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The design ethos of Kengo Kuma

The acclaimed Japanese architect talks about his career, pushing the boundaries of building design, and his first project in Singapore.

It all started with a modest public bathhouse in a small Japanese town. Now, Kengo Kuma is a big-name architect with close to 300 staff, 600 built works and high-profile commissions across the globe – including the Founders’ Memorial, a major project commemorating Singapore’s founding fathers. From little acorns, and all that. Yet Kuma-san still enjoys working on acorn-sized projects.

The Yokohama-born, Tokyo-based Mr Kuma, 65, was just 10 years old when his father took him to see Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, its swooping lines and suspended roof design symbolic of the country’s post-war progress. It sparked a desire in him to become an architect.

Kengo Kuma Architecture

(Left) Kengo Kuma as a young boy (with a neighbour). (Right) Kengo Kuma in his trademark collarless shirt.

The irony probably wasn’t lost on Mr Kuma when half a century later in 2015, his proposal for the New National Stadium was given the green light. The 60,000-seat stadium, completed in November last year, was meant to be the centrepiece of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, but that plan – and the Olympics – is now on hold, thanks to the postponement of the Games in the wake of the Covid-19 virus that is sweeping through the planet.

Mr Kuma graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1979. After working a few years for a large construction company, he spent a year as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, where he met several leading American architects of the day, including Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry. They made a lasting impression on him but he credits Hiroshi Hara, his architecture professor in Tokyo, with being a major influence.

 

(Related: Tokyo unveils 2020 venue inspired by Japanese architecture)

 

Finding his own path

A two-month research trip to Africa with Mr Hara in the early 1980s convinced him of the benefits of working with native materials, simple building techniques and being sympathetic to the environment rather than trying to overwhelm it.

“At that time, I was not interested in Kenzo Tange’s or Kisho Kurokawa’s Japanese Modernism, and I was also not interested in the traditional Japanese building as it looked nostalgic,” says Mr Kuma, 65, in an email interview. “Professor Hara showed me a third option – not Modernism nor traditional, but the vernacular building of the villages.”

Mr Kuma is an itinerant architect who travels to every corner of the world, soakingup different cultures and snagging prestigious projects in places from Dallas to Dundee, from Sydney to Sao Paulo. He now mentors graduate students at Tokyo University, where he also oversees research projects. “I always advise young students to travel to new places,” he says. “In my case, the Sahara Desert gave me many hints about future architecture.

Reading books cannot give as big a hint as travelling on foot. By travelling, we can touch the material, feel the material, and we can feel the real scale.”

In the 1980s, Japan’s economic boom was characterised by concrete, steel and glass buildings, designed by earlier generations of skilled practitioners like Arata Isozaki, Fumihiko Maki, Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito. Mr Kuma founded Spatial Design Studio in 1987 and his eponymous practice in 1990, during the height of Japan’s bubble economy.

(Related: The art of sustainable design)

He wasn’t immune to pervasive postmodern influences and grand architectural statements either. As a young architect he designed the M2 building (1991) in Tokyo, a Modernist folly-cum-car showroom, with a giant Ionic column as a central feature. A 2018 New York Times article described the oversized building, not without justification perhaps, as “grotesque and overwhelming.”

Propelled in part by the collapse of the Japanese economy, Mr Kuma went on to reject that early exercise in architectural excess. There were no commissions to be had in post-bubble Tokyo in the early 1990s, so he went back to the drawing board. Actually, he went back to rural Japan, where he rediscovered his calling as an architect.

“I began to think that Modernist buildings sometimes destroy the environment, and my interest began to move towards Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and Katsura Villa (a 17th-century imperial residence and garden complex in Kyoto),” says Mr Kuma. “Inspired by them, I was trying to find a new model of building in Japan, but still needed more time to find a solution. It was only after the 1990s that I slowly found the unique solution for the period.”

 

Thinking out of the box

In the small mountain town of Yusuhara, on Shikoku island in southern Japan’s Kochi Prefecture, he reacquainted himself with local materials and traditional techniques, spending time with local craftspeople in the heavilyforested region. Over the past three decades he has focused primarily on wood but – in a nod to innovation as well as tradition – with a twist.

Kengo Kuma Architecture

The Wooden Bridge Museum features a cantilever design, based on traditional temple architecture.

With five buildings in town – including the Kumo-no-Ue-no hotel (1996), Town Hall (2006) and cantilevered Wooden Bridge Museum (2010) – Yusuhara (pop. 3,600) serves as a mini architectural showcase for Mr Kuma. His design aesthetic and stated goal of being in tune with the environment has also energised the small coastal town of Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture, where Water/Glass (1995), a private guest house, is an attempt to connect architecture with the sea through an engawa, or in-between space, of a reflecting pool. Atami, incidentally is also where that early commission – a tiny bathhouse – was built in 1988.The engawa for the Nezu Museum (2009), in Tokyo’s fashionable Omotesando neighbourhood, is a long, open-air, bamboolined passageway between the road and the main building of the private art museum.

On the other side of the building is a multitiered garden, an oasis of calm in an urban environment. “We think of architecture and garden as one entity, and it is not necessary to divide them,” says Mr Kuma. “We are simply designing the total environment, where some spaces are covered and others are outdoors – this is how we bring people closer to nature.”

Mr Kuma’s efforts to “escape from the massiveness of a concrete box,” as he calls much of 20th-century architecture, has been his primary motivation. His 21st-century solution is to look for alternative materials that reflect that single-minded philosophy – wood, stone, glass, rice paper, bamboo and plastic, among others. “The environmental crisis is my biggest concern and architecture – especially material – is the key to resolving that,” he says.

 

The Singapore connection

The Founders’ Memorial concept, comprising a ‘path’ that traces the legacy of Singapore’s founding fathers in a lush 5ha. space overlooking Marina Bay, is imagined as soothing and inspirational –organic forms and spaces that blend seamlessly with their garden environment. “Water is an important element, as a backdrop for reflection and contemplation,” says Mr Kuma. “Rather than a building object, we hope to create a garden that complements the bay and the city skyline.” The project, with Singapore firm K2LD Architects as local partner, is slated for completion in 2027.“Architecture is about a conversation with the material,” says Mr Kuma. “For each project, we carefully choose the materials that fit the total environment and place. It is not just about the physical environment, but also coming from the history of the place.” He adds, “Our primary consideration is how to design with the environment in its totality, so this starts with the material. It is materials that imbue a connection to the ground, the greenery on the roof slopes and earth for the paths, thereby creating a new kind of monumentality.”

Kengo Kuma Architecture

A rendering of the amphitheatre at the Founders’ Memorial.

Mr Kuma is among the best in the business at creating site-specific spaces where the architecture is barely noticeable. The Kitakami Canal Museum (1999), much smaller than the proposed Founders’ Memorial and built into a river bank in Ishinomaki city, is an example of an ‘invisible’ building. When the region was struck by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, the museum miraculously survived. “A metre of ground level meant the difference between life and death,” wrote Mr Kuma in his monograph, Kengo Kuma Complete Works (2012).

 

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A love for wood

In addition to low silhouettes, he has an abiding affection for wood, a material that features prominently in his design of the New National Stadium. The project, jointly done with a large construction group, was the subject of much scrutiny and not a little controversy after it was chosen to replace a design by Zaha Hadid.

“The original design was not fitting the site,” says Mr Kuma. “The history of the site was a forest belonging to the (Meiji) shrine, a very important place in the centre of Tokyo.

Zaha’s scheme looked like it was destroying the history of the site. Instead, we tried to get a hint from the forest and shrine, and looked to wooden material for the roof and eaves – that was the basis of our design.” As a result, the stadium’s height was reduced to 49m from the original’s 75m.

Given his affection for low silhouettes and wood, it comes as little surprise that Mr Kuma loves to toy with all things wooden – toy being the operative word. In recent years, he has used the principle behind Tsumiki – a set of wooden blocks for children to play with – to design a lighter, twig-like version made from cedar that can be woven together to make flexible forms.

Kengo Kuma Architecture


Tsumiki, the triangleshaped wooden block system reinterpreted by Kengo Kuma & Associates.

“Tsumiki represents the essence of our design,” says Mr Kuma. “By designing Tsumiki we tried to find a new way of construction and using material. Normal Tsumiki comes from the idea of masonry structures, a typical method of wooden architecture, and which was a basis of concrete structure. The Tsumiki we designed is a wooden block, but totally different from masonry structures. It is very light, very transparent, and geometrically it is totally free.”

Whether it’s the latticed timber interior of a Starbucks (Dazaifu, Fukuoka, 2011), a light-filled café that resembles a tree in a glass shell (Coeda House, Atami, 2017), a redesign of a house once owned by the fashion designer Kenzo Takada (Paris, 2019) or even a six-storey civic centre with an exterior wrapped in 20,000m of ribbon-like wood (The Exchange, Sydney, 2019), Mr Kuma has offered sufficient evidence that wood is his go-to material.

  • Kengo Kuma Architecture

    The design of the V&A Dundee, on the waterfront by the River Tay, was inspired by the cliffs of Orkney islands in northern Scotland.

Which makes it slightly surprising that when asked to pick a project that best represents him, he opts for the V&A Dundee, a waterfront museum on the River Tay, completed in 2018. The building’s angular structure, made of curved concrete walls clad with rough-hewn stone panels, resembles two inverted pyramids connected at the top, with a prow-like front section extending into the river.

Mr Kuma adamantly rejects the notion of a definable ‘style’. “We learn many things from tradition, but we are not interested in ‘style’ of architecture, because ‘style’ is a kind of stereotype of a building,” he says. “In the age of branding, ‘style’ means some form of hierarchy, but when that hierarchy disappears, the meaning of the style disappears. Instead, we try to create a conversation between architecture and humanity – this direct communication is a theme of our design.”

 

The influence of Kengo Kuma

Among younger architects, Kuma is accorded the sort of respect he showed to previous generations. “I admire the fact that every project is quite different from one another – yet there is a rigorous architectural pedagogy to his approach,” says Lyndon Neri, founding partner of Shanghai-based firm neri&hu design and research office. Early in his career, Neri designed three restaurant interiors for Mr Kuma’s The Opposite House (2008) hotel project in Beijing.

“His exploration of materiality and how it weaves from the outside to the inside as a whole is consistent in every project he undertakes,” says Mr Neri, now an indemand architect himself. “He challenges our understanding of convention by tectonically tweaking the way the materials are put together. You see the de-materialisation of the very materials he starts with, and a new understanding of architecture and materiality emerges from this process.”

Kengo Kuma Architecture


The layered look of the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center resembles seven single-storey houses stacked on top of each other.

Mr Kuma designed the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center (2012) in Tokyo as seven odd-shaped, single-storey units stacked randomly on top of each other. He describes it this way: “Our design consideration was to define the relationship between exterior and interior, by exploring the layered qualities of the façade. Sometimes people misunderstand that the façade is the symbol of the building, but we are just trying to define this relationship.” He concludes, “Like blurring the edges, casting shadows and light or expressing the passage of time, layers can create a new relationship between humans and nature.”

 

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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