KENGO KUMA’S GOOD VIBRATIONS
A globally renowned architect who has built all over the world, Kengo Kuma talks to Numéro about his quest for harmony inspired by the traditions of his native Japan, par ticuarly with respect to his latest opus, the V& A Dundee.
At 64, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma has just completed the V& A’s remarkable new outpost in Dundee, which rises like a beacon at the entrance to the city. He’s also currently working on a number of projects in France, including the renovation and refurbishment of the Alber t Kahn Museum and Gardens in BoulogneBillancourt, which are due to reopen next year. Numéro asked him about his philosophy and approach to design, as well as the sources of his inspirations. NUMÉRO: In September this year you completed the new V& A Dundee, Scotland’s first design museum. What was your inspiration when approaching the commission for this building? KENGO KUMA: The towering cliffs of Scotland’s coast. We used prefabricated strips of concrete to imitate the natural texture of rock strata. The building looks like an artificial cliff that’s been dropped on the banks of the Tay. Some say it looks like a ship, but that wasn’t our intention. Especially at night, thanks to a light installation, the museum is a signal, an entrance gate to the city. Do youth in kit’ sp os si bleto export the Japanese aesthetic abroad? When working abroad, what you import is not an aesthetic or a style but the idea of harmony. In Japan it’s a tradition – there’s always a quest for harmony between architecture and the environment, a balance between the human body and the dimensions of what surrounds it. This is completely different to the Chinese tradition where monumentality is important. In Japan we prefer harmony, right down to the tiniest details.
Architecture must be conceived at the scale of the human body; the over- scaled should be rejected. Harmony is a universal need, and the Japanese “method” can, in this case, be reproduced. I t ’ s rare that your architecture can be understood front on, but rather from an angle or by surprise, like Japanese gardens… It’s a very Japanese way of doing things. And once again, contrary to the Chinese method, which consists in creating an axis that leads straight to the heart of the matter, with perfect symmet r y on e i ther side, Japanese gardeners and carpenters prefer zigzagging movements, a slow and gradual approach. It’s a very sophisticated way of reaching an end point. With this method you can create a very rich experience, even in a restricted space, with constantly evolving depth and viewpoints. In Japan space is generally very limited, but with this method you can create a wealth of impressions, and it can also be adapted to a Western context. You seem to have a hat red of thick wal ls, prefer r ing instead light Japanese screens, or shoji. Why is that? Thick walls aren’t comfortable for human beings. They can even become a prison. Instead of a jail, I offer softer frontiers, lighter partitions that act like filters and which avoid the image of an enclosure in which people feel they’ve been shut up. Urban life has become harder and people want greater security. These light membranes allow you to filter the view and to give a sense of protection. It’s a way of building the contemporary city. Never divide a space with a solid wall… Would you say that fluidity is a very Japanese concept? The continuity of spaces is indeed essential in Japan, both for the house and the garden. Bringing nature inside is of ten an objective. Moreover, outside and inside aren’t considered contradictory, but as forming a whole. Japanese architects always talk about Junichiri Tanizaki’s book In
Praise of Shadows. Is it a reference for you? Tanizaki was a visionary. It took me some time to understand the depth of his writings. As strange as it might seem, they’re at once both very philosophical and ver y practical. Tanizaki shows how, for example, by harnessing the reflectiveness of the floor, even the deepest par t of a space can capture natural light. And the method he describes is still entirely per tinent today. We all talk about natural light, of course, but shadows are also very important. You don’t have one without the other. I like shadows a lot. In the forest, light exposes us, while shadows protect us. They also bring quiet and serenity. Is architecture a constraint or a form of freedom? It’s neither; it’s a conversation. You spend all your time talking with people to work out the best solutions – contractors, clients, craftsmen… You’re a fan of natural materials, particularly wood. Why? Wood is a magical material, and it can entirely change the atmosphere of a space. It no doubt has something to do with the strong friendship between men and trees. We came from the forest, and trees are our oldest friends. Using wood is like inviting an old friend into your home; the space is soothed and becomes soothing. What’s more, you’re using wood to build the Olympic stadium in Tokyo for the 2020 games. Yes. In the 20th century, people thought that wood was only for small buildings. Now, thanks to new technology, we can construct very large buildings in wood. The Olympic stadium is entirely clad in Japanese cedar, which creates a soft atmosphere. Although its capacity is enormous – 80,000 people – each piece that makes up the structure is at a restricted scale. Wood brings a sort of domesticity and intimacy. You often combine natural materials with advanced technology. While we do like to use natural materials, we’re not at all nostalgic about it. Our goal is to achieve maximum lightness and transparency. While wood is as old as the hills, combined with contemporary technology it allows for very futurist solutions. Such as the Coeda House, in Shizuoka [Japan], completed last year, which is constructed from cedar that’s been reinforced with carbon fibre, which makes its resistance under tension seven times greater than metal.
Did you design your own home? My wife is also an architect, and not only that but she’s a specialist in private houses. So, to avoid any potential conflict, I stepped aside and left her to do the whole thing.
Which room do you like most? I don’t like being shut up in a box. I very much like being outside. So I prefer the big roof terrace, where I can hear the cries of children in the neighbourhood schools. Do you remember the first time you were aware of the space around you? I have one particular memory. When I was a child, I lived in a traditional Japanese house, and I would play from morning till night with my set of wooden building blocks, sitting on tatamis. The tatamis had a very particular smell. Whenever I encounter it again, I’m immediately taken back to the atmosphere of our old house.
Do artists inspire you? Even more than contemporary art, I’m very interested in music. It inspires me more. Moreover, there are many parallels between music and architecture – the idea of rhythm, for one. When he’s writing a new piece, my good friend Ryuichi Sakamoto will of ten go out and record the sounds of nature. I also find a lot of inspiration in nature for my buildings. I think our research is similar. What’s more, in music people often talk about “good vibrations.” I think it’s the sa mewit ha building. Architecture shouldn’t just be a question of aesthetics; it must generate a vibration. Would you say that that ’ s the secret of emotion? Quite possibly. Without that vibration, architecture is fixed and motionless. Architecture doesn’t have to be spectacular, neither aesthetically nor with respect to atmosphere. People must be able to find comfort and quiet in it.