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Design & Architecture

Design Idea

I would like to build Jianwai SOHO into a place with alleys running between buildings. I do not want to call it a street block because it is not a closed, monotonous space, but rather an open place with department buildings, stores and offices in it.

I gained my inspiration from a Moroccan city called Ceuta. Every possible thing--human beings, donkeys, sheep, shops, houses mosques, restaurants, the fragrance of mint and tobacco, and the odor of human bodies--were mixed together indiscriminately. Passing through an alleyway lined with souvenir shops aimed at tourists and brushing away the importunate hands of vendors, I suddenly arrive at a street of houses. There is an entrance to a mosque, a well ornamented with strikingly beautiful tiles, and then a small square. Corridors of houses cross casually overhead. In no time at all I am lost. The entire city is a maze.

It is not just Ceuta. All Islamic cities in North Africa--including Fez, Rabat, Marrakech, Algiers and Ghardaa-- are mazes. They are a potpourri of every conceivable thing. It is not just the roads that crisscross. the passageways, small squares, public watering places and shopping streets all do so, sometimes drawing the pedestrian unknowingly into a mosque. They do not simply serve as spaces for circulation. Houses extend over them, so that one has the impression of being in an underground passage, but in the next moment the sun in beating down from directly overhead, making everything a dazzling white.

From a street so narrow two people can barely squeeze past each another, one enters a square where camels are tethered. Eventually one arrives at a large market. Every step forward brings a change of scenery. The pace is dizzying. Moving through these spaces, one can almost feel the city breathing in and out.

If there is such a thing as the original city, this must be it. Here is everything that our cities have lost. It is unlike the cites of the Greeks, the Romans, the age of the Renaissance, and of course the modern era. We cannot imagine its overall plan. There is nothing to suggest the intervention of a planner working his will. Everything is improvised. The ever-changing scenery gives no hint of a preconceived plan. An aerial photo of an Islamic city resembles a view of cells through a microscope. The houses, each surrounding a courtyard, look like cellular nuclei. Mosques, small squares and commercial facilities are squeezed into these clusters of residential cells.

In Western cities, priority is given to the overall plan. The overall image of the city is conceived first, and the buildings are considered simply elements of that overall image. The Islamic city is planned in an entirely different way. The elements are given priority. Although the development of the city may seem improvised, in fact 'genes' with detailed memory are embedded in each building/cell. Thus, as the cells multiply, the urban structure develops naturally.

A Western city develops linearly toward its ultimate form so that at any moment it is in an intermediate stage of development. It does not have much capacity to adapt to change, because it is proceeding in a fixed direction. Sudden, unforeseen events may require a reexamination of the entire plan. Unlike Western cities, Islamic cities have no ultimate form. It does not gradually approach completion but is at every stage a complete entity. Hidden in it is the capacity to develop in every direction. It has the flexibility to assimilate any unanticipated event.

I want a piece of architecture to be a cell of a city. No matter what kind of architecture it is, it must have something to do with the city. A piece of architecture can be a house, a department store, a theatre, or an art museum, but no matter what it is, it can be a cell of the city. This cell has the ability to grow into a city.

Chief Architect

Riken Yamamoto

  • 1945 Born in Beijing
  • 1971 MA from Tokyo National University of Fine Art and Music, Faculty of Architecture
  • 1973 Founded Riken Yamamoto & Field Shop

Principal Awards

  • 1988 Prize of Architectural Institute of Japan for Design for "Dwellings on commercial complex buildings (GAZEBO / ROTUNDA)"
  • 1998 Mainichi Art Awards for Iwadeyama Junior High School
  • 2001 Japan Art Academy Award
  • 2002 The Prize of Architectural Institute of Japan for Design for "Fuure University of Hakodate"






Jianwai SOHO

39 East Third Ring Road

Chaoyang District Beijing

(opposite the China World Trade Center)