Numéro - - English text - By Ch­ris­tian Si­menc

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.

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