Alumni Q+A: Riki Nishimura MAUD ’03

Riki Nishimura MAUD ’03 realized that he had a curiosity about cities at a very young age. He travelled extensively as a child as a result of his family’s work, and from the windows of airplanes he looked out over landscapes to imagine cities of his own design.

After studying at the University of Toronto, Riki relocated to Cambridge to begin his graduate studies in architecture and urban design at the GSD. Today, he is Director of Urban Strategies in the San Francisco office of Woods Bagot, a global design and consulting firm. He recently won the 2013 and 2014 AIA California Council Merit Awards for Urban Design for two master plans in China.

As part of our recent series of alumni Q+A, Riki has graciously responded to a series of probing questions, sharing stories of camaraderie in the GSD trays, waxing poetic about his favorite place in native Japan and his inspirations, recounting the evolution of his professional career, and ending with some thoughtful advice for current students.

Why did you choose the GSD for advanced studies? While working for Bruce Mau and Rem Koolhaas (on the Parc Downsview Park Competition) after undergrad, much of my research and references came from publications by GSD faculty. Coming out of that project, I knew the GSD would need to be a part of my life journey. The MAUD program was especially attractive because the curriculum has a core urban design studio. Alex Krieger’s Introduction to Urban Planning and Design course was where I learned the fundamentals of urban design.

What’s your favorite memory of the GSD?
The GSD trays are one of a kind, and I still think of them fondly. For two studios, my seat was next to the stairs at the center of the trays, and when my GSD peers passed by, they often saw something that sparked their curiosity. Some of the greatest informal project crits came from resulting impromptu discussions. I had so many ground-breaking moments at the oddest hours of the night, while making lifelong friends.

What GSD faculty, critic, or fellow student had the greatest influence?
Peter Rowe had the greatest influence during and after my time at the GSD. His option studio on the rehabilitation of the Xicheng District in Beijing was a great introduction to China, and experiencing it through Peter’s lens had a profound effect on how I viewed future urbanization. The intellectual rigor and high degree of expectation he placed on us carries with me today across all my research and projects. Just over a decade later, I am still highly invested in the urbanization of China with multiple master plans currently in progress.

How much do you rely upon your GSD network in your work today?
The GSD network has been invaluable, and to me it’s really more like a community. I’ve been able to reach out to alumni across the globe whenever I have questions or seek advice. Some of them I knew, but others I’ve never met. All have been very welcoming to my questions and often offered to meet me in person.

Tell us about your work. How has your professional role evolved over the years?
My role has transformed over the years and I’m sure it will keep evolving. I concentrated my early career building a foundation in architecture. Eventually, I took on a management role, but was still able to contribute to the design of projects, which was important to me. Today, I am responsible at my firm for the master planning and urban design discipline for North America. As an architect I have a diverse skill set that allows me to be quite versatile in any setting.

What are you working on today?
We are working on an innovation city master plan to define a sustainable framework for a 10 square km district. In doing so, we are testing a combination of innovative strategies and proven urban design principles to achieve the next level of energy and water reduction targets and coastal resilience. Our efforts are concentrated on infrastructure repair, but also explore integrated strategies that help elevate the public realm experience and redefine infrastructure compatibility for the places people want to live, work, and play.

Outside of work, what do you do for relaxation?
My ultimate passion is cooking—it provides me with an opportunity to share something personal with family and friends and is a great combination of technique and creativity. Unlike architecture and urban design, you don’t have to wait years to see it come out of the ground either—you can enjoy it right away!

What’s your favorite place? Why? 
One of my favorite places is the Gango-ji Temple in Nara, Japan, which is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. My relative is the chief priest at the temple. I spent a lot of time there in my childhood without understanding its significance, but it felt important to me because it was the only place where I would wake up before sunrise, sit on the engawa of the Zen-shitsu listening to the crickets, and wait for the sun to rise.

Who inspires you?
Throughout my life, my aunt inspired me with her work as an artist and researcher of natural dyes. I spent my summer breaks at her studio—dubbed the “Grass House,” on an island in South East Asia—exploring and studying the properties of nature. I learned that by embracing nature we can achieve something powerful and spectacular, and I translate that into my work.

Later, after graduating from the GSD, Dennis Pieprz MAUD ’85 was very inspirational to me. I worked closely with him for seven years on some of the most incredible master plans around the world. Dennis encouraged me at an early stage to interact with the clients and express our ideas. He helped me learn how to balance and translate academic and theoretical ideas with professional work, and how important the big idea is. He still continues to be a great inspiration and mentor.

Reflecting back, what is the most significant thing you learned at the GSD?
We had a lot of projects where we needed to collaborate with our peers. Everyone at the GSD had a wealth of knowledge and their experience was often quite unique and different from your own. This may sound obvious now, but back then I learned that collaboration isn’t about giving up your individuality but about bringing your best and sharing your ideas to achieve a common goal.

What advice would you have for GSD students?
The GSD has incredible resources, so leverage then while you’re there because you’ll miss them after you graduate. Also, you may not always be able to solve or find the complete solution for issues, but always try and find a way to leave things better than you found them. Finally, if everyone contributes to the world with some incremental improvements, life can only get better.