In Praise of Ambivalence

In Praise of Ambivalence

Lotus House in Eastern Japan.
Daici Ano

Kengo Kuma—Complete Works
By Kenneth Frampton and Kengo Kuma
Thames & Hudson, $65

For over two decades, Kengo Kuma has been investigating the possibility of allying ideas from traditional Japanese architecture with contemporary technology. The nuances and tensions inherent to his endeavors unfold in Complete Works through Kenneth Frampton’s critical essay and the architect’s project descriptions. While the copious photographic survey draws the reader onto a soothing journey through serene landscapes, delicate structures, and immaculate interiors, much lurks beneath the surface. The buildings organized under a material taxonomy are in fact complex hybrids, poised between the expression of crafted wood, bamboo, stone, adobe, or ceramic and the concealment of steel and concrete skeletons. Their non-chronological grouping sets this volume apart from other Kuma monographs, providing topical insight on methods of subjugating materials to the architect’s design philosophy. The artful black and white photos that punctuate the color catalog echo Junichiro Tanizaki’s likening of the play of light and shadows in traditional Japanese rooms to ink-wash paintings. Similarly, these astutely cropped scenes, often blurred or veiled in vegetation, “dematerialize” matter, accentuate light patterns, temperatures, and textures, and impart an ambiguous atmosphere.

Water/Glass in Shizuoka, Japan (left). Z58 in Shanghai, China (right).
Mitsumasa Fujitsuka

Frampton identifies ambivalence as a theme in Kuma’s work, inspired by Zygmunt Bauman’s argument that the negotiation between creativity and normative regulation makes “culture” inherently ambivalent, and productively so. This theme is manifest, for example, in the remarkable GC Prostho Research Center, where a delicate lattice of interlocking wood bars proved to be self-supporting, but seismic codes imposed that it be coupled with a massive concrete core that attenuates the sublime effect of repetition ad-infinitum of its units. This conflict was already present in the Hiroshige Museum, where the envelope’s slender fir slats and diaphanous washi-lined screens dissimulate a robust shear wall. These examples demonstrate how Japan’s climate and geology compel her architects to make explicit their approach to the expression of firmitas in architecture. Kuma’s antagonism to Tadao Ando’s concrete “shelters” was visceral, and his strategies are reminiscent of the one adopted in Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo City Hall (1952–57) with its “service core” liberating the envelope from seismic considerations. Kuma sees in the representation of stability a manifestation of “an arrogant, corrupt society” and seeks an architecture that eschews such false pretenses. His designs seem to relinquish resistance to the powers of nature, celebrating softness, warmth, thinness, translucence, fragility, and decay, and spurning the aggressive Japanese city and the anonymity of its suburban milieu.

GC Prostho Museum in Kasugai, Aichi, Japan.
Daici Ano

With his usual acumen, Frampton points to various other manifestations of ambivalence in Kuma’s oeuvre. His analysis of the Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum is particularly insightful, noting how this “exceptionally rhetorical work” wavers between theatricality and the tectonic expression of the “brilliantly engineered” timber-bracketing. He seems to welcome the architect’s passion for understanding the “poetics of construction” as an expression of regional culture, yet his own ambivalence to Kuma’s tendency to buck the tide of rationalism and avoid pure tectonic expression is manifest at certain moments. He seems more at ease with what he calls an “increasingly phenomenological dimension” of the work than with the theatrical aspects he qualifies as “arcane,” “sleight of hand,” “conceit,” and “hallucinatory.” It is all the more interesting then that Kuma should acknowledge that “these works would never have come into existence had I not listened to [Frampton’s] lectures for the first time in 1985 and been exposed to his powerful, faultless argument.”

Museum of Wisdom in Chendu, China (left). Nakagawa-machi Bato Hiroshige Museum in Nasu, Tochigi, Japan (right).
Daici Ano; Taku Hata

In this volume, Kuma’s accounts of his most significant buildings since 1995 invariably invoke principles of Japanese tradition, including the common leitmotifs of layered interface between interior and exterior, staggered plans and access paths, “bridges,” and “gateways.” If they seem at times as contrived rationalizations of rather universal designs, this may be due to “the Japonization of world architecture,” as Reyner Banham put it in his famous essay (1984). In any case, Kuma’s interpretations of traditional concepts are enlightening and testify to his savvy for sourcing and embracing a full range of techniques. Thus for example, while the yamizo fir slats in the Hiroshige Museum were treated with infrared radiation to remove the pit membranes that function as capillary valves, at Takayanagi washi paper was waterproofed by soaking it in konnyaku potato starch and persimmon juice. While Frampton relates some of the works to the Japanese vernacular milieu, helpful connections might have been drawn to other 20th-century architects who offered distinctive twists on traditional practice, like Antonin Raymond in the 1920s or Teronobu Fujimori today.

Considering that Kuma’s built œuvre consists of 150 completed works and over 100 more in various stages of design worldwide, the publisher’s odd choice of title—Complete Works—hints at a catalog more exhaustive than its actual content. Happily, Kuma’s thoughtful selection of twenty-five exquisite buildings for this volume precludes the overwhelming effect of other encyclopedic publications. This important opus brings convincing evidence that embracing the ambivalence inherent to a negotiation between tradition and contemporary technology, and between normative regulation and creativity, is key to architecture’s pertinence to culture.