Kengo Kuma by Uta Abendroth | 20th June, 2015 | Personalities
Clean lines and traditional Japanese building materials – Kengo Kuma’s designs seem to blend into the environment. Their meditative feel has gained the Japanese architect many fans in Europe. His latest project is the V&A Museum of Design in Dundee, Scotland, which will be located directly on the water, the element that inspires him the most.
Nothing is as powerful as our early memories, which implant themselves, unconsciously, in our brains. In Kengo Kuma’s case, these memories are about fragrances, more specifically about the scent of hinoki wood and tatami mats. The Japanese architect was born in the port city of Yokohama and grew up in a house that had been built before World War II. The materials dominant in this old building were wood and rice straw, whose scents filled the dwelling. Kengo Kuma says that these aromas form part of his personal memories to this day, and that he sees a significant connection between the ambiance of a building and the scents pervading it.
“What’s inside and what’s outside is just a question of definition – the relationship can be reversed. A bit like yin and yang.” Kengo Kuma
Japanese architectural tradition is also strongly infused with these elements. Although it may seem strange to us Westerners, in Japan the emphasis is less on visual design or on putting the structure in the most spectacular light possible. Rather, there is a focus on embedding the building into the landscape, on creating a space and on the use of those traditional materials, which produce the familiar scents. All these play a crucial role, as does the concept of “shakkei.” According to this design philosophy, distant objects are incorporated visually into the layout of the garden and then integrated into the interior design of the building through the windows. The landscape elements thus become part of the overall concept. In Japan this technique is known as “borrowed scenery.” Kuma often works with this stylistic device. His frontages are either formed by staggered, chessboard-like paneling, or they contain cleverly designed openings, which allow you to look outside onto the flora and fauna, bodies of water, or other buildings in the area. It is crucial to Kuma that the rooms communicate with each other, which is only possible, if the walls are not solid. “I like creating a contrast between open and closed surfaces,” says the 60-year-old. “By simultaneously displaying elements of materiality and immateriality, a building overlaps with the natural world surrounding it. This aspect is very important: if we manage to create a seamless interface between the building and its environment, we have got it right. To me, it is this synergy that produces high quality architecture.”
The starting point for each of Kuma’s projects is the selection of the building materials. Many architects address the issue of which materials to use at a later stage in the creative process, but it is of prime importance to the architect, whose work bridges East and West and who commutes between his studios in Tokyo and Paris. He has a vast variety of different types of wood and tiles brought to his offices, where he assesses their capacity to give his designs a special look. However, his approach always takes into account traditions, regional particularities and the local climate. An example of this is the Yusuhara market, designed by Kuma in the town of Yusuhara, which is situated in the stunning, verdant mountains roughly 340 kilometers south of Kobe. The three-story building featuring an indoor market and a hotel is a popular meeting place. With its building materials – straw and wood – the architect makes reference to the historical “cha do” resting places that were once located along the roads, and where travelers were served green tea free of charge. In a forest close to the Great Wall of China, Kuma erected a house made of bamboo, a material that was originally brought to China from Japan. In this context, it symbolizes a kind of cultural exchange.
“20th century architecture found its expression in concrete. In the 21st century we should make use of softer materials.” Kengo Kuma
In Europe, his sophisticated designs have been so well received that the Yokohama native has become a sought-after architect and interior designer there, too. Kengo Kuma constructed his first building in Germany in 2007: the teahouse in the garden of the Frankfurt Museum of Applied Art (MAK), a surprising structure with an inflatable, soft outer shell of translucent plastic. In Italy he equipped the interior of Milan’s Camper shop with a grid of plywood shelves, from floor to ceiling. In France, in Shang Xia’s Paris showroom, he assembled 10,000 gleaming white tiles to form a kind of brickwork pattern on the walls. The Aix-en-Provence Conservatory of Music boasts a frontage made of aluminum panels, whose “folded” surfaces not only cause an interesting interplay between light and shadow, but are also evocative of origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. Another of his projects is the Victoria and Albert Museum of Design in the Scottish city of Dundee, which is still under construction and scheduled to open in 2017. Kuma won the design competition for the museum in 2012 with a structure which is reminiscent of a ship with horizontal grooves in its hull. But these grooves are in fact translucent rings, through which daylight penetrates into the exhibition spaces, and which also provide ventilation. One end of the building juts out above the water in Craig Harbour like the bow of a ship. In this way, it creates a connection to the element of water, which is of crucial importance to Kengo Kuma. In 1995, the architect constructed the “Water/Glass House” in the Japanese city of Atami, which to this day, has been copied many times. By using artificial pools of water, the building’s living area and a table surrounded by glass surfaces appear to merge almost seamlessly with the ocean behind them. Kuma says he is fascinated by water, because it reacts like a sensor to its environment and because it reflects both clouds and sunlight. He adds that many of his ideas come to him while soaking in a hot spring… ua