Rhythm, nature and tradition. These are three of the fundamental elements that make up Kengo Kuma’s architectural language. His buildings represent a strict balance, created by the integration of skilled japanese construction techniques and a careful selection of materials in which wood and stone stand out most of all since they best represent the eternity of Nature. His designs live and breathe, they are created respecting the specific needs and characteristics of each individual client. They become their own image, providing a perfect harmony between beauty, precision and functionality.
PLT Your architectural creations are finished spaces, defined in a very precise way but they create within themselves rarefied, almost pulviscular atmospheres that transmit a feeling of infinity. What are the rules that lead to this type of architecture? K.K. Modern architecture consists of two completely separate elements: the structure and the skin. From personal experience I believe that separating the framework from its covering is inopportune; the integration of the two is very important. What I try to create in architecture is a melody and, as in music, it is not possible to separate each sound. It is only through giving a precise rhythm to the composition that I can let other people feel this sense of the infinite.
PLT Staying with the musical analogy, what is the relationship between the search for precision and your architecture? K.K. Rhythm is the precision element. Without that, architecture makes you feel nothing. Like in jazz, rhythm is the essential component, unlike melody, which can sometimes take a back seat.
PLT Two other elements that you often use personally are stone and light. Looking at a specific design, like that of the Stone Museum at Nasu, how did you decide on the interaction between them? K.K. The most important thing was deciding how to use the stone. Generally, in the 20th century stone was used just as a subtle cladding for the framework, which for me is an incomplete use. In the museum we wanted it to be used in all its glory, all its possibilities. The staggered laying of the blocks creates a vibrant wall from which elements have been removed at horizontal intervals. Within this rhythmic alternating between solids and spaces the sense of immateriality is provided by the light that filters through the open spaces. Light is an important element for removing the physicality of material: it both dissolves and reveals.
PLT It’s not the first time that tradition has played a part in your design research. Is there some element in particular from the past that inspires you? K.K. The house where I was born and grew up is very important. It was a traditional Japanese house built by my grandfather. The wooden doors and windows allowed the air to circulate, to let it breathe, but at that time I didn’t like it, it was too small. In the 1960s during the economic boom, the American style caught on and going into my friends’ houses, I suddenly realised that my house was noticeably better, it had a soul. Their gardens were all the same, while in mine I could plant flowers and vegetables and watch them grow.
PLT How is your current house? K.K. My house? (he smiles) My wife designed it! She’s an architect too, she also teaches at the university and she specializes in residential projects. If I had designed our house she would probably have grumbled about my design every day! In this case I was happy to let myself be led by what she wanted.
PLT As you just suggested from remembering your childhood home, children need less defined spaces in which to experience their freedom. How do you think that their environments should be designed? K.K. 20th century schools are for the most part made from reinforced concrete and steel, and these industrial materials are not suited to children. They are too hard, too heavy for their bodies, which need softer surfaces instead. When you ask me about designing for children, I think immediately of softness. The feeling that a space conveys is also very important. If the environment is boring, you do not fire the imagination, in this case natural light plays a truly fundamental role.
PLT Is there perhaps a need for a more direct contact with nature? K.K. The end of the 20th century was marked by the architecture of industrialization. Today a new era is finally taking hold. The current wave of architects are inclined to build new and different environments compared to the past, even to the point of designing garden architecture. The garden is limitless, it has no conclusion, it’s infinite, it’s nature. In this kind of space new generations can grow and rediscover a mystical dimension.
PLT How important is your relationship with your working groups? K.K. There are 120 people in my office in Tokyo, 30 in China and 20 in Paris. There is no hierarchy, everything is on equal terms and we develop small working groups for each project. Everyone can talk to me directly, make suggestions, everyone works willingly. This is essential to create something new.
PLT How much do your designs reflect the client’s identity? K.K. For me, identity reflects the background of the client, how he appears, how he moves, how he eats. I try to design a structure that adapts to the person. Effectively, architecture is a form of clothing that we wear, so I try to create harmony between the person, my client, and the architecture conceived specifically for him.
At the end of the interview with Mr. Kengo Kuma a pleasant sense of harmony is indeed what we feel. Our meeting with him has allowed us to discover more about the person and how he creates architecture, revealing a human being and a professional person who is balanced, thoughtful and fun all at the same time. Perhaps the secret of this feeling of serenity conveyed through his architecture lies exactly in this.
Story . Cristina Bigliatti, Sara Maltese Photo . Piero Martinello,Takeshi Yamagishi, Fujitsuka Mitsumasa