Despite having few projects in the United States, Kengo Kuma has a passionate following among American students and practitioners for his subtly refined interpretation of organic and environmentally inspired designs. Following a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania last fall, Kuma talked to Ariel Genadt about his writings and experiments in erasing architecture, reservations about American building today, response to the tsunami in Japan, and recent commission to oversee an expansion of the 1967 Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon.
Ariel Genadt: In 2000, you published Anti-Object, promoting the provocative idea of “the dissolution and disintegration of architecture” as exemplified by your work in the 1990s. How did this idea come about?
Kengo Kuma: The idea was born as the result of Japan’s economic slump in the 1990s. I opened my practice in 1986, and in the following several years I managed to design some monumental architecture in Tokyo. However, in the 1990s, I had no jobs in Tokyo, which led me to work in more “natural” environments in the provinces, designing small buildings that could match them. These experiences formed the basis for Anti-Object.
What do you mean by dissolving buildings into an environment that is constantly changing?
“Environment” is a wide concept that incorporates both natural and urban surroundings. And naturally, the environment itself changes every day. For a site in a city, my architecture aims to merge into its urban setting. I don’t worry about the change of the environment, because I always try to make the building as flexible as it can be to embrace variety.
After visiting Columbia University in 1985, you published Good-Bye Postmodern—11 American Architects, a critique of postmodernist architecture of the time. Now that you have completed your first built work in the United States—a residence in New Canaan, Connecticut—do you feel differently about American architecture?
Back in 1985, America was still full of confidence. Now it feels as if the country is confused and has lost its self-assurance. Our house for New Canaan is more like Japan than America. Nearby is Philip Johnson’s Glass House, which stands on a platform, designed in the “classical” modernist American style. Our work has no platform, no center, and everything floats in the forest.
You have written that you wish to see architecture and landscape design fusing into one, with the traditional Japanese gardener as an inspiration working from within the garden, in continuity with place. In approaching the expansion of the Portland Japanese Garden, do you identify with the gardener-designer model?
The “gardening” work style is very much the way we approach projects. I have worked with a number of landscape designers, but I wasn’t impressed with the way they designed because to me it looked as if they were forcing their compositions onto nature. Gardeners, on the contrary, try to learn from nature, and I would like to work like that in the project for Portland.
In your 2010 essay “Studies in Organic,” it appears that among the Modern architects you are most inspired by is Frank Lloyd Wright. How does your definition of organic architecture differ from Wright’s?
As I understand it, what Wright aimed at in his organic architecture was a living creature-like architecture, rather than organ-like. My organic architecture is inspired by living creatures, rather than by organs, so there is little difference with Wright. What distinguishes us is that whereas Wright considered a creature a self-complete system, for me it means some kind of incomplete flow, totally dependent on the outside world.
In the same essay, you addressed the “Bilbao Effect,” writing, “To B or not to B?” You recently won the prestigious competition for the design of the Victoria & Albert Museum at Dundee, Scotland. The clients are keen on repeating a Bilbao Effect for their city. How do you intend to preclude the reading of the new museum as an object and still satisfy the client’s desire for an architectural icon?
I do not deny that iconic architecture can revive and regenerate the city. But an icon as a self-expression of the architect won’t be loved by its local people in the long run. Instead, I believe that a “natural icon”—born from a dialogue between the architect and the location—will be favored by everyone. This is what we want to see in the project of V&A at Dundee.
Your most celebrated works in Japan are made of natural stone, while the Dundee museum will feature reconstituted stone. Some of your assemblage details seem to defy what stone “wants,” to use Louis Kahn’s expression. Would it be fair to say that makes the building appear as artifice/object?
In every single project we work on there exists a limit to the budget, and natural materials are not necessarily usable. For the V&A, we were inspired by the masonry architecture of Scotland, which is made of grayish stones. Spreading a massive, naked texture of concrete is not what we do. I think that using reconstituted stones also represents our respect to nature.
You have explained that economic troubles in Japan turned out to be an opportunity for architectural innovation. Elsewhere you commented on how the Japanese have historically had to build in a sustainable manner and use resources carefully because of Japan’s isolation. Do you think the current financial crisis in the U.S. can also lead to innovative architecture?
Japan has always generated new cultures taking advantage of crises, such as natural disasters or political chaos. For example, confusion in the wake of the Onin War (1467–77) contributed to a rich culture of Higashiyama in Kyoto, from which the origin of today’s tea ceremony and the art of ikebana emerged. [Both of them were developed with the idea of sustainable design.] In the same manner, I believe that the current issues of economic or environmental crisis are full of potential to foster new designs. People’s attention to the use of natural and local materials in architecture, not concrete and steel, may be a sign of movement.
The tsunami in Japan raised the eternal question of architecture that conveys an image of firmness and stability when the reality is that buildings yield to nature’s great forces. Should buildings reflect that reality?
The tsunami told us that however strong concrete-made buildings may be, they cannot counter the power of nature. In the old days, small Japanese wood houses looked flimsy, but they had in fact been designed taking well into account their environmental conditions through the clever choice of sites, their flexible structure to fence off natural forces, and so on. Our principle and approach in the “cloud”-like designs is to make full use of such wisdom of our ancestors and grow out of fortress-like architecture in concrete.