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Interview with Kengo Kuma: there's no freedom in architecture

by Leona Liu on Jun 5, 2017 in Architecture , Top Story
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Kengo Kuma

Kengo Kuma

Respectful, insightful and humble, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma talks about the dispute over the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium, the lack of freedom in architecture, and his idol Frank Lloyd Wright

Kengo Kuma arrives in Hong Kong at 5am on the day we sit down together, a pitstop en route to more meetings in Beijing and Shanghai. Arriving exactly on time, the renowned architect is dressed in simple, solemn style — black-satin lapel suit paired with a crisp white pleated collarless shirt — and says a friendly hello to the crew. He's chatting on his mobile while the photographer sets up, but once our conversation begins, Kuma (who's responsible for the design of Tokyo's 2020 National Olympic Stadium) puts the phone completely out of sight.

Tokyo's Takaosanguchi Station features a grand roof made of wood, signalling the railroad as both modern infrastructure and part of the natural environment

His first thoughts are on the city he is in at this moment: "I like the density of Hong Kong," he says. "You can see this in Tokyo too, where you can find 500 small villages and each has its own uniqueness. It's a close, deep composition of community."

He is aware he remains extra-hot news. The decision to select his design for Tokyo's new National Stadium came following the 2015 scrapping of Zaha Hadid's initial controversial plan to build what would have been the most expensive stadium ever. The media has made much of Kuma's proposal since — a three-tiered, 80,000-seat wooden lattice structure located on the site of Kenzo Tange's now-demolished 1964 Tokyo Olympic Stadium.

The Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum in Japan features the cantilever structures often employed in traditional architecture in Japan and China, but here uses small components to achieve sustainability

The Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum in Japan features the cantilever structures often employed in traditional architecture in Japan and China, but here uses small components to achieve sustainability

In direct contrast to Hadid's original design, Kuma has proposed a structure as low as possible, which uses natural materials to create a sense of harmony and is respectful of the neighbourhood in which it is set. Reflecting upon the controversy surrounding the issue, Kuma says that despite the outcome, he nonetheless has the utmost regard for Hadid's concept.

"I respect [her] design," he says. "Independently, the building is a beautiful structure, but with its height and unusual form, it ignored the condition of its place and the harmony between the building and its site."

The Japanese-born and educated architect believes the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are not for an industrial age, but the ecological era: "In the past, designing Olympic stadia tended to be about creating a symbol for such a monumental event, but the 2020 Olympics should be about harmony; thus, the architecture should be in harmony with the environment, instead of being symbolic."

The Great (Bamboo) Wall in Beijing is Kuma's first project in China. Filtering natural light, the walls create complex shadows responsive to the surroundings

The Great (Bamboo) Wall in Beijing is Kuma's first project in China. Filtering natural light, the walls create complex shadows responsive to the surroundings

In choosing materials, assorted woods from across Japan have been selected to showcase the country's rich, natural heritage and cultural diversity, while local craftsmen have also been employed. "Showing off the strength of locality is very important; it is something far more crucial than economic value," says Kuma.

Rocked by the earthquake in 2011, the Japanese design community — which has long realised how manmade structures can be easily destroyed by nature, and that real strength does not come from concrete or hardware — renewed its emphasis on communication within the community. It is an ideology which Kuma has conveyed in his designs, books and lectures at universities worldwide.

Born in Yokohama in Japan's Kanagawa Prefecture, Kuma graduated in architecture from the University of Tokyo in 1979, where he is now a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture.

The Alberni by Kuma, currently under construction in downtown Vancouver, features a bold and fluid shape and deep in-between spaces

The Alberni by Kuma, currently under construction in downtown Vancouver, features a bold and fluid shape and deep in-between spaces

Before establishing Kengo Kuma & Associates in Tokyo in 1990, he travelled extensively around the countryside of Japan, establishing his first practice Spatial Design Studio in 1987.

This is an excerpt from the “A gift for harmony" article from the June 2017 issue of Perspective magazine.

To continue reading, get your copy of Perspective.

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