In­ter­view by Andrew Braith­waite Por­trait by Ir­win Wong

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The Ja­panese ar­chi­tect dis­cusses us­ing wood at every scale, from a restau­rant in Port­land to Tokyo’s Na­tional Sta­dium In­ter­view by Andrew Braith­waite

Kengo Kuma en­ters the rooftop con­fer­ence room of his four-storey head­quar­ters in cen­tral Tokyo. Just back from a work­ing trip to France and China, he is wear­ing a black blazer and cam­ou­flage-pat­terned loafers. It’s an­other late evening for the in­de­fati­ga­ble 63-year-old. A pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Tokyo, Kuma is cur­rently at work on projects in Tur­key, the U.K. and In­done­sia, among other coun­tries. Across the Pa­cific, he has also been gen­er­at­ing buzz with a hand­ful of new projects in two West Coast cities: Van­cou­ver and Port­land.

The high­est-pro­file project of his ca­reer, how­ever, has just bro­ken ground a mere three blocks from where we sit. Kuma se­cured the com­mis­sion for Tokyo’s new Na­tional Sta­dium af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe re­versed the re­sults of the orig­i­nal com­pe­ti­tion, won by Zaha Ha­did. The con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the re­ver­sal, in­clud­ing a sub­se­quent ac­cu­sa­tion by Ha­did of pla­gia­rism, doesn’t seem to have dimmed Kuma’s sense of pride in de­sign­ing the 68,000seat venue that will host the open­ing of the 2020 Olympics. More re­cent charges that the con­crete form­work might in­clude un­eth­i­cally sourced Bor­neo ply­wood are also un­likely to quell his en­thu­si­asm for build­ing with wood, the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor in just about all of his work.

Af­ter one of his firm’s ju­nior ar­chi­tects ar­rives with two cups of es­presso, Kuma quickly drains his, leans back in his chair and crosses his legs. He is ready to talk.

First of all, I have to ask about the Ja­panese char­ac­ters you use to write your name. The name Kuma is of­ten rep­re­sented by the kanji for “bear,” but yours is dif­fer­ent. True. It means “cor­ner.” There are very few Kuma who use this kanji. And Kengo?

Not normal, ei­ther. For me, “Ken” means “study” and “Go” means “my­self.” So I learn about my­self. How did you de­cide to be­come an ar­chi­tect? I was 10 years old when the Olympic Games first came to Tokyo in 1964. We lived in Yoko­hama. That fall, my fa­ther brought me to Kenzo Tange’s swim­ming pool at Yoyogi Na­tional Gym­na­sium. I was shocked to see that build­ing. It was so dif­fer­ent. Be­fore that, my dream was to be­come a vet­eri­nar­ian be­cause I love cats. Af­ter­ward, my dream changed. I wanted to be­come an ar­chi­tect. See­ing Kenzo Tange’s build­ing changed my life. So it must fill you with strong emo­tions to now be de­sign­ing the sta­dium for the 2020 Olympics? When I was asked to par­tic­i­pate in the com­pe­ti­tion for the new sta­dium, I felt this as a kind of destiny. Does your new Na­tional Sta­dium de­sign carry any sim­i­lar­i­ties to the Kenzo Tange gym­na­sium that first in­spired you? I think the 2020 Olympics should be very dif­fer­ent from 1964. For Ja­pan, 1964 was a mo­ment of in­dus­trial and eco­nomic ex­pan­sion. We had big dreams. Now, the na­tion has ma­tured. In some ways, we lost those dreams. In this new age, we are try­ing to find the hap­pi­ness that comes af­ter the dream. Many peo­ple are sort of strug­gling to find this post-in­dus­trial hap­pi­ness today. How can a sta­dium tackle that chal­lenge? This lo­ca­tion is very im­por­tant. The Meiji Shrine com­plex [ad­ja­cent to the sta­dium site] is dif­fer­ent from other parks in Tokyo. It’s a spir­i­tual place for us. I want to cre­ate a kind of spir­i­tual sta­dium. We de­cided to use wood as the main ma­te­rial. It’s the op­po­site mes­sage from Kenzo Tange’s method. In 1964 he used con­crete and steel to show how much Ja­pan had achieved af­ter the war. Now, af­ter the boom of the 1980s, Ja­pan is reach­ing an­other step. I want to show that new step. Let’s talk about wood. You’re known for us­ing a lot of it in your con­struc­tions, and there are a lot of sam­ples down­stairs in your of­fices. Well, the wood for the sta­dium in­cludes some larch and hi­noki cy­press, es­pe­cially on the roof. But it is mostly cedar through­out. In Ja­pan, you call cedar sugi.

Yes. Sugi is very im­por­tant for

Ja­pan. It’s a soft wood with a good smell. Vis­ually it’s very beau­ti­ful, but at the same time sugi is very sen­su­ous to me. Ev­ery­where in Ja­pan you will find dif­fer­ent sugi. In fact, we de­cided to source sugi from all 47 pre­fec­tures in Ja­pan. To have some par­tic­i­pa­tion from every pre­fec­ture was very im­por­tant for the project. How does the cedar change across pre­fec­tures? Sugi shows the dif­fer­ence of the cli­mate of each place. In the south, the sugi is very soft, and the colour is very vivid. In the north, sugi is rel­a­tively hard. The di­ver­sity of

Ja­pan is rep­re­sented by all the dif­fer­ent re­gional qual­i­ties of sugi. You have called Meiji Jingu park a sanc­tu­ary for the peo­ple of Tokyo. Many ur­ban parks in North Amer­ica are wildly dif­fer­ent from those in Ja­pan. You have just com­pleted a project in Port­land – a new “cul­tural vil­lage” for Port­land Ja­panese Gar­den – that aims to bridge the gap. In Ja­pan, gar­den is gar­den, city is city. But in Port­land, the gar­den and city are very much con­nected. Port­land has one of the best Ja­panese gar­dens out­side of Ja­pan, and the peo­ple in Port­land con­sider this gar­den a part of their life. I think that kind of re­la­tion­ship be­tween the city and the gar­den is not so of­ten hap­pen­ing in Ja­pan. When you won the com­pe­ti­tion to de­sign the cul­tural vil­lage – a trio of new Leed-cer­ti­fied pav­il­ions in­clud­ing a tea­house – did the place strike you as a truly Ja­panese gar­den or as an Amer­i­can im­i­ta­tion? Well, the gar­den cu­ra­tor is Ja­panese. And for the whole his­tory of this gar­den, which is now cel­e­brat­ing 50 years, they have had a Ja­panese cu­ra­tor. For Ja­panese gar­dens, the main­te­nance is very im­por­tant. We’re not so well in­structed in the fine art of raking moss. We wanted to make this place even more ap­proach­able to peo­ple. We did our de­sign as an in­ter­face be­tween the com­mu­nity and the gar­den. In front of the pre­vi­ous gate, we de­signed a kind of vil­lage, in­clud­ing the lecture hall, shops, a café. There’s even a land­scap­ing school to teach Ja­panese gar­den­ing. I think many more Amer­i­cans are be­com­ing in­ter­ested in how to make Ja­panese gar­dens. But even in Ja­pan, we don’t have this kind of school. We have univer­sity train­ing, but it’s a very for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. You ob­vi­ously used lots of wood, given the Pa­cific North­west set­ting. Yes, the wood is a lo­cal Dou­glas fir. It’s a very beau­ti­ful wood. On a much smaller scale, you have de­signed Shizuku, an or­ganic restau­rant in Port­land. Yes, for chef Naoko Ta­mura, who comes orig­i­nally from Tokyo. In fact, Naoko is work­ing with the Ja­panese Gar­den to make the bento boxes for the café. For her restau­rant, we im­ported Ja­panese bam­boo to cre­ate su­dare, which are wo­ven screens of thin bam­boo. You’ve been cross­ing the Pa­cific a lot lately, but not just to Port­land. Tell me about your work in Van­cou­ver. I was in­vited to work on a res­i­den­tial tower by the de­vel­oper

Ian Gille­spie and his prac­tice, West­bank. Ian loves Ja­pan and vis­its of­ten. He also loves tea­houses. So you built him one?

Cor­rect. We be­gan to de­velop the idea for Al­berni by Kuma [a 43storey glass-and-an­odized-alu­minum tower faced with lat­tice­like Dou­glas fir screens]. I also de­signed a Star­bucks for one of his build­ings us­ing new Ja­panese car­bon fi­bre tech­nol­ogy to sus­pend the counter from 20-me­tre ca­bles. Very chal­leng­ing, ac­tu­ally. And I cre­ated this tea­house on the ter­race at the top of Shaw Tower. The unique­ness is that it’s very open to the en­vi­ron­ment. A Ja­panese tea­house is a kind of en­closed space with very small win­dows. This one is on the 19th floor. The skyscraper tea­house is not tra­di­tional in Ja­pan? If it is, I haven’t seen it. From this tea­house you can see the Pa­cific Ocean and also the moun­tains. How does your style adapt to a project like a tower in Van­cou­ver? Well, most Van­cou­ver build­ings are glass sky­scrapers. The glass cur­tain wall sep­a­rates ex­te­rior from in­te­rior. We’re us­ing wood as a frame­work ma­te­rial and think­ing a lot about the in-be­tween spa­ces. In Ja­pan, we have this idea of en­gawa. It’s the space on the edge of a struc­ture. So, even for sky­scrapers like Al­berni, we are think­ing about en­gawa space. kkaa.co. jp

Kuma’s tea­house at Shaw Tower in Van­cou­ver sits on a ter­race on the 19th floor.

The three pav­il­ions at Port­land Ja­panese Gar­den were made with lo­cal Dou­glas fir.

Al­berni by Kuma, a pro­posed res­i­den­tial tower in Van­cou­ver, fea­tures soar­ing wooden screens on its con­cave fa­cades.

Wo­ven bam­boo screens hang in chef Naoko Ta­mura’s or­ganic restau­rant in Port­land.

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