The output of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma is one of sophisticated contradictions. It plays with nature/culture, light/shadow, traditional building techniques/contemporary silhouettes, serving as a sensitive response to materials and surroundings, leading to such interesting juxtapositions as the LVMH headquarters in central Tokyo being clad entirely in wood. He has a down to earth approach to building that ultimately strives to erase architectural structures altogether. Kuma is so down to earth in fact, that in his practice of close to 50 employees, he answers the office phone himself at 8.30 on a Thursday morning.
Johanna Agerman: If elegance is the attribute of being unusually effective and simple, do you think that elegant is an appropriate description of your work?
Kengo Kuma: I don’t use the word elegant but humble. Humbleness is essential to me, and in every detail I try to realise humbleness, because if the details in a building express themselves too strongly it destroys the harmony of the place. I also want my buildings to have a humble existence within their environment. I consider my architecture as a kind of frame of nature; with it we can experience nature more deeply and more intimately.
Johanna: So real elegance is found in nature and the architecture simply highlights the environment?
Kengo: Yes, you could say that. Japan has a very mild climate with a rich variety of seasons and the most important aspect of this is the rain and the humidity. The architecture should reflect this darkness and these shadows.
Johanna: That reminds me of Junichiro Tanizaki’s beautiful book, In Praise of Shadows.
Kengo: That is actually one of my “textbooks”. He summarises Japanese architecture in such a simple way and the element that I find the most important is what he calls “the horizontal hierarchy of light”. In Japanese space, light comes from the side, not from the above, and gradually the light becomes darker and darker. I always try to create a similar hierarchy in my architecture.
Johanna: You produced a chandelier for Swarovski, displayed at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair, which omits light in a novel way. It was one of the more original contributions to their Crystal Palace, as it completely deconstructed the idea of a crystal chandelier.
Kengo: Yes, usually each crystal in a chandelier is fixed by wire but I liberated them and put them into an acrylic bowl of water, to create a “water chandelier”, in which each crystal was a free particle. This approach completely reflects my architectural ideology. As I always try to blend architecture to the natural surroundings, one method of doing this is to cut the materials I use into separate particles that let light and wind go through, like I did in Lotus House for example. In the chandelier I used a blower to make the crystals swerve around, calling the piece Tornado and it shines by the reflection of the lighting and the movement itself.
Johanna: I have yet to see a Kengo Kuma building first hand and I am trying to travel to Japan to do so, but are you developing any projects in Europe at the moment?
Kengo: We are currently working on a tea room for the garden of the design museum in Frankfurt. The opening is in August.. We are also about to finish the work on a Japanese restaurant in London that will open in mid-September. And only some days ago, we won an architectural design competition for a cultural centre in Besançon in France.
Johanna: What materials do you like to work in, in your buildings?
Kengo: I like soft materials. Concrete is hard and too strong and I feel that if the human body hit against it, it would get hurt, that is one of the reasons I don’t like concrete. But the expression “natural materials” is so vague and I don’t want to adopt the position of not using materials as vinyl or plastic because they are “artificial materials” and I like to work in materials like soft vinyl.
Johanna: When did you know you wanted to become an architect?
Kengo: From an early age. You see, the house where I was born was a small wooden house that my grandfather built in Kanagawa in the 1920s, he worked there as a farmer on the weekends. When I was ten my father decided to expand the house and we had a family meeting almost every week, it was very similar to a real architectural meeting, where everyone got to submit their ideas and discuss what lighting there should be and what materials we should use and what design was best suited for the environment.
Johanna: Do you still have the house in the family?
Kengo: Well, my father passed away but my mum is in her eighties and still uses it.
Johanna: After graduating from Tokyo University you went to New York and Columbia University as a visiting scholar,how did this change your outlook on your practice as an architect?
Kengo: Before I went to New York I wasn’t so interested in Japanese traditional architecture but once there my American friends asked about my background and Japanese history and I started studying and reading more about Japan. I vividly remember that I got a tatami mat, you know the material used for floors in traditional Japanese houses, and a friend and I sat on it, enjoying a simple tea ceremony. In the tea ceremony we spoke about the traditions of and differences between Japanese and American culture. This was definitely a starting point for my interest in Japanese traditions. After my New York experience my viewpoint changed drastically.
Johanna: Still, your first projects back in Japan were big concrete structures.
Kengo: When I returned to Japan we were in a bubble economy. Japanese businesses did very well and I got several commissions from big companies in Tokyo like the m2 building for Mazda, but then in 1990 the bubble burst and I couldn’t find any more projects in Tokyo. Instead I was invited by the village in Kinojo to design a small hotel; the only request was that I use local wood. It was here that I first worked with very skilled traditional Japanese craftsmen. Because of that project I learned how to work with Japanese craft traditions. But you have to remember that I matured as an architect with a background in modern education, in western modern architecture. Even if traditional architecture always looked very stimulating and exotic to me, I still try to make modern buildings, but by using traditional methods. The most important thing during the creative process is the discussion my team has with the craftsmen. I always dedicate special attention to creating as many opportunities like this as possible. In my work there is always an exchange between the traditional and the modern. Like in the Hiroshige Museum of Art. The silhouette of the building is traditionally Japanese but the roof and walls are made out of wooden slats, according to a grid which changes as the light pours into the space, altering its essence: sometimes the pattern of the grid transforms into a solid translucent plane, and other times it transforms into a transparent plane making the building a sensor of light. This was a real feat for me.
Johanna: Husserl’s and Heidegger’s writings on phenomenology seem appropriate when considering your buildings – the visibility and obscurity of them, and the way they play with our perception of space and place – what is your architectural philosophy?
Kengo: I want architecture to be as far away as possible from a fixed phenomenon. I want architecture to appear as a changing phenomenon depending on the season, the weather, the time, the person that is looking at it and his place and at what velocity he moves. I want architecture to have this kind of ambiguous character.
Johanna: You have said that you want it to disappear altogether.
Kengo: Well, there are several ways in which I “erase” architecture: by burying a building into the site, using local materials, to use light and shadow to get a kind of transparency.
Johanna: But is there not a contradiction in wanting to “dissolve” architecture and still being an architect?
Kengo: No, I don’t think there is any contradiction with being an architect and using this method. After all, many architects of the 20th century thought of the blending of architecture and environment as the most important thing.
Johanna: So is your work a continuation of this way of thinking?
Kengo: The problem with the legacy of modernism is that it is still under the influence of classicism, in respecting proportions and the beauty of shape. Most 20th century media considered beautiful proportion as necessary, but for me that is a secondary thing. My concern about the conception of proportion is related to my opinion on taking pictures or drawing. I am more interested in experiencing architecture first hand and consider this experience the most important thing in the communication between materials and people. Instead, the “void” in my architecture is one of the most important ideas of it.
Johanna: Do you mean the way that you open up and even remove parts of your buildings, like in the LVMH headquarters in Tokyo?
Kengo: Yes, in One Omotesando [lvmh Tokyo Headquarters building] I developed the idea of voids at two different scales. The larger scale void is represented in the carving I made in the upper right part of the building. This void expresses how narrow the site is, and it also transmits to the people the characteristically thin and small land parcels of the Omotesando area surrounding it. This way the design points out the special character of the environment within Tokyo, and its contradictions.
Johanna: With your unique approach to architecture, will you still call yourself an architect in ten years time?
Kengo: In ten years, I would like to be called a gardener. In Japan, architecture was traditionally a part of the garden and the architect’s profession didn’t exist in itself. Before I decided to be an architect I wanted to be a farmer. The blood of the grandfather you see. I had a small field in the garden when I grew up and I have always liked earth and vegetation.
Johanna: Do you have a garden at the moment?
Kengo: Only a very small garden here in Tokyo. It’s three by three metres.
Acne Paper, Issue 5
Illustration: Jonas Jansson