The work of Kengo Kuma covers nearly 30 years of practice and is well known all over the world thanks to his prolific, geographically diverse and photogenic body of built works.
He was born in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1954 and graduated in 1979 at the University of Tokyo.
His strong and irreducible passion for architecture was born casually at the age of 10, a day around 1964, when his father (an architect as well) took him for a visit at Kenzo Tange’s Olympic Gymnasium for the Tokyo’s Olympics. He remained truly astonished in front of an outstanding building, so diverse from all the others, but, at the same time, so Japanese. Kenzo Tange knew well how to build Japanese symbols through the then-current technology and for all of his career, he tried to combine Japanese traditions with a contemporary vocabulary and this way of working has generated the turning point of Kengo Kuma and the main reason why he wanted to become an aspiring architect.
But what could we say about his own architecture? What are the themes that we can individuate, despite the enormous difference between every project?
Kengo Kuma is a member of the so-called Fourth generation of Japanese architects of 1900s, considering the First generation with Kenzo Tange as the leader, the Second generation in which we can find names such as Arata Isozaki and Fumihiko Maki and the Third generation with Toyo Ito and Tadao Ando through the others.
Kengo Kuma’s conception of architecture is very peculiar and refined: he thinks of architecture not as a sculptural object, but instead as a fluid spatial medium that connects to our environment and constantly changes. According to him, architecture needs to be dissolved into the landscape in order to be in harmony with the place in which is made, but at the same time, it has never to forget about its roots and references. History and landscape are two key themes in all his work and also the leitmotiv which permits to see a continuity in the wide disparities in context, scale and tectonic expression.
Kengo Kuma started working on his own in 1987 with the “Spacial Design Studio”, which, three years later, in 1990, became “Kengo Kuma & Associates”, one of the biggest architectural offices in Japan with more than 200 architects and designers and over 100 developed projects.
Through his work, we can find simple structures in wood, stone and earth, traditional materials re-interpreted in a contemporary way. The purpose is in common: the extreme coherence with the context and the aim of using as much as possible materials produced and manufactured directly on site.
For what concerns the experiential side of his architectures, we need to say a particular word, difficult to translate directly: Komorebi.
Komorebi literally means forest of lights and it represents the kind of dappled, flickering light that filters through tree canopies in a light breeze, producing a kind of magical, lively environment below, ephemeral and ever-changing. The film director Akira Kurosawa was very fond of this kind of light and it played an important narrative role in many of his films and, similarly, Kengo Kuma has this spectacular effect in mind, this kind of vibrating light: interiors enclosed in layers of glass, metal, wood and bamboo screens. We can find in these places a spiritual quality of liveliness, iki in Japanese, which reminds us of the passage of time and change.
We can think for example at one of his projects, such as the Nakagawa-Machi Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art (1998-2000) to see the concretization of Kuma’s themes. Here he wanted to disclose a strict relationship between building and nature, so he made it by choosing only local wood and by thinking to the main entrance as a hole which frames nature behind, that a visitor can actually see since his arrival. That hole is the real connection between the town and nature, between the mountain and the civilized society. It’s clearly a building that can stay only there.
We can see the intention of dissolving architecture into the landscape with a delicate “super-juxtaposition layers”, using the words of the architect.
Wood has also a great impact on his works, we can think of the Gc Museum in Aichi, Japan, or the Sunny Hills building in Tokyo. Everytime Kuma reinvents his idea of structure in collaboration with engineers for new solutions.
Changing the context, he radically changes the language in order to maintain a coherence with the place. Even though the building seems unusual at first sight, at a deeper study it is possible to see how it communicates with the place and how it works as a fluid able to hosts life and changes with it.
– K. Kuma, Anti-Object, The Dissolution and Disintegration of Architecture, Architectural Association, 2008
– Conference “From Concrete to Wood: why Wood matters”, Harvard Graduate School, November 7, 2016
– L. Alini, Kengo Kuma, Opere e Progetti, Electa Mondadori, Milano, 2005
Kengo Kuma & Associates – Commune by the Great Wall Hotel, Beijing, China, 2003