“Makeru kenchiku (losing architecture)” and “Shizen na kenchiku (natural architecture)”—these catchphrases have been familiarly linked with “building-designer” Kengo Kuma. “Losing architecture” is Kuma’s radical take on the fixated way mass architecture in Japan has occupied stiff, cold and stoic concrete-pasted territories.
Prefabricated construction has been the general building method in Japan as early as the postwar days. After the country opened its doors to the West in 1867 (early Meiji period), the compelling desire for rapid transformation became visibly prevalent. With more than 30% of Japanese homes swiftly destroyed after WWII, prefabrication had turned Japanese urban construction into a quick “built-in” scale model convenient store—wherein you can “order” home and retail building designs using precast concrete, structural steel, and timber-framed wood. However, Kuma had a more diverse vision.
“20th century was the period of concrete, but now the concrete material is very related with industrialization. We live already in a different period, where people like to live without concrete, I think it’s an evidence that people start to hate it, his rigidness, his tactility, this is why I want to overcome it using authentic material.”
Kuma has, hence, been practicing his profession from the baseline of a “conversation between materials and human beings”, on “shizen na kenchiku (natural architecture) that reintroduces warm, natural materials”. He uses the texture of natural materials cleverly in order to establish a stronger perceptible relationship between spaces—inside and outside, and from room to room. The building designer, after all, calls himself a materialist, in this regard, and believes that every material is connected to a designated place.
Kengo Kuma, who has taught at Columbia University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Keio University, and currently at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Tokyo, has always been intimately inspired by the tradition of Japanese buildings and the transmission of this heritage to innovative design possibilities of the 21st century. As a curious boy at ten years old, he had already been exposed by his father to masterpieces by Kisho Kurokawa, Kunio Maekawa, and especially Kenzo Tange and his 1964 Olympic Gymnasium, which impressed him deeply. For him, Tange possessed the ingenuity to “combine Japanese tradition with a contemporary vocabulary” and to “create Japanese symbols with then-current technology.”
While most of his contemporaries explored architectural visions abroad, especially during the burst of the Japanese bubble economy in the 1990s, Kuma decided to put a lock on his Japanese domain and to associate with many local craftsmen, which eventually led to his reinvention of natural materials.
“I have been driven to create architecture by the desire to recover the material, and to reconnect people and physical things…this is because the world itself is material. There is a wealth of new and different things and materials waiting to be discovered.”
(“Return to Materials”, Kengo Kuma: a LAB for materials, Tokyo Station Gallery exhibition).
This powerful endeavor is being displayed at Kengo Kuma’s enormous exhibition, “Kengo Kuma: a LAB for materials” at the Tokyo Station Gallery until May 6 this year. The highly impressive showcase is an explosive revelation of the architect’s major projects in the last 30 years that encompass Eastern and Western ideologies reflecting his intense passion for harmonizing man, life, and the environment through three layers of building philosophy: materials, methods, and geometry. Represented by models, mock-ups, videos, material samples and more, Kuma’s selected materials for the exhibition (bamboo, wood, paper, earth, stone, fire, metal, and membrane/fiber) communicate the profound relevance and dynamic diversity of the natural environment we live in, and the ways by which we can absorb these indigenous materials into our daily lifestyle.
In the “Great Bamboo Wall” for the hotel design beside the Great Wall in China, Kuma employed the komagaeshi traditional pattern from the late 18th century that lines up the bamboo membranes of a given width at intervals of the same width, therefore, beautifully creating a sound rhythm throughout the entire structure.
The marvelous “Coeda House” in Shizuoka, Japan, is one of Kengo Kuma’s most admired designs. The tree-like structure stacks Japanese cedar boards reinforced with a carbon fiber rod, and eliminates columns to provide an open-air continuity with the Pacific Ocean view.
A creative cutout arch is installed in the exhibition that is made from vulcanized paper (soaked in zinc chloride). The “Paper Cocoon” designed for a pavilion in Milan, Italy, is composed of rolled paper tubes stylishly woven to increase the stiffness for supporting the tunnel structure.
The idea to “cover” the exterior walls of a house may appear indifferent, but Kuma wanted a private residence in Tokyo to blend harmoniously with the plum grove surrounding it. The result is the “Mesh/Earth” residential project in Tokyo. Occupying a site area of 158.11m2, the house was covered with soil-coated metal mesh, woven from stainless steel members and sprayed with a mixture of glass fiber and soil.
Opening soon in 2018 is one of Kuma’s most colossal projects, the “V&A Dundee” Museum in Scotland. The entire floor area covering 8,500m2 is supported by 2,500 cast stone panels, hung on the jagged exterior walls, which curve in vertical and horizontal directions. The precast concrete uses rough, crushed stones as the aggregate that were then, sandblasted to expose it. Sitting on an expansive waterfront, the building’s exterior wall flaunts a linear flow in varied sizes, shapes, and placements, producing striking, changing patterns on the water.
Never have tiles been so spread out from top to bottom, side to side, in all directions, and suspended in stainless steel wire, woven in diagonal patterns to create exquisite shadow patterns on the floors, walls and roof. Kuma’s “China Academy of Art’s Folks Art Museum” in Hangzhou, China is a magnificent design creatively employing the tile material to block sunlight, and at the same time, catering to the aesthetics of its layered exterior walls.
An eye-catching cast aluminum in organic texture façade stands out in a local town of Odawara, Japan. The “Green Cast” building is a five-story multiplex residence, office, clinic and pharmacy. The aluminum die-cast panels, made of monoblock casting from decayed styrene foam, serve as vertical planters, therefore exposing green plants hanging from each block. Kuma has successfully blended his materials with the living environment.
The “Komatsu Seiren Fabric Laboratory fa-bo” in Ishikawa, Japan, is unique for its usage of carbon fiber, which also has a high heat-resistance feature to strengthen the concrete structure. A traditional twisting technique is also applied to the carbon fiber that seems to wrap the entire structure like a protective net.
"For me, the visual effect is only [a small] part of the design. Totality of architectural design includes textures, the soft and hardness of the material, the smell of the material and the acoustic effect of the material…In the normal process of architecture, the decision of the material is often the last part of the design. I think that causes many mistakes. The decision for the material should come at the beginning of the design. —Kengo Kuma (“Kengo Kuma urges architects to ‘be humble”, dezeen, 11 March 2014).