“We sense the natural in things that form a happy link with their surroundings. . . . A natural architecture is architecture that creates this propitious connection.”
In this way, renowned architect Kengo Kuma sets the guidelines for his art. The quote is from his book “Shizen na Kenchiku” (“A Natural Architecture”), published on Nov. 20 by Iwanami Shoten in its popular Shinsho (New Books) paperback series. If you are searching for a brilliantly argued delineation of the Japanese aesthetic sensibility comfortably translated into the 21st century, look no further than this.
American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was fond of pointing out that, etymologically, the word “radical” meant “going to the root or origin of a thing.” In this sense, Kuma’s artistry derives from his own profound exploration of Japanese principles, merging the traditional with the radical in ways both startling and elegant. In every structure — be it a house, office building, museum or mountain lookout — he brings out the character and textures of materials in harmony with the structure’s surroundings. This, to my mind, is the essence of Japanese aesthetics: the fashioning and refashioning of the natural in ways that turn nature’s textures themselves into art.
In a chapter of “Shizen na Kenchiku” with the translated title of “Flowing Water,” he tells of the time when as a boy his father showed him a small wooden box.
“Do you know the architect Bruno Taut?” his father asked him. “He was a world-famous architect who designed this box.”
Bruno Taut (1880-1938) arrived in Japan at the Sea of Japan port of Tsuruga on May 3, 1933, after fleeing the new Nazi regime in his native Germany and crossing the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The next day held special significance for Taut.
“The fourth of May is Taut’s birthday,” writes Kuma. “It was on this day that Taut visited the Katsura Detached Palace. . . . It must have been a truly wonderful birthday. . . . It dawned on him that, of all places, the Katsura Detached Palace was the architecture of 20th-century modernism, as well as its future.”
In his book, Kuma delves into the architecture of Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Wright, Kenzo Tange and others. But his homage to Taut, it seems to me, goes to the essence of his own probing of the secrets of nature’s design. (Kuma designed the Taut exhibition — “Bruno Taut: The Role of Art in Society” — that was held at Tokyo’s Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in 2006.)
Kuma’s exquisite guesthouse at Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture is called Water/Glass. The natural fusion of the outdoor with the indoor and the easy crossing of the border between water and glass make this building a natural extension of the line that goes from Katsura through Taut to Kuma himself.
Kuma confronted the very nature of the water that surrounds this building.
“A human cannot live with only the surface of water. Something has to be erected to protect the human body. The contradiction inherent in this and of how to unravel it is the thing that holds the key to what we call the conduct of architecture. The thing erected, I thought, must be as unobtrusive and self-effacing as possible. And so I decided to erect only glass on the water’s surface. The two substances of water and glass alone would create the architecture.”
In another chapter, Kuma takes up stone. Here, the subtitle translates as “The restoration of things that are severed.” In this chapter, Kuma reveals himself to be an insightful theoretician discussing the nature of stone in the European and Japanese traditions and ways to use concrete, steel and glass to compensate for “their definitive lack of softness, warmth and a richness in their feel.”
His solution to this is his “museum of stone,” the Kitakami Canal Museum in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, with its highly defined stone lattice work in the walls and natural-looking stone blocks. The overall effect is striking, and yet — to use a word harking back to “the feel of substances” — tender. Perhaps this harmony of contrasts — this perfect merging of linear contradictions into a setting — is one of the gifts of Kuma’s art.
To my mind, his Museum of Ando Hiroshige at Bato in Tochigi Prefecture best illustrates the way Kuma creates a vision and then explores every detail of its possibilities in a setting. He envisioned for this museum “an architecture like the cryptomeria woods of the mountain behind it. . . . Of course, the idea of (bringing in) the woods was deeply tied to the world of ukiyo-e created by Hiroshige himself.”
Kuma took as an overriding image the straight lines of rain in Hiroshige’s woodblocks.
“The rain forms a single layer in the picture’s space,” he writes of Hiroshige’s depiction of rain in one of the prints from his “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” in which people are crossing a bridge during a storm. “The bridge beyond that layer overlaps it; and, in addition, the river’s surface and the opposite bank in the distance overlap it as well.”
It is these layers that one sees in the slatted walls — like Hiroshige’s rain, the soft layer of light of the interior and the layer formed by the mountain in back with its woods.
Kuma contrasts nature as seen in the works of painters Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable with a very Japanese notion.
“(These two British painters) do not depict rain and fog with straight lines. . . . But in Japanese art, beginning with Hiroshige, rain is often expressed using straight lines. Here we have a very Japanese definition of the border between nature and the artificial. The Japanese view of nature sees a continuity between the two.”
Kuma set his goal as “expressing concretely in architecture the continuities between nature and that which is artificial.”
In other chapters he investigates the character and textures of bamboo, wood in general, earth and rice paper (“the ultimate thin wall”). He points out that the genius of Japanese art comes from its inextricable tie to the substances of nature. This is what identifies the ideals of Japanese architecture as the epitome of environmental art.
There are few artists who can articulate the dimensions and challenges of their creations in the way that Kengo Kuma does in “Shizen na Kenchiku.”
“Decomposed weathered granite may flow away forever, and mountains, pitilessly, may become treeless and barren. It is no easy task to forecast perfectly the behavior of nature. However, if, while recognizing the borderline between nature and the artificial and imagining all risks, one can carefully and conscientiously redesign that borderline, one brings to light a vivid and expressive complexion of nature that nature itself has not yet displayed.”
If there is to be a resurgence in the Japanese arts that many of us long for, it will come precisely out of this thinking and its visual expression.