The following essay was written in Fall 2008 in partial fulfillment of coursework for Prof. Mitchell Squire in the College of Design at Iowa State University as part of a Bachelor of Architecture.



I cannot find Ryoji Suzuki. He “lost himself,” according to Norihito Nakatani, “probably not a very long time ago.”1 He has positioned himself on the outskirts – he comes and goes, moves to and fro, and appears, disappears, and reappears as he pleases. He first appeared to me in the form of a book entitled Experience in Material 49: Ryoji Suzuki Complete Works 1973-2007. No matter how many times I flip through the book though, I cannot seem to find him again. I can only find his works – and even those are difficult to grasp. They are elusive and yet mesmerizing, even as photographic images. I long to find Suzuki, though I have come to terms with the idea that he may escape me for quite a while longer. I have unearthed a bit about his past, but it is fleeting information that has not yet helped to locate him.

Ryoji Suzuki was born in 1944 in Sendai, Japan, though he was brought up in Tokyo. In 1968 he graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering in the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University. Following his graduation, he worked for Takenaka Corporation in the design department until roughly 1973. In the meantime he worked for Pritzker Laureate Fumihiko Maki as a temporary staff member of Maki and Associates and concurrently established fromnow, which would later become his current practice of Ryoji Suzuki Architect and Partners. In 1977 he achieved his Master of Engineering, Department of Architecture, Waseda University. Twenty years later, in 1997, he began professorship at Waseda, where he is currently the Principal of Art and Architecture.

I do not know Suzuki, nor can I claim to. I only know what a few have said about him and what I can gather from my resources. Of him, I only have a book. In the book I have 187 pages of black and white photography and four essays, each with Japanese translations. I can access a digital work, too – his website – but it tells me very little the book doesn’t already. As such, my own interpretation is entirely reliant on my own analysis of his images and on hearsay from (supposedly and assumed to be) reputable critics. I have never been to his works, and the one I will write about in this discourse, Absolute Scene 1987, was performed to its consummation during the year of my birth. Still, I find the images to be the most captivating of all of his works, and it is the most widely discussed within the texts available to me.

Absolute Scene 1987 is an installation he carried out in Tokyo, 1987 in collaboration with artist Kyoji Takubo and photographer Shigeo Anzai. The nature of this scheme was such that he organized and undertook the carefully designed dismantling of two derelict residential structures in Tokyo that had been slated for demolition. In describing the project on his website, Suzuki had this to say:

1 Nakatini, Norihito. “Ryoji Suzuki, The Doctor Wind,” in Experience in Material 49: Ryoji Suzuki Complete Works 1973- 2007, ed. Media Design Research Ltd. Japan: INAX, 2007, 214-217.

The economy was boosting in the late 1980s, and many houses in these area were rapidly torn down for new developments. We chose two houses, which were about to be destroyed by such mechanical means, and instead, decided to spend few months to disassemble each pieces, one by one, carefully by hand. The whole process was recorded by the photographer.2

Ryoji Suzuki. “Lecture 1999: Absolute Scene 1987,” , Accessed 9 November 2008.

When the deconstruction of the houses were complete, and nothing but the wood framework was left standing, steel railings were inserted onto the foundation and sheets of highly-reflective laminated glass were placed on top of the railings. It was then open to the public for the next month and people were permitted to walk on top of the glass.

You need some confidence if you dare to walk on glass. The sky mirrored under your feet will make you feel like there is nothing underneath, and it is a dreadful feeling.3

3 Ibid.


Before the traces of a trickster can be found in this particular work, though, general traits of Trickster are also characterized within Suzuki. First and foremost, Trickster’s essential position on the threshold, marginalized between worlds, wandering aimlessly along an invisible boundary is exactly where Suzuki has “lost himself.” In an effort to transcend to a higher level of understanding, Suzuki admits to having a “strong desire to meet something that cannot be defined by (his) human faculties”4 when he creates his work. This can very easily be likened to Hermes’ higher goals of belonging among gods of a higher understanding and status. Also, a general trait of having no way, or having MANY ways, comes out in Suzuki’s obvious interdisciplinary interests. He works in painting, sculpture, music, writing, photography, film, and other media – and is hesitant about his apparent focus on architecture – he believes “Experiences in material” should be of any kind. And finally, Suzuki’s own physical processes as a human – the way he “briskly moves around in the office” and the chaos of his sketchbook and the emphasis on time as part of his process, and even the apparent authorship of his works, as one critic was

4 Suzuki, Ryoji. “Beginning of Experience in Material No. 49,” in Experience in Material 49: Ryoji Suzuki Complete Works 1973- 2007, ed. Media Design Research Ltd. Japan: INAX, 2007, 212-213.

caught up in an odd sensation during the tours. (He) felt a sign of Doctor Suzuki who had been transformed into wind in every place (he) saw in those buildings; an abrupt appearance of exquisite shadows made by light coming from outside and beautifully designed volumes of space in the buildings. They were nothing but Suzuki in the disguise of Doctor Wind.5

5 (Nakatani 2007, 216)
[Here, it is implied that his architectures have achieved Elaine Scarry’s quality of “unreal” architecture – a work in which the author is ever-present.]

As for Absolute Scene 1987, several aspects of this work are literal translations of Lewis Hyde’s definition of “dirt-work.” Here, I will liken Suzuki’s work to the work of Susa-no-o, the (Japanese) Shinto trickster god of sea and storms for a variety of reasons. First, Suzuki is a foreign, marginalized (to the Western world) architect, and Susa-no-o belongs to the same culture that he does, thereby allowing for a similar cultural framework to serve in the analysis of both, and second, Susa-no-o sought apocalyptic change in her dirt-work, a similar endeavor of Suzuki’s architecture. Susa-no-o performs some questionable acts as a result of his intense rivalry with his sister, Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. In the end, because of Susa-no-o’s dirt, Amaterasu dies and in turn, the sun declines and thus ruins the sun’s natural impulse towards purity. As Hyde puts it, “Winter is coming, and she would like to put it off, or elude its consequences. Susa-no-o’s disruptions mean she can’t, and the new seeds that follow show us why, or why her success would have been a worse disaster. In this world, in trickster’s world, life and death are one thing, not two, and therefore no one gets rid of death without getting rid of life as well.”6 I cite this bit of text for a few reasons, the first of which is Suzuki’s proclivity towards what he refers to as “barrack architecture” – architecture in disrepair or some level of deconstruction. This is accounted for because of his own belief of deconstruction as part of a building’s life – not a separate entity. “Suzuki considers the creative process as continuous throughout the life of the work, rather than ending at the moment of its completion. His interest extends into architecture’s transformations, its dilapidation, discoloration, state of ruin, or destruction.”7. The fact that it was winter during the exhibit’s opening too is a mere coincidence, though we can draw upon that for another comparison. Winter, ideologically, is the death of the year – the point at which one year ends, and another begins. In physical terms, Suzuki states “It was freezing in December at that time, and the glass was so cold we thought it was ice.”8

6 Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World. New York: North Point Press, 1998. p. 179

7 Bognar, Botond.  “Architecture as a Process of Reversed Construction: Ryoji Suzuki’s Work in Light of His ‘Absolute SceneTokyo 1987’,” in Experience in Material 49: Ryoji Suzuki Complete Works 1973-2007, ed. Media Design Research Ltd. Japan: INAX, 2007, 222-224

8 (Ryoji, Lecture 1999)


Dirt, defined as matter out of place, or what has no place at all when we are done making sense of our world9 leads to another duality within Absolute Scene. In the resulting exhibit, what is the DIRT? Stripped of all recognizable finishes to the home, it is left in its bare structural framework – clearly out of place in the neighborhood, and hygienically dirty by comparison, as well. Still, there is an ORDER to the structure – one that you would not see with all of the excessive finishes, veneers, and occupancy-related workings of the house that were stripped away. In a way, Suzuki illuminates an order by exposing the “dirt” of the original house. However, when the new framework becomes the norm for viewing, the highly polished glass becomes the matter out of place. It is what confuses the line between this particular house as being in construction or deconstruction, clean or dirty, repair or disrepair. Now, with the glass as “dirt,” we can understand the juxtaposed materials as a result of Mercurius. “He is the process by which the lower and material is transformed into the higher and spiritual, and vice versa.”10 Clearly, a new atmosphere was created, and the new glass became a physical embodiment of a metaphorical reflection that was to happen in that space. There is an eeriness to the photos that speaks of something not belonging to this world. It is haunting, to say the least, and brings forth a spiritual quality of this work. “You can see that some dishes are left behind on the table, whilst no one is there any more. There was a ghostly atmosphere.”11

Similarly on the systematic deconstruction, we can now speak on the ORDER in relation to the dirt. Once again, the language Suzuki uses to describe his work parallels that of Hyde’s to describe this process of dirt-work: Suzuki writes, “These shots show the house under destruction. We worked out at the site to make every single plate an art piece. Not simply a residue of a house, but a newly built architecture or a sculpture is being shot here.”12 compared to Hyde’s “... it might be better to describe what’s going on as creation itself rather than re-creation.” Still, we are to regard dirt as a by- product of the creation of order. In that sense, if glass is Suzuki’s dirt, then he inserted dirt into a pre- existing order. In this way, he is much more like Legba, who threatened Mawu’s purity by throwing dirt at her. Even here, though, dirt and order are dependent upon one another to create sort of open ended, unpredictable experiences that are Suzuki’s intent. “His designs are forwarded as stages of an ongoing process of discovery, rather than invention.”13

(Hyde 1998, 176)

Ibid. 181

(Ryoji, Lecture 1999)


13 (Bognar 2007, 222)


“Hermes himself is neither one of these alone but both at once. He is neither the god of the door leading out nor the god of the door leading in – he is the god of the hinge.”14 (6. Lewis, Trickster, 209). Suzuki also plays both roles here. He has disenchanted us all by illuminating the true structure of a once dilapidated home – revealing its inner workings by exposing an unexpected, yet very real aspect of the building. And yet, he enchants us with the glass (the dirt). The wood framework left us with voids of space that once was, but the new glass floor creates new spaces and polishes what is an otherwise decrepit, non-beautiful architectural space. The enchantment, too, comes from the photography. Shigeo Anzai effortlessly captures that tense moment where the real, worldly perception of this architecture joins with the nature of the cosmos and the order of things.

14 (Hyde 1998, 209)


Shamelessness is one of trickster’s devices to erase thresholds. Suzuki showed no shame in displaying this decrepit building – even its innards, the private parts of the building, its bones. Within the larger context of a neighborhood, this would become a shameless act to disrupt the boundaries and would consequently violate rules of silence and enact a loss of the sacred. The irony here is that I perceive a profound silence from the photographs as a result of that “shameless” act – the ghostly nature of Anzai’s photos and of the house that once was carries through immensely and helps create a really stimulating architectural experience (albeit, through images). The mere fact that it can stimulate my imagination and link this real world creation to a wonder of other worlds speaks volumes about the intensity of this work. Absolute Scene, despite its shameless nature,

seems to investigate and tread that invisible and too often indistinguishable line that runs between ‘progress’ and ‘decadence’, but which line not only separates, but also binds them inseparably together, making up the two sides of the same coin... the purpose of our endeavor was not merely to display the basic architectural framework of the houses, nor was it to make a sculpture using old timber. Instead, it was to open the entire process itself toward another dimension or ‘site’.15

15 (Bognar 2007, 224)

Hermes, the messenger god, becomes the communicator between the real world and the ideal world – the world that shame exists to preserve. I understand art to be the link between these two worlds – and by that, I mean that we make art to articulate our own existence in the order of the cosmos. Here, Suzuki has acted as Hermes would, and his message is Absolute Scene – an eerie place that opens the phenomenological qualities of the specific site and time to a higher plane of existence – one that achieves an almost mythological quality. Suzuki had the “wit to break these rules (of exclusion)... and (slipped) across the threshold and (flooded) the sacred meadows with contingency.”16

16 (Hyde 1998, 217)


Hyde discusses in his last chapter the root of the word art (artus, articulus, etc.) as pertaining to joints. Thus, artus-workers, Tricksters, are joint-workers. They work in the spot between heaven and earth, joining, disjoining, and reshaping their world. Hyde states, “standing between humankind, and the gods, (Trickster) represents the possibility of reallotment, the chance that the links between things on earth and things in heaven may be loosened.”17

In part, I believe this paper exists to identify the joints that intersect Hyde’s Trickster and our contemporary, actual figure, Suzuki. Where Suzuki ends and Hyde begins (or vice versa) has become a bit unclear, the joints have been blurred, and we have arrived at a point where we cannot look to Hyde to help in developing and explaining this blur. So, to develop this, I will attempt to discuss a concept I do not fully understand, nor think I am capable of understanding, based on a problem at the joints – the translation of languages. This is the Japanese concept of ma.

The aptness of drawing upon this concept should be self-evident (Suzuki’s practice, culture, and life is Japanese – so is this term). Ma was first introduced to me in a text by Michael Benedikt, entitled For an Architecture of Reality. He introduces it within the context of one of his four components of “Real” architecture: emptiness (the other three are materiality, presence, and significance). However, I must draw upon additional readings by another Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki (a trickster-like figure in his own right) through his treatise called Japan-ness in Architecture.

17 Ibid, 257
Isozaki devotes a chapter in his book entirely to the concept of ma and his own interpretation of it. It seems to me that a separation between the real world and the cosmos (between heaven and earth) is, for the most part, a western ideal. Isozaki states,

Analogously to the way in which the Japanese myth of origins Kojiki** begins with an undifferentiated state of heaven (ame) and earth (tsuchi), I believed it necessary to return to an undifferentiated state of time and space. In Japanese, when the concepts of time (jikan - 時間) and space (kūkan - 空間) were first written down, the Chinese ideogram ma (間) – an interstice – was used as the second character for both. I determined to search for clues in this space in between.18 (7. Isozaki, Arata, Japan-ness in Architecture, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 90).

18 Isozaki, Arata. Japan-ness in Architecture, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006. p. 90

Isozaki goes on to identify another term hashi as “a concept that relates couples of contradictory terms; the term disjoins and also connects two worlds. ... I felt strongly nonetheless that there was no choice for me but to set myself on the hashi and dance upon its edge, however shaky the borderline or tricky the tightrope.”19

Understanding jikan, time (duration), and kūkan, space (void), ma came to be understood as “the space in between things that exist next to each other; then comes to mean an interstice between things – chasm; later, a room as a space physically defined by columns and/or byobu screens; in a temporal context, the time of rest or pause in phenomena occurring one after another.”20 Thus, ma is essentially a gap – a “space” between things or worlds (not unlike the space Trickster occupies). It should be noted again, though that within our Western mindset, space and time are two distinct concepts being applied onto their own terms – jikan and kūkan are defined as best as possible with our english translations. Accordingly, ma is also the joint – the hashi that disjoins and connects worlds – heaven and earth, space and time (ma, it seems, can fit within the category of hashi).

Isozaki, an architect, speaks abstractly of these concepts – he takes a philosophical approach that suggests of Suzuki’s work, but is a closer ally to Hyde. Benedikt – also an architect – on the other hand, defines ma within the context of a REAL architecture – the tangible thing in which he practices. As such, his words suggest of Hyde’s, but they more closely identify with the work Suzuki produces. Benedikt identifies emptiness as “surely the most difficult component of realness with which to deal verbally, yet perhaps the most important one. Very much an intuition, it can be analyzed only up to a point, and suggestiveness in the language is more necessary than ever.”21

19 Ibid. 93

20 Ibid. 94-95

21 Benedikt, Michael. For an Architecture of Reality. New York: Lumen Books, 1987. p. 50

It should be noted that Benedikt subdivides emptiness into two definitions, but for the sake of the comparison, I will speak of both definitions as one, since they are not entirely distinct from one another. As such, a few more quotes from Benedikt will serve as a proper analysis of his work and can, quite clearly, show evidence in Suzuki’s role as Trickster, especially within Absolute Scene.

On page 52 he discusses his first definition,

The appeal to nature as a model in architectural theory is fundamentally the search for realness through emptiness or through emulating God’s work, both of which share the property of being beside or beyond human willfulness and intelligence... For architecture, emptiness implies that a building should not be slave to its program, twisting and turning to accommodate our every movement and which – squirming to please, as it were – but rather should be formed according to innate principles of order, structure, shelter, the evolution of architecture itself – and accident.”22

22 Ibid. 52

Later, he discusses his second definition, the one that pertains to this Japanese ma,

Emptiness is more akin to the idea of space, or interval. The Japanese have the word ma, which comes close to the meaning of emptiness intended here. Ma! Ma is in the gaps between stepping stones, in the silence between the notes in music, in what is made when a door slides open.23

23 Ibid. 56

Ma is everywhere in this comparison. It shows up in Hyde’s text as the place that trickster occupies. It shows up again as the places in which trickster attacks the eternals. It shows up in Suzuki’s culture, and in his own work – through emptiness. The silence of the space is ever present, pregnant with the possibilities of experience. Because Absolute Scene appears to be incomplete - and yet constructed - it is full of that potential. These are the things Suzuki fascinates himself with – those incomplete architectures. And these are the things that Tricksters live for.

Thus, Hyde’s text appears to me as a mostly western text. He looks to cultures new and old, from near and far for their stories and their values to understand them, but much of it seems to be interpreted in our American, western state of mind and with our own cultural values. Perhaps it is impossible for me not to view it that way, but I seek to expand Hyde’s trickster theory to other nations, through their own tricksters and trickster myth, and into their languages so they can understand it through their own culture. Tricksters translate the boundaries – they traverse from the heavens (among the gods) to earth, and back again. Suzuki does not belong to us – he is of Japan. So, Trickster mythology and the language that links him to it, should be considered through more than an English translation. If Trickster can translate the cosmos, I think we can at least translate these theories.


I have noticed in at least two essays that Suzuki’s work has been compared to that of Gordon Matta-Clark’s. I have avoided this comparison in part due to my relative unfamiliarity with Matta-Clark’s work, but also because it seems antithetical to trickster’s ideals to give him another worldly comparison. Giving him a western counterpart seems moot, despite their shared dirty aesthetic. Still, Suzuki’s work is much different anyway – not motivated by political agenda, his works are about design methodology and are “dissective and analytical, centered on the desire to create a rupture, to open up and intersect an internal dimension of architecture which resides within the thickness of its walls, hollowness of its bodily cavities and the taste of its matter.”24

Vladimir Krstic writes,

24 Krstic, Vladimir.  “Ryoji Suzuki: The Margins of Architecture or Architecture of the Margins,” in Experience in Material 49: Ryoji Suzuki Complete Works 1973-2007, ed. Media Design Research Ltd. Japan: INAX, 2007, 218-221.
Suzuki’s approach to architecture is a heretic one... The absence of the final resolution in his projects denotes a different kind of heresy, the one which wants to do away with all representational and rhetoric aspects of architecture in order to engage exploration of its more intrinsic dimensions that for him reside in the processes and the structures of becoming an architectural object.25

25 Ibid. 218

That Suzuki’s work lacks a final resolution is appropriate for this “conclusion.” There is no easy way to conclude this essay. To have a conclusion is to undermine the elusive nature of his work, particularly considering the basis for this analysis – architectural photography. After operating in the threshold and on the margins, he can disenchant members of the architectural world, and in turn enchant them into a world that he helped to create. Krstic, in my mind, does the best of all the critics in characterizing that world: 

By centering his thinking about architecture at an internal point, by casting a conceptual gaze from within [from within material itself as it were made of multivalent intersections of spatial and phenomenal dimensions inherent in it,] Suzuki was able to unlock a different dimensional universe where things are pregnant with the shadows of other things in them and where the potential for architectural creation embodies unprecedented depth and grit.26

26 Ibid. 220-221

It is through that depth and grit of Absolute Scene 1987 that Suzuki, like Trickster, makes his world, and because of that he is able to disappear within it.

Max Mahaffey
Fall 2008