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Born of disaster, modern architecture is itself now an ongoing disaster

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

In the French writer-director Jacques Tati’s superb 1967 film “Play Time,” people are like prisoners condemned to roam about in and amid the glass cages of high-rise office blocks. They are lost, both to the world and themselves. In the world of Tati, who died in 1982 aged 75, all cities look alike; all humans are the victims of an insipid sameness.

How do we turn away from this self-inflicted condemnation? Where do we reconstitute our link with our natural surroundings and, by doing so, reclaim our humanity?

One man, distinguished architect Kengo Kuma, has an answer, and he set it out in “The Principles of Place,” a book published in January by Ichigaya Shuppansha.

It was the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and the subsequent contamination of the environment by radioactive substances released during the meltdowns of three reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that prompted Kuma to take his stand.

“I sensed that 3/11 had reversed the course of history,” he writes. “I felt, in a word, that the Tokyo-centric era was over, or, perhaps put more clearly, the era where cities themselves were at the center of everything was over.”

He points out that materials such as concrete and steel were products of an urban-centric culture, and that prior to the 20th century each region preserved a sense of place through the creation of their own architectural styles, and by the use of native construction techniques and local materials. People realized their own unique landscapes. “All of this was destroyed by concrete and steel in the 20th century. The tragedy of 3/11 was a consequence of this huge and lamentable course of history.”

In other words, Kuma has laid the blame for Japan’s failure to construct a safe society at the feet of its citizenry and the people who plan their lives for them.

He sets himself two rules to create by: To value materials, techniques and craftspeople in “small places”; and to devise architecture using “small elements” as much as possible.

By small elements, he means those other than big ones like concrete. Small elements, including wood and bricks, are handled by one person doing one job. “The architecture of small elements,” Kuma writes, “is a democratic architecture. It is grass-roots architecture, not from the top down but from the bottom up.”

He sets out to show, in this book outlining 18 of his architectural creations, “how we come to grips with place, how we struggle with it and how we have come to share the joys of people who belong to their locations.”

The Takayanagi Community Center in Niigata Prefecture that Kuma designed at the end of the 1990s uses washi (traditional Japanese paper) and wood to create an exquisite confluence of indoor and outdoor light. Kuma explains that the first plate-glass factory in Japan opened in 1906, and until then homes were largely built with washi and wooden shutters. “The place and the architecture were linked by just such a sensitive filter.”

When lecturing overseas, he is often asked whether such architecture is sustainable and if it isn’t easily assaulted by the elements.

“In a place such as Japan,” he answers, “this kind of ‘paper house’ uses methods of directly heating the body, such as with a kotatsu (charcoal brazier in a floor well) or an irori (sunken hearth).

“People can get through a winter without using (modern) energy sources. And in the summer, when it’s hot and humid, a ‘paper house’ is delightfully comfortable.”

One of Kuma’s aims is to blend architecture with nature, visually and materially, in search of a pliant and supple sustainability. He asks: “Can’t we have a varied sustainability for varied locales?”

His Stone Museum, which opened in Ibaraki Prefecture in 2000, achieves just that pliant and supple quality, even in stone. His Marche Yasuhara (2010) building in Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku introduces thatching not on the roof but on the facade. This, combined with forked wooden pillars holding up a high ceiling inside, recreates a warm homey atmosphere in this building which doubles as a marketplace for local produce and a boutique country hotel.

Kuma’s Great Bamboo Wall Hotel opened in the north of Peking in 2006. The brilliant use of bamboo throughout, particularly in the interior and exterior walls, manipulates light into shadow. “The very existence of bamboo,” he says, “encompasses the harmony of modernity and tradition without contradiction.”

His Adobe Museum for Wooden Buddha, opened in 2002 in Yamaguchi Prefecture, uses adobe to create a softness that complements the 12th-century statue it houses. Yet there is a structural exactness to its design, as if Mondrian were working not in paint but in blocks of sand and clay.

In “The Principles of Place,” Kuma strives to detail what he terms “post-earthquake and post-tsunami architectural tenets.” He continues: “Architectural theses have all, up to now, represented theories based on the notion that society’s evolution brings on architecture’s evolution. … But, in actuality, architecture has been diverted by tragedies. Great catastrophes and economic depressions … have immensely transformed design.”

As such, Kuma’s thesis can be seen as proposing a way to deal, by fashioning space, with just such catastrophes.

In the book, he goes on to explain how the great earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon, in which upward of 60,000 people died, changed the course of architecture — prompting the invention of “the modern” and planting a distrust in the mind for God, leading directly to concepts of liberty and equality that inspired the French Revolution 34 years later.

That was because the earthquake and six-meter tsunami it triggered, and the fires that raged as a result, had destroyed most of the old city. The new Lisbon was planned and built on a grid pattern, encompassing big public squares and wide boulevards — a physical rejection of the dark, closed world of Portuguese Catholicism and a stage for a new public awareness of the importance of the individual.

Kuma also brings his argument right up to present-day Japan, showing that the “strong architecture” adopted by this country, so plagued by natural disasters, has failed the people.

“The ‘strong architecture’ that humans, employing the fruits of modern science, rationally planned and rationally erected, crumbled without the least resistance before the power of nature. … The ‘strength’ of architecture is not a physical ‘strength’ built into the individual unit. The total thing we call ‘place’ surrounding architecture is the strength that affords blessings to humans and gives them real security.”

Kuma’s architecture profoundly respects the characteristics of every locale in which he works, just as he himself respects the specific skills of the craftspeople of each region and the materials unique to them. In an era when the power of the nation state to dictate its terms to regions within it is waning, Kuma’s architecture of the “small place” is the creative answer to progress in the 21st century. It harks back and leaps forward at the same time.

“The tsunami washed away everything,” he writes. “When I saw with my own eyes that incredible destructive power, I went pale with fear. And yet, for the very reason that there was nothing there, I felt that something had remained.

“The place itself — and the memory of time built up there — can never be erased.”