Late architect’s mecca built on philosophy

by Angela Jeffs

Not many people get to build cities and choose prime ministers, yet that was his claim to fame. In one of the last interviews before his death on Oct. 12, self-styled leader of the Symbiosis movement Kisho Kurokawa talked about the ups and downs of life as a mainstream architect, political maverick and philosophical idealist.

Kisho Kurokawa was never a household name, either in his native Japan, nor internationally. But within architectural circles he was much admired — and in demand — around the globe.

There was a globe on the table between us, covered in colored pins. Each one, he explained, was a current project: in Africa, China, Russia, the Middle East, all over. As if to prove the point, a letter inviting Kurokawa to come to Calcutta to talk about a new art museum lay alongside

“Most of my work these days is achieved through international competition. We submit designs and with luck we win through,” he said, speaking softly.

It had proved remarkably easy to arrange to meet the man responsible for the shimmering wave-like curve of glass that is one of Tokyo’s most inspired new buildings — the National Art Museum in Roppongi. Yet the lobby of Kisho Kurokawa Architect & Associates on the 13th floor of the Ark Mori Building in Tokyo’s Akasaka, was strangely empty. No receptionist, simply the top of someone’s head bobbing up and down behind the front desk.

Kurokawa himself as it turned out. Wound around with scarves and answering e-mails. Not quite what you would expect of the founder and president of an internationally renowned architectural practice, but then Kurokawa was never predictable, even in his prime.

It was clear that the events of year had taken their toll, that he was not well. Earlier photographs had shown a much larger individual, in every sense. Now there was fragility, an other-worldliness. But still he led the way into his office with much gentle waving of the hands, and the smiling invitation to sit, sit. . .

Asked how he was — after all, 2007 was turning out to be no easy ride — he smiled and shrugged. What can you do, he seemed to be saying; that’s life.

Born in Kanie, Aichi Prefecture, in 1934, Kurokawa grew up with what he claimed were two very good reasons for wanting to design buildings. His father was an architect. And when he was 10, American bombers flattened his hometown.

“Nagoya virtually ceased to exist. There was no architecture. Everyone was homeless.”

While his father was always a strong influence, a local Buddhist priest proved to be both a good friend and a powerful influence.

“It was his belief that consciousness is the root of everything that led me to combine architecture and philosophy.”

After graduating from Kyoto University, Kurokawa was accepted into Tokyo’s Graduate School of Architecture, where he was introduced into the Metabolist movement.

“Kenzo Tange was our leader, I was the youngest member. Concerned with over-crowding and the urban environment, we looked into the possibility that buildings could be designed and built as adaptable organisms with replaceable parts.”

As commissions began to come his way, and with his ideas shifting toward the personal philosophy he called Symbiosis, Kurokawa founded his own architectural practice in 1962. Today, it operates seven “satellite offices” worldwide — opening most recently “at long last” in the U.S. — and provides employment to thousands.

“My aim? As always, to offer a vision of how best to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world population.” His vision for the National Art Musem was to balance the natural world and technology, so mirroring nature in the heart of the city. Describing the curved front as based on “computer-rendered rhythmic images formed by mountains and the seashore,” he has always sought to bring together two traditions — the visible and invisible. Beneath the hard skin of glass and concrete and steel, his work is still very Japanese. Back in 1972, Kurokawa challenged mainstream architecture with the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo’s Shinbashi. This utilized individual modular units that could be clipped onto two core towers. “My idea was that these could be changed every few decades, as needs changed. I used the same principles for Osaka’s Sony Tower, built four years later.”

Sadly, as with so much of its pioneering architecture, Japan does not appear to appreciate the value of his early work. Last year, the Sony Building was demolished. And earlier this year there was talk of pulling down the pioneering Nakagin Capsule Tower. There is a movement to preserve it as a building of import, but right now its future hangs in the balance.

Yet however he felt deep down about his work being so easily dismissed by his countrymen, Kurokawa remained upbeat. He had his homelife in Tokyo’s Setagaya district to keep him grounded, describing it as “full of dogs, cameras (he was a collector) and music — Blues, jazz, I’m that generation.”

What kept him intellectually stimulated and forever optimistic was the development of ideas and belief systems. “As the founder of the Symbiosis movement, philosophy is more important than concrete,” he said, pointing to a German translation of his book on the table: Das Kurokawa Manifesto.

“This is my challenge, to push my thinking forward. It’s what I hope will survive.” Metabolism, and later Kurokawa’s Symbiosis, paved the way for new trends in contemporary design, such as prefabrication, sustainability, living in harmony with nature and looking to natural forms for inspiration.

“I believe in the abolition of opposites,” he said. “There is no ‘either, or.’ ” This has its roots in Japanese Buddhism. How can we save ourselves? We are such small creatures.”

While many find the complexity of the concepts involved in Symbiosis difficult to grasp — “advocating the paradigm shift from the Age of Machine Principle to the Age of Life Principle” — they have been finding expression in many of Kurokawa’s later projects. Kuala Lumpur International Airport, opened in 1998 and intended as just one component of a far larger eco-city, has a roof that is Islamic in style and a man-made rain forest, planted hopefully for posterity, both inside and out the building.

While claiming always to be dissatisified with his work, Kurokawa was pushing forward with projects that ranged from an orphanage in Amsterdam, to a new stadium in St. Petersburg, and a master plan for Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana.

Yet his refusal to play safe and think inside the box had led to further disappointments. In April, he lost his election bid for the Tokyo governorship; then in July, both he and his wife, the actress Ayako Wakao, failed to gain seats in Japan’s Upper House elections.

“I’m especially sorry for my wife. I tricked her into standing (for election), you see. Yes, I have apologized, many times. It was an awful thing to do because she was a very important actress way before I was a failed architect.”

He was worried about Japan. It had always been important that his country be respected, but it also had to earn that respect. Living next to China and Korea, Kurokawa believed Japan needed to acknowledge similarities and work to understand the differences in cultures. It was the only way out of a “chronic situation” he insisted.

Who though was listening? Despite being an in-the-wings adviser to a Cabinet research group for more than 30 years, deciding (among countless other things) who might best lead the country, Japan has so far rejected his ideas and views. It was surely hard to bear.

“Well, I’m not a politician,” he smiled, with another wry shrug. He was an expert on city planning, land planning, completely separate from them all.

“All those factions,” he added. “I don’t understand the differences. Do you? What Japan needs is someone to create a party for the people. That is what I was trying to offer. Young people understood, but they’re too young to vote. I have 3 million supporters worldwide, but what good has that done me here?”

In the lobby, the flag of his Symbiosis Party — white, with two circles, red (for Japan) and green (for Nature, no either, or) — made a brave if somewhat despondent statement.

He was tired, he admitted, opening the door to the elevator. He could do with a holiday, but had to go to Russia in September. As the doors closed, he was still bowing. A maverick maybe, but always the gentle man.