Kengo Kuma: Master of Understatement


Despite his distinguished status, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma often keeps a low profile, avoiding the glitz and glamour enjoyed by many at the top of his profession. One can say the same for many of his projects: rather than indulging in towering edifices and exaggerated forms, Kuma’s works are far more delicate and understated affairs, in his words: ‘An architecture of kindness.’ We spoke with Kuma at the closing of his landmark ‘Between Particles’ exhibition at Himalayas Museum to find out more about the unique philosophy behind his breath-taking designs.
By Emily Lu / Pictures courtesy of Kengo Kuma & Associates and Himalayas Museum (Originally published October 2013)

yusuhara museum‘Between Particles’

The early autumn sunlight shined on Kengo Kuma, highlighting the gentle smile on his face. He was wearing a plain white T-shirt with a casual black suit. We interviewed Kuma on the closing day of his exhibition ‘Between Particles: Kengo Kuma 2013 China Exhibition’, at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum. The museum entrance hall was crowded with people who had come for the Kuma’s lecture.
‘Between Particles’ was Kuma’s first exhibition in China since ‘Build Built’ five years ago, and over the course of the summer it has captured the imagination of the visiting public. It was on show in two separate venues: Shanghai Zendai Contemporary Art Space and the Himalayas Museum.
Zendai Contemporary Art Space displayed scale models of nine of Kuma’s architectural works: including the classic Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum, the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center, Besancon Art and Culture Center, and the recently completed Starbucks Coffee at Dazaifutenmangu Omotesando. There were also additional models of the V&A in Dundee and the Granada Performing Arts Center, both of which are under construction.


In the Himalayas Museum stood ‘Share House’, a 1:1 model of a two-storey building, which was constructed with structural plywood that is more than 2m-long, 1m-wide and 2.5cm-thick. The use of this cheap material created a new kind of architecture full of openness.

‘Between Particles’ is the culmination of Kuma’s extensive research, exploring an idea that has been on his mind for a long time: ‘How to make architecture disappear’. Perhaps this time he has finally answered the question.

“I was just aware of the ‘particles’ before I gradually became interested in the spaces between them and started put more emphasis on building spaces that were flexible and had good ventilation.’ he said to us. “With regards to the ‘Between Particles’ theory, it was formally established about one year ago.”

Kuma’s initial thoughts were that instead of architectural form or shape, the most suitable particles that constituted a building were the most important to architecture, which could make architecture blend with the environment and disappear. He then realized that the distance and space between the particles might be more critical than the particle itself. On every level, Kuma attempts to make structures open, during the planning and design processes, in order to set architecture free.


bamboo-wall06A Decade in the Wilderness

Kengo Kuma was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1954. He acquired his Master’s degree in Architecture from The University of Tokyo in 1979. In 1985, he went to Columbia University and the Asian Cultural Council in the United States as a visiting scholar. He reflects that during his time in New York, although he was leading a free life, he often felt abandoned and anxious.

When he returned to Tokyo at the age of 33 in 1987, the economy of Japan was developing rapidly. Architects designed many freakish high-rising buildings in the city, following the Western modernist and post-modernist trends. Kuma founded his own studio and won the M2 project commissioned by Mazda. Almost lost in the ‘avant-garde’ trend, he placed a staggering Ionic pillar in the centre of the M2 building, an extremely heavy and exaggerated concrete structure. Soon after that, there came the period that Kuma admitted was the biggest difficulty he encountered in his life. In 1990, the Japanese economic bubble suddenly burst and the construction market in Tokyo slumped overnight under the impact of the ensuing economic crisis. At that time, Kuma’s unconventional M2 project received much negative publicity and was criticized as ‘urban terrorism’, which resulted in him being unable to find a project in Tokyo for a whole decade.


kengo-kuma-3During this ten-year ‘blank period’, Kengo Kuma moved to several small towns, and undertook small projects with very little budget. This offered him opportunities to study a variety of natural materials and traditional building skills from local craftsmen. This exposure to traditional craftsmanship and materials led him to question the architectural theories he had previously held, and prompted his dramatic ideological U-turn. Concepts such as ‘Anti-Object’ and ‘Defeated Architecture’ came to him. Re-invigorated by his experiences of traditional architecture he sought to find a more humble alternative to the towering skyscrapers that dominated the cities.

The first step of ‘Anti-Object’ was anti-concrete. Whilst this rigid material has many applications, it has no personality and destroys subtle relationships between a building and its surrounding environment. His enthusiasm in the research and innovative utilization of various natural materials grew. For instance, he used local stones by cutting them into thin slates to build permeable walls for Nasu Stone Museum, which hid the museum within the local residents’ houses and gained him the International Stone Architecture Award in 2001. Today, Kuma is quick to note his distaste for concrete as a building material: “Staying in a closed space like a concrete box makes me very uncomfortable, suffocated and restrained. Even my body temperature seems to be sucked away.”

In 2002, invited by project ‘Commune by the Great Wall’, Kuma presented the ‘Great Bamboo Wall’. Built on a slope, the building was enclosed totally by bamboo. Featuring a waterfront environment and beautifully constructed tea house, the building utilized a variety of natural elements, including bamboo, stone, and water, to create a space of changing lights and shadows
For this milestone project Kuma got his inspiration from his critical experiences in the 1990s. At that time, Western modernism was hugely popular in Chinese architecture, which aroused his deep antipathy. Kuma was also eager to discover a fresh architectural language different from the ones of his Japanese predecessors, Tadao Ando and Arata Isozaki being the most distinguished of these. He put great effort into the design of ‘Great Bamboo Wall’, seeking to create a building perfectly integrated into its surroundings.
In the years following ‘Great Bamboo Wall’ Kuma was the most prolific Japanese architect working in China, and his buildings rapidly gained popularity. His famous works include Z58 on Fanyu Road in Shanghai, The Opposite House and Sanlitun SOHO in Beijing, Xinjin Zhi Museum in Chengdu and the Art Museum of China Academy of Art under construction in Hangzhou.


museumRebel With a Cause

Kengo Kuma’s rebellion against the architectural trend has been a great success in China and worldwide. His work, with no distinctive formative style, can be difficult to properly describe, but his architectural theories can be reduced to two principle concerns. First, Kuma advocates the oriental tradition and pursues the integration of architecture and nature by using natural materials, often sourced from the locality where the construction is taking place. His designs can seem weak in appearance, but they are imbued with oriental Zen spirit. Secondly, his works are an exercise in ‘overcoming hardness with softness’. Rebelling against the popular “strong” architecture which has resulted in what he considers to be “evil” objects constructed all over the world, he builds exactly the opposite: warm, beautiful and “weak” architecture, anti-objects that are full of kindness and respect for humanity and nature.

In conclusion, Kuma’s projects are more than just architecture; they are a kind of social critique. Behind the buildings there is care for people and culture. He seeks to explore one of the core issues of our era: What role should architecture play in social development? The works he creates are “architecture that is full of kindness with a humble but decent manner; architecture that honestly cares for basic human needs and preserves the dialogue between space and time”.
The goal Kuma wants to achieve is to reverse the relationship between humans and architecture, putting people back to the superior position and making architecture ‘disappear’ by creating rooms with openness and good ventilation, and eliminating the barriers that prevent people from returning to nature. This is the profound revelation he brings to the architectural development in China and across the globe.


HANDOUT FE  gc50_138.jpgQ&A

We are anxious to see you implement the design concept of the ‘shared house’. Any plans to build it? Will it be built China?
Kengo Kuma: Currently I think it could be only built in Japan. Residential projects in China are almost all commissioned by wealthy home owners and large developers, while the ‘shared house’ is mainly aimed at the general public. Many building projects in Japan are aimed towards the general public, so the ‘shared house’ will be more suitable for Japan.

What for you is the most rewarding part of being an architect?
Kengo Kuma: I can tell you that the happiest moment is every time I see the completion of my project. I can’t help feeling so pleased and excited about the fact that my concept has been realized.

What has been the most important project in your career?
Kengo Kuma: The most important project, especially after I began my work in China, is ‘Great Bamboo Wall’. The completion of that project was a milestone in my career.

You have finished many projects in China. What’s the biggest difference between doing projects in China and Japan?
Kengo Kuma: In Japan a project is usually carried out by an organized team while in China there is very likely a boss who has the final say on a project. Moreover, architects in China must acquire a special ability – you should be flexible. This is very important because there are many provisions in China that often change; such as the guidelines prescribed by the government. However, these changes should not be regarded as obstacles. We should be positive enough to face the changes and treat them as opportunities to stimulate our new design inspiration.

You clearly have a considerable understanding of the current Chinese architectural industry. What do you think is the biggest problem?
Kengo Kuma: Currently, there are two very good phenomena in China’s architectural design. The first is that many architects utilise advanced technologies very well to aid in the creative and design processes. The second is that some Chinese architects cleverly blend classical and modern architectural designs – Mr. Wang Shu is a successful example of this. I believe these two directions are both great. However, if I can give advice to Chinese architects, especially the young generation, I would suggest that they create their own architectural style, instead of imitating the so-called masters.

Who are some of your favourite Chinese architects?
Kengo Kuma: Personally, I respect Mr. Wang Shu very much. As I just mentioned, he focuses on mixing classical and modern designs. Additionally, in my opinion, Chinese architects face bigger challenges when they try to make the same achievements as architects from other countries, which is a reason that I feel genuine admiration for them.

In your opinion, are there any basic principles to good architecture?
Kengo Kuma: I do not think there are certain basic principles to good architecture, but I do believe that good architecture must fit in with its location and satisfy all the local participants and the surrounding residents. This is the really crucial standard.

What do you think is the future potential for architecture?
Kengo Kuma: The future potential for architecture is hidden in what we call material resourcefulness. During the 20th century, people paid most attention to industrialization, and this can be seen in the extensive use of concrete as a building material. In the 21st century, we should strive to pay more attention to ourselves, human beings, by applying and experimenting with materials that have a more human touch.

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