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Kengo Kuma

Q&A: Kengo Kuma—An Architecture of Relationships
By Edward Lifson

The 2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize was recently given to the Japanese duo who lead the firm SANAA. People in the know can think of several other Japanese architects who also deserve the prize. One who is not as well known in the United States is Kengo Kuma. Born in 1954, Kuma leads a Tokyo-based firm that has completed dozens of projects, including the Hiroshige Museum of Art, in Japan; the Great (Bamboo) Wall house, in Beijing; and the Opposite House hotel, also in Beijing. His feet are in traditional Japanese architecture with his mind looking through the 21st century.

Last week Kuma visited the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), in Chicago, to show his current work, which includes a concert hall in Besançon, France, and a contemporary art center in Marseilles. He’s also redeveloping the Gustave Eiffel–designed train station in Budapest and working in Naples and Granada. In the United States, his only commission is a house in Connecticut, but Kuma is on the shortlist for a medical center at Columbia University, in New York. At home he is updating a Kabuki theater and Tokyo’s central post office.

Kuma is known for exploring new materials and, at IIT, he showed images of his experiments with concrete embedded with glass fiber optics, walls of plastic filled with water, and plastic teahouses that inflate—“Ready to go in ten minutes, like ramen noodles!” he said. During his recent visit to Chicago, Kuma spoke with me in Mies van der Rohe’s IIT masterpiece, Crown Hall.

Many economists say that the twenty-first century will belong to Asia. How might that influence world architecture?

Bruno Taut said that Western architecture is about shape and form and Asian architecture is about relationships. The last two thousand years were driven by European cultures. I expect we’ll find new paradigms of space. Probably it will be very enjoyable! [Laughs] Chinese history is of cultural exchanges with their neighbors. This can happen again in the twenty-first century. China may be the center of the world, and they may fight with other cultures, but they will also collaborate with other cultures. That tension can move the world in interesting new directions. This will change architecture.

China changes fast and it’s complicated. What’s it like for you to work there?

I was always interested in Chinese culture because my father was a big fan of China. Growing up we had Chinese furniture, we ate Chinese food; as a kid I was already influenced by Chinese culture.

Historically, we Japanese were influenced very much by the Chinese, but we adapted their work and then they were influenced by Japan! I find my inspiration in the small differences.
In your lecture today at IIT you spoke of your work as, among other things, a process of looking for the essence of materials. You mentioned reinforced bamboo, travertine so thin you suspend it like a screen, Tyvek made to look like Japanese rice paper—even duck feathers inserted between glass for a wall! How can you find the essence of a new material every Monday morning?

New materials always stimulate me—and change my style. Fifty years ago, for architects consistency was a value. But in my time flexibility can be a value. Behind the flexibility, people like to see consistency. In my case I have it. My essence cannot be altered by changing time, changing technologies, or new materials. That’s the profundity of the creative process.

You know, I wanted to have a fan under the duck feathers in the wall to blow them, but it was impossible!

I bet you’ll keep trying. But what is the consistent aspect of your work?

Probably it came from the house in which I was born and grew up. It’s a very old Japanese house, from the nineteen-thirties. Most of my friends were living in very new houses. From the experience of that house I am connected with the tradition of old Japanese building. That is my base. The ‘mother of my design’ is always landscape. Architecture is a part of the landscape. It is not independent. That is our tradition; still it is a lesson for us.

In Japan you try to teach ‘the essence of architecture’ to students. How do you do that?

I don’t speak with them without using models. Computer images are not enough. We always talk in front of the model, or in front of the mock-up, or in front of real three-dimensional items. If we’re facing that kind of a real thing, the conversation can be real. The conversation without those items cannot make anything. That is a rule of mine in the university. The discussion in front of the computer screen is not so fruitful I think. Because the image is just basically image. It is very limited, very thin. Even a small model is better than an image.

I like a big building model and a big landscape model. That way we can know the relationships between the two. You can feel the relationships. And that is essential for our design process.
広重美術館/ hiroshige museum 04
Speaking of real three-dimensional items: You know, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House is just a few blocks away from here. You mentioned Wright so many times in your lecture today—you said he is your biggest influence—but you don’t have time to see Robie House because you’re so in demand you arrived this morning and you fly out of Chicago right after dinner! How frustrated are you that you can’t see it?

[Laughs] Yes, there are many buildings in this area by Frank Lloyd Wright! I can remember clearly my experience in Robie House and also his other works. It’s okay not to see them, because in my memory the buildings still strongly exist.

Your museums are extraordinary in the ways they calm the visitor and help us shed the chaos of daily life. They relate beautifully to their sites and to the art they contain. What do you think will be the role of the museum in the twenty-first century?

In the twentieth century different aspects of our lives were separated, but in the twenty-first century many aspects of city life can be merged together. The museum can be the center of life in the city, like a public living room! The museum of the twentieth century was basically an isolated box. I try to make very comfortable, very soft, and quiet spaces. That kind of softness is needed in the museum of the twenty-first century. My policy is to bring in natural light and nature, even if I use new materials. I combine nature and artwork so the border between nature and art can be very ambiguous. Traditionally, in Japanese houses, the landscape, artwork, and architecture borders are very ambiguous. We didn’t frame artwork. Framing art is an invention of Western culture.
ちょっ蔵広場/ chokkura plaza 02
The approach to your museums—when you leave the city, before you enter the museum—is transformative.

Ah, yes, yes. I learned the approach of the museum from the approach of the teahouse. The teahouse space itself is very small. But the approach to the teahouse is a kind of long story. The approach starts from the noisy daily life, then gradually it changes to quietness, changes to emptiness. Drama happens between the city and the entrance. I want to create the same kind of long story in the museum approach. I don’t mind if the approach is longer than the experience in the museum itself! If it is too short, people cannot prepare the mental conditions. They should have time to feel many things on the approach. That is a goal of my museum design—approach is more important than the museum interior! [Laughs]

What does ‘sustainability’ mean to you?

In Japan, historically we did sustainable design because of the limited land, poor energy supplies, and every resource was limited. But that kind of bad condition was the mother of real creation of Japanese culture. And today we do the same things as before. I think sustainability is not an end. We should use it though, because sustainability can be the mother of good design.

Detour Exhibition - Kengo Kuma - In Kuma's notebook we can see the architects' work process. It's filled with glued pictures of building and their schemes together with many notes of his last projects. from on Vimeo.

7 comentarii:

Anonim spunea...

kengo kuma

was born in kanagawa, japan in 1954.
he graduated from the school of engineering at the university
of tokyo in 1979, and continued his studies in new york in 1985-86,
at columbia university and the asian cultural council.
the following year, he founded the ‘spatial design’ studio
and, in 1990, ‘kengo kuma & associates’;
between 1998 and 1999, he was a professor at the
faculty of environmental information at keio university.
kuma's aim is to ‘recover the tradition of japanese buildings’
and to reinterpret it for the 21st century.

designboom met kengo kuma at his office in tokyo, japan
on november the 4th, 2005.

what is the best moment of the day?
when I'm driving from my house to the office.
I have a convertable, I can feel the winds of the morning...
and when I see the green leaves, the big trees I feel the
atmosphere is good.

what kind of music do you listen to at the moment?
I have some musician friends, ryuichi sakamoto.
we have a similar philosophy, some kind of shared
sensibility, I love his music.

do you listen to the radio?

what books do you have on your bedside table?
at home I don't read books, but one of my favorite
books is about the history of china and japan.
I'm designing buildings for the small cities and towns of
china, japan and sometimes korea. I would like to
know the history of these places, because the design of
a building should have some connection to the history of that place.
I am very interested in the histories of places.

do you read architecture and design magazines?
yes, sometimes.
(he is sitting in front of a huge collection of design/architecture

where do you get your news from?
most important information comes from my friends.
the news from the media is official, but from my friends
I can feel the delicate truth.

I assume you notice how women are dressing,
do you have any preferences?
I like traditional clothes.
a kimono is traditional, but it's a very formal tradition,
I prefer rural or more informal clothing that is deeply connected
with real life, like the trousers japanese women wore before
world war II...

are there any clothes you would avoid wearing?
I dont like to wear a tie, because a tie constricts my body.
somebody said that a tie decreases the length of our life by ten years,
this is why the average life of ladies is ten years longer.

Anonim spunea...

do you have pets?
no. I like animals but I don't have time to take care of them.

when you were a child did you always want to be
an architect?
after 1964 I wanted to be an architect.
before I wanted to be a vetenarian.
at age 10, a big influence was experiencing kenzo tange’s
buildings for the 1964 tokyo olympics.
also my father was a collector of bruno taut designs and he was
very much interested in architecture.

where do you work on your designs and projects?
the most important time is the discussion with my staff.
that usually happens when I'm in the office in front of the models,
or in front of the sketches. this kind of communication can create
the design.

who would you like to design something for?
I would like to design a museum, but my ideal project would
be to rebuild downtown tokyo, the past tokyo, to rebuild it
with the streets, trees, all on a human scale.

do you discuss your work with other architects?
yes, with toyo ito, his office is close to mine.
also with kazuyo sejima, she teaches in the same university as me.

describe your style, like a good friend of yours
would describe it.
you could say that my aim is 'to recover the place'.
the place is a result of nature and time, this is the most important
aspect. I think my architecture is some kind of frame of nature.
with it we can experience nature more deeply and more intimately.
transparency is a characteristic of japanese architecture,
I try to use light and natural materials to get a new kind of

what project has given you the most satisfaction?
there are many.
the most recent was a pavillion for the french champagne
maker 'krug. I designed a moveable dome using a shape-memory
alloy that grows or shrinks depending on ambient temperature.
the dome is always moving. it has always been my dream
that architecture can be like animal, living...

can you describe an evolution in your work,
from your first projects to the present day?
when I was young I thought that concrete was the only material
to create rational and economic buildings,
but now I prefer using natural light and natural materials.
before 1990 I was working mainly in tokyo, but after the
economies crashed, I worked in the countryside and started to
collaborate with the local craftsmen. I learned many things from these carpenters. now I want to recover the japanese tradition, not of 'monuments', but of 'weaker' buildings.

are there any architects from the past
you appreciate a lot?
two architects: frank llyod wright - he learned many things
from the japanese and he is a bridge between japanese
culture and modernism. another example is bruno taut.
he also visited japan. he wrote a book about japanese girders
and architecture.

what current architects do you appreciate?
I am interested mainly in the work of european architects
and the designers from finland and the north of europe.
especially the work of furniture and industrial designers, it's very
important because they are always thinking of the relationship
between the human body and tools.
sometimes architects forget that.

any advice for the young?
I always suggest to go to site and communicate
with the craftsmen directly. the site is the inner source
of creation. in our studios we are separated from nature
and we are separated from the construction.

what are you afraid of regarding the future?
yes, I'm afraid of the future of japan, this means japan is
facing times of depression / maturity. from the 1950s to the
1980s we have been expanding but now we are facing a decline.
the japanese should not be afraid of that kind of recession
because this period can be a time of real creation.
in the time of expansion there is less consideration for quality
but during recession we have to concentrate and can create a real
treasure, that is a lesson of history.

Anonim spunea...

"For architects, perfection is necessary," said Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

"It is my mission to use the kindness and delicateness that old architecture had. I believe that this mission is not easy to complete. So I am planning to work until I fall down."

With nearly 60 projects on the go across the world, Kuma's search for perfection is all consuming; he rarely takes a day off from work and sometimes even finished projects are analyzed and amended.

The 55-year-old from Tokyo has become synonymous with delicate simplicity and sensitivity to a building's surrounding. From the Great (Bamboo) Wall House located near the Great Wall of China outside of Beijing to the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo, Kuma has employed natural materials that complement a building's location to great acclaim. View the gallery of Kuma's spectacular buildings

"I try to catch the atmosphere of the place where we build the house. We try to find out how the people live there and what kind of materials they use. After we find out the atmosphere of the place, we will think how we can relate that with the architecture."

Using mostly glass and Chinese bamboo to make the house by the Great Wall, it comfortably blended into the natural surroundings, but the Suntory Museum of Art, completed in 2007 presented different challenges.

"Usually, a building in a massive developed area tends to be a sad building. However, I wanted to make a building which is warm and could feel a human's touch. To make that ideal building, I used natural material such as Japanese paper and paulownia [wood]. I wanted to take back the human element even if the building was inside the city."

Much of modern architecture is often unfairly portrayed as lacking that human element, but Kuma's focus on retrieving and remaining Japanese traditions in architecture has gone some way to dispel that myth.

It is a far cry from his initial architectural fascination with concrete, in part inspired by the Olympic stadium designed by Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Games in Tokyo.

"I learned that architecture can impress people. If the Olympics were not held in Tokyo, I might not have become an architect."

Anonim spunea...

If Tange's buildings for the Olympics were responsible for sparking Kuma's imagination, he's followed a different path in his career. After earning a master's degree in architecture from The University of Tokyo in 1979 and further study at Columbia University in New York, he returned to Japan in 1986 -- a boom time for architects.

"People who were only about 30-years-old could design a building. It was an era of post-modernism and a lot of young people were making outstanding buildings during that time."

But the economic recession hit Japan in 1992 and it had a profound impact on Kuma's life and changed his attitude to architecture.

"I didn't have a job in Tokyo for 10 years. I was designing small buildings in the countryside. I worked with a craftsman and studied how to use natural materials in those 10 years. From this experience, I learned the great aspects of Japanese traditional architecture. I started to design traditional Japanese architecture and foreign people took notice of the design," he said.

"I think the cities of Japan are a bit damaged by the concrete buildings," Kuma added. "Because of the sub-prime issue and now another economic crisis, I feel this is again a good opportunity for architects to design buildings slowly."

In focusing taking a more holistic approach to his craft, Kuma has promoted the humanizing elements of architecture and its ability of improve people's lives. It's an approach that he has likened to making sushi.

"There are two important things to make sushi. One is the material and the other is the skill... For sushi, both the power of the material and skill is important and their balance is very important.

"I believe that this balance is what people want," Kuma continued. "People and society are seeking the thing like sushi for the architecture and their city. A variety of people are interested in Japanese architecture and traditions and this is parallel to why sushi is popular in Western country."

Anonim spunea...

The output of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma is one of sophisticated contradictions. It plays with nature/culture, light/shadow, traditional building techniques/contemporary silhouettes, serving as a sensitive response to materials and surroundings, leading to such interesting juxtapositions as the LVMH headquarters in central Tokyo being clad entirely in wood. He has a down to earth approach to building that ultimately strives to erase architectural structures altogether. Kuma is so down to earth in fact, that in his practice of close to 50 employees, he answers the office phone himself at 8.30 on a Thursday morning.

Johanna Agerman: If elegance is the attribute of being unusually effective and simple, do you think that elegant is an appropriate description of your work?

Kengo Kuma: I don’t use the word elegant but humble. Humbleness is essential to me, and in every detail I try to realise humbleness, because if the details in a building express themselves too strongly it destroys the harmony of the place. I also want my buildings to have a humble existence within their environment. I consider my architecture as a kind of frame of nature; with it we can experience nature more deeply and more intimately.

Johanna: So real elegance is found in nature and the architecture simply highlights the environment?

Kengo: Yes, you could say that. Japan has a very mild climate with a rich variety of seasons and the most important aspect of this is the rain and the humidity. The architecture should reflect this darkness and these shadows.

Johanna: That reminds me of Junichiro Tanizaki’s beautiful book, In Praise of Shadows.

Kengo: That is actually one of my “textbooks”. He summarises Japanese architecture in such a simple way and the element that I find the most important is what he calls “the horizontal hierarchy of light”. In Japanese space, light comes from the side, not from the above, and gradually the light becomes darker and darker. I always try to create a similar hierarchy in my architecture.

Johanna: You produced a chandelier for Swarovski, displayed at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair, which omits light in a novel way. It was one of the more original contributions to their Crystal Palace, as it completely deconstructed the idea of a crystal chandelier.

Kengo: Yes, usually each crystal in a chandelier is fixed by wire but I liberated them and put them into an acrylic bowl of water, to create a “water chandelier”, in which each crystal was a free particle. This approach completely reflects my architectural ideology. As I always try to blend architecture to the natural surroundings, one method of doing this is to cut the materials I use into separate particles that let light and wind go through, like I did in Lotus House for example. In the chandelier I used a blower to make the crystals swerve around, calling the piece Tornado and it shines by the reflection of the lighting and the movement itself.

Johanna: I have yet to see a Kengo Kuma building first hand and I am trying to travel to Japan to do so, but are you developing any projects in Europe at the moment?

Kengo: We are currently working on a tea room for the garden of the design museum in Frankfurt. The opening is in August.. We are also about to finish the work on a Japanese restaurant in London that will open in mid-September. And only some days ago, we won an architectural design competition for a cultural centre in Besançon in France.

Anonim spunea...

Johanna: What materials do you like to work in, in your buildings?

Kengo: I like soft materials. Concrete is hard and too strong and I feel that if the human body hit against it, it would get hurt, that is one of the reasons I don’t like concrete. But the expression “natural materials” is so vague and I don’t want to adopt the position of not using materials as vinyl or plastic because they are “artificial materials” and I like to work in materials like soft vinyl.

Johanna: When did you know you wanted to become an architect?

Kengo: From an early age. You see, the house where I was born was a small wooden house that my grandfather built in Kanagawa in the 1920s, he worked there as a farmer on the weekends. When I was ten my father decided to expand the house and we had a family meeting almost every week, it was very similar to a real architectural meeting, where everyone got to submit their ideas and discuss what lighting there should be and what materials we should use and what design was best suited for the environment.

Johanna: Do you still have the house in the family?

Kengo: Well, my father passed away but my mum is in her eighties and still uses it.

Johanna: After graduating from Tokyo University you went to New York and Columbia University as a visiting scholar,how did this change your outlook on your practice as an architect?

Kengo: Before I went to New York I wasn’t so interested in Japanese traditional architecture but once there my American friends asked about my background and Japanese history and I started studying and reading more about Japan. I vividly remember that I got a tatami mat, you know the material used for floors in traditional Japanese houses, and a friend and I sat on it, enjoying a simple tea ceremony. In the tea ceremony we spoke about the traditions of and differences between Japanese and American culture. This was definitely a starting point for my interest in Japanese traditions. After my New York experience my viewpoint changed drastically.

Johanna: Still, your first projects back in Japan were big concrete structures.

Kengo: When I returned to Japan we were in a bubble economy. Japanese businesses did very well and I got several commissions from big companies in Tokyo like the m2 building for Mazda, but then in 1990 the bubble burst and I couldn’t find any more projects in Tokyo. Instead I was invited by the village in Kinojo to design a small hotel; the only request was that I use local wood. It was here that I first worked with very skilled traditional Japanese craftsmen. Because of that project I learned how to work with Japanese craft traditions. But you have to remember that I matured as an architect with a background in modern education, in western modern architecture. Even if traditional architecture always looked very stimulating and exotic to me, I still try to make modern buildings, but by using traditional methods. The most important thing during the creative process is the discussion my team has with the craftsmen. I always dedicate special attention to creating as many opportunities like this as possible. In my work there is always an exchange between the traditional and the modern. Like in the Hiroshige Museum of Art. The silhouette of the building is traditionally Japanese but the roof and walls are made out of wooden slats, according to a grid which changes as the light pours into the space, altering its essence: sometimes the pattern of the grid transforms into a solid translucent plane, and other times it transforms into a transparent plane making the building a sensor of light. This was a real feat for me.

Anonim spunea...

Johanna: Husserl’s and Heidegger’s writings on phenomenology seem appropriate when considering your buildings – the visibility and obscurity of them, and the way they play with our perception of space and place – what is your architectural philosophy?

Kengo: I want architecture to be as far away as possible from a fixed phenomenon. I want architecture to appear as a changing phenomenon depending on the season, the weather, the time, the person that is looking at it and his place and at what velocity he moves. I want architecture to have this kind of ambiguous character.

Johanna: You have said that you want it to disappear altogether.

Kengo: Well, there are several ways in which I “erase” architecture: by burying a building into the site, using local materials, to use light and shadow to get a kind of transparency.

Johanna: But is there not a contradiction in wanting to “dissolve” architecture and still being an architect?

Kengo: No, I don’t think there is any contradiction with being an architect and using this method. After all, many architects of the 20th century thought of the blending of architecture and environment as the most important thing.

Johanna: So is your work a continuation of this way of thinking?

Kengo: The problem with the legacy of modernism is that it is still under the influence of classicism, in respecting proportions and the beauty of shape. Most 20th century media considered beautiful proportion as necessary, but for me that is a secondary thing. My concern about the conception of proportion is related to my opinion on taking pictures or drawing. I am more interested in experiencing architecture first hand and consider this experience the most important thing in the communication between materials and people. Instead, the “void” in my architecture is one of the most important ideas of it.

Johanna: Do you mean the way that you open up and even remove parts of your buildings, like in the LVMH headquarters in Tokyo?

Kengo: Yes, in One Omotesando [lvmh Tokyo Headquarters building] I developed the idea of voids at two different scales. The larger scale void is represented in the carving I made in the upper right part of the building. This void expresses how narrow the site is, and it also transmits to the people the characteristically thin and small land parcels of the Omotesando area surrounding it. This way the design points out the special character of the environment within Tokyo, and its contradictions.

Johanna: With your unique approach to architecture, will you still call yourself an architect in ten years time?

Kengo: In ten years, I would like to be called a gardener. In Japan, architecture was traditionally a part of the garden and the architect’s profession didn’t exist in itself. Before I decided to be an architect I wanted to be a farmer. The blood of the grandfather you see. I had a small field in the garden when I grew up and I have always liked earth and vegetation.

Johanna: Do you have a garden at the moment?

Kengo: Only a very small garden here in Tokyo. It’s three by three metres.