Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Kengo Kuma, architect

On the 10th of July, 2008, I interviewed the architect Kengo Kuma at his office in Tokyo. We talked in English about his design for the Suntory Museum of Art, his approach to architecture, and his opinions of other architects. The interview lasted more than an hour.

CBL: Yeh, yeh, it’s a microphone, so it should do its job. Now, em, first of all, eh, let’s start with the Suntory Museum of Art and, um, I’ve been there several times because I often write about art for some of the newspapers in Japan. Em, could I ask you what was the thinking and the brief and the inspiration, eh, behind the museum? What were you trying to do in that case.

KK: Yes, I’d like to create as a... the different museum from the typical white cube type museum. The reason is most of the museums in Japan, not only in Japan but globally, is following the white cube idea, using the, uh, the simple material like the white painted plasterboard with the... as the monolithic flooring, and also lighting design similar, but I think the contents of the Suntory museum, it is, as you know, ah 17th, 18th, 19th centuries Japanese traditional art. I don’t want to go with that kind of material. I tried to understand the heart of those contents and I like to combine those contents with some natural materials like rice papers or as a wood, very soft wood rather, called kiri, paulownia in English. Normally this soft wood is not used for architecture because it is too soft and easy to have the, the…

CBL: Cracks, or…

KK: Yeh, yeh, but I’d like to use the kiri for the museum because the kiri is the... is usually used for the tansu. Tansu is the chest, a traditional chest. Because kiri can control humidity of the kimono in the tansu, the... Then I believe the contents or something, the museum fit the kiri.

CBL: Why not just control the humidity using air conditioning?

KK: Hah hah, yeh, yeh. Yeh but as a, as a kiri is a good for a small box but it cannot control the big box like the museum.

CBL: So, you think that the kind of typical white box style museum, eh, there was a mismatch with the, eh, artworks that belong to the Suntory Museum?

KK: Um, exactly saying, not a missmatch, but if we can use the natural materials, it can pick up the quality of the contents stronger, uh, and that is the main reason we are using those materials.

CBL: Em, it makes the um exhibits feel more at home?

KK: Yes.

CBL: It kind of…

KK: Yes, yes. The, ah, I think the prototype of the museum is the home and… In Japan and also in Europe, the people like to show their art in their own home, in the daily warm atmosphere with the very close friendship, but recently the museum is, becomes like the factory, a big simple box and many people walking around.

CBL: So maybe like Tate Modern or… which has a very industrial feel to it.

KK: Industrial feeling, yeh. I don’t like that kind of industrial feeling, and especially in Japan, as a... In Japanese home the material is very soft, is very soft, very different from outdoor, from material for the exterior. There’s a tatami mat, on the tatami mat with a rice papers, and the Japanese art can fit those kind of, those very soft warm materials.

CBL: So, this was determined by the fact that it was the Suntory. If it was another kind of museum, a modern art museum, you would have taken a much different approach. Is that right?

KK: Yes. The curators of the Suntory Museum and also the director of the Suntory Museum, Mr. Saji, the, ah, they understand my approach. I think it’s not so easy because the museum with such the big visitors... Actually Suntory Museum holds 700 or 800 thousand visitors a year. For that kind of the big and the popular box to use ricepaper for wall is not so easy. At the beginning of the meeting one of the curators shouted, ‘Why use ricepapers? Can you buy the rice paper if it’s – ha ha – damaged…ha!

CBL: Is that the case? Do they often have to replace and repair bits of the museum because it’s made from very soft materials?

KK: A-Ha, yeh, yeh, but I had experience of using the rice paper before for museum in Bato-machi Hiroshige Museum. The… It is not so popular as Suntory because it is set in the countryside, but still in the year, a hundred thousand visitors they are getting. It’s completed 2000 but after a few years the rice paper walls still very white, almost as clean as first built.

CBL: Now, um, yeh, that museum, it has a very sort of comfortable atmosphere and it doesn’t have a kind of monumental feel that a lot of museums have, um, but it does have a façade on one side of the building and there’s a bridge and then there’s the…

KK: The vertical louvers.

CBL: Em, yes, so were you, eh, were you concerned about the façade of the museum, the identity of the museum, the kind of iconicness of the museum?

KK: Yes. my approach is the museum’s façade should have some iconic, the iconic, the iconic... Not iconic shape. Iconic textures they should have, I believe, and a… The reason… and that is not only for the Suntory. Most of my projects has a iconic textures. The reason of choosing that approach is ah the… Sometimes iconic, the silhouette or iconic the shape destroys the atmosphere of the place.

CBL: Can you give me an example.

KK: For example, the Bilbao Guggenheim. As a… As a… In the case of the Bilbao Guggenheim, the... Exactly saying, the museum sits just outside of the town and probably it is OK to have that kind of iconic symbol because the town is, ah, is, ah, not so close from the museum itself. But in the case of Suntory, and ah, it is the center of the town. In those kind of urban context, I would like to have the quiet silhouette, but still some kind of icon is necessary. People would like to bring the memory from the museum. The iconic textures can bring the visitors to have the special memory of the museum.

CBL: So if there were… Now, also quite close by there’s also – what’s it called – 21_21 Design Site. That has a much more kind of iconic shape I think, yeh. So there’s a kind of contrast there because yours is the, it’s the texture that is the feature. With 21_21 Design Site it’s much more of a radical shape and so in many ways 21_21 might be more memorable, em, but I think your museum, em, it has a much deeper impact, em, so the 21_21 has an immediate impact but also it’s very… Inside it’s not very, eh, suitable for a museum, I feel. Whereas yours is very comfortable space, so I’m very interested in this contrast between the two. Eh, what do you think about the differences there?

KK: [Laughs] Yeh, ahhh, one reason of the difference is, ah, the contents of the museum, as a… In 21_21 museum the, the, the curators and the committee members of the museum always try to exhibit the new things. Always they try to renew. I think it’s a very hectic as an attitude. But the Suntory Museum, the attitude of the curator of the museum is opposite. The, the, they try to show the old things but the, the visitor can get some new inspiration from the old things. That approach is similar to my architectural approach.

CBL: Now, em, often your architecture is described as, eh, in a way, quite low-key, contrasted with the very high-profile style of architecture that, em, grabs people’s attention. Yours is famous for maybe kind of blending in and not being so... standing out so strongly. Ah, now, em, if you had more space in the case of designing a museum, em – because you said the reason that you focus on the texture is because of the situation, which is... space is limited in the urban environment. Now, if you had more space, em, would you change the shapes, cos I think…

KK: It depends on the quality of the space, not the size of the space. As for example, now I’m designing the museum, I’m designing the cultural centre for Besancon, the city of Besancon in France. The site is very big. This is just beside the river and this is a very different site from Suntory. But, as, the… I’m reading the context of the site. The, the shape of the rivers, the relationship between the town and the rivers. Those contexts are deciding the shape of the building and in that case also I don’t want to, ah, outstanding shape. The answer to that big space is just one simple roof. Beneath the roof we have some existing building. We have some halls, which connect the city and the river, but the silhouette of the building is very simple and very calm.

CBL: Do you have any visuals that you could show me to ?

KK: Yes. Now?

CBL: Yes, yes.

KK: OK I will bring….

[KK goes to fetch visuals. He then returns and places a book on the recorder accidentally switching it off. Around 30 minutes of recording was lost. The next part of the interview is reconstructed from memory and notes]

CBL: It looks like a kind of post-industrial landscape with that sort of disused bridge. This is the old building, which is incorporated in the design?

KK: Yes, I want to respond to the site context… This roof is the main visual feature.

CBL: I see that it harmonizes the old and the new building. On these computer mockups it is emphasized and it looks quite prominent, but it’s semi transparent. I imagine that viewed from the ground it must have an even softer presence. The way you combine old and new aeminds me a little of Kisho Kurokawa’s ideas. I met him before he died… What do you think of his design for NACT, which is also here in Roppongi.

KK: Kurokawa’s theory was symbiosis, bringing together contradictory elements in his architecture...

CBL: Yes, he explained his idea. I thought it was quite interesting. He liked to set opposite things together – the primitive and the technological, for example. It reminded me of what a lot of successful artists do – they put opposites together in their work and it creates a kind of psychological energy, if you put them the right distance apart. A good example is Kuala Lumpar airport, which he made both local and international, Islamic and secular, by a variety of design elements. From your work, however, I get a different feeling. I don’t think you’re trying to set up opposites. It’s a much gentler low key approach.

KK: Yes, I’m interested in what’s already there and fitting my buildings to it. Also, I like to use softer materials that can interact more with their surroundings and have a dialogue.

CBL: Your approach with soft materials, soft silhouettes and texture instead of shape, I’d say, is much more of a post-Bubble style, much more in tune with the present age with its ecological concerns, and, I would say, the economic downturn, in contrast to the often grandiose designs of the older generation. Are you in effect a post-Bubble architect?

KK: I think this is influenced by my childhood. I was brought up in an old-fashioned Japanese house with tatami mats, ricepaper, sliding doors, etc. One of my friends lived in a new modern building with vinyl material. At first I was envious. My house looked old and unimpressive, but with those traditional Japanese materials there is a dialogue. If you touch them they change. Tatami mats change shape if you stand on them. Ricepaper is very delicate. This is differnet from modern materials like vinyl.

CBL: Which are in a sense dead because they don’t respond to human touch.

KK: Also when I graduated there was the oil shock of the 1970s so that also had an impact, I guess.

CBL: With well known architects there is sometimes the tendency to concentrate on impressive, dominating, eye-catching monumental buildings. Architects like Tange, Isozaki or Kurokawa, even Ando, sometime seem to be grandstanding. Their work gets tied up with things like nationalistic statements or bubble era ambition or expansiveness, and even arrogance, while your work seems much more low-key, self-effecing. Works like Tange’s National Gymnasium, while very impressive, seem to dominate the landscape and lie in it like pieces of undigested food. Your work by contrast seems to digest a lot easier into its surroundings.

KK: I’d say one of the things about those architects is that many of them came from the countryside. In a sense they were always heading to the city and felt a strong pull of the city, to a kind of modernism.

CBL: So, the reason for their ambition and their eye-catching ambition was a kind of country boy mentality?

KK: Yes, and they saw architecture as a kind of battle between different kind of forces.

CBL: Yes, there seems to be something very Hegelian about them, working through opposing forces both architecturally and culturally. The monumentality I associate with them is very different to you. In fact, I heard that space is very important to you, more important than the actual structure, a bit like a doughnut maker focusing on the hole rather than the doughnut.

KK: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. I want to consider how the space acts with its function and surroundings. The uniqueness and importance of space is very clear from traditional Japanese temples. From the outside they are not so different. Structurally the main feature is this very large roof. It’s only when you go inside and experience the space that you can tell the differences between temples. They have very different spatial qualities.

CBL: What sort of spatial qualities are you referring to then?

KK: I mean the gradation from light to dark and how the space flows and what it connects to.

CBL: The way it opens to air or not, and how it looks out or focuses aspects of the surrounding?

KK: Yes, like that.

CBL: This and, indeed your whole approach reminds me very much of Feng Shui.

KK: Well, yes, I admit there are some similarities. We have to pay contant attention to how the building interacts with its surroundings. I always make a close study of the surroundings.

CBL: Also the way you use some elements kind of reminds me of haiku, which I would say is a verbal way of framing certain sensory impressions from nature. For example in this design for FRAC you have created a kind sun-dappled effect with the semi-transparent roof. It breaks up the lines and softens the effect but it also clearly evokes the sense of sunshine pouring through the trees.

KK: It’s interesting that you should say that because I’m very intersted in haiku. In Japanese this is komurebi.

CBL: In English we would say sun-dappled… You seem quite happy and relaxed to be Japanese – talking about haiku and traditional materials, for example. For people like Tange, expressing Japanese-ness was a big deal, while for Isozaki, it seems from his book “Japan-ness in Architecture” that Japanese-ness is a kind of problem, an invasive foreign concept of Japan that was internalized by Japanese and therefore something to be shaken off. You, by contrast are happy to use elements and concepts from Japanese culture.

KK: For me as a Japanese it’s only natural to use things from my culture. I would say that the present generation of architects are becoming more relaxed about being Japanese.

CBL: Which will be an asset working overeas. Besides the projects you already mentioned, are you working on any other foreign projects? Anything in America?

KK: I’m also working on building a companion structure to Philip Johnson’s Glasshouse.

CBL: Would you have any visuals for that.

[He phones down for them. A girl brings them up. I also take this opportunity to check the recorder and switch it back on.]

KK: For this house we had some high cases for glass house. Very transparent but the structure is mixture of wood and steel, and also we have this kind of wooden terrace. This is…Wooden terrace is ‘engawa’ space that can combine environment and the building.

CBL: Yeh, so… And also the lines are just following this [indicating the verticals]. The colors flow through, so it’s sort of blended in. So several blending devices. You have a whole repertoire of blending devicies: transparency, echoing the natural landscape – add soft silhouette – and so on.

KK: And this is the existing glass house 1954.

CBL: Yes. Do you have pictures of them together, see how they harmonize?

KK: This is the existing…pictures… If you need the pictures I can send you.
CBL: Oh yes, definitely, we’ll need… They like lots of pictures.
I’m just wondering how this will look when people actually move in.

KK: [laughs]

CBL: Because privacy is an issue I think.

KK: My client don’t want to have the curtain. They like to live with the forest without any curtain.

CBL: So they have a…obviously, I guess, they have a large area around the house which is private, so they don’t need curtains.

KK: No.

CBL: This wouldn’t work in Tokyo would it.

KK: [laughs]

CBL: It’s a bit too transparent for Tokyo. Is that the kitchen?

KK: Yes.

CBL: Interesting, definitely… Now, em, were there any problems with the design for the Suntory. Anything that you found difficult or challenging?

KK: Mmm, [garbled] the maintenance of the materials, the rice paper and the kiri, ah, and, ah, the wood floor came from the barrel of whiskey.

CBL: Oh really?

KK: Yeh.

CBL: Well that makes sense.

KK: Suntory, every year they have, ah, they’re getting many many bottles, barrels of whisky, but no use. They want to re-use, and we sent it to China to make it flat and…

CBL: So, also, the, em, your work is very, it’s very important to focus on the surrounding environment, now, eh, around the Suntory Museum of Art, there are, as far as I can remember, many restaurants and shops, eh, how did that kind of mediate the, eh, the Museum with the, eh, environment in that case, the very commercial environment?

KK: Yes, we, as a… We propose the screens between the commercial environment and the Suntory Museum itself. As a solid wall is not fitting with that kind of relationship and also as a hundred percent transparency is not fitting that relation… The relationship is 50% or 60%, that kind of transparency can control the visuality the, and if we can get the appropritae screens between two different things, the people can keep interest to the interior and also the people in the museum can feel some openness to the city.

CBL: So, if you had a total barrier that would imply a conflict.

KK: Yeh.

CBL: But if you had complete open air, that would be a form of pollution.

KK: Pollution – yes, yes.

CBL: So, you’re kind of trying to find the right distance between the two things through the degree of transparency.

KK: Yes, yes.

CBL: Em, it reminds me very much of, I don’t know why, but it kind of reminds me of Japanese society. People keeping their distance and, a little bit reserved, very… maybe a similar to England.

KK: Really?

CBL: Yeh, this idea of having a little bit of reserve, not being too friendly, but, y’know…

KK: Ah, Japanese society is like that.

CBL: But also, y’know, you’re pretending not to see something but really you’re also watching it. This kind of characteristic which is very common I think in Japanese society, in my experience anyway. Now also going back to the façade, there’s the bridge. Now, there’s some kind of echo there, I think, of something, isn’t there?

KK: Yes, it is the echo of the typical taiko bridge. Taiko bridge… The shape of this is called Taiko bridge. But normally Japanese Taiko bridge is painted red, but recently I painted white. White taiko bridge.

CBL: For reasons of harmony?

KK: Yes and also this shape can decrease the thickness of the structure. This is a kind of arch and arching effect can make the size smaller, and then the lightness…

CBL: So, it’s to maintain the feeling of lightness, which you get from the semi-transparent façade and so on. Also the, the surface, it’s ceramic, yeh?

KK: Yes.

CBL: Yeh, and ceramic… Was that to protect, to cool down the building, eh, to…?

KK: Yes. This vertical louvers can cool down the building and, ah, and also we’re focusing on the edge of the ceramics. Our rival is SOM’s towers in Tokyo Midtown, and we know, each other, the main material for the building. I know that SOM is using the big terracottas for the façade and I saw the detail of terracotta and for me the edge of terracotta is too big and ah and I feel like to create the opposite detail by using the same material. The SOM material is strong and strong in expressing, but my detail is very… The edge of my ceramic is about six millimeter.

CBL: About as thin as this [indicating glass table]

KK: Thinner than this, and it is not so easy to create that thin by using ceramic.

CBL: So, it must be vulnerable to damage then.

KK: Yes [laughs].

CBL: If there’s a bit of a slight earthquake or something they might all fall off. That’s more work for you.

KK: The secret is we combine the ceramics with aluminium as aluminum is supporting the thin ceramic.

CBL: How do you combine, though? What’s the process to combine?

KK: The, the ceramic has a hole and the, it is the pin and hole can join, some flexible groove.

CBL: So there is flexibility?

KK: Yes.

CBL: They can adjust to stresses and shocks even?

KK: Yes.

CBL: Now, also that the taiko bridge there... lot’s of cherry trees.

KK: Ah, the cherry trees! The cherry trees came from the, as the old buildings, the old gardens, as you know, it used to be the Ministry of Defence.

CBL: A lot of things in Roppongi used to be defence, yeh.

KK: Yes, and the Ministry of Defence had a big garden with cherry trees and landscape designer from America. I think landscape designer… Do you know that landscape designer?

CBL: I’m not sure.

KK: Young landscape designer from States. They move the cherry trees lining the border of the building.

CBL: So, which came first? Your building was there and then they moved the cherry trees or…

KK: The landscape design, the designers, ah, roughly designed the layout of the cherry trees. The cherry trees is following the border if the building.

CBL: So you had that to work with?

KK: Yes, I like that idea – the cherry trees in front of the building.

CBL: There’s also water there, a kind of water feature, some kind of pond, the water is flowing isn’t it?

KK: Yes. Some fountains.

CBL: Well, I think I have enough material for my article. Thank you very much.

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