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After it was announced in 2015 that Kengo Kuma’s plan for the new National Stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would replace Zaha Hadid’s controversial design, the architect’s scaled-down and less flamboyant vision did, admittedly, receive its own fair share of criticism. For the most part, though, Kuma’s use of wood and local craftsmanship was largely applauded as being appropriate to represent Japan.

Prior to the decision, Kuma’s was already a well-respected brand, particularly in the international architecture scene. The high-profile news simply gave him an extra boost, making him a household name.

With his legacy now assured, however, will it be the right narrative? At a recent Japan Cultural Expo press conference for Kuma’s first solo exhibition at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT), curator Kenjiro Hosaka lamented that the architect’s work may have been “misinterpreted” by those who focus too much on its commercial and photogenic aspects.

When asked about the comment in a followup interview, Kuma himself is contemplative.

“I think what Hosaka is referring to, is that in Japan there is a tendency to think that architects who create large and conspicuous buildings are the ‘bad guys,’ and those who focus on small things are the ‘good guys.’ And I have had many opportunities to work on relatively large-scale works,” Kuma tells The Japan Times. “What we hope to reveal in the MOMAT exhibition is that those buildings were not designed for their shape or form to stand out, but rather to create a little happiness for the people who use them.”

A wall of models and plans of Kengo Kuma’s National Stadium design greets visitors to 'Kuma Kengo: Five Purr-fect Points for a New Public Space,' the architect’s first major solo exhibition at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. | © MIO YAMADA
A wall of models and plans of Kengo Kuma’s National Stadium design greets visitors to ‘Kuma Kengo: Five Purr-fect Points for a New Public Space,’ the architect’s first major solo exhibition at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. | © MIO YAMADA

Like its playful title, “Kuma Kengo: Five Purr-fect Points for a New Public Space” is unusual for a major architecture exhibition. Featuring 74 public spaces and facilities, it’s not arranged chronologically or organized by prestige. Instead, building models, photographs and media artworks are categorized by five principles conceived by Kuma — “Hole,” “Particles,” “Softness,” “Oblique” and “Time” — all accompanied by texts written by the architect himself.

The feline reference alludes to a specific installation, “A Plan For Tokyo, 2020: Five Purr-fect Points for Feline Architecture,” created in collaboration with design studio Takram, for which Ton and Son, two friendly stray cats in Kuma’s own neighborhood of Kagurazaka, were tracked by GPS to survey the urban landscape. It seems like a whimsical inclusion, and it is — Takram’s CGI versions of the cats are the cutest component of the exhibition. But as visitors later discover, the cats’ movements in relation to neighborhood structures are not as arbitrary as they first appear, and for Kuma, they triggered a deeper contemplation of the role of architecture in the future.

The exhibition begins with a wall display of models and plans for the National Stadium, the design that has brought Kuma so much international attention. However, the point here seems to be how scale has little to do with his personal design philosophy.

Architect Kengo Kuma | © J.C. CARBONNE
Architect Kengo Kuma | © J.C. CARBONNE

Kuma notes that his stadium serves a very different symbolic purpose to its predecessor, Kenzo Tange’s National Gymnasium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Built during Tokyo’s postwar expansion, Tange’s huge construction was monumental, its towering concrete pillars an aptly dramatic reflection of Japan’s economic growth.

“By contrast, my proposal is very intimate, human and subtle,” says Kuma, alluding to his belief that architecture now needs to return to more humanistic roots.

The COVID-19 pandemic deprived the National Stadium of the public opening Olympic organizers had hoped for, but as fate would have it, Kuma’s design had two facets that served it well during Tokyo’s fourth state of emergency. Though antivirus measures left the stadium bereft of the tens of thousands of visitors for which it was designed, the mosaic of white, green and brown seating gave the illusion that it was actually filled with spectators, masking an otherwise sad reality. Also, its non-mechanical ventilation ensured fresh air circulated inside at all times.

When Kuma was asked to reimagine Tange’s urban expansion proposal “Plan for Tokyo 1960” for the exhibition, it was the pandemic that led to his decision to use cats for his “A Plan For Tokyo, 2020.”

“The pandemic’s greatest lesson for architecture is that boxes are hazardous,” writes Kuma in the exhibition catalog, referring to our lifestyles of being boxed up in offices all day, only to escape to the boxes of houses or apartments. Stray cats, he writes, are “far more experienced mentors” when it comes to exploring alternative outdoor spaces in the city, their nomadic lifestyles revealing hidden nooks, crannies and other underutilized areas.

“In the city, intimacy is very important; experience and material are very important,” Kuma says. “Tracking the movements of stray cats offered a way to view that kind of new experience.”

The behavior of cats — their sensitivity to texture, proclivity to hide in holes, ability to squeeze through narrow spaces and adeptly traverse oblique terrain — all allude to the five principles that guide visitors through Kuma’s works at MOMAT.

In “Hole,” he explains how gaps and holes, like the triangular crevices of the V&A Dundee in Scotland, can physically and visually connect a building to its surrounding environment. “Particles” refers to the use of components to create negative spaces that open up structures, such as the lattice wood strips of the Sunny Hills cake shop in Tokyo.

“Softness,” an exploration of flexible and natural architectural materials, presents some unusual examples of work, including “Breath/ng,” a huge spiral air diffuser sculpted in folded fabric; while “Oblique” challenges the custom of building vertically or horizontally with slanted and asymmetric structures that honor the slopes and angles of their local topography.

Kengo Kuma and Takram’s 'Plan for Tokyo, 2020' video work features computer-generated models of real stray cats in Kagurazaka, Tokyo, that were tracked by GPS during their daily wanderings in the city. | © KENGO KUMA AND ASSOCIATES © TAKRAM
Kengo Kuma and Takram’s ‘Plan for Tokyo, 2020’ video work features computer-generated models of real stray cats in Kagurazaka, Tokyo, that were tracked by GPS during their daily wanderings in the city. | © KENGO KUMA AND ASSOCIATES © TAKRAM

It is the last principle, “Time,” that links all Kuma’s practices to the intimacy that he mentions as key to post-pandemic urban landscapes. Making things smaller, softer and oblique, he says, means they are more prone to aging and dilapidation. But rendering things weak and temporary also makes them “more human.”

“Architecture in an industrialized society was built to last and look good for a long time. From now on, though, architecture should grow old like human beings and good friends,” Kuma says, adding a personal example. “I grew up in an old house and while I lived there, my family and I renovated it many times. And I think renovation is still relevant today.”

Projects on display in “Time” include lesser known small buildings that pay homage to the past. Discarded bicycle wheels and spokes are used for the facade of restaurant Harmonica Yokocho Mitaka, and recycled aluminium is used for the renovation of an old house into the yakitori restaurant Tetchan. It’s a smooth transition from here to the final section of the exhibition, where visitors finally get to see “A Plan for Tokyo, 2020,” Ton and Son’s meandering journey through the narrow streets of Kagurazaka.

CGI replicas of the cats shuffle through vacant lots, jump onto window ledges and saunter into tight spaces between old buildings, while digital maps illustrate their haphazard strolls through the neighborhood. It seems a far cry from the new, huge National Stadium and other spacious wooden structures that Kuma is often associated with. But the exhibition posits details of such works, like the stadium’s leafy public sky walkway, as manifestations of concepts related to Kuma’s bigger vision of a more intimate urban landscape — one that sees underutilized backstreets become co-working spaces, parks and walkways.

“In today’s shrinking economy and population, there is a new value in existing and old extant buildings,” says Kuma on the future. “I think renovation will also be a main field of architecture after the COVID-19 pandemic. We don’t need to build new or bigger buildings anymore.”

“Kuma Kengo: Five Purr-fect Points for a New Public Space” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT), runs through Sept. 26. For more information, visit kumakengo2020.jp/en. For more information on the Japan Cultural Expo and its projects, visit https://japanculturalexpo.bunka.go.jp/en

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