Kengo Kuma’s international celebrity and astonishing quantity of commissions has -in my opinion- generated a simplistic and false view of him as a kind of ambassador of ‘typical’ Japanese qualities, like good soy sauce or Urushi lacquer ware from Wajima. In fact he is a far more complex individual, emerging from a kind of internal exile which saw him pit himself against the generation of his masters, particularly Isozaki and Shinohara, a stance which he has since maintained in a manner which might (with his increasing influence) appear reactionary, but which is in fact quite radical. It is no coincidence that his cultural frame of reference is not predominantly local, including Wilde and Valery and the recurrent figure of Bruno Taut, someone who was lost in European Modernism but found himself as a ‘stranger’ in Japan. Kuma’s Jesuit high school education is still detectable in his grace, understated presence and gently laconic manner. He has suffered an accident -having his right hand almost cut off by a collapsing glass drafting table- which has the hallmarks of the mythological, attacking his talent, handicapping his ease at drawing, forcing him to look rather than express.
For an international superstar he distinguishes himself most strongly by his insistence on taking on small commissions -shops and restaurant interiors, tiny pavilions, small houses- which would not remotely figure on the business plan algorithm of his peers (Herzog and de Meuron might be an arguable, occasional exception). These smaller projects serve (as they did often for Louis Kahn) as test-beds for larger schemes, and usually involve experimentation at prototype scale prior to resolving any project drawings. It should be said that they are often more compelling and more intensely intelligent than his much larger schemes. He himself credits the economic downturn of the 1990s as having positively shaped his career by forcing him to experiment far beyond Tokyo on a range of modest projects, which brought him into contact with vernacular architecture and craftsmen unfazed by the otherworldly megalopolis.
His offices near Omotesando are perhaps not what one might expect from the author of the limpid, exquisite Nezu Museum: slightly cramped, busy, full of overflowing models and energy, his own room a glass eyrie with a panoramic view of the Tokyo skyline. This room, centred around a large glass table -which might be tempting fate a bit- is crammed with an eclectic collection of modernist chairs by Mies, Eames and Hoffman, as well as a prototype of a chidori frame, the children’s game of interlocking sticks which he has developed at a large scale in several projects like the Prostho Museum Research Centre (2010). It’s as if he sees himself at the table with a broad cast of characters, rather than as master of all he surveys.
We began with small-talk about my presence in Japan and my nearly-complete CLT and bamboo theatre near Calais. Wood was the agreed topic of our conversation:
AT: After three weeks here it’s clear to me that Japan has a very different attitude towards wood than Europe; I see far more massive and untreated timber, and far less transformed or laminated product. As an architect based in both places (but obviously emerging from one), how do you position yourself in this respect?
KK: I started early using composite wood products such as glulam in Japan, and have pushed for the introduction of cross-laminated timber in Japan. We wanted to use it with post and beam for our Asakusa tower’s structure but the regulations were not in place in time. I have personally pushed the wood industry here to develop this material and the Japanese Government is accompanying this trend. I am planning to use it initially for a music school, drawing on its acoustic benefits and atmosphere. Glulam is very similar between Europe and Japan. However, projects such as Sunnyhills and the Starbucks shop (in cypress) would not be possible to make in this way in Europe, we would have to increase international trade in these species, as well as craft know-how.
Kengo Kuma's Asakusa tower
AT: Fire obviously knows no borders, but regulations are very culturally defined. How does Japan stand out in this respect?
KK: French and Chinese fire regulations are easier than in Japan, where intumescent paints and varnishes are not allowed. We have traumas and natural disasters in our country which influence people’s confidence about these questions. I am trying to push for relaxation of these conditions. M. Hayashi, the former Minister of Agriculture, came at my invitation to Tokyo University to talk about these questions (in English for one hour). His dynamism is not necessarily matched by the officials around him, but I hope the situation will evolve.
Cypress lumber in sawmill, Wajima
AT: So do you think we should organise internationally as a profession to share expertise and to harmonise production and regulation across cultures? Should we form a sort of international wood union?
KK: Yes we should. I have been doing this recently in China regarding bamboo and rattan, where there is strong government support for these questions. I met the Chinese Ambassador to Japan today and he knows that movement very well and works to support it.
AT: It’s an obvious question, but I would be interested to hear in your own words why you keep coming back to wood in your work.
KK: I was born in a small wooden house, a very flexible building which we expanded over time, we changed the partitions very easily. I still remember the smell of the house, obviously very different from a concrete apartment. I studied at an elementary school of wood as well, something which hardly exists any more. I really want to go back to Tokyo as it was before the second world war, a city with a low silhouette, an amazing street activity. This is the basis of Japanese culture. The Japanese mentality is based on this kind of intimate city: culture, space and material are very much related. Now that we have the cityscape you see through my office window, this totally changes the mentality and the way of thinking. It’s not good for Japan, our sensitivities, our delicacy are killed by concrete. This is my motivation.
AT: There is also a social dimension given that anybody can lift, can cut, can fix a piece of wood, it is a material that is socially ‘open.’ In relation to your writings on the organic, does the living character of wood bring this quality?
KK: Of course.
AT: One paradox of cross-laminated timber is that it requires a very high level of industrialisation, not so much to produce but to certify for structural use, which is a very heavy process for each country. As a consequence it often involves moving product quite far. France, for example, is one the biggest consumers, but has almost no production infrastructure, it all comes from Germany and Austria. There is a problem of local scale.
KK: This needs to evolve, architects should play a role in this so that we are less dependent on big companies. More broadly, other architects are fascinated with big things, I prefer the agency of small things. I am influenced by Bruno Latour’s writings on Rem Koolhaas in this regard and on actor network theory in general. My work is very often generated by the character and relation of particles -by which I mean small units of material, not atomic particles. How small things are combined matters very much to me.