Akira Kuzumi, superstar plaster craftsman

Japan remains the global apex of plaster and earth construction, a tradition which is as ephemeral as the people who carry it. There are no factories, no processing plants, no industry lobbies, no supply chains, no professional codes. There is an impressive range of trowels and spatulas of different sizes and forms, but that’s it. The rest is muscle memory.

Akira Kuzumi is the godfather of earth, the country’s most respected craftsman, and something of a celebrity, appearing on television regularly to ply his trade. Now in his sixties, he also transmits his knowledge abroad through workshops and teaching at Aachen and Grenoble. His sons Naoki and Kousuke Kuzumi are following in his footsteps, even snapping at his heels in terms of recognition. Kuzumi is as agile and alert as one could imagine for someone who spends his life in a delicate ballet with base matter. He is generous, funny, transparent and without angle or edge concerning the projects he undertakes, which might range from amazing faux marble in a luxury hotel lobby to the hairy adobe bricks which give all the character and quality to Kengo Kuma’s Buddha statue repository.

He has moved recently from an extravagant complex of buildings on Awaji island to a modest house half an hour west of Kyoto in an area of renowned pottery craft. His house may be the only register of a design ego -otherwise he’s a hired gun, a servant. It is curvaceous and clean, with lively tilework made by his partner. It is also rather remote, set against a forest grove. I expected to see a large studio, but -obviously- guys like Kuzumi carry their workshop in their head and limbs: materials are sourced close to the building site, there is not stock, no machinery, only a small tool chest.

He showed us one particularly impressive local project nearing completion, a showroom for Tachikuiyaki potter Imai-san in Sasayama. This is a departure from his usual work through its sheer massiveness: its earth walls are up to a metre thick. Not rammed (as might be more common for structures of this size), it was piled up in strata, using a dry mix and plenty of straw to control the inevitable cracking of such thick walls. The principal tool was a big wooden paddle used to smack the earth into shape. There may have been some kind of architectural plan, but one can only imagine that the building was shaped a bit like an animal’s nest, drawn with the feet and enveloped around the body. The building possesses the fluid character of Zaha Hadid’s work, walls morphing into ledges, complex three-dimensional transitions all around, hardly a right angle in the place; but it is at the absolute opposite pole of Hadid’s icy dematerialism: it’s as if it was sculpted directly by a very large hand, like the marvellous pottery it is designed to show. The roof structure -projecting cypress purlins with a membrane covered in moss and stones- is insubstantial by contrast. Doors are made of 15 centimetre thick solid cypress boards. No-one lives in this building; one might wonder -were this the case- how the massive envelope, regulating humidity and heat- could be associated with a roof playing the same game.

Until there are squadrons of Kuzumi-sans in Europe it’s impossible to imagine the transmission of this kind of techntonics. Kuzumi is sceptical -despite regular presence as a teacher- of the possibility of transmitting his trade effectively abroad; it’s just too much about action and application, and falling short in this respect means not actually getting started at all.

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