Aiding in the Shift from Teaching to Collaborating

Hitoshi Abe is a professor and former Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA and the current Director of the UCLA Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, where he also holds the Terasaki Chair for Contemporary Japanese Study.

In 1992, after he earned first prize in the Miyagi Stadium Competition, Hitoshi established his international architectural design studio, Atelier Hitoshi Abe, in Sendai, Japan. Known for architecture that is spatially complex and structurally innovative, the work of Atelier Hitoshi Abe has been published internationally and received numerous awards worldwide.

Miyagi Stadium

Atelier Hitoshi Abe opened its second office in Los Angeles in 2008. Recent works include a departmental building on the New Campus of the Vienna University of Economics and Business; the 3M Headquarters building in St. Paul, Minnesota; “Hot Links” for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans; and the Terasaki Research Institute in Westwood, Los Angeles.

Terasaki Research Institute

In 2011, together with a group of Japanese Architects, Hitoshi initiated the Arch-Aid network – a voluntary network of architects established to help reconstruct the community damaged by the 2011 East Japan Great Earthquake and Tsunami. In 2017, he opened the xLAB Research Center at UCLA, where he is also currently Director. A successful designer and educator, Hitoshi is admired for his ability to initiate productive interdisciplinary collaborations and establish professional partnerships with various constituencies.


Iroha: What projects are you currently working on? What have you most recently completed or what do plan to do in the near future?

Hitoshi: Beside my Architectural practice, I am currently teaching at UCLA as the Director of xLAB, an international think-tank initiative that examines architecture’s elastic boundaries to consider new possibilities through interdisciplinary collaboration. In my instruction we focus on the future of our living environment, especially the recent phenomenon of reuniting work and domestic environments that can be observed particularly in coworking and co-living spaces. I believe this may change the way we design architecture and the city at large. Japan is one of the places leading this paradigm shift, and I will take my students to Tokyo to experience and learn from their approach this coming December.

We have also initiated an international research project called ArcDR3 (Architecture and Urban Design for Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience) in collaboration with 11 universities along the Pacific Rim over the past three years. Design studios linked to research at each participating university have explored ways to respond to disasters and build new resilient environments around the world. The result of these efforts culminated as the exhibition titled “Designing with Disaster,” which introduced the concept of “Regenerative Urbanism” – an anticipatory approach to urban design that explores the optimistic possibility of symbioses between humans and the natural and constructed worlds, embracing inevitable disasters to create resilient environments. This show was presented in Tokyo last April and will be on display in 2023 from January 27 to April 2 at the Japan House Los Angeles in Hollywood.

Designing with Disaster, which introduced the concept of Regenerative Urbanism
I am also currently the lead advisor for two ongoing urban-scale projects. One focuses on the future of mobility, while the other focuses on adding an educational component to the reconstruction and revitalization of Fukushima. I am looking forward to see how these projects develop and what kinds of possibilities they may generate for our collective future. 
Naruse-Ouka Elementary

Iroha: What are your thoughts regarding Asian hate and Asian glass ceiling issues? In the rise of Asian hate crimes, is your community (local, artist, business, etc.) affected in any way? How do you feel about that, and are you involved to address the issue? If so, please tell us how. Alternatively, you can also talk about Asian glass ceiling issues or any other cause you personally support.

Hitoshi: This is a difficult question to answer. UCLA has a large Asian population. Currently, of my nine students, six of them are of Asian descent, so it is sometimes easy to forget about these issues while surrounded by fellow Asians.

In general, whether regarding Asians or any other racial/ethnic group, I am against any action that sets boundaries or creates a separation between people. I believe it is very important to avoid and eliminate separation. In order to protect certain people though, you have to distinguish them as a specific population; however, in doing so, you perpetuate the creation of these separations. It seems that we do not have solution to resolve this conflict.

This is not a simple problem. I try to keep myself flexible and free of prejudices so that I am aware when issues cause separations to arise. When they do, I am always firmly against them. I hope we can find solutions to these problems in a manner that does not deepen divides and create more separation. I believe that we need to recognize and acknowledge everyone’s humanity, which is sometimes lost if we place too much focus on social categories. I hope we can explore ways to treat everyone as equally as possible, while acknowledging our differences.  

Iroha: Based on your background, do you have any advice or a message for young people who want to follow in your footsteps?

Hitoshi: I gave these three pieces of advice to a young professor who took over for me in my last position, and I would like to share them now.

  1. It is important to know that the role of school is not only to educate the students to fit the existing framework of the profession, but also to try to redefine this framework and expand the possibility of the profession together with them.
  2. The teacher-student relationship has changed. Our job is no longer just to teach. We should treat these students more like collaborators and pursue education together. We need to aid in this shift from teaching to collaborating.
  3. Always have a vision. Have an idea about how your work can contribute to the world. Without a vision, others will consume your work without further contributing to the world themselves.
Tohoku University Centennial Hall

Iroha: Outside of work, what are you most interested in right now?

Hitoshi: My children. It is always a great joy to see them growing up even though sometimes they face challenges such as entering college and navigating middle school. I am curious to see how they, as first-generation Japanese Americans, will develop themselves and pursue their own careers to find positions in society.

written by Jessica Woolsey | photography :  Kentaro Yamada, Shuichi Atsumi, Roland Halbe, Kawasumi Kobayashi Kenji Photograph Office Co.,Ltd

Atelier Hitoshi Abe | Instagram