Kengo Kuma Wants Architecture to Do the Exact Opposite of What You Might Think

Jerome Powell

In Topography, Kuma organizes his built projects into subsections named Particle, Oblique, Membrane, Perforation and Time. Many are in Japan, but others exist outside the country, such as his assimilative Mont-Blanc Base Camp of unskinned planks in Chamonix, France, and linear V&A Dundee museum in Scotland. There are structures of all scales but, if they all share an overarching theme—besides being inspiring to view and understand—it’s a blending into the environment to some degree.

Kuma achieves this, in part, by contemplating light at the very first stage of planning any design. “I consider that light is the most important element in architecture,” he says. “To discuss what kind of light we need and take into the building is an essential part of our design.” That’s as much a part of his process in an urban setting as it is in a vast, virginal one. “Both environments are worth working on,” Kuma says. “In particular, when we could find or create a natural environment in a busy urban area and include it in our project, even small in scale, it’s extremely fulfilling.”

This Starbucks was designed by Kuma and completed in 2008 in Fukuoka-shi, Japan.

Photo: Masao Nishikawa

The hope Kuma has for those who read this book is that they feel “the multi-faceted aspect of Tokyo,” he says of his home base. “Tokyo may sometimes look to visitors as just another big, industrial city with no particular feature to speak of. However, I’ve told in this book that it’s a city of diversity—even a tiny area in one district has an interesting history.”

An aerial view of the Japan National Stadium, home and heartbeat of this summer’s Olympic Games.

Photo: Courtesy of the Japan Sports Council

He should know, as he’s conceived structures all over it, including the largest and latest addition: the Japan National Stadium, home and heartbeat of this summer’s Olympic Games. Topography features (among some three dozen other projects) this two-million-plus square-foot sculpture of overlapping, multilayered cedar eaves (apparently representing every prefecture in Japan in its sourcing). The concept behind his timber-heavy trussed design was “passing on the tradition of Japanese architecture through the stadium to the next generation,” says Kuma. “But ‘heritage’ or ‘tradition’ is not about the ‘shape’ of the architecture, which is often misunderstood. We wanted to convey the philosophy of Japanese tradition behind it.” The structure’s latticed approach includes “small-sized, easy-to-handle wooden [louvres]” that express this ideology. There’s little doubt that after the world sees his timber wonder that his name will get a bit more recognizable.

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