For Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the importance of place is everything. Known to visit each location in person before embarking on a project, Kuma is as sensitive to where a building will exist as much as the form it will take. It's a rare philosophy today when buildings have increasingly become monuments to ego. Kuma puts it sagely: "You could say that my aim is to recover the place. I think my architecture is some kind of frame of nature. With it, we can experience nature more deeply and more intimately."
A delicate interplay between nature and the human experience informs and indeed, drives his design process. Kuma’s curiosity for process can play out in the shadows a building creates or studying how the stone walls of its interiors will warm and cool its occupants. Often reinterpreting techniques of traditional craftsmanship, Kuma doesn’t see the choice as a nostalgic one. Rather it is a necessary, timeless dialogue between old and new.
This philosophy runs to the heart his architectural practice. Kengo Kuma & Associates has designed some of the most striking buildings in Japan and beyond, including the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo, LVMH Group’s Japan headquarters in Osaka and the Bamboo Wall House in China. Noted for their atmosphere as much as their structural beauty, Kuma’s buildings often carry echoes of familiar traditions as seen in the Suntory Museum of Art, where Kumo drew inspiration from the calming interiors of a Japanese room. Traditionally lined in tatami mats, these quiet spaces encourage relaxation and relief from the cacophony of the city outside. Transposing this feeling to a large museum, Kumo clad the building in a porcelain-like slatted white facade which is reinforced inside in a warm wood. The result diffuses daylight softly, to create a featherlight quality.
An early visit to the 1964 Olympic gymnasium with his father marked a turning point in Kuma’s childhood. Awed by the scale of the impressive structure, the young Kuma had an early glimpse into how architecture could enhance the human experience. The encounter inspired him to join the profession. Drawing inspiration from Japanese architectural tradition, Kuma revels in the country’s rich history to reinterpret heritage for the 21st century. As a demonstration of his commitment, in 2009 Kuma co-created research laboratory Kuma Lab at his alma mater, the University of Tokyo, where academics investigate key concerns in urban, landscape, structural and mechanical design. In 2011, the facility conducted joint research projects, assisting in the country’s recovery following the Great East Japan earthquake.
I think my architecture is a frame of nature. With it, we can experience it more deeply
Commissioned to design the Tokyo National Olympic Stadium 2020 and a waterfront cultural centre for Copenhagen’s Paper Island, Kuma continues to attract large-scale projects. Pleasingly, this also include the creation of Scotland’s first design museum – V&A Dundee. Opening in September 2018, V&A Dundee will be Kuma’s first building in the UK and sits at the heart of a £1 billion transformation of the city’s waterfront. Three storeys-high and clad in 2500 pre-cast stone panels, the imposing building sits proudly on the edge of the river Tay. It’s a fitting style for a city with its finger on the pulse of creativity and design.
The exterior surface of V&A nods to rugged Scottish cliff faces, while its pointed corners hover over the water like the prow of a boat. Such soothing aesthetics create a sense of graceful movement. The museum will incorporate a 1650m² gallery space, housing a permanent collection focussed on Scotland’s contribution to design. Envisioned as a living room for the city, Kuma hopes it will prove a welcoming space for all. Perhaps this site will one day become another awe-inspiring moment for a young and curious mind.
Imagery/moving image credits:V&A Dundee
V&A Dundee's inaugural exhibition will be: Ocean Liners: Speed and Style
Dates: September 15 2018 - February 24 2019