Winnetka Modernist Joe Fujikawa

By Sally Schneiders
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2018

The name Joe Fujikawa leapt off the pages of Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, jogging my memory. I remembered that this late architect, Joseph Fujikawa of Winnetka, had designed Roberto Clemente High School in Chicago. I remembered his daughter Liz played tennis at New Trier and his wife, Grace, was a fixture on the sidelines, her big shaggy sheep dogs at her side. And I remembered the modernist house Joe Fujikawa designed for his family on Fairview Road, when Liz was 11 and brother Stephan 16. I was always curious about that house.

I did not remember Joe Fujikawa’s part in Chicago’s rich architectural history by extension of his tenure with German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. With Mies considered by many architectural historians to be one of the most influential modernist architects of the twentieth century, I wondered: where do Mies van der Rohe and Joseph Fujikawa intersect? And, what was Joe’s inspiration for his home?

When Mr. Fujikawa died on December 31, 2003,  architecture columnist Blair Kamin penned his obituary, detailing a life of academic and career accomplishment. He wrote: “Born in Los Angeles, Mr. Fujikawa attended the University of Southern California, then transferred to Illinois Institute of Technology, where he received his architectural degrees, a bachelor’s in 1944 and a master’s in 1953. He served in the Army in 1944 and 1945, translating Japanese.”

From an excerpt of an interview with Joe Fujikawa, conducted by Betty Blum of the School of the Art Institute in 1983, I learned how Mr. Fujikawa’s forced removal from the west coast and relocation to a Colorado internment camp, during his junior year of college, led him to IIT. He stated, “I was there for about three months until I was admitted to IIT. I applied because I heard Mies was director, and I knew Mies only by reputation from a book called The International Style. The Barcelona Pavilion of Mies’s was in there. That really impressed me.” Mies said, “ja, come,” and a whole new tradition of designing modern buildings came to inform Joseph Fujikawa’s vision.

Blair Kamin continued: “After the war, Mr. Fujikawa worked for Mies, participating in a wide range of IIT projects, including the masterful Crown Hall, home of the University’s school of architecture. He also had a hand in Mies’ first completed high rise, Promontory Apartments at 5530 S. Lake Shore Drive.” After Mies died in 1969, Fujikawa continued practicing architecture, forming new partnerships in 1974 and 1982. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange Center and Metcalfe Building are from this phase of his career.

By the time Joe started the plans for his Winnetka house, he had close to 25 years of experience working directly with Mies, absorbing valuable lessons in, as Joe put it: “all these things– how wood goes together, how you build with steel, brick, masonry, all these materials, with that as a foundation you can go out and design a proper building that will hang together.” (Blum interview). In 1971 Joe Fujikawa submitted the plans for his “proper building” to the village, and in 1972, upon completion, the Fujikawas moved in.

Liz Fujikawa, a civil engineer living in Miami, provided me with some information about their family life. Mr. Fujikawa met his wife Grace in Chicago. After they married they lived in Hyde Park for many years before moving. Liz wrote: “My parents were looking for good schools for my brother and me. I think Winnetka had the schools, Lake Michigan, access to the train, and the beautiful community that they were looking for.”

In the 1983 interview with Betty Blum, Joe described designing his own home as “a traumatic experience.” When Blum posed the question: “Do you think it’s easier to build a skyscraper than an individual home?” Mr. Fujikawa replied, “Exactly.” He seemed to be speaking to the difficulty of designing a home where he and his family were to live, a very personal emotion, as opposed to the removed feeling of designing a corporate behemoth.

At first glance, I found the house at 381 Fairview somewhat stark and foreboding. Square, flat and lacking any ornament at all on the street side, its expanse of pale brick felt severe and I didn’t really like it. Where was the light getting in? Liz had said she thought his inspiration for the design came from the Barcelona Pavilion and Farnsworth House. This could be true, in a futuristic, simplistic sense. However, those two buildings are sheathed in glass and the Fujikawa home’s street facade features mostly a very private wall of tan brick with one bay window in the middle.

Liz gave me permission to walk on the property, still in her family’s name, in order to view the house from the east facade. This facade, with a two-story sliding expanse of glass, the upper story containing a continuous north to south 6′ wide overhang, presumably a long terrace, immediately diffused my unease. All that sun brightening up the interior energized me too. The back yard, although unattended and overgrown, contains the remnants of a once thriving garden. There is a geometrically-arranged concrete patio set into the first third of the yard space. I gazed at the simplicity and began to experience the feeling of harmony when things are symmetrical; the calming sense of order in bold, straight lines. I started to like this home.

I kept going back to the house, each time with a little more information about the architecture and a little more about the family that once lived inside. There are homes in Hyde Park, designed by Fujikawa’s contemporaries Harry Weese, IM Pei, and YC Wong, during the time when the Fujikawas lived there, which share many characteristics with the Fujikawa home. I can only infer these designs inspired Joe as well as any Miesian ideals. The house was growing on me.

Liz had told me her father used to take the 7:08PM train from the city to the Indian Hill Station, and walk home to join the family for dinner. Joe served on Winnetka’s Architecture Committee for many years. He loved to work in his yard, watch college football, and read. Neighbors recall a polite, quiet, unassuming man.

As I stood there for the last time in the backyard of this now empty house, (Grace Fujikawa died last year), a palpable feeling of understanding came over me. I imagined Liz arriving home from tennis, Mr. Fujikawa perhaps trimming branches, and Mrs. Fujikawa grooming those shaggy dogs in the enclosed yard. Did Joe Fujikawa get what he wanted from his house? If it was peace and harmony, Mies would have been proud. You know, I actually really like that house.

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2 Responses to “Winnetka Modernist Joe Fujikawa”

  1. September 10, 2018 at 5:10 AM #

    I knew Joe; I worked for his firm for many years as a specification consultant; I remember Joe hooking his thumbs in his belt while making decisions on a design’ I remember him getting on a table, a little tipsy, when his firm won an award for the terrazzo design at one of his buildings. I remember when I called him to say my daughters gave me an unexpected aquarium…he laughed very hard and told me that I was now as hooked on aquariums as if I tried to only eat one Oreo cookie. I also remember him admitting how hurt he felt when the government interred his Japanese family and the MP even took away his baseball bat.

    • September 11, 2018 at 11:04 PM #

      Hi Edward, I’m glad you found our article! Thank you so much for your comment and sharing your memories of Mr. Fujikawa. He sounds like he was such an interesting person. I can’t even imagine what internment would have felt like.

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