Kengo Kuma might be the most self-effacing architect around. His trademarks are not large monumental forms or breathtaking sculptural shapes, but finely wrought details such as elegant stone cladding on a high-rise tower, an unlikely pitched roof or a superbly framed view on a garden.

More often than not, Kuma’s buildings defer to something external — the client’s predilections, their site, the location’s history, the architecture that was there before them, and even the perceived expectations of the public. Kuma refers to his own work as the “architecture of defeat” — saying that it “loses” to everything.

It is no coincidence that this architect who is willing to take on board everyone’s opinions was selected for one of the most potentially controversial building projects in Japan in the last few years: the rebuilding of kabuki theater’s traditional home, the Kabuki-za, in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

The old building — now in the process of being torn down — was always considered iconic and historic, even though it was less than 60 years old and was actually the fourth manifestation of the theater to grace the same site.

The fifth Kabuki-za, by Kuma, will open in 2013 and will differ significantly from its predecessors in one outstanding respect, since Shochiku, the site’s owners, have asked him to add in a 29-story office tower. Far from imposing his own vision on the project, Kuma must suffer a double “defeat” and bow to the demands of his clients as well as to kabuki fans’ expectations.

But it’s likely that Kuma will stamp his mark on the building in the very artistry of the compromise he carves out of the myriad competing constraints that are in play. Such has been the case with his other prominent jobs of late: the Nezu Museum in Tokyo’s Minami-Aoyama; the Suntory Museum of Art in Roppongi, Tokyo; the Sanlitun Soho mixed-used commercial and residential project in Beijing; his proposal for the Granada Performing Arts Center in Granada, Spain; and dozens of other projects.

Kuma was born in Yokohama in 1954. He graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Tokyo in 1979, before joining the Tokyo-based corporate architectural firm Nihon Sekkei Inc. However, being determined to work for himself, he quit in 1985, spent two years doing research at Columbia University in New York City and then returned to Japan to set up his own office.

While Kuma’s first major project was the stunningly discordant M2, a car showroom still punctuating the landscape in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward that he built in concrete around a central, six-story Greek column, his work since 2000 has been characterized by understated use of natural materials such as wood and stone — and, of course, their willingness to be “defeated” by everything around.

On Oct. 22, Kuma’s latest large project, The Capitol Hotel Tokyu, will open just a stone’s throw from the Diet building in the capital’s Nagatacho district. That project, too, came with complex historical baggage, as it is next door to Hie Shrine, one of the most important in Tokyo, and its site was, for a long time after World War II, occupied by the Hilton Hotel.

Kuma’s answer was to anchor his Capitol Hotel Tokyu to the site’s stunning garden, which he not only retained but made a key feature of, too. It was on the morning of the hotel’s opening ceremony, in early September, that Kuma took time out at his Minami-Aoyama office in central Tokyo to talk to The Japan Times about the hotel, the Kabuki-za, and much more regarding his “architecture of defeat.”

I’d like to start by asking you about your current, high-profile project to rebuild the Kabuki-za in central Tokyo. What is the new Kabuki-za going to be like?

The old Kabuki-za was dearly loved by the public, so I am trying to retain a similar air but at the same time polish it a little. So there’s no change in direction per se, just a kind of brushing up of the old building.

What is going to be brushed up?

At the moment, the theater fronts on to Harumi-dori, and down the side is a small street called Kobikicho-dori, and we’re going to open up the building on that side a little more. In the old building, there was just a wall on that side. In the past, kabuki was very much a part of the life of the city, so with the new building, we are hoping to reunite it with the city once again.

So the overall appearance of the building won’t change too much.

Well, in addition to the theater itself, there’s going to be a high-rise building that is also part of the project. I have set the high-rise building back on the block as far as possible, so when you view the site from Harumi-dori, then the Kabuki-za itself will look pretty much the same as it does now.

Will we be getting a little more legroom in the new theater?

We will be making the theater a little bigger, because people’s bodies are larger than they used to be and also because people are becoming used to having more space. But I don’t want to make it too spacious. It would be boring if the Kabuki-za ended up the same as every other concert hall, so the seating will still be a little cramped. With kabuki, the sense of the theater being crowded with people is important, so we need to retain that.

With this job, I get the sense that your hands were tied in that you couldn’t really dramatically alter the appearance of the building. I can’t help thinking that many other architects would have avoided such a job, because it limited their own creative expression. Did you not think that?

I have done quite a bit of this sort of work, where I renovated or made additions to old buildings. So I know that such jobs are interesting. Sure, there are constraints, but there is also something very interesting about entering into a dialogue with the past. And when the building is completed, then people come and compare it with the old building — so they take an interest more than they otherwise might. So that element of enjoyment exists. I don’t see it as a minus at all.

I believe that you actually see such constraints as an important element in your own creative process.

Yes, any kind of architectural job involves dealing with constraints. Even if you have what appears to be a completely open space and complete freedom to build on it, the fact is that there are always some forms of constraints.

If it’s not the location’s history, then it could be the climate or what’s next door — anything. I think the most important skill an architect can have is the ability to identify the constraints that exist in the site.

You have an unusual term for your personal theory of architecture: “architecture of defeat,” or “weak architecture,” whereby an architect must allow his building to be “defeated” by the constraints imposed on it by a particular site or location.

Yes, like with the Kabuki-za — I’m losing to everyone! The old building had a very characteristic short flight of stairs straight after the entrance, and I want to incorporate that into the new design, but then the Tokyo Metropolitan Government says the theater has to be “barrier-free” so that people in wheelchairs can enter. So, I have to make compromises all the time, but the building actually benefits with each defeat.

When did you first decide that you wanted to be an architect?

The catalyst for me was the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and, in particular, architect Kenzo Tange’s National Gymnasium at Yoyogi. I saw it on television and heard him speak about it. That was when I first became aware of what an architect was. I remember thinking that it seemed to be an interesting job.

You would have been 10 years old then. What was it that seemed so impressive about architecture?

I had always liked drawing and, actually, what I really liked doing was making hakoniwa (miniature gardens). You make a small garden in a box using sand and stones and things. You can build your own little mountains and rivers.

Like making architecture models?

Yes. I remember thinking that architecture was similar to making a hakoniwa.

What did it feel like when you actually saw Tange’s gymnasium for the first time? Did it seem like it was from another world, with its roof arcing gracefully up into the sky like that?

It was extraordinary. At the time, the majority of the houses in Tokyo were built of wood, so they were generally low-rise — all horizontal lines. And for a building like that to rise up above it all was amazing.

Is it still one of your favorite buildings in Tokyo?

Of course. That and St. Mary’s Cathedral in Bunkyo Ward — which is also by Tange — are probably the two best buildings in Tokyo.

You eventually studied architecture at the University of Tokyo, then worked at Nihon Sekkei for a few years before quitting to study in the United States. Why did you go to America?

At the time, American architecture was really exciting. Young architects were challenging the dominant Modernist approach and their ideas were really taking off, so I wanted to go to the U.S. and experience that for myself.

Was there anything in particular you learned there?

I remember being surprised that architecture was seen as occupying a central position in the culture there. Even the general public seemed to be interested in architecture.

I think I toured around more than 100 houses and buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright. At a lot of them they were doing tours for the public in which guides would explain about the buildings. Listening to those guides talking with such energy and earnestness about the buildings made me realize just how much architecture is respected in American society and how it’s actually integrated with the people’s lives.

In Japan, while of course you have similar tours in Kyoto and places, in general there is not such a connection between people’s everyday lives and architecture anymore.

The other day I was driving through Setagaya Ward when I came across your M2 building. Even today it retains its air of audacity. Am I right in thinking that was your first major job?

Yes. I got that job in a competition. In about 1986 I came back from America and in 1988 I did that.

A lot of people say that M2 is very different from your current work because it is so bold, but I have read that with that design you were attempting to incorporate the chaos that is Tokyo into a building. So, in a sense, that would be consistent with your current approach — in that you were allowing the building to be “defeated” by the surrounding chaos. How do you view the M2 building now?

I think I had a lot of guts! Yes, I did want to incorporate the chaos into the building, but I also wanted to break architecture into small parts — into particles. That hasn’t changed. So, in that way, there are all sorts of elements brought together — such as the column and the walls that imitate the expressways and so on.

That idea of breaking a large mass down into particles remains important for me.

At the time of the M2 job, concrete was pretty much the only material available to me, but since then I have started to use wood and other things that allow me to break the building down even further.

That is now the most important factor I consider — breaking the materials down to a scale that is not overpowering to the visitor.

Your M2 building caused quite a controversy and, some say, led to a blank of about 10 years in your career when you did very little work in Tokyo. How did you get over that — and also manage to maintain your own office at the same time?

There was indeed a period of about 10 years when I did nothing in Tokyo. But at the time I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to work in the countryside, in natural settings.

So, after M2, I didn’t get so many job offers in Tokyo, but I did start to do work outside of the capital and that was a lot of fun. I liked traveling and meeting people in other places.

I was born in Yokohama (at the southern end of the vast greater Tokyo conurbation) and raised in this area, so I always had a kind of romantic longing for country life. I also started becoming more interested in traditional architecture and in using more organic materials.

One of those country jobs you did followed a competition you won to design the low-rise, pitch-roofed Nakagawa-machi Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art in Tochigi Prefecture, in 2000. That project was critically acclaimed, and since then you have completed several other museum commissions, two of them prominent institutions in Tokyo. The Suntory Museum of Art opened in 2007 in the Midtown development in Roppongi, and then you opened the Nezu Museum last year, in Minami-Aoyama. Would you explain something about the processes involved in making art museums like that?

The Nezu Museum in particular provided an opportunity to think about traditional Japanese architecture. I think there are a lot of hints to be found in Japanese traditional architecture. At the beginning of the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects took lots of hints from Japanese architecture — such as the idea of incorporating long horizontal lines, and the transparency between the interior and the exterior. I think there are probably lots of other hints that can be found in there, including for example the design of gardens.

With the Nezu Museum, the thing that really anchored the whole project was the garden. There always was a very nice garden there, and so making the building became a question of determining how the garden would look from here, or there, and how it would look from inside the building. And the opposite, too — how the building would look from the garden. It is very important in Japanese architecture that the building and the garden be considered as one, as being integrated.

Was it your deference to the garden that led to the building’s unique pitched roof?

Very much so. In Japan, people use the term hakomono (“box-style”) architecture as a derogatory term to refer in particular to the many public museums that were built during the bubble economy in the late 1980s. I started wondering to myself why they would call architecture that they don’t like “box-style,” and I decided it was because the buildings generally didn’t have pitched or otherwise prominent roofs. I think the fact that a box has negative connotations indicates that the people actually like roofs — that if a building has a roof, it actually encourages a sense of ease and comfort with respect to the building.

But the design of a roof is very difficult. If you put a roof that is too high on a building, then all of a sudden it looks like someone who is wearing a funny hat. With the Nezu Museum, I thought from the outset that I wanted a roof, but I wanted it to be as low as possible. I wanted it to be like the roof is almost connected to the ground. And then, when you do that, the eaves give you nice shadows and also frame the view — of the garden in this case.

Another important aspect of the roof in that building is that you reveal its shape from the inside, too. There is no horizontal ceiling, so people can see the pitched roof from the inside.

Yes, that’s right. In contemporary multistory buildings, the standard model is to have flat-ceilinged floors piled on top of each other. If you don’t do that, then it is less efficient. But I think everyone is getting a bit sick of that flat-ceilinged pattern. One of the good things about old Japanese houses is that you could sense the presence of the roof from inside the house. There was a thing called a kakikomi tenjo, which meant that a portion of the ceiling would be left sloping at an angle — tracing the angle of the pitched roof.

If you show people the roof, then they get a sense that they are connected directly with the ground. The connection with the ground is actually felt through the existence of the roof. If you have a flat ceiling, then you have no idea how close you are to the ground. So the exposed roof in the Nezu Museum actually tells people that they are on the ground.

Another of your current projects in which the garden is very important is The Capitol Hotel Tokyu, which opens later this month in Nagatacho, Tokyo. The hotel is on the site occupied since 1963 by the Tokyo Hilton before its ownership changed in 1983 and it was renamed the Capitol Tokyu Hotel.

It is also next door to Hie Shrine, which is one of the most important shrines in Tokyo, and the woodland surrounding the shrine extends onto the hotel grounds. Also, part of the interior for the old Hilton/Capitol Tokyu Hotel was done by Isoya Yoshida, an architect whom I greatly respect and who, incidentally, also did the old Kabuki-za that I am now redeveloping. I like the idea of making architecture that doesn’t entirely erase what our predecessors did before us.

A lot of new hotels have opened over the last few years in Tokyo, but almost none has a garden or a pond. I wanted to make a hotel that allowed you to actually sense the presence of the garden. I think The Capitol Hotel Tokyu has ended up like that.

When I saw that you’d been asked to do that hotel job, which involves the construction of a high-rise tower, and then the Kabuki-za, which also involves a high-rise tower, it occurred to me that it is very rare for Japanese architects operating their own offices — like yourself or Tadao Ando or Toyo Ito — to be asked to design high-rise complexes in Tokyo. Why is that?

Ah, yes, it is rare, isn’t it? I guess Japanese architects are better respected overseas than they are in Japan. In Japan, I think we’re not really trusted. Japanese society is a society that respects people who are employed in large companies, so architects like me who are working for themselves aren’t really trusted.

How did you approach doing a high-rise in Tokyo such as The Capitol Hotel Tokyu?

It’s a high-rise building, but in the facade I wanted to retain the same kind of appearance that you have in low-rise architecture. For example, I am using stone in the facade and that meant doing a lot of research into how we could cut the stone very thinly into cladding. I did a lot of experiments for that in residences and so on. So I applied that approach to the high-rise.

Another of your jobs I’d like to ask about is by no means a high-rise, but it has gained attention because some members of the community think it is too high. I am referring to the seven-story Asakusa Tourist Information Center, which in its current plans resembles several traditional pitch-roofed houses stacked on top of each other. I believe debate over the design is still going on. What is happening right now?

Well, you know people said it was too high, but in fact there are a lot of buildings around it that are actually higher. I don’t like the sort of boring, straight “pencil towers” that are so common in Tokyo, so we wanted to do something different from that. What we decided was to try to retain the roof culture of old-style Tokyo architecture in a medium-rise building. As a result of the debate, we are now in the process of revising the plan so that it is a little lower in height.

That building in Asakusa will be an information center for tourists visiting Japan, I believe, so I guess its objective is to be a showcase of Japanese culture and also architecture. Were you strongly conscious of that when you designed it?

Yes, that was the most important point. But we wanted to showcase Japanese architecture in the exterior of the building as well as the interior. Hence we chose the stack-of-houses design, which would highlight the role of roofs in traditional architecture.

Present-day building technology makes this sort of design possible. So, for that reason, the building wouldn’t just be retrospective in nature but also prospective, too. It would show how Japanese tradition can be made to integrate with technology and the future.

How many overseas projects are you working on at the moment?

More than half our work now is overseas. We’re doing about 50 projects in total at the moment, and we are working in 15 different countries in total.

One of your current overseas jobs is the Granada Performing Arts Center, in the southern Spanish city of Granada. The building has an extraordinary honeycomb shape. How did you arrive at that?

That’s a performing arts center that is primarily for opera. With halls like that, it is very easy for them to end up being box-shaped. So we had to think about how we could avoid that. The solution we arrived at was to divide the surface up into particles — the idea actually started from a consideration of roofs. The building is a series of roofs, folded and connected together.

Also, the building has a hexagonal shape, which comes from the Alhambra, the fortress-palace built in the hills overlooking the city by the 14th-century Moorish rulers. I’ve also tried to incorporate 60-degree geometry, rather than 90-degree geometry, as that is common in Islamic architecture.

So now your buildings are being “defeated” by Islamic architecture, too!

Yes, that’s right. I really like the Alhambra, and so I wanted to incorporate that into the building.

Considering your architecture involves such give-and-take with the particular site, you must find it a challenge to go to a totally new country to work.

Not really. Even in Japan, if you work in Niigata (in the north) and then in Kyushu (in the south), then those two regions are in fact completely different. In China, working in Shanghai is completely different from working in Beijing. So what’s important is not the country but the actual location — that’s the most important thing when you’re doing architecture. Of course, it’s essential that you have to actually go there yourself to see the site. Photographs are never enough.

Is there anywhere in particular you’d like to work next?

For me, the most interesting thing is to work somewhere I have never worked before, somewhere with a set of constraints and specifics that I’ve never come across. The other day I entered a competition to design a museum in the Scottish town of Dundee. What an exotic place that was!

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