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
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