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Interview

January 9, 2008

Kengo Kuma

One of Japan's most celebrated architects, Kengo Kuma is widely known in his home country for his modern take on traditional materials and methods. His work has become increasingly known in the West through a traveling exhibition and several recent publications. Artkrush editor Paul Laster caught up with the architect, who rarely travels to the US, at the Dellis Cay booth in the Art Basel Miami Beach Collectors Lounge in December 2007.

AK:  What motivated you to become an architect?

KK:  I was born in a very old, traditional-style home, which prompted my interest in architecture. My house was quite different from my friends' houses, and I learned something from that difference.

AK:  Was there any one person or architectural style that influenced your early work?

KK:  When I started out, I was very much influenced by the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. He, in turn, had been inspired by traditional Japanese architecture, so maybe a long cycle of Japanese traditions came back to me through Wright.

AK:  What was your first building to receive critical acclaim?

KK:  The first building to get a lot of attention was a small villa/bathhouse in the Izu Pennisula that was completed in 1988. It had a hot spring — water is very important to me, and most of my buildings are situated near water or incorporate water into their interiors.

AK:  How have you best used traditional materials?

KK:  In contrast with the technological architecture of the 20th century, traditional Japanese architecture is ecological and Shinto-oriented, and its methods can guide current architectural practices. In using certain materials, I'm returning to tradition to capture something of its aesthetic perspective.

AK:  What is your most dynamic project utilizing modern technology?

KK:  I try to combine traditional materials and modern technology in most of my projects — with technology, those materials can have a new life. A recent example is a teahouse at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst (Museum for Applied Art) in Frankfurt. It's an inflatable structure that's only visible when it's in use. Otherwise, it rests underground.

AK:  Which of your projects best communicates your spatial concepts?

KK:  The Hiroshige Museum is one of my favorite buildings. Hiroshige was an ukiyo-e artist from the 19th century, and Frank Lloyd Wright was a collector of his art. I tried to translate Hiroshige's artistic philosophy into a modern building while using local materials. I drew from aspects of Wright's practice in integrating the building with its surrounding landscape.

AK:  How do you acquaint yourself with a site before considering a design for the building?

KK:  I can't get anything by just looking at drawings and photos, so when I start a project, I always spend time at a site to try to understand its changing nature — such as the variations of light and wind. Through this active, physical experience, I can gain some inspiration for the building.

AK:  How do you prefer to visualize your designs?

KK:  I must say that I don't trust computer graphics. Computer graphics are tools of presentation, but not tools of design. I much prefer models; I can sit in front of a model, close my eyes, and imagine myself inside the space. For me, computer graphics lack some integral texture.

AK:  How do you develop your design concepts with your staff?

KK:  I always try to find key words for each design. For the Dellis Cay project, the key word is "roof" — it's important to highlight the roof's relationship to the landscape.

AK:  Do you prefer large-scale or small-scale projects?

KK:  I like working both ways. I get stymied if I'm only doing big projects, and, vice versa, only working on small projects can get frustrating, too. To go back and forth between large- and small-scale projects is important for the firm to remain aesthetically flexible.

AK:  You've designed several museums in Japan. How is the challenge of building a museum different from building a residence or a commercial structure?

KK:  The space of a museum is very pure. In a commercial building, there are many noises and other distractions that disturb the relationship between people, objects, and spatial environment; in a museum, the interplay between those things is much more immediate and transparent, and the building design must mitigate and direct that interaction.

AK:  What kind of ambience do you try to achieve in a space?

KK:  I like shadows. In Western architecture, the contrast of light and shadow is a theme of design that dates back to Greek and Egyptian architecture. That contrast is very important in modernist designs, as in the work of Le Corbusier. In Japanese architecture, the hierarchy of the shadow is also very important; Junichiro Tanizaki pointed it out in his book In Praise of Shadows. A theme of my design is the creation of many kinds of shadows — deep shadows, light shadows, sharp shadows, etc.

AK:  What is the relationship between architect and client?

KK:  For me, conversation with a client is tantamount because my method is an intellectual method. Through conversation, we can begin to discover the underlying concept for a project, which varies from one building to another. That's the difference between the architectural practices of my generation and the last. For example, Tadao Ando applies the same fundamental idea to every project. All of my projects look different because they're shaped in part by the client.

AK:  How has your work evolved over the years?

KK:  Architecture is an art of condition. If the condition changes, the architecture should change, as well. My architecture is like an animal; it's always adapting.

AK:  What kind of non-architectural experiences have influenced your work?

KK:  Any kind of experience can influence my work. For example, when I'm in a hot-spring bath, I often think of designs because my body is suddenly open to everything. That kind of relaxation is important.

AK:  Are there certain materials that inspire you more than others?

KK:  I like natural, weak materials that require concerted human attention to their use. For instance, rice paper is very delicate, so people need to take care of it. A closer relationship can develop between fragile materials and the human body; in that way, those materials are more productive than strong materials. Concrete is a strong material so we don't need to consider it very carefully.

AK:  Your project for Dellis Cay, a 560-acre private island that's part of the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean, is your first project in the Western Hemisphere. What are you designing?

KK:  I'm building a spa on a lagoon. I first inspected the island from the ocean, but the lagoon is hidden away, and over the course of a few visits, I drew a lot of inspiration from it.

AK:  How do you anticipate your project fitting into a community of buildings by other great architects such as Zaha Hadid, David Chipperfield, and Piero Lissoni?

KK:  It's a good group because we're all quite different. Our contrasts can only emphasize the individual sense of my design with nature and the environment. Together, we can stimulate each other by using different approaches to this tender landscape.

There are three books available on Kengo Kuma's architecture: Electa Architecture published Kengo Kuma in 2007, while Princeton Architectural Press published Kengo Kuma: Selected Works in 2005 and Kengo Kuma: Materials, Structures, Details in 2004.

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