyn and become a cultural center. So that’s a big ambition. But that’s probably one of our largest projects we’re undertaking at the moment.

As one of my last questions, if I asked Toshiko Mori, what is good architecture?

When you think of good, what is moral, morally, ethically, aesthetically? So, the good is strangely judgmental. And sometimes, I think what you consider to be bad is actually beneficial to the culture we live in, because our culture is so bad to start out with. And the idea it’s architecture is very relative, because we are all responding to the context. And we are responding to extreme polarization of opinions right now. And then where do we actually get in? So, in the polarized culture, when you say what’s good, and then you judge something else to be bad, but that’s not the case.

I think architecture is always in the gray zone, in between good and bad, in between positive and negative, and try to negotiate different values in our societies. And so that means we kind of have to be accessible, and then to be open and for interpretation for many different generations and more extreme opinions. And the place where one can feel safe to be who you are. So we don’t want to be of architecture to just offer one value to one segment of society. And hopefully that’s going help it to have a longer lives, it has to evolve.

Thank you to Toshiko Mori, Oliver Babb, and Cultural Counsel for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, please follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein to learn more. And sign up with your email for updates at And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen, and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Till next time.

Meet the greats.
Listen to The Grand Tourist.

newsletter illustration