Kengo Kuma, a Japanese Master

Yushuhara Wooden Bridge MuseumKengo Kuma

Yusuhara Town Hall

Horai Onsen Bathhouse

Japan’s contemporary, post-war architecture can be broken down by generation. Kengo Kuma is one of the leading architects of the fourth generation. The first generation was led by Kenzo Tange; the second included Fumihiko Maki, Arata Isozaki and Kisho Kurokawa; while the third generation honoured Toyo Ito, Itsuko Hasegawa, and Tadao Ando.

Kuma was born in 1954 and, after graduating from Tokyo University, continued his studies at Columbia University in New York. He established the Spatial Design Studio in 1990 and Kengo Kuma & Associates in 1999. Kuma has been honoured with numerous domestic and international awards, including the prestigious Architectural Institute of Japan Award in 1997; he is also a renowned author and speaker in the field of contemporary Japanese architectural theory.

Kengo Kuma
Kengo Kuma

After the collapse of Japan’s “bubble economy”, Kuma sought to rediscover traditional Japanese techniques and materials by working among old-time craftsmen throughout Japan. The experience profoundly influenced his architecture, especially in the use of locally produced materials. It also gave him a deeper respect for a location’s dynamism and history, as well as a conviction that architecture should always fit into a continuum, rather than interrupt one.

“I want to blur the boundaries”, says Kengo Kuma, “I want to erase architecture”. Kuma feels that architecture should not appear as an isolated object but as an element of the environment. Buildings should be able to melt into the surrounding landscape. Architecture itself can break down boundaries: a bridge, for example, can serve, both literally and figuratively, as connector between beauty and genius, between nature and man. These ideas are explored further in one of his recent books, Defeated Architecture.

This blurring of boundaries has become Kuma’s trademark. The distinctions between interior and exterior, natural and manmade, tangible and conceptual, experience and experiment, tradition and technology – all are challenged. His Water/Glass villa (1995), in Atami, Shizuoka, is of particular interest: facing the Pacific Ocean, it appears to be floating somewhere between the sky and sea. The surface of the water reflects the light directly from the sun or through the glass; natural and electric lighting is mixed to give the transparent structure a spiritual aura.

Keywords in Kuma’s architectural vocabulary would include “detail”, “void”, and “material”. His works are often described as having a light and delicate simplicity. Nonetheless, we should add that his detailing is both bold and distinct, and able to survive the elements. If a certain type of wood changes color and shape over time, Kuma will account for these predictable changes in his plans.

Kuma treats traditional materials with reverence, establishing an almost personal bond with the handcrafted cedar, bamboo, stone and paper he uses for most of his work. His Nagasaki Prefecture Art Museum (2005), for example, features stone louvers – an architectural nod to the site’s history. Light can actually penetrate this sliced stonework, offering a classic example of his blurring technique, this time between clear and opaque. Many works are named after the featured materials such as Stone Museum, Bamboo House, Plastic House, and the Water/Glass villa.

Kuma’s projects sometimes even expand the definition of architecture, such as a recent creation that changes shape according to temperature, where visitors can see and feel the metal as it morphs. Another experimental project is the T-room, a contemporary interpretation of the Japanese tea ceremony, which uses synthetic skin as a material, offering visitors a most unique sensation.

Kengo Kuma’s flow of genius shows no signs of letting up. When asked about his dream project, he replied with a laugh, “I have thousands of them!”

Text from article originating in EGO Design.CA; Yoko Seki, June 22, 2006

Center for the Elderly in Rikuzentakata, Japan

A year after the tsunami destroyed the city of rikuzentakata, japan, an emerging collaborative project by tokyo-based practice Kengo Kuma + Associates,Kuma Lab at the university of tokyo, italians for tohoku volunteer association, the embassy of italy in japan and the town of sant’egidio will offer the elderly of the city a new community center.

The shell is conceptually derived from the lotus leaf, an organism which floats on the surface of water symbolizing the delicate relationship between life and nature. paving a path to design architecture with its surroundings, the structure is set upon a forested mound and is formed with local wood from kasennuma, another area affected by the disaster. local carpenters will construct the 220 square meter building.

The project will offer a public space with social and cultural value for residents, attempting to restore faith between humans and their natural environment. the physical and spiritual reconstruction is intended to energize the individuals and encourage them to find joy.

Center for the Elderly in Rikuzentakata, Japan: images by Kuma Lab; text from “Design Bloom”

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9 thoughts on “Kengo Kuma, a Japanese Master

  1. He’s one of my favorites! He’s working on a project here in Portland for the Japanese Garden that will be his first US project. I think they are raising money now.

  2. Thank you for introducing me to this fascinating architect. I love what he said about blurring the boundaries. And the structures are beautiful. Wonderful post, as always!

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