Born in 1954 in Tokyo Prefecture, Takeo Obayashi graduated from the economics department of Keio University in 1977, and he entered the Obayashi Corporation in the same year. In 2009, he became the managing director of this company. He also serves as a Council Member of the UK-based Tate International Council Executive Committee, Mori Art Museum, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, the Ishikawa Foundation, and the Kawamura Cultural Foundation. He is an active supporter of art museums and the dissemination of contemporary art. Well-versed in art, Obayashi holds a deep fascination for architecture and the kind of urban development that stimulates people’s creativity. We spoke to him about cities rooted in culture and about his passion for art.
“I was amazed by the creativity of artists”
Headquarters Relocation as a Turning Point
Obayashi has a deep knowledge of art in general and is one of Japan's leading art collectors. But when he was a child, he says, he didn’t have any particular interest in art.
“I was in the art club in senior high school, and later on, I became acquainted with Hiroshi Senju, who was a younger student also in the art club at the same school. Other than that, I didn’t have much contact with art at all. I only started collecting art once I graduated from university.”
Around that time, I was collecting drawings by architects such as Tadao Ando, Shin Takamatsu, and Aldo Rossi.
A turning point for Obayashi, when he grew more interested in contemporary art, was the relocation project for the headquarters of Obayashi Corporation in 1999. In this large-scale, inventive project, they sought to merge architecture and contemporary art in the office space, inviting 18 internationally recognised artists, such as Yayoi Kusama, Emi Fukuzawa, and Pascal Convert, to create artwork for this space. Besides those pieces, the space also exhibits more than 70 pieces of contemporary artworks.
Obayashi recalls being amazed when he saw first-hand just how imaginative the artists’ creativity was.
“All the artists enjoyed working on the project — they told us it was ‘wonderful’ and ‘great,’ and they thanked us. The most fun part of all was talking to the artists face to face.”
From around this time, he became a Member of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. As he strengthened his ties with the art world, he thought more deeply about how architecture relates to the townscape and culture of a city.
The Future of Japan:
Community Development that Draws on Local Character
In 2019, Obayashi published the book The Rebirth of a City through Culture (Art) (Toshi wa bunka (art) de yomigaeru) (Shueisha). He explores the relationship between cities and culture (art).
In the book, he discusses the limits of art projects that are designed to promote the local region but haven’t been thought through carefully enough, as well as the issues in the kind of urban development that pursues functionality and economic efficiency. When asked why he wrote about these topics, he says:
“In Tokyo, there was an excess concentration of population, and that led to the city’s own particular development; the city was also active in taking measures to prevent disasters. Meanwhile, regional cities have been copying how things are done in Tokyo or overseas for a long time. From now on, the future of Japan will lie in community development that draws on local character.”
He continues, “In the book, I wanted to introduce great examples of regional cities that made effective use of architecture and art that can only be found in that particular city. I wanted to show how important it is to weave together the pre-existing cultural features or historical attractions of the locality, while bringing them up to date as a new environment, for forming the identity of the region.”
This book draws together Obayashi’s principles and past experiences in what reads like a multi-dimensional structure.
A Meeting Point between Art and Local Industries
Obayashi also serves as the Chairperson of the Organising Committee for the international art festival, Aichi Triennale 2022 (dates: 30th July 2022 to 10th October 2022). He shares his thoughts on this festival as an art project that marries regional characteristics and art.
“This year, the four main venues include the Aichi Arts Centre; Ichinomiya City; Tokoname City; and Arimatsu, Nagoya City. We hope visitors from within the country as well as overseas will rediscover the regional attractions of Japan through Aichi Triennale 2022.”
“The festival has such a rich content this year that we hope visitors would make it at least an overnight trip,” he says. “Staying overnight is important for getting to know the region. You can experience the food culture and the industries specific to the locality, such as the ceramics of Tokoname, the textiles of Ichinomiya, the shibori tie-dying of the Arimatsu district.”
In the four locations, they are planning to set up venues that not only exhibit invaluable artworks but also highlight the unique characteristics of the region.
A World Where the Old and the New Coexist
At the end of the interview, when asked about what kind of world he wants to see in the future, Obayashi says, “I like works by contemporary artists but vintage antiques as well — I’m also drawn to timeless masterpieces that don’t fade with the passing of time. I want to see a world where those things coexist: a world of diversity, of various cultures blending together.”
His words, which embody his creative point of view while also valuing modern functionality, stem from his stance as the leader of a building firm, maintaining a balanced perspective that ranges beyond art.