TURN­ING THE SCALES

Whether de­sign­ing for a large project or small, ar­chi­tect Kengo Kuma fo­cuses on the hu­man scale. The Ja­panese mae­stro talks to Mar­i­anna Cerini about the tec­tonic shift he sees in the ar­chi­tec­ture of the fu­ture

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life -

Kengo Kuma be­lieves block­buster ar­chi­tec­ture has had its day. The Ja­panese ar­chi­tect, one of the most ac­claimed of our time, is con­vinced that huge sky­scrapers and loom­ing con­crete com­plexes will be things of the past within a few years. “We’re en­ter­ing the era of per­son­alised ar­chi­tec­ture,” he de­clares. “The shift is al­ready hap­pen­ing. Peo­ple have a yearn­ing for softer, more hu­man-fo­cused shapes.” Such thoughts might sound ide­al­is­tic, but they un­der­pin the core of Kuma’s prac­tice: a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the in­di­vid­ual.

The 63-year-old de­sign guru is in Hong Kong to give a talk at White­stone Gallery in H Queen’s, a gallery that spe­cialises in Ja­panese art and whose in­te­ri­ors he de­signed. Tall and dressed head to toe in black, he looks in­tim­i­dat­ingly stern when we meet. As he delves into the phi­los­o­phy of his work, how­ever, his whole de­meanour bright­ens. “I think of build­ings as hu­man bod­ies,” he says. “They need to have a soul of sorts and work as nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments.”

Kuma has been ex­plor­ing this ap­proach since he be­gan study­ing the dis­ci­pline at the Uni­ver­sity of Tokyo in 1979, al­though his fas­ci­na­tion with build­ings started much ear­lier, when he was 10. “It was 1964, the year of the sum­mer Olympics in Tokyo,” he says. “My father took me to see ar­chi­tect Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi Na­tional Gym­na­sium, a master­piece of Ja­panese mod­ernism. I de­cided I wanted to be­come an ar­chi­tect then.”

Af­ter ob­tain­ing his de­gree in ar­chi­tec­ture, he went on to do a year-long re­search fel­low­ship at New York’s Columbia Uni­ver­sity in 1985. He set up his own prac­tice in Ja­pan, Spa­tial De­sign Stu­dio, two years later, and then founded Kengo Kuma & As­so­ci­ates in 1990. He has been qui­etly rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing the field in his own country—and in­creas­ingly abroad—ever since. His aes­thetic, how­ever, couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent from the ag­gres­sive, iron and steel mod­ernist shapes he was first drawn to. “I’m not in­ter­ested in syn­thetic, sweep­ing state­ment ar­chi­tec­ture. It’s the hu­man touch and scale I look for. The hum­ble­ness.”

Kuma’s projects are in­deed ex­am­ples of what’s been de­scribed as an ar­chi­tec­ture of re­la­tions, or what the vi­sion­ary him­self calls “de­feated ar­chi­tec­ture.” They are de­cep­tively sim­ple, semi-rus­tic struc­tures, fea­tur­ing mostly nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als such as wood, rice pa­per and stone, and are con­ceived to re­spect their sur­round­ings rather than dom­i­nate them. They are al­most mod­est-look­ing, a coun­ter­cur­rent to the style-over-func­tion trend that has char­ac­terised much of the ar­chi­tec­ture of re­cent years.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, most of these projects are rel­a­tively small, such as a Star­bucks in Fukuoka, the Opposite House ho­tel in Bei­jing, the Fu­jiya Inn in Gin­zan On­sen, and the White­stone Gallery premises in both Hong Kong and Taipei. But the Ja­panese mae­stro hasn’t shied away from larger ven­tures ei­ther. Some of his most am­bi­tious com­plexes can be found in Shang­hai and Hangzhou, the US and Canada.

“I like to work on both ends of the spec­trum,” he says. “Dif­fer­ent scales of­fer the op­por­tu­nity to play with dif­fer­ent ideas. But ul­ti­mately, I al­ways think about the ex­pe­ri­ence my build­ings should pro­vide to the peo­ple who will use them. Ev­ery­thing else is sec­ondary.”

In Septem­ber, Kuma will open one of his largest projects yet: the V&A Dundee. Mea­sur­ing in at roughly 86,000 square feet and cost­ing up­wards of £80 mil­lion, this

sprawl­ing build­ing will be the first per­ma­nent out­post of Lon­don’s V&A Museum and is at the heart of an am­bi­tious plan to re­vi­talise the Scot­tish city of Dundee. Kuma’s de­sign was in­spired by the dra­matic cliffs that dot Scot­land’s coast, and he’s clad the build­ing in more than 2,500 spe­cial­ly­made stone pan­els.

As the V&A is near­ing com­ple­tion, Kuma is spend­ing most of his time work­ing on an­other of his larger ven­tures, the Na­tional Sta­dium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which he took on in 2015 fol­low­ing up­roar over Zaha Ha­did’s win­ning de­sign. The Iraqi-born Bri­tish ar­chi­tect’s con­cept had drawn wide­spread crit­i­cism from Ja­panese ar­chi­tects, in­clud­ing Kuma, both for its sin­u­ous, Ha­didesque form (ar­chi­tect Arata Isozaki called it a “mon­u­men­tal mis­take”) and for the de­ci­sion not to use home-grown tal­ent. Amid the up­roar, Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe in­sti­tuted a new de­sign com­pe­ti­tion, which Kuma won.

The new de­sign couldn’t be more Kuma—nor any fur­ther from Ha­did’s fu­tur­is­tic ar­chi­tec­ture. A multi-tiered, rel­a­tively un­ob­tru­sive struc­ture (as far as sta­di­ums can be un­ob­tru­sive), it fea­tures a wood­lat­ticed frame­work made of 2,000 cu­bic me­tres of cedar and larch sourced from all of Ja­pan’s 47 pre­fec­tures. Its con­course is dot­ted with trees, and ex­ten­sive leafy park­land en­velops the com­plex.

“I want it to be a sig­ni­fier of the di­rec­tion Asia is mov­ing to­wards to­day,” says Kuma. “The 1964 Olympics took place dur­ing the golden era of Ja­pan’s in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion. The 2020 games will hail a new era for the con­ti­nent. The world needs to slow down and rec­on­cile with na­ture. We’re tak­ing ac­tion in that sense al­ready, at least some of us. There’s a dif­fer­ent aware­ness, a recog­ni­tion of how im­por­tant the en­vi­ron­ment we live in is. The sta­dium rep­re­sents that recog­ni­tion, or at least I hope it will. It’s a tes­ta­ment for the gen­er­a­tions of the fu­ture.”

It is to those gen­er­a­tions that Kengo Kuma & As­so­ci­ates, to­day a global firm with more than 200 em­ploy­ees, ded­i­cates its work. “If we don’t change our ways and be­come more hum­ble, we are go­ing to de­stroy our­selves,” Kuma says. “As an ar­chi­tect, I can’t but ac­knowl­edge that and act upon it—not for me but for who will fol­low. My ar­chi­tec­ture is about cre­at­ing new types of liv­ing spa­ces for the so­ci­ety to come.”

What ad­vice would he give an ar­chi­tect of the fu­ture? “To close ar­chi­tec­ture books and mag­a­zines and learn from na­ture in­stead,” he says. “To travel to small, ru­ral places and find in­spi­ra­tion. Ar­chi­tec­ture should be an or­ganic process.”

PANEL DIS­CUS­SION From far left: Kengo Kuma de­signed the White­stone Gallery in Taipei, which opened in April 2017; the V&A Dundee is due to open later this year; the Fu­jiya Inn show­cases Kuma’s min­i­mal­ist style and his love of work­ing with wood

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