CoA grad student interns for architectural firm in Tokyo

By Nicole Chavez

(October 1, 2012) -- When UTSA College of Architecture graduate student Kenneth Fitzgerald was presented with the opportunity to intern for Nikken Sekkei, one of the world’s largest and most successful architectural design firms, he instantly said yes. Headquartered in Tokyo, Japan, Nikken boasts a cadre of elite architects who share in a distinct culture of design, one in which quality surpasses all. One of the firm’s latest projects is the 634-meter Tokyo Skytree, currently the world’s tallest broadcasting tower and Japan’s biggest new landmark. Fitzgerald didn’t speak a single phrase of Japanese, had less than three months to prepare for the summer 2012 internship, and would need to request time off from work, but never hesitated in his decision to embark on the trip.

The offer came from Fitzgerald’s professor, College of Architecture Associate Dean Taeg Nishimoto, who maintains a personal relationship with Tadao Kamei, the Senior Executive Officer and Principal of the Architectural Design Department at Nikken’s Tokyo headquarters. Nishimoto and Kamei both attended Waseda University in Tokyo and have worked together in recent years to develop this opportunity, which pairs a four-week internship at Nikken with one to two weeks of architectural sightseeing in Tokyo and beyond. Students from Kamei’s other alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, interned alongside Fitzgerald at Nikken this summer.

“When I arrived in Tokyo, my first reaction was that it was a chaotic city,” said Fitzgerald. “I’d traveled to large cities in America and Europe before, but Tokyo was completely different. The crowds of people leaving work and the constant flashing of lights on advertisements were overwhelming.”

He relaxed a bit when he found his apartment in the northeast district of Katsushika, which he said was similar to American suburbs. Transportation was easy to figure out and bystanders helped out when he was lost. Fitzgerald’s daily commute to Nikken’s Tokyo headquarters was about an hour. On his first day of work he was placed on a design team with four other designers and two project managers, all of whom were Nikken employees. Their project was a 10-story office building. Fitzgerald was assigned to work on the support system and arrangement of one-inch bars that the client wanted to cover the building’s entire façade.

When asked about the direction he was given when the project was initially explained, Fitzgerald said, “I think the first thing told to me was, ‘The client wants something that’s never been seen before.’”

Fortunately his project manager, Tetsuo Tsuchiya, was fluent in English and translated for him when necessary, which was usually during review sessions with the entire design team. Fitzgerald worked by himself most days and took to carrying a notebook around — his co-workers who knew a little English preferred to write out phrases rather than speak them. At first, he worked on several different panels of bar arrangements. Then he selected one arrangement and used the supports of the bars to form a design, creating subtle changes in the façade that would occur as pedestrians walked by.

Fitzgerald said the review sessions at Nikken were very similar to the studio experience he’s had as an architecture student. He was given a desk critique by Tsuchiya each day, and the entire design team would have a progress meeting with Kamei once a week. Fitzgerald presented his work at the end of the meetings, received feedback, then met with Tsuchiya to get a translated recap of the entire session. The first time the team met with the client, a scaled model of Fitzgerald’s design scheme was created using aluminum. A full-scale model was completed a week later. This was unusual for Fitzgerald, who is used to money being spent on mockups only after the design is confirmed and the project is nearing construction.

“It’s a different mentality there,” said Fitzgerald. “Everybody wants to have the best of the best, not necessarily to be better than others, but to have the best building with the newest technologies. That’s very different from my experience [in America], where we ask how soon can we have it and how cheap can we get it done for.”

During the workweek Fitzgerald usually got home around 9 p.m. after traveling during rush hour. He tried to cram as much sightseeing as he could into the weekends and was able to hit most of the tourist districts in Tokyo. He spent his first weekend in Ueno Park, a spacious public park on the northeast side of the city which contains several museums, such as the National Museum of Western Art, designed by Le Corbusier. Fitzgerald was impressed by the Tokyo National Museum, which allowed him to better understand and appreciate Eastern culture, the historical periods, and the language.

He also visited the districts of Shibuya, Ginza, and Roppongi, which are located in the southwest corner of Tokyo. The high-end department stores of Ginza feature the layered façade of the Dior Building, the screens of the Chanel Building, and the glass brick façade of the Maison Hermes. Each building used subtle details to create a fabric for each façade, so Fitzgerald’s study of these elements was useful with regard to his work at Nikken. The historic district of Asakusa was his favorite part of Tokyo. The area contains several temples and artisan shops, and is most famous for the Sensō-ji Buddhist temple.

“After seeing these temples and shrines, I began noticing that much of the modern architecture in Japan prides itself on complex details,” said Fitzgerald.

On his second to last weekend Fitzgerald traveled to Nikko, a mountainous city two hours north of Tokyo. He hiked in the national park around Lake Chūzenji, a scenic destination located at the foot of Nikko’s sacred volcano, Mount Nantai. After his final day with Nikken he left Tokyo and headed to Hiroshima, where he spent a day and a half, then traveled to Kyoto where he walked much of the Philosopher’s Pathway and experienced a zen garden for the first time.

“While walking from temple to temple on the edge of the mountains that surround Kyoto, I had time to reflect on my trip to Japan and how much I learned and experienced, from missing my last train in Tokyo one night to the people I met at work and in my free time,” said Fitzgerald. “It was an extraordinary experience, and I will never regret taking the opportunity.”

Global experiences and the study of other cultures are vital components of an architectural education. By fostering his relationship with Kamei and Nikken, Associate Dean Taeg Nishimoto has developed an avenue by which UTSA’s architectural students can experience Asian architecture first-hand and actively participate in the design process of a renowned international firm. Fitzgerald is the second graduate student from the College of Architecture to intern with Nikken, as UTSA alum Schuyler Costello was the first to do so in the summer of 2010. The College hopes the relationship between Nikken and UTSA will develop into an integrated program for Japan Study Abroad, bolstering their current roster of international program offerings in places like Barcelona, Spain; Urbino, Italy; and Paris, France.

Gallery: Kenneth's Internship with Nikken Sekkei