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It's all part of life

Hitoshi Abe, who will head UCLA's architecture department, believes in bringing people together -- in buildings, in activities, in pretty much every way.

January 03, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Sendai, Japan — HITOSHI ABE is not sure what awaits him when he takes over as chair of UCLA's department of architecture and urban design. But he knows exactly what he's leaving behind in his hometown of Sendai.

An aging father and a teenage son from a previous marriage. The architectural firm he has been building since the early 1990s and whose projects have left his imprint on the city he loves.

And then there's the buzz he gets from leading his atelier's soccer team in the annual A Cup.

The 44-year-old Abe is the founder and organizer of this one-day tournament for architects, started five years ago to see which firm in Japan could put together the best soccer team. It is a signature example of his talent for creating a "platform," he says, slipping into professional jargon, the same principle that led him to create such events as the annual workshops that bring together architecture students from six universities in four countries to tackle a single theme over a two-week period.

"The power of an event is that it can be the seed for a community to come together, whether it is for students or for soccer," Abe says in an interview in his Sendai office, nursing the aches from this autumn's A Cup played the day before. That philosophy, he says, formed the heart of his pitch to UCLA when he was interviewed for the job.

"I don't know the reason why they picked me, although I can guess," says Abe, who acknowledges he is not one of Japan's best-known architects, even in Japan. "I made a presentation of the activities I've done and said that the most important thing in education is to create a platform which everyone can use to pursue their own way of thinking.

"I was on my way to creating such a platform here, so I'm sorry, in a way, that I have to leave," he says. "Now, the question I ask myself is: How do you do this in the United States?"

Barring a last-minute administrative calamity, Abe will get his chance beginning this spring when he takes over from outgoing chair Sylvia Lavin at UCLA. Under Lavin, the UCLA department turned its focus to the changes in architecture brought on by new technologies and digital design, a radical shift that many observers say raised the school's profile while bruising faculty egos and chasing away some longtime professors.

By choosing as her successor an architect widely known for his easygoing, friendly personality, the school signaled its desire to calm the turmoil in its academic warrens. But Abe's appointment will mark an aesthetic turning as well. Lavin's gaze was fixed toward the East Coast and beyond to Europe. Abe brings his Japanese sensibilities to the job, along with a host of contacts among Japanese architects he hopes to entice across the Pacific to offer a greater East Asian perspective to UCLA students.

"UCLA is located in a good place -- it can be a hub that looks to South America and the Pacific Rim," Abe says. "Everybody around the world knows L.A. and its fusion of people from different cultures. I say: Why don't we take a chance and try to connect this network?"

The decision to uproot and move to UCLA marks the second time Abe will leave Sendai for Los Angeles. After completing an undergraduate degree at Sendai's Tohoku University and interning for a short spell in Shigeru Ban's Tokyo office ("I never even met him," Abe says of one of Japan's most famous architects), he moved to L.A. in 1987, a pilgrimage to study at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where he earned a master's degree.

Abe arrived in L.A. speaking no English and says he fell in love with the city. Swore he'd never leave.

"Downtown was a much scarier place then; syringes lying around," he recalls. "It felt so different from being in Japan. In Japan, the city is not exposed. The city protects you.

"In L.A., the city is naked. It's scary. But you also feel free."

Yet he did leave, returning to Sendai in 1992 after one of his designs -- drawn while he was working at the Coop Himmelb(l)au in L.A. -- won the competition to design the Miyagi sports stadium in the city's suburbs. "I never wanted to leave L.A.," Abe says. "I only came back because I won a competition." But he slipped comfortably back into Sendai, resisting Japan's architectural gravity that pulls most of the ambitious to Tokyo, 180 miles to the south. Instead, Abe opened his own atelier in this old castle town of 1 million people that is the transportation and service hub for the north of Japan's main island, and began winning commissions to build everything from water towers to guest houses and bridges.

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