Superficially, the practices of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and Hong Kong interior designer Steve Leung are very different: the former specialises in light, ethereal buildings made from natural materials that blend with their natural environment, while the latter made his name with smart, stylish, restrained, contemporary interior designs. But both of them have a long-standing – in Kuma's case, career-defining – interest in the contemporary reinterpretation of traditional local forms. In that context, their collaboration on high-end Causeway Bay Japanese restaurant Ta-ke makes perfect sense.
"We've known each other maybe six or eight years, but we always meet at events and only talk to each other briefly," says Leung. "But Kuma-san has always been one of the architects from Asia I respect most. So, when we got this project of the new Ta-ke restaurant, I thought about working together with another designer to provide new inspiration and energy, I thought of him as the only choice. We were not sure he would want to accept this invitation, but to our surprise he accepted almost immediately."
Newly relocated to Lee Garden Two, seven-year-old Ta-ke is owned by 1957 & Co., of which Leung is chairman and a non-executive director. The company has opened 11 restaurants over the past seven years, all designed by Leung, with lighting, as at Ta-ke, by Tino Kwan. The new design divides the restaurant into five zones, each styled after a particular part of a traditional Japanese courtyard. The design includes a white-pebble landscape, for instance. The zones are linked by stone pathways and screened by partitions made of bamboo, Kuma's most commonly used material. The designers used locally sourced bamboo, which Kuma says is ideal in colour and shape.
Bamboo plays an important role in both Japanese and Chinese culture, and can create a link between them
"For this restaurant, I was inspired by the name," he says. "Ta-ke means 'bamboo' in Japanese, and it's one of my favourite materials. It plays an important role in both Japanese and Chinese culture, and can create a link between them. I want to show the many possibilities of bamboo; it can create a space that's very calm and quiet.
"We want to bring the idea of outdoor space into the building. The restaurant has different corners, or pavilions, and for each one we applied unique details. The floor is very important for creating the atmosphere of outdoors. We used rough-textured stone to create a path like one in a garden that leads people to each pavilion. And we also used the bamboo screens, and the sense of exposure they provide can give a sense of the exterior to customers."
The breakdown of responsibilities between the two designers on the project was pretty straightforward: Kuma was responsible for the concept and design, while Leung's team took care of matters such as sticking to the brief, complying with regulations and site inspections. "He knows our design vocabulary very well and I like his work very much," says Kuma of his collaborator. "Steve's team has achieved amazing quality with every material and detail; some of it is better than Japanese quality."
The two designers enjoyed their collaboration so much, in fact, that they're planning to work together again, and are currently discussing a project in Japan
Kuma has long favoured designs that blend into their surroundings rather than dominating them. His is an architecture based around nature and community, with both environment and human use shaping his designs far more than abstract notions of form. His buildings emphasise lightness and, for many years, he has never knowingly designed a solid wall; instead he prefers slices or lattices that allow light to permeate, effacing the building's presence.
It wasn't always that way. He started his career with rather showy postmodernist designs, such as the zany mishmash of Tokyo's M2 building , but became increasingly interested in natural materials and the work of traditional craftsmen during the 1990s. Since then he has been responsible for landmark buildings including the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo, the LVMH Japan Headquarters in Osaka, and perhaps the world's most aesthetically pleasing Starbucks, in Fukuoka. Projects in China have included one of his best known, the Great Bamboo Wall near Beijing, as well as The Opposite House hotel in the capital.
His biggest and highest-pressure commission, however, came when he was selected to take over the 2020 Tokyo Olympic stadium. His design replaced Zaha Hadid's, which was cancelled over spiralling costs, and that he and other Japanese architects such as Toyo Ito had publicly criticised on the grounds that its imposin g monumentality was unsuited to the wooded site. His replacement is far more modest in height, supplanting Hadid's alien spaceship with a low-riding, three-tiered, wooden lattice structure.
As someone who favours lightness and transparency, it might be an aesthetic challenge to visit Hong Kong, a place with among the world's heaviest, most industrial architectural environments. But Kuma prefers to take a positive view: "My philosophy can be applied in a big, dense city like Hong Kong," he says. "In that sort of place, people still want to live with nature. For example, a bamboo screen can filter natural light in a very sophisticated way and can completely change an indoor environment.
"Hong Kong is one of the best examples of a multifunctional city: different functions and different cultures are all totally mixed together in a small space. And people like to walk on the street. That can be a model for the 21st century; Hong Kong is a kind of future city.
"For holidays, I come to Hong Kong – to enjoy the food and life on the street. The human use of space can give me many hints; very few things can be learned from buildings and architecture, but lots from human use." Human use has always been central to Leung's work, too. Early in his career his sophisticated, functional interiors work went against the prevailing maximalist trend, although his work was never quite as minimalist as sometimes billed.
I had always been mesmerised by the beauty of both architecture and interior design
"In 1997 when I worked on my first show-flat project, most of the luxurious flats were designed in Western classical style, while I adopted a contemporary approach with natural elements," he says. "It was new to the market but was unexpectedly well received. That was how I embarked on an interior design career." Born in Kowloon City, Leung started his career at Wong & Ouyang, and also worked for the government's Buildings Ordinance Office, now the Buildings Department.
He set up his own architecture practice in 1987 and then set up two separate companies in 1997, one concentrating on architecture and the other on design; he has ended up focusing almost exclusively on the latter.
"I had always been mesmerised by the beauty of both architecture and interior design," he says. "At that time, interior design was regarded as a side service, but I believe it is much more than that. Developing the interior design business has to do with my personality as well. It is a vibrant and challenging industry. I always like taking up challenges, and I enjoy being in a dynamic environment and appreciate details in daily life."
Making his name in hotels, he's since diversified into everything from F&B and retail to furniture design. His work now appears in more than 100 cities around the world, and he employs more than 400 staff in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. His work is also known for its subtle expressions of Chinese culture, and he says that the elegance and harmony of Japanese design have long been an inspiration, too.
"I love Japan and their designs – minimal, elegant and functional. It is my way of living as well: neat and organised, concise and refined. My first interior design project was rather contemporary and minimal, and I am still hoping to convey this attitude in what I do today. Doing things just right, simple yet with quality, this is also the Chinese traditional cultural value of harmony."