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Kengo Kuma by Martin Tschechne | 4th September, 2020 | Personalities

Instead of concrete, this influential architect embraces warm materials and traditional Japanese techniques. Kengo Kuma always strives for harmony with nature. An approach he took as well when designing the National Stadium in Tokyo. The Olympic Games are to take place here next year.

„Looking for a new kind of happiness.“ KENGO KUMA

No other architect champions the aesthetic traditions of his country in the world like Kengo Kuma. His buildings are sustainable and resource-efficient. In our interview, he explains how the Fukushima catastrophe completely changed the way his fellow Japanese think and why he believes the millennia-old Japanese lifestyle can serve as a model for the 21st century.

„I’ve turned my attention to wood as a material a lot more purposefully than in the past.“ KENGO KUMA

Kuma-san, almost 30 years ago you built a car showroom in Tokyo that you evidently got a lot of fun out of. You referenced Russian constructivism, constructed medieval walls and crowned the whole thing with a huge Ionic column. Today you use materials such as rice paper and bamboo, glass and plastic – and built a stadium for the 2021 Olympic Games out of wood. What happened in between?

Hmm. We’re 30 years older. And possibly also a little wiser.

Can you be more specific?

When I started out in architecture back in the 1980s, the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else was criticize the prevailing modernism. In my eyes, it had fizzled out. That’s why I committed to a kind of postmodernism – that’s what all that staged chaos with a Greek column in the middle of it stood for. But the idea soon lost its appeal.

What happened?

In the long run, postmodernism was too academic for people. You can’t keep telling the same joke over and over for years on end. The 1990s were difficult for me after that. I was hardly getting any work in Tokyo, so I had to leave the city and look for smaller projects. That was a turning point in the way I see myself as an architect.

Do people build differently in the provinces than in the cities?

Oh yes! At least they did in Japan at the time. In Tokyo, I’d always worked with big construction companies. Large-scale projects – everything was organized, everyone had their own area. I dealt with the managers. I had virtually nothing to do with the tradesmen or craftspeople.

And in the country?

I was responsible in a totally different way. I talked to the craftspeople, watched them work – and learned a great deal.

What exactly? Techniques? Or was it more like an outlook on life, a way of seeing the world that you learned?

Both, actually. But more than anything else, I learned to recognize and appreciate the value of craftsmanship, the care that goes into the details, the cleverness of the solutions. They were really good, intense conversations. We’ve got fantastic craftspeople in Japan, you know, and they’ve got thousands of years of tradition behind them.

And then you returned to the city.

That’s right. My talks with craftspeople had taught me about far more than just their techniques. I’d become aware of values like sustainability, modesty – and a special kind of economy. You could call it thriftiness, I suppose. Or even humility.

You studied in New York, run a second office in Paris and have developed residential concepts for Moscow and a civic center for Sydney. You build in Beijing and Lausanne, in Arnhem and São Paulo, Aix-en-Provence and Vancouver. In other words, all over the world. Two years ago, the building you designed for the Dundee branch of London’s V&A Museum opened its doors in Scotland – and yet you still describe yourself as perhaps the most Japanese architect of our times. How do the two things go together?

I think there’s a system of values evolving in Europe and the U.S. that the traditional Japanese lifestyle is very compatible with. It’s simple, shows consideration for other people and is more mindful of making sustainable decisions. I think it could be a model for the 21st century.

In one of your reflections on architecture, you write that needs have already changed: People don’t want monumental buildings anymore, nothing that sets itself apart from the rest of the neighborhood.

Yes, I believe our sense of aesthetics has changed. People here in Japan have developed a different mentality, especially since the earthquake that took place in 2011. They look for happiness in different places, and I believe they’re looking for a different kind of happiness too. There’s something you could call a new spirituality. Japan is reflecting on its own tradition. The catastrophe fundamentally changed people here.

You’re particularly referring to the devastating consequences for the Fukushima power plant?

The country came to its senses, so to speak. Before that happened, I used to try and create something along the lines of islands with my projects, islands of simplicity or calm – but the misfortunes of 2011 afflicted the entire country.

From the outside, that’s hard to tell. We’re still seeing what seems like a very lavish and carefree approach to energy in Japan. Even the nuclear reactors have been brought back online. So what has actually changed?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might not be able to redefine our entire energy policy. But I think most politicians are saying that fundamental changes are needed.

What did the tsunami and the Fukushima catastrophe mean for architecture? You yourself once said that one of the major effects of the earthquake was that it destroyed architecture inspired by Western, American models.

I think you can sum up the big transformation after the catastrophe very simply: Find new ways! Your own ways! After World War II, Japan fought to catch up with the West. It was a compulsion that seized the entire country. We’d been defeated, so we tried to emulate the Americans culturally and economically. Turning towards nuclear energy was just one aspect of that – we more or less adopted the entire system.

And the earthquake was something like a sign from heaven …

It was a very clear warning signal.

But Japan has always been subject to the forces of nature. And people have learned to adapt to that.

That’s true. Our respect for the powers of nature in earlier times is apparent from the fact that Japanese houses used to be built at a safe distance to the sea. Preferably a bit higher up the hill, where a tsunami couldn’t sweep them away. That might not have been true of Tokyo because we’re protected by the bay here. But it was very definitely the case further north. People knew that a huge wave rolled across the land every 60 or 80 years and swept away everything in its path. So they tended to keep their distance from the water. That was clever. Unfortunately, we ignored those lessons in the 20th century. It was tempting to live by the water, so we built our houses there – along with shopping malls, industrial plants and even nuclear power stations. Today we know what a momentous mistake that was!

„The idea is to overcome an architecture of sculptural objects.“ KENGO KUMA

What do the most recent catastrophes mean for your own work?

Before the tsunami I had a vague feeling that we ought to develop a post-American, postmodern system. It was just intuition, a slight sense of unease with the way things were going. But now I’m utterly convinced: That’s the direction we ought to be heading in.

„I think the traditional Japanese lifestyle could be a model for the 21st century.“ KENGO KUMA

In terms of architecture?

I’ve turned my attention to wood as a material a lot more purposefully than in the past. And not just because of my own convictions – at my clients’ urging too. Their whole mentality had changed – and that changed their understanding of aesthetics as well. Flick through some Japanese architecture magazines: In the past you’d have seen virtually nothing but gray concrete, but nowadays you’re increasingly likely to come across the mellow, warm hues of wood.

And what does that tell us?

People crave natural materials. Personally, I’ve always felt attracted to wood: The colors, the light, the craftsmanship and the smell have always reminded me of my childhood. But now there are a lot of architects who think the same way. People simply want to live with wood again. It’s a very contemporary, future-proof material for building houses. Few construction materials are as sustainable as wood. It’s fragrant, creates a pleasant indoor climate and corresponds to the human scale. Thanks to modern technology, not even flammability is an issue any more. We ought to rediscover it.

Nevertheless, it’s still concrete that sets the tone in the modern architecture of Japan. In your native Tokyo, the style of somebody like Tadao Ando is in evidence on every street corner: austere, smooth, polished surfaces in a very elegant gray.

That’s true, concrete was the 20th century’s means of expression, just think of brutalism. But today we’re finding better solutions. Take the Culture Tourist Information Center in Asakusa: We stacked the structures of the traditional wooden houses found in the neighborhood one on top of the other to create a tower – obviously that’s a statement. And then there’s the stadium for the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Which you designed out of wood. And there are green plants growing out of the exterior walls. How did you get a concept like that accepted?

Well, there were two competitions. The first was won by London architect Zaha Hadid, who died in 2016. Tadao Ando was chairman of the jury, and I didn’t even take part in the competition because I knew that his and my views were very far apart.

How come there was a second competition?

The government, our Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pulled the plug after the costs for the stadium had doubled. On top of that, a few very influential architects had called for protests against Zaha Hadid’s design – people like Fumihiko Maki and Toyo Ito. And almost 90,000 people signed the petition.

In your opinion, what was Zaha Hadid’s mistake?

Maybe she didn’t judge the location correctly. She wanted to erect an outstanding building, a monument. That was her great, magnificent talent. She could design buildings that stood out from their surroundings. But in the caseof the Olympic stadium, you’re dealing with a very sensitive place. The site is in Meiji Jingu Gaien Park with the famous picture gallery of Emperor Meiji – in a place like that, the architecture should show respect for its surroundings rather than trying to make itself the center of attention.

You’ve provided theoretical justification for your position too. Even 10 years ago, you were writing essays in which you challenged your fellow architects and clients to change their way of thinking: “Anti-Object” – architecture that sees itself as a service. That’s a very modern approach. Has time proved you right?

It looks that way. The idea is to overcome an architecture of sculptural objects. In the 20th century, many architects had the goal of building isolated monuments that set themselves apart from their surroundings as clearly as possible. That mindset is no longer in keeping with the needs of our time. We’re more aware of our surroundings, we live in them, not against them like a backdrop any more. “Anti-Object” is the term I coined for that attitude.

„In the 20th century, many architects had the goal of building isolated monuments.“ KENGO KUMA

In the case of the Olympic stadium, somebody seems to have convinced the government of its merits too. There was a new jury, then a second competition, which you won, and construction started in late 2016. You charmingly name a German as the role model for your very consciously Japanese attitude: the architect Bruno Taut. What role does he play for you?

His outside perspective confirmed what I experienced and felt during my childhood in Japan but hadn’t yet worked up into a concept. Taut came to Japan in 1933 and found our way of life very appealing. And it wasn’t the modernist buildings that delighted him – he felt pulled in the opposite direction. So he looked at our country’s traditional way of building and said to himself: That’s what’s going to follow modernism! He wrote his thoughts about things like the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto or the Ise Grand Shrine down. And I devoured it all.

What did you learn from him?

First and foremost, the realization that our architectural tradition already contains the answers for a post-industrial era. Taut had been looking for models like that for a long time. He found them in Japan.

So would you describe yourself as a traditionalist?

No, our architectural tradition inspired me, as did my own personal experiences. But what I design is very definitely contemporary architecture. Look at the Water Glass House, for instance, which I built in 1995: A very Japanese longing for nature is the starting point, but it formulates a very modern response. By the way: I was particularly delighted that I could build the house in Shizuoka, in the immediate vicinity of Bruno Taut’s only building in Japan – the Hyuga Villa.

Putting this need to be close to nature aside: The earth’s population is growing and growing – won’t we have to get used to the idea that in 20 or 30 years from now we’ll all be housed in huge “machines for living in”? Our way of life is changing rapidly too: People are moving around from one place to another as much as they’re moving from one relationship to another, they’re communicating via the internet – how is it even remotely possible for architecture to keep up?

There’s a great deal architects can do to encourage a new lifestyle. I’m working on concepts for shared residential or office space, for instance.

Which brings me to the prefab house you designed for Muji: practical, quick to erect and quick to recycle when the time comes?

Well, yes – although I’ve come to realize that even the Muji house is a typical detached home for the suburbs. It’s intended as a suggestion, but it leaves a lot of problems unresolved. I think that in future we’ll need houses that allow us to share living space and work flexibly.

And what would be a good model for the future?

My son Taichi Kuma lived in one. He’s 35, and also an  architect. It’s a small apartment – but also a housing model for the future: He invited friends to live there with him, there were seven of them. Everyone has their own room and there are shared spaces for eating and working.

A classic apartment share! Did he design it himself?

No, that was a few years ago now, when he was still a student. My wife, Satoko Shinohara, designed it with Spatial Design Studio, her firm in Tokyo. Share Yaraicho is the first house of its kind in Tokyo: It’s made of plastic and wood, and instead of doors there are zippers for closing the entrances. In 2014 it won an award from the AIJ (Architectural Institute of Japan). I thought it was a great model for a time when more than every second person in our city lives alone and housing prices are skyrocketing.

There’s a quote from your fellow architect Tadao Ando: “Kuma lives in a totally new age.” Would you have expected a compliment like that from him?

I was delighted by it. Although I’ve always been very outspoken about criticizing Ando-san, I also value and respect him. That’s why I was really touched to get that kind of recognition from him.

IssueGG Magazine 04/20
City/CountryTokyo, Japan
PhotographyKengo Kuma & Associates
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