Kengo Kuma – on Scale and Pattern
Kengo Kuma splits his time between professional practice and academia. He began his practice in the early 90‘s with a small office in Tokyo; his practice is now over 150 employees with offices in Tokyo and Paris, and projects in Europe, the US, and China. Kuma balances the demands of his global practice with his academic pursuits, heading the Kuma Lab at Tokyo University where he tests his theoretical speculations before applying them in real-world scenarios. Enrolled in the Lab are 10 PhD students and 5 or 6 Masters students, the majority of which come from abroad. The PhD students come with the aim to develop their own ideas in collaboration with Kuma, but often end up exploring topics that Kuma himself is researching, such as digital experimentation and fabrication.
Kuma’s international focus is a new direction within a longstanding Japanese architectural tradition that values the dual professional and academic career. In the 20th century, this tradition was earmarked by the office of Kenzo Tange, whose practice produced the generation of Japanese architects that came of age during the bubble years, and who defined contemporary Japanese architecture on the global stage. Two generations later, Kuma is shifting his focus beyond Japan to pursue the role of the universal designer who is informed, but not bound by, his native culture.
Kuma was born in Yokohama City and educated in nearby Kamakura. He completed graduate studies at the University of Tokyo Faculty of Engineering (Department of Architecture) in 1979. There he studied under Yoshichika Uchida and Hiroshi Hara, the latter well-known for his design for the Kyoto Train station. While a student, Kuma also interned in the office of Fumihiko Maki, which may have encouraged his global perspective. Another influential teacher in this regard is the architect Yoshinobu Ashihara, who studied both at Tokyo University and at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. After a research fellowship in New York at Columbia University, Kuma founded Kengo Kuma and Associates. Major creations include “Water/Glass” (winner of the AIA’s Benedictus Award) and the “Noh Stage in the Forest/Tomemachi Traditional Arts Folklore Hall” in Miyagi Prefecture (winner of the Architectural Institute of Japan Prize).
The following interview with Kengo Kuma was conducted by architect Paul Jamtgaard on November 12th, 2012 at Tokyo University in Tokyo, Japan.
PJ: Kuma sensei, it’s a pleasure to meet you, and thank you for taking time to talk with me. I have so many questions about your work, but let me start simply by asking about your practice and the extraordinary changes your firm has experienced in the past few years. Your firm has become highly sought after on the global stage, receiving larger and larger commissions, so my first question is this: How do you think about scale, and more specifically, how do you approach the transition between the scale of the building and the scale of city?
KK: Our approach to every project is consistent regardless of scale. Twenty years ago, our staff was around 15 to 20 people. We now have 150 people worldwide, with 120 in our Tokyo office alone—nearly a tenfold growth in 20 years. However, our method is basically the same as before—as is my desire to control nearly every detail. But the fact is, I can’t. In this regard, communication technology has been good for the practice. During my frequent travels, the staff can easily send me images, drawings, and notes, where twenty years ago, they had to fax drawings to my hotel. The faxes were very difficult to read and often had very bad image quality. Current technologies also enable me to talk with the younger staff, which I like, since I don’t want to create hierarchy–I just want to talk with the man who is really in charge of the project. I have the phone numbers of every one of my staff, with whom I talk directly.
PJ: And they know you have them. (Kuma laughs)
KK: Yeah, at midnight or in the early morning, I try to call them to talk with them. And site visits and mock-up check-ins are also very important in our method, for maintaining quality. I myself go to the sites, including to Europe once a month, to China twice a month, and to the States every 2 months, where we have a project in Portland (the Washington Park Japanese Garden Visitors’ Buildings) and New York (the China Center project). Whenever I go to Europe, I will visit Marseille, where our Conservatory of Aix-en-Provence is now under construction.
PJ: Oh boy.
KK: But, it’s not necessary that I stay the whole day. In Aix-en-Provence, I usually stay two hours. Communication and transportation technology allow me to do this.
PJ: And thereby to have a truly global practice. My next question relates to the role of scale in your new book, Patterns and Layering, which was edited by some of the students in your Lab. Your recent work utilizes a great deal of repetition: of elements, spaces, surfaces, etc. Is repetition itself important to your ideas, to your architecture?
KK: Yes, repetition is very important, but not just in terms of design. Basically, it is deeply related to program of the project. From a very early stage, I want to find the appropriate skin for the building. I think of it like the human skin, which is a single system that covers the body. There are localized differences but ideally, the outside of a building is a single skin. Repetition is very important for creating the cellular system that makes up a single skin building.
PJ: Yes, a cellular system. An interesting aspect of the skin metaphor is that some parts of the body are very sensitive, like the finger tips, whereas the areas covering the back are not sensitive at all, as needed. But it’s still one system. It seems as if the various program needs of a building could be responded to through variations in the skin system while maintaining its unity.
KK: Yes, yes.
PJ: This is a question more about you: do you consider yourself more of a modern architect who is exploring traditional Japanese ideas or are you more of a traditional Japanese builder exploring a modern world?
KK: I think I am basically a modern architect. Sometimes I get hints from Japanese traditional architecture, but I also get hints from Chinese traditional architecture, or from classical European architecture. But it’s always just a hint, and provides the freedoms, and not the restraints, from these traditions. When I was studying, some of my influential teachers were Professors Yoshinobu Ashihara, Fumihiko Maki and Hiroshi Hara. But I also learned from architects like Yoshida Isoya and Minoru Tekeyama, whose values were based upon apprenticeship and generational succession. That system still exists. After school, I was able to step out of that system, which was very good for me. Before going to New York in 1985, I wasn’t so interested in traditional Japanese architecture. But when I studied at Columbia, where I made many friends, I began to think about how I identify myself, what I could do in that society, and who I was as an architect. In New York I had the chance to talk about Japanese architecture with my New York friends. Only after my New York experience did I begin to study Japanese history and Japanese landscape design, and look at Japan from the outside.
PJ: In a sense, you became a representative of Japanese architecture simply by virtue of being Japanese, and that role compelled you to delve into it, but from the outside looking in. Looking back at the early years of your practice, I see you exploring many different ideas. Some projects are distinctly postmodern in their sampling of icons and forms from classical architecture, but these seem to have passed rather quicky. Was there one project along the way that inspired you or helped you define your own approach to architecture that has continued today?
KK: The postmodern period was very important for me, emphasizing the importance of history through that approach to design. And in New York, at Columbia I had very good teachers such as Robert Stern, and others.
PJ: You were there for two years?
KK: One year. Of course, there also was Kenneth Frampton, who was not a post-modernist, but who taught me the importance of history. I had very good teachers there.
PJ: It’s funny, but during the time when you were in New York, I was here in Japan for the first time. For me, it was also a very defining experience to look at architecture from a new point of view. Could you tell me a little more about your new visitors’ center at the Portland Japanese Gardens? What is the status now?
KK: We were selected by competition 3 years ago, but fund-raising is not easy. We are finally reaching the goal. I will be going to Portland in January to have a kick-off party with the local architects and the local foundation.
PJ: I am from Portland, so I am particularly interested in your progress on this project. Is the conceptual design finished at this point?
KK: After the submission of the competition design, we didn’t continue with design development. The conditions changed and they were waiting for more funding and more public support. We also felt there should be some changes to the function, things like that.
PJ: So you’re working with a local architect in Portland?
KK: Yes, the committee from Portland selected Tom Hacker’s office, and we already had an interview with them. They are a very good office and have been a solid partner in this process.
PJ: Is there a type of building that you have not done that you would like to do?
KK: Perhaps a church.
PJ: Some people would say you already do them.
KK: We’ve designed temples and a shrine, but never a church. When I was young, I went to a catholic school for junior high school and high school. It was a Jesuit school called Eiko Gakuin, in Kamakura. The experience of the church and the monastery was very unique for me. Sometimes I stayed for days in the monastery, meditating. And that was a great experience—very different from a Japanese architectural experience, and one that I would want to design.
PJ: That would be great to see. Now this question is rather broad, but increasingly central to practice: How does sustainability guide or inform your design thinking?
KK: Sustainability is an appreciation for time; it is less about energy savings than it is about designing the future of the building. I am always thinking about a building’s lifetime and the lives of the people using it. In the 20th century, architects only thought about the completion date, with all its pictures and the big opening. That was the goal of the project. In traditional Japanese architecture, the completion date is not a special day, since the architecture is always changing. As a child, my father always wanted to change some part of my house. My family is not a rich family, but even for an average family we were always wanting to change some things. Our house was an evolving, living thing.
PJ: That idea reminds me of a book about urban design called “Built for Change,” by a professor at the University of Washington named Anne Vernez Moudon. It’s a terrific book that very much echoes this idea of designing for changing needs. The approach of using small scale, repeated elements allows for incremental changes that can be carried out by non-specialists. Like a skin’s cellular composition, damaged parts can heal or grow as needed.
KK: Yes, yes. I got a hint of this idea from traditional Japanese buildings. You know Horyuji temple? It’s the oldest wooden building in Japan, but it’s actually in an ongoing state of rejuvenation through the replacement of its smaller elements, allowing it to maintain its wholeness over time. That is the smartness of the Japanese system.
PJ: There is a relatively new idea in science that every cell in our bodies changes every couple of years, so although we think we are the same being, we have been constantly changing over time.
KK: Yes, yes. This is true. The element that remains the same is the soul, the identity of the building. This is the element I try to realize in my buildings.