Kengo Kuma's craft
Kengo Kuma speaks to Jeremy Melvin about his approach to design and the impact of globalisation on our understanding of modernity.
Kengo Kengo Kuma’s Water/Glass Villa, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan
Kengo Kuma’s Water/Glass Villa, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan
In 1986, when he returned to Japan from studying at Columbia University in New York, Kengo Kuma thought that concrete was ‘the only material to create rational and economic buildings’ – not surprisingly, given that one spur to becoming an architect was, aged ten, seeing Kenzo Tange’s soaring concrete structures for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
The experience of working with craftsmen when he moved his studio from Tokyo in 1990 brought about ‘a big change’ in his attitude to concrete. He realised carpenters ‘can build a building with wood economically and very sophisticatedly’ and his aim became to ‘recover the tradition of Japanese buildings’ and reinterpret it for the 21st century. Having reinvigorated the conventions of Noh Theatre design he used those principles to inform his stunning Water/Glass Villa where, as he puts it, ‘fairies dance across the floor’, while his headquarters for Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey brought timber building back to Tokyo.
Between abstract and organic
‘Usually abstraction and organic characteristics do not exist together’, says Kengo Kuma, explaining his interest in the British sculptor Barbara Hepworth and his shortlisted design for a gallery for her work in Wakefield, Yorkshire. ‘But her work does have a kind of abstraction and it is also very organic…. That kind of co-existence of two different things together is a goal of my architecture. Nature is not simple. It is a mixture of different things; abstraction and organic are two of its main characteristics.’
Part of his liking for Hepworth’s work comes from the affinity he sees between Celtic and Tao traditions. Both share ‘the same kind of respect for nature… Organic and abstraction are basic keywords of Japanese tradition.’ He sees ‘the same character in very old sculpture up to very modern art.’
He explains how the Hepworth Gallery design achieves a balance between abstraction and the organic. The ‘very special site’ faces two different conditions, ‘nature and the town… it is a very typical site for that kind of town and for our time… Each façade, one facing the river, one the town and one nature, reflects the complexity of the contemporary environment. An important part of the submission is a pierced form at the centre of the building. Everything connects around that; the plaza entrance, the galleries, the roof top gardens. That kind of variety is combined together around a purist void.’
In all my works the void is very important’, says Kengo Kuma. ‘In classicism the object itself and its proportion are important. The problem with modernism is that it is still under the influence of classicism, in respecting proportions and the beauty of shape. But for me that is a secondary thing. The power of the void is the most important. In every case the external form of the building is decided by regulation or environmental conditions. But for the human body we can create a special space for contemplation.’
His designs for art galleries charge the void with particular significance. In his proposal for the Barbara Hepworth Gallery it becomes the way of connecting disparate elements while the design for the Hiroshigi Ando Museum uses a ‘big void’ as an explicit way of connecting ‘the city with the mountain behind the museum; the museum is a gate and a symbol of the balance between urban and landscape. Ando’s art looks like traditional Japanese art but he was also influenced by his contemporaries, the Impressionists and Frank Lloyd Wright, so the void becomes a connector of classical and contemporary arts.’
In Nagasaki, which was the only port open to foreign influences during the Edo era, the void has a similar symbolic power. ‘The site is divided by a canal which makes a very big void connecting two blocks of the museum’, one part housing ‘cultural stock from Europe’, the other ‘very contemporary Japanese art’. In the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey headquarters in Tokyo he introduced two voids.
Timber in Tokyo
‘London and Tokyo are good places for experiments’, says Kengo Kuma, introducing his Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey headquarters. This building proves that wood can be used again for a major building in the heart of the Japanese capital. ‘The site is on one of the most important junctions in Tokyo. Behind it is a big temple, a very big space with trees, graves and wooden buildings, so just 20m from the road is this village-like environment. I made two voids through the building so people can feel the environment. The design can point out the special character of the environment within Tokyo, and its contradictions.’
‘I used wooden mullions for the building, though usually this sort of building in Tokyo is built from steel and glass, but I don’t like that kind of material because it killed the sophisticated tradition of the city. In Tokyo there still remains some human scale, small buildings made from wood, and I like to represent that kind of fragility.’
Modernity in Japan
‘To catch European culture is the goal of the older generation’, says Kengo Kuma of his seniors, stretching roughly from Tadao Ando back to Kenzo Tange. ‘But for my generation that is not the goal. Globalisation makes everything flat so there is no leader. Each culture competes with every other and for our generation to go back to Japanese tradition is one way of competing.’ For example ‘transparency is a characteristic of Japanese architecture, but for myself I try to use natural materials to get a new kind of transparency, not the transparency of Mies van der Rohe.’
A number of modernist architects claimed influence from Japan, but one who actually went there was the German Bruno Taut. ‘The interesting thing about Taut is that he criticised Mies and Le Corbusier. In Europe he did not know what do to, but the first day he arrived in Japan, in 1933, he went to the Katsura Villa. He cried in front of it. Suddenly he knew what he should do’.
Kuma has a particular relationship with Taut. ‘My father collects his designs and taught me he is a great designer, and I have a close friend who is the grandson of Mr Inouye, who sponsored Taut when he came to Japan and I spoke to him about Taut in his house in Nagasaki.’ And one of two houses Taut designed while he was in Japan is next to Kuma’s Water/Glass Villa – itself the epitome of a balance of transparency, modernity and tradition.
On becoming an architect
Kengo Kuma’s father – a collector of Bruno Taut designs and ‘very much interested in architecture’ – was a major factor in his decision to take up the subject. The second big influence was experiencing Kenzo Tange’s buildings for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when Kuma was only ten. ‘Tange explained his buildings and ideas on TV, talking about the relationship between Japanese tradition and his architecture… Then I knew that an individual can design the environment; one person can influence the people who use space.’
The Swiss Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka Expo led to another perception. It was ‘just a sculpture of a tree, and the tree made a beautiful shadow… it was more beautiful than the architecture. That kind of criticism of architecture gave me a big influence.’
At University in Tokyo later in the 1970s that criticism took a more specific form. My teacher Ushi Ashahara (check) was always criticising Tange for being too monumental. He said Tange is a great architect but in the city should not make monumental buildings. The most important thing is to create human spaces. He designed the Sony Building in the Ginza district of Tokyo in 1973 and created a small plaza even though the land was very expensive. I saw then that the monument is secondary to space.’
‘My other great teacher was Fumihiko Maki who also criticised Tange’s monumentality and likes human space. He has a friend who’s an expert on Asian urban design at Columbia University and, on his recommendation, I went there to study Japanese design.’
Learning from London (and other cities)
‘For me London is a mixture of village-like landscapes with modern urban design’, says Kengo Kuma, encapsulating his reaction to the British capital. It is ‘a mixture of two different things’ where Paris is the product of rational design. ‘Tokyo is also the mixture of two different urban principles.’
While studying at Columbia, ‘I learnt the importance of services and communications, but from London I learnt the importance of engineers. In Japan we have the same kind of respect for engineering. I don’t know why. In China it looks like the States; they don’t respect engineering. Also in China and Korea they don’t respect craftsmen and craftsmanship in those countries is very poor. In Japan we still have good craftsmen, in plasterwork and stone as well as carpentry.’
Rather than national characteristics though, Kuma believes that ‘the issue is to find the real character of each location. The generation of Isozaki and Ando try to make their copy of the earth work for each place, and rather like the bags of Louis Vuitton, they are in the brand business. I like to find the character and tradition of the place and try to make a real collaboration between the location and my ideas.’ Looked at his way, ‘Nagasaki is very different from Tokyo’, which may have more in common with London, but ‘Wakefield and Nagasaki can have some kind of similarity. Both are close to water, both have roof gardens and, if we climb a little, we can see the landscape of the city.’
Craft and tradition
‘Japanese design tends to be treated in a very conservative way. But in New York it is very active and contemporary. When I came back to Japan in 1986, the economy was very hot and young architects got opportunities to design big buildings. But in the 1990s the economy went down, and our age is different from the age of great expansion [of the 1970s and 80s]. We have very little chance to design public buildings, but this is a good opportunity for architects. If it takes a very long time to design something you can be very experimental.’
Kuma’s own experiments started to focus on wood and traditional construction after he moved his practice to the countryside in 1990. ‘I learnt many things from carpenters’, he confesses. He realised that where ‘the scale is human, and structure is not so strong, it feels fragile [and has] a human character. Isozaki and Ando want to make monuments using modern materials. I want to recover the Japanese tradition of weaker buildings.’
The interest in craft took him towards and appreciation of Noh Theatre. In several designs he reinterpreted the tradition, using wood and reinforcing ‘mah’, the void space between stage and audience which ‘is a spatial idea and also an idea about time’. The balance between tradition and contemporary global culture also underpins his design for the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey headquarters in Tokyo.