Kengo Kuma is a renowned Japanese architect, who has contributed greatly to the landscape of Japan. His design is innovative, whimsical, and yet down to earth. He has expanded the definition of materiality in the field of architecture, bringing a unique synthesis of tradition and modernity to the built environment.
In 1987, Kuma founded the Spatial Design Studio, and in 1990, he established his own firm, Kengo Kuma & Associates. He has taught at Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Keio University, where in 2008, Kuma was awarded a Ph.D. in architecture. As a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Tokyo, he runs a variety of research projects concerning architecture, urbanism and design within his laboratory, Kuma Lab. Kengo Kuma & Associates employs over 300 architects in Tokyo, China (Beijing and Shanghai) and Paris, designing projects of diverse type and scale throughout the world. His training and academic work precede him, and yet he remains a grounded and kind presence in the world of architecture.
Kuma’s stated goal is to recover the tradition of Japanese buildings and to reinterpret these traditions for the 21st century. In 1997, he won the Architectural Institute of Japan Award, and in 2009 was made an Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. Kuma lectures extensively and is the author of numerous books and articles discussing and criticizing approaches in contemporary architecture. His seminal text Anti-Object: The Dissolution and Disintegration of Architecture written in 2008, calls for an architecture of relations, respecting its surroundings instead of dominating them. Kuma’s projects maintain a keen interest in the manipulation of light with nature through materiality.
Key projects include the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo, Bamboo Wall House in China, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) Group’s Japan headquarters, Besançon Art Center in France, and one of the largest spas in the Caribbean for Mandarin Oriental Dellis Cay. Stone Roof, a private residence in Nagano, Japan, built in 2010, consists of a roof which is meant to spring from the ground, providing a complete enclosure to the home. A local stone was chosen to intimately relate itself to the preexisting natural environment of the mountain side. The exterior stone work is made light and airy by cutting each stone into thin slices and bracing each slice as a pivoting panel. In this way, the heavy quality of stone is diluted and provides the eye with an illusion of lightness, allowing light and air directly into the space within. With this choice of material and construction, a new kind of transparency emerges; one that not only frames nature the way a glass curtain wall would, but also deeply relates itself to the mountain side. Kengo’s work plays between large corporate buildings, integrated into the lights and speed of Tokyo, and more natural and introspective work on a smaller scale.
In 2016, Kuma also delved into designing pre-fabricated pavilions in partnership with Revolution Precrafted. He designed the mobile multifunctional pavilion named The Aluminum Cloud Pavilion. The structure, composed of aluminum panels joined using Kangou technique, can be used as a teahouse or a space of meditation. As a part of the TIME-SPACE-EXISTENCE video interview series Kengo Kuma collaborated with the European Cultural Centre to create a video documentation discussing the topics Time Space and Existence. His work is deeply creative; interested in material products and shapes, while also diving into the realm of the immaterial; philosophy and critical thought.
Although remaining in continuity with Japanese traditions with the clarity of his structural solutions, Kuma does not restrain himself to the banal and superficial use of ‘light’ materials. Instead, he goes much deeper, extending himself to the mechanisms of composition to expand the possibilities of materiality. He utilizes technological advancements which can challenge unexpected materials, such as stone, into providing the same sense of lightness and softness as glass or wood. Kuma attempts to attain a sense of spatial immateriality as a consequence of the ‘particulate nature’ of light, constantly establishing a relationship between a constructed space and the natural round around it.
Describing his practice, Kuma said “You could say that my aim is ‘to recover the place’. The place is a result of nature and time; this is the most important aspect. I think my architecture is some kind of frame of nature. With it, we can experience nature more deeply and more intimately. Transparency is a characteristic of Japanese architecture; I try to use light and natural materials to get a new kind of transparency.” In many of Kuma’s projects, attention is focused on interstitial spaces; on the segments between inside and outside, and one room to the next. The choice of materials stems not so much from an intention to guide the design of the forms, but to conform to the existing surroundings. Novel uses of the materials bring new light a difference between nature and built environment, yet a line of continuity accentuates the ways in which they come from the same foundations. This remembrance of our human connection to nature is a powerful link played out in the forms and features of a building, and Kengo Kuma is a master of this technique.
When dealing with stone work, for example, Kuma displays a different character than the preexisting buildings made with solid, heavy, traditional masonry construction. Instead, his work surprises the eye by slimming down and dissolving the weight of the walls in an effort to express a certain “lightness” and immateriality, suggesting an illusion of ambiguity and weakness not common to the solidity of stone construction. In parallel, Kuma shows material innovation through supporting local traditional craftsmanship in his works. Collaborating with Japanese craftsmen specialized in wood, earth or paper, he has helped maintaining the associated building techniques while modernizing them and modulating them. This work of synthesis led Kuma to win a Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2016.
Kengo Kuma’s 10 Most Splendid Buildings
1. Odunpazari Modern Museum, Eskişehir, Turkey
The Odunpazari Modern Museum is located in the area of a former lumber market in Turkey. The building’s facade is covered in stacked wooden timbers that make the terraced structure look like a stack of wooden boxes. The building doesn’t feel like a single unit, but instead like it is several smaller buildings; this way, it is more on a human-scale and is better incorporated with the neighborhood. The structural form of the building does not end at its physical limits, but continues rippling outwards into the surrrounding area: the steps leading to and from the buildings repeat the stacked terrace form,
The stacked wooden timbers make the interior feel warm and inviting as the natural light is filtered through the spaces between them. The structure in general is inviting, despite being simple repeating geometric patterns. It is another way Kuma uses the materials of an area to create a structure that is both reflective of its surroundings and beneficial to the public as a whole. While the inclining slope up to the building uses steps, it also integrates a ramp from top to bottom to make the building accessible to different abilities.
2. Sunny Hills Japan, Tokyo
Sunny Hills in Omotesando is the smallest project on this list, but it is by no means the smallest project that Kuma has handled recently. He is constantly going between massive international projects and tiny local projects, which is part of the Japanese architect’s appeal. This airy structure appears like a house built from popsicle sticks, yet brings an elevated elegance through its refined structural build.
Sunny Hills Omotesando is a pineapple cake shop that serves Sunny Hill’s cakes from Taiwan. The building, located on a quiet side street in the upscale Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo, is covered in a lattice-like structure that resembles a woven cloth or a nest. Kuma calls this concept of using many repeating small pieces to make up a larger structure “particles”. He sees the use of particles as an alternative to transparency. This structure definitely feels lightweight and transparent. Rather than using glass to achieve this transparency, which would result in a colder, more industrial look, using wooden “particles” makes the building feel inviting, like a nest. In addition, the play with a latticework structure provides light coverage as well as selective illumination for climate control.
3. Portland Japanese Garden – Portland, USA
The Portland Japanese Garden is regarded as one of the finest Japanese gardens outside of Japan. Kuma was tasked with making a series of buildings to house the garden’s museum, cafe, and school. The buildings come together to create a small “cultural village” that is distinctly Japanese in design. The roofs are covered with porous ceramic that allows greenery to grow on them, replicating the thatched roofs so typical of Japan, but with a modern aesthetic. Kuma didn’t use many of his typical defining features on the exterior of the building, leaving it looking simultaneously clean and traditional.
On the interior, Kuma made use of his favorite repeating wooden louvers. Like many of the other buildings on this list, it results in an interior that feels friendly, natural, and inviting. Warm light pours from the interiors that gradually, through large floor to ceiling windows and exterior staircases, become exterior. Large stonework walls surround the buildings on the edge of a tall forest: sharp angular lines of upward leaning stone and concrete diffusing into the natural haptic curves of trees.
4. M2 Building, Tokyo
Does Pastiche or parody justly describe Kuma’s M2 building in Tokyo? The M2 Building isn’t typically found on lists of Kuma’s work, and it is often left out of his books. Kuma has admitted that he feels some embarrassment towards this building, and it isn’t totally unjustified, as the design philosophy behind this extremely postmodern structure seems antithetical to his current work. While most of the buildings on this list have been described as warm, inviting, light, and friendly, the M2 building is none of those things. As seminal theorist of postmodernism, Frederic Jameson, points out, pastiche is in fact “the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language.” The building wears no mask, but in fact gratuitously parodies the forms it quotes. It is giant and oppressive. Instead of pleasant repeating elements it is an assemblage of disparate ideas smashed together in concrete. The oversized Doric column in the centre is sandwiched by concrete mimicking a ruin, and a glass and steel box.
This former Mazda dealership is now a funeral home, but it is hard to imagine a less comforting building to spend such a delicate time in. That being said, it’ originality certainly makes it intriguing and fun to look at. It is a loud example of postmodern architecture. This structure was one of Kuma’s first, and it is interesting to see how much his style has developed. This is one work that without knowing better, you would never pick out as Kuma’s design.
5. Lotus House
Lotus House is a villa set in a forest in Eastern Japan by a quiet river. The main concept centred around filling the space between the river and the house with water, and planting lotus flowers to establish a connection between the house and the woods. Each distinct zone integrates elements of its surroundings to ease the transition between the two. The rooms are organized in two bands aligned lengthwise, with a central courtyard that relates the vegetation on both sides of the house and separates the main living room from the other rooms. A permeable stone envelope, devised as a combination of solids and voids, wraps and visually unifies the whole. Light enters through the cracks in between stones, becoming a porous material. The construction detail of this screen consists of a series of stainless steel stretchers that hold thin travertine plates to constitute a porous checkerboard pattern. The flat bar chain structure allows the screen to be very flexible to the outer forces, winds and movement. The entire structure is a receptive surface to the outside world: instead of erecting barriers, adapting to the ebbs and flows of nature. From the interior, the dematerialized stone filters light and frames small fragments of the landscape. Repetitive patterns detail the interiors and exteriors of the buildings, with small square stepping stones bridging two sides of the water, and a mirroring set of minimalist stairs connecting levels of the building. The ceiling is patterned with wooden boards that form an elongated checkerboard, met with a floor to ceiling glass wall that reflects both the plants around it and the travertine wall, or perhaps the ceiling depending on where you stand. Shifting perspectives open up new dynamics between the materials: the space is truly immersive, in its self reflexivity and reflectivity.
6. V&A Dundee
“The big idea for V&A Dundee was bringing together nature and architecture, to create a new living room for the city,” Kuma said of the project. Two angular volumes clad in horizontal concrete panels connect to form the museum, which houses permanent Scottish design galleries as well as temporary exhibition spaces. A design competition took place in 2010 to decide what the museum would look like. The Japanese architect Kengo Kuma won the competition; his design was inspired by the eastern cliff edges of Scotland. The building is a feat of engineering that draws on Dundee’s vibrant history as a centre of commerce and shipbuilding. The structure required to achieve this vision was extremely complex, consisting of a series of curved concrete walls which lock together to form a rigid structural shell. The inherent strength and stability of this approach ensured the building can sit firmly over an infilled dock site and project its prow over the river wall and into the Tay.
7. Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum
Opened in Nagasaki, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan, in 2005, the museum features a glass walkway to hangs suspended over a small river running between two halves of the building. The collection comprises artworks relating to Nagasaki as well as works of Spanish art collected by Suma Yakichiro, special envoy to Spain during the Second World War. The roof is occupied by a garden, with paved walkways leading to different lawn areas, spanning to an open view of the city. The building is primarily constructed with stone and glass. The space is protected from the strong sun by stone louvers that create a breezy, pleasant shade. Kuma developed a new type of supporting structure for the stone louvers using solid steel columns. Nagasaki, located in southern Japan, is known for its Colonial-style verandas with wooden latticework. The stone louvers used here are a contemporary version of this traditional architecture; they are also a critical response to contemporary Japanese architecture that ignores both indigenous climate and landscape.
8. Waseda International House of Literature
The Haruki Murakami Library – officially called the Waseda International House of Literature – is dedicated to the work of the celebrated novelist and boasts 3,000 of his books translated into 50 different languages, along with an archive of materials personally donated by Murakami. When designing the library, Kuma envisioned a lively place where anyone, including Murakami himself, could come to discuss the novelist’s works and the future of literature over coffee, instead of a formal space for studying and whispering in hushed tones. For the B1 level of the facility, Kuma built an arched wooden bookshelf, beside the Orange Cat café, where people can sit on steps as they peruse the titles on display. The light wood throughout the space brings a sense of clean warmth. The exterior features a large white facade with geometric details, and a large archway of bent wood with a wave like structure undulating from its side. Lush greenery fills the front garden and surrounds the brick walkway leading to the entrance. In the entryway, another tall wooden archway welcomes the guests into book-filled walls and a visible multi-story hallway.
9. Japan National Stadium
The centrepiece of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Kuma’s Japan National Stadium seats 68,000 people and features cedar-panel-clad eaves designed to evoke traditional Japanese architecture. Both the opening and closing ceremonies were held in the stadium, which is shaped like a large oval. Reinforced concrete and steel was used for the main structure, sheltered by a roof structure made of steel with laminated larch and cedar trusses. The shape is relatively simple and paired down, while details in the use of material pull together a warm and unique stadium. From the outside, the use of wooden slat tiers, with plants hanging off the edge, creates a sense of depth inviting the passerby to enter.
To reduce the visual impact on the site, the stadium height was minimised by combining a flat roof and a compact arrangement of seats. Externally, the structure is distinguished by a series of eaves that are clad in cedar collected from 46 of Japan’s prefectures and Ryukyu-pine from Okinawa.
10. Folk Art Museum, China
Kuma designed the new galleries at the China Academy of Arts as a “sprawling village”. The sloped site, a former tea plantation, now holds the Folk Art Museum, which features many small roofs that create a zigzagging roofline. These are covered in old ceiling tiles from local homes. Across the museum’s glazed facade, stainless steel wire that holds extra roof tiles in a decorative pattern has been strung. Kuma’s point was to design a museum from which the ground below can be felt, by continuing the building’s floors to follow the ups and downs of the sloping landscape. Each unit has a small individual roof, so viewing the entire project evokes the sense of a small village. Old tiles for both the screen and the roof came from local houses. Their sizes are all different, which aided in merging the architecture into the natural irregularity of the ground.
Imaging the future of our precarious world, architectural solutions that use modern technology to integrate natural materials into their environment seems a vital and necessary step towards sustainable human life. So many architectural practices bulldoze the landscape, ruining waterbeds and natural habitats, while creating sealed glass boxes that deepen our sense of separation from the ecologies around us. The synthesizing approach that Kengo Kuma brings to design opens a space of conversation between the multifarious elements surrounding a space: human, non-human, hard, soft, light, dark, and everything in between. And, in the end, that’s what his architecture is all about, the spaces between one thing and the next, and how we stretch them to become bridges between worlds.