Kengo Kuma: ‘a product of place’

Renowned architect's new book, "My Place," reflects an awareness of humanity's close affinity to the world around us

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

“I wanted to go to a place that wasn’t neat and tidy, somewhere dangerous. I was bored, and it had something to do with the era and something to do with myself too.”

In a recent letter to fellow architect Kazuyo Sejima, Kengo Kuma expressed in the above words the tenor of his mood and the disarray of his esprit during his student days.

“The end of the 1970s was a time when the mood was very much that everything had been already expressed,” he wrote. “We had been through the passions of the student movement of the ’60s, and it looked very much like there was nothing new to be done, be it in architecture, literature or thought.

“A feeling of powerless fell upon us, particularly upon us young people. … I felt utterly helpless over my own roughness, my own sloppiness, and was repelled by what was ‘nice’ and at a total loss of what to do about it.”

It was this feeling of being repelled by what he saw around him in Japan that sent him off to Africa, inspired as well by the poetry and travels of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

In reading his letters to Sejima, which are being serialized in the architecture magazine LIXIL eye, I came away with an understanding not only of what motivated Kuma to embark on his journey in search of values that might wisely inform a future lifestyle for himself, but also of what just might rescue young people in Japan today who are finding themselves at sea with no one or nothing to point the way home.

Kuma had — and still has — a deep-seated sense of rebellion that manifests itself in his prolific writing and his work around the world. It is a rebellion against what most people generally consider “modern.”

For instance, Kuma has, on many occasions, expressed his disdain for the featureless concrete that fronts up so many buildings in Japan.

Tadao Ando, an architect known for employing this tool, was at first none too pleased with such criticism.

“I’m well aware of what Kuma says about me and all my concrete,” Ando remarked. “I got all hot under the collar when I first heard it, but after some thought I realized that he may have a point. Unlike us, Kuma lives in a totally new age.”

Kuma is now expressing, at a prodigious pace, that new age for us to experience and live in. But what exactly does that new age purport to create? More crucially for Japanese people today, what are the roots of his passions and how can they guide us to recreate the dynamism that this culture once had?

Luckily, Kuma is a brilliant advocate of his aesthetic. As such, he is doing for Japanese architecture what Masaoka Shiki did for poetry and Rosanjin Kitaoji did for the design of cuisine: He is expanding the scope of Japanese culture by articulately redefining its traditional messages in a future context.

Over the past century, we have come to view our place among our surroundings, willy nilly, in terms of our individual isolation from each other. “Alienation” has been our hapless buzzword, with we ourselves embodying the aliens in our formidable cities. Architecture — especially the new-empire architecture of the century’s most modern culture, the American one — imposed itself on us. Buildings were monumental objects, and we scurried about in their awesome shadows.

Kuma calls his architecture “anti-object,” and he has, in fact, written a book with that very title. “Anti-Object: The Dissolution and Disintegration of Architecture,” brilliantly translated by Hiroshi Watanabe and published by Architectural Association Publications, London, in 2008, is a must-read for anyone interested in Japanese aesthetics. In it, Kuma is attempting to relocate us in the midst of a more human scale.

He harks back to German architect Bruno Taut, who visited Japan in the mid-1930s and was inspired by the proportions and principles of Japanese architecture.

“Taut abhorred objects, believing that architecture was more a matter of relationships,” Kuma writes. “Strolling through a garden (at Kyoto’s Katsura Detached Palace) in a Far Eastern country he had come to almost by chance, Taut unexpectedly encountered a beautiful form of connection between consciousness and matter.”

This connection between consciousness and matter is the very thing that Kuma himself has pursued in each and every work. And it was a chance encounter with Taut’s spirit that set Kuma off in pursuit of this connection that permits people to feel unintimidated and at home in a location.

Taut had designed the interior of a house at Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, and Kuma happened upon it when, in the mid-1990s, he was making plans to build a small guesthouse overlooking the sea, coincidentally, just above it. The guesthouse, called “Water/Glass,” links the land with the sea, virtually erasing the distinction between them. The unique veranda is composed of water, not wood, allowing the consciousness of the viewer there to defy the physical by seemingly being in two places at once.

In this way, through water and light and sound (the sound of the flowing water is a constant reminder of its presence), Kuma’s architecture creates connections and encounters between people and nature. As such, it negates isolation and hinders the engendering of alienation. His spaces allow us to feel that we are an integral part of things. While being sharp, clear and often stark, they have a particular kind of nukumori, or warmth, about them.

I have gone to the Nezu Museum in Tokyo several times just to walk from the street alongside the building toward its entrance. Kuma redesigned the building that reopened in 2009. The approach to the entrance is through what becomes a tunnel of wood, stones and light. To the right is a wall of bamboo that filters in slivers of light. Kuma is, in fact, a sculptor of light; the passage to the entrance takes you in and out the borders of his spatial sculpture.

His spaces are inviting. He stresses in his writing that there should be a “flatness” to architecture, and by this he means that structures and spaces should be democratic and accessible in scale. The working metaphor in his Iiyama Plaza in Nagano Prefecture, set for completion in February 2015, is the roofed nakamichi, or passageway, through the middle. This cultural and community complex will not dwarf the individual. There is nothing alienating about Kuma’s spaces. They may stun with their sheer aesthetic beauty, but they invite us to participate. In his writing, Kuma speaks of “holes,” that is, openings in things, as being a kind of bridge. In this way his spaces transport us from one place to another while being a shaft between one realm of light and another.

The overriding metaphor in Jugetsudo Cafe in Tokyo’s Kabuki-za, which he redesigned for the theater’s new opening in April 2013, is the bamboo grove with its pitched bamboo ceiling, creating a transition space — again a kind of passageway of access and motion — between the theater and the garden.

There is a porousness in Kuma’s structures that enhances the qualities of his materials. This is even true of some stone in his work. He laid volcanic rubble over the low sloping roofs of the buildings of the Jeju Ball hotel on South Korea’s largest island of Jeju. (The island boasts more than 300 lava cones.) The roofs and the ground are linked in texture, and light from skylights scatters shadows. There is a randomness to the way the light falls and fragments. The connection here, between the natural and the artificial, is produced in the eye of the beholder.

Where does this profound affinity with the natural in Kuma’s work come from? His latest book, “Boku no Basho” (“My Place”), which was published in April by Daiwa Shobo, provides many insights into the man and his work.

Born in Yokohama in 1954, Kuma was greatly influenced by his grandfather.

“My grandfather built a shed by a field that he rented and went to on weekends,” he wrote in a letter to Sejima. “Its mud walls used to fall to pieces on the tatami, and I would roll about all over the tatami.”

When reading his letters and books, particularly, “My Place” and “Basho Genron” (“The Principles of Place”), the latter published in 2012 by Ichigaya Shuppansha, I was constantly struck by his affinities with nature nurtured in childhood, affinities that many children today are deprived of experiencing due to an ardor for the virtual world that surpasses that for the natural.

Kuma’s grandfather hardly spoke to him, except when they were growing vegetables together on their little plot. It was as if communication and the liberation of inhibitions were made possible through the cultivation of nature. This stuck with Kuma and continues to inspire his drive toward what he calls “the miracle of living things.” His work reminds us that, in Japan, communication with people and communing with the natural world are one.

“The motivation of writing this book,” he writes in “My Place,” “is to attempt to recall what soil, water, light and wind mean to me. … The key to that process of recalling is place. … The person that I am is a product of place. … I am keenly aware of the fact that my way of looking at things, the form that my actions take and the formulation of my thoughts, all exist in and depend upon the depths of the places that I have been. In that sense I came to realize that I am like the tree that grows in the forest.”

Kuma is ever conscious of the borders of the incongruous. When looking at his Stone Museum in Tochigi Prefecture, I am reminded of Basho’s famous haiku about the nature of stone. (In fact, Basho did visit Nasu-cho, where the museum is located.)

It is still and quiet / As the sounds of the cicada / Sink into stone

Slimming down stone — making it light, or, as Kuma says, “particlizing” it — gives it a softness and ambiguity that may not generally be associated with it as a material. Again, he is concerned not with the feel of the material itself, but rather with the touch and appearance of it when taken as a whole that connects it to the place and to us who happen to find ourselves there.

“The theme of the Stone Museum is particlizing stone so that it can be used to generate sounds,” he writes in “Anti-Object.” “My aim was to create several layers between the preexisting objects so that a free ambiguous field — a wilderness — would gradually emerge.”

This last sentence perhaps provides us, in a single word, with a clue to his outlook on nature: wilderness. Nothing in art can be natural; there is only art that looks natural and art that doesn’t. However, the aspiration of an artist wishing to re-create nature and find a place for human beings to exist in harmony with it is to fashion what is sono mama, or “just as things are,” to re-fashion nature in its untouched state into something that not only looks natural but enhances the natural.

By creating “anti-objects,” Kuma strives toward creating structures that do not dominate the basic lay of the land, structures that do not call attention to themselves but rather allow the location to shine in its own light.

Within all this there is a downright playfulness in much of his work. He likens the construction of a building to stacking up little wooden blocks. His Kids Academy Taiyogaoka Kindergarten in Ishikawa Prefecture has little niches and “caves” in the walls where children can hide while still being in the view of others.

At the crux of all of Kuma’s architecture is the interplay between people and nature. His work spawns and generates incessant dialogues with people, eliciting their reactions.

“Since childhood,” wrote Kuma in a letter to Sejima on Dec. 4, 2013, “I have been the type of person drawn not to fixed dead architecture but to soft living plants and animals, and not just in a visual way but to discover how they are alive and how they react and respond to me.”

This is the very thing that Japanese society is calling out for today: a way of conversing intelligently with the environment — the “my place” that we all inhabit — to enhance our humanity while leaving things, as much as is humanly possible, just as they are.

Roger Pulvers’ latest book is “Half,” a novel that will be published in Japanese on July 1 by Shoshi Pense.


From the writings of Kengo Kuma

“Architecture can never be closed off completely. That is the premise of my work. One may enclose space with walls and bury it underground, but architecture is always situated in — and connected to — the world. More precisely, architecture is a device mediating between the subject (that is, mankind) and the world.”

“It’s not bamboo as a material (that I am on about), it is the state of the bamboo grove. More than the feel of the bamboo, it’s the light and the sound and the touch of the grove.”

“Just as countless birds in flight form a flock, the large whole of a structure is made up of the coming together of small fragments, and this is my ideal. The pliability of a flock of birds changing shape moment by moment is incredibly appealing to me as an architect looking toward an architecture that is supple and democratic.”

“(My philosophy) is not about erasing a structure, nor, of course, is it about causing it to stand out. It strives to resolve the connection between the structure and the place it sits in.”

“The world of the 20th century was a world, it seems to me, when the pursuit of size mattered. … In contrast to that, I feel as though I am going in the direction of the small. … The ‘small thing’ adrift, that’s me.”