Published April 2020

Kengo Kuma

He has been involved in popular works such as the main venue of Tokyo 2020, "National Stadium," the newly renovated "GINZA KABUKIZA" (Kabukiza), the newest station on the Yamanote Line, "Takanawa Gateway Station," and many other award-winning works both domestically and internationally. The ``RCC Museum'' attached to ``The Riviera Country Club (RCC)'' is also the work of this person. We asked Kengo Kuma, an architect who captivates the world for his designs that make extensive use of wood reminiscent of Japanese tradition, to talk about his thoughts on architecture and his relationship with nature.

Interview: Hanako Watanabe

建築 家

Kengo Kuma

Kuma Kengo

Born in 1954. In 1990, Kengo Kuma Architects and Urban Design Office was established. He served as a professor at Keio University and the University of Tokyo, and is currently a special professor and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. Many projects are underway both domestically and internationally. He was also involved in the design of the National Stadium. His major publications include ``Points, Lines, and Surfaces'' (Iwanami Shoten), ``People's Home'' (Shincho Shinsho), ``Lost Architecture'' (Iwanami Shoten), ``Natural Architecture'', ``Small Architecture'' (Iwanami Shinsho), and many others.

Cultivated a ``Japanese Master''
Satoyama experience in Yokohama

- Kengo Kuma is known as the ``master of Japanese'' for his bold use of wood in cutting-edge architecture. I would like to get closer to its origin.
What kind of environment did you spend your childhood in?

Kuma: I'm originally from Yokohama. The house was near Okurayama Station on the Tokyu Toyoko Line. It may be hard to imagine now, but at that time, the area around Okurayama Station was surrounded by rice fields. It's a typical Japanese satoyama. There were many such places left in the old Yokohama city.
Because of the nature of the area, children's activities include catching crayfish in the rice fields, visiting caves in the mountains, and exploring the forests.
If I were to talk about my ``starting point,'' then spending time in contact with nature on a daily basis was very meaningful to me.
I went to elementary school all the way to Denenchofu. As you head north on the Toyoko Line, you will gradually see the scenery of the city. On the way back, we did the opposite, gradually approaching the Satoyama area. When I arrived at Okurayama Station, I felt like I had come back to life.

- Do you feel healed in nature?

Kuma: Since we're talking about children, isn't it a bit different from "healing"? Playing in the Satoyama was exciting and full of "learning".
For example, insect traps. If you just swing your insect net around blindly, it won't work. What kind of ecology does it have and when should you target it? I went into the forest almost every day to research these things and learn through experience.
Most of my time at school was with my classmates, and I rarely got to hang out with the upperclassmen during lunch breaks. But older brothers and sisters from the neighborhood also come to Satoyama. I learned a lot from these older friends. Their teaching is not a one-way street from teacher to student like in school. By having fun together, knowledge and skills are shared.
What are the rules of nature and what is good and bad about living with nature? I think I learned these things while being taught by nature.

- During your childhood, you were immersed in playing in the countryside.

Kuma: A classic play for children back then was ``building a secret base.'' From the time I got home from school until dinner, I spent all my time in the woodland with my friends from the neighborhood, building something like a tree house using wood.
Children these days are busy with extracurricular activities and cram schools, and are under the watchful eye of their parents and adults, so they don't go into the forest on their own, do they? I feel really sorry for him.

- Safety is the most important thing. However, it is a shame that valuable learning opportunities are lost in exchange for this.

Kuma: I agree. When I was a child, there was no place more fun for me than the forest. It is true that this kind of thinking is the basis of my architecture.

A training camp in the Sagami sea where we swam with noctilucent insects

- I heard that you decided to become an architect when you were in the fourth grade of elementary school.

Kuma: Yes, in 1964. It all started with the last Tokyo Olympics. When my parents took me to the competition venue, I saw the Yoyogi National Stadium and was shocked by how cool it was. It was the first time I learned that there was a profession called an architect, but when I heard that it was designed by an architect named Kenzo Tange, I decided to become an architect who can create such wonderful buildings! Since then, I have not wavered at all to this day.

- For junior high and high school, you went to the prestigious Eiko Gakuen in Kamakura City.

Kuma: Looking back now, my love for the sea started when I was in junior high school.
Eiko Gakuen is a school located on a steep hill from Ofuna Station, but since it is still in Kamakura, it is much closer to the sea than the village forest of Mt. Okura. On the weekends, I started playing around Yuigahama with my classmates, and in the summer we even had a beach camp as a school event. The school's training camp was located in a small bay called Moromoroiso Iso at the tip of Aburatsubo, and since it was almost a private beach, I also took long-distance swimming training at night.
Through that experience, I became a pretty good swimmer. When I was swimming slowly in the sea at night, I saw something that glowed blue all over. It was a noctilucent insect. I wonder if they are still there?

- Have you ever seen a noctilucent insect while swimming in the sea?

That's an amazing experience. Noctilucent insects still live in Sagami Bay. If you go on a night cruise with good weather conditions, you can witness the glow of noctilucent insects in the waves of the ship's wake, which is a truly moving beauty.

Kuma: I also recently became a member of The Riviera Resort Club. I would like to see noctilucent insects from the boat someday.

- At the Riviera Group, we have been implementing a marine program since 2006 as part of the ``Riviera Future Creation Project,'' which has the philosophy of ``living a fulfilling life in harmony with nature,'' and has welcomed a total of 5900 children.

Kuma: Initiatives that provide children with opportunities to get closer to nature are truly unique to Riviera.

Architect training is full of travel and discussion.

- After entering the Department of Architecture at the University of Tokyo, have you been immersed in architecture, which was your dream?

Kuma: It was a day of travel and discussion.
When you think of studying to become an architect, you may have an image of sitting at a drafting table and doing difficult calculations, but the fun of studying architecture lies in learning away from books and desks. I learned that.
I enjoyed going to see buildings with my friends from the architecture department, so we traveled all over Japan from north to south.
We look at actual buildings and discuss what they like, but what people think is good varies surprisingly from person to person. It was an experience where I felt diversity firsthand, and because I am different, I became conscious of how I could help others understand my sensibilities.
Architecture is not created solely by the architect's inspiration. Every building has a client, and our main premise is to create what the client envisions.
That's why it's important for architects to train their language skills. The ability to listen to the other person's thoughts and the ability to have them understand your thoughts and proposals regarding architecture. That means communication skills.
Even now, when I present my architecture, I first talk about it in words. Drawings and models will come later.
When I was a student, I studied drafting and mechanical calculations, but even more than that, the experiences I had in thorough discussions with my peers, and the ability to train and learn language, are the assets that lead me to where I am today.

Communication is
Basic abilities of an architect

Kuma: However, I think that communication skills are different from simply being good at speaking.

- This is something that we are acutely aware of in our work at Riviera, where customer service is our mission.

Kuma: This is also a memory from when I was a graduate student, but I once organized a project to survey local villages across the Sahara Desert. It was said that Picasso's art was based on the unique African countryside, and that the music he loved, jazz, had its roots in Africa, so I've always admired African culture. I really wanted to go see African architecture, so I approached my professor and went around to various companies to get sponsors.

- Do you raise funds yourself?

His vitality and communication skills are truly impressive.

Kuma: I think this was an adventure that could only have been possible at a time when the international situation was not as shaky as it is now. The university would have put a stop to it now.
Although I didn't jump into a conflict zone, there are still risks involved when a young person who doesn't know anything enters an area with a completely different culture. But at the time, it was more fun than dangerous. That's why I can't understand words at all. One of the things I looked forward to was seeing how I would become friends with such people.

- It doesn't seem like there's a trick to it.

Kuma: The most important thing for an architect is to have the communication skills to dive into people from all over the world and capture their hearts. We are often commissioned by clients in cities we don't know, and the work is contracted out to people in those cities. I think this is the basis of the work of architecture.

Kengo Kuma

Photo with a famous architect named Phillip Johnson while he was at Columbia University (probably around 1985)

architecture is like music
Moved by jazz

Kuma: Architecture is three-dimensional, so some people say it's similar to sculpture in the art field, but I feel it's closer to music. I took piano lessons when I was a student, and I especially like jazz. Some of my friends from that time have gone on to become successful professionals, and we even talked about working together on music.
Great architecture has tones and rhythms that make people happy and move their hearts. Music and architecture are the same.

Traveling around America as a visiting researcher

- Before becoming independent as an architect, you served as a visiting researcher at Columbia University in the United States.

Kuma: Before starting my own work, I wanted to go to New York. Columbia University, along with Harvard and Yale, was one of the world centers for architectural education at the time.
As a visiting researcher, I wasn't really told what to do, so I got to see architecture all over the United States, meet architects, and visit emerging developers. I met with many people and talked about ``what will happen to architecture in the future?''

Kengo Kuma
Kengo Kuma

I am attached to all the works

- Returned to Japan after two years as a visiting researcher. In 2, Kengo Kuma Architects and Urban Design Office was established. Since then, he has been involved in creating much-talked-about architecture not only in Japan but also overseas.
Among your many works, what is the one that stands out to you?

Kuma: In many ways, one of my most memorable works is ``Bamboo House'' (2002) on the outskirts of Beijing, China.

- Great (Bamboo) Wall, a guesthouse located near the Great Wall of China. This is said to be one of the most highly acclaimed projects in the ``Commune by the Great Wall'' hotel development project, which consisted of a total of 12 buildings in 12 designs, created by 42 Asian architects.
It was used as a filming location for a national commercial for the Beijing Olympics, and is well known in Japan for an advertisement for an electronics manufacturer starring Sayuri Yoshinaga.

Kuma: That was my first job in China. In that country, there are a lot of buildings that are flashy or the opposite of chic, so I was worried whether they would be accepted. Moreover, there is no precedent for sticking to natural materials...
However, there were some people who said, ``China needs this kind of architecture in the future,'' and we were able to gain the client's understanding.
I'm currently doing a lot of work in China, and ``Bamboo House'' was the starting point for all of that.

- What is the best self-made work?

Kuma: That's a difficult question. I have a fondness for all of them.
The turning point could be said to be the ``Nakagawa Town Bato Hiroshige Museum'' (2000) in Tochigi Prefecture.

- Nakagawa Town receives a lump sum donation and stores the collection left behind by a businessman from the same prefecture who was affected by the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. The interior and exterior are made of wood, the walls are Japanese paper, and the floor is stone. The museum, which uses locally sourced natural materials, has received numerous awards, including the Togo Murano Award.

Kuma: The ``Yusuhara Town Above the Clouds'' project, which has been ongoing for 30 years in the mountain town of Yusuhara Town in Kochi Prefecture, is also a unique initiative.
It is said to be unprecedented for one architect to be involved with one town for 30 years and construct six public buildings. Through this project, I once again recognized the greatness of Japanese craftsmanship.

gallery above the clouds

gallery above the clouds

gallery above the clouds

RCC symbolizes
good times america

- The Riviera Country Club (RCC) museum in Los Angeles, USA, which was recently completed, is also one of Kengo Kuma's works.

Kuma: The RCC clubhouse, which was completed in 1926, is a wonderful piece of architecture in itself, and I felt that it symbolized the era just before the Great Depression, when America was at its cultural peak.
During my time as a researcher at Columbia University, I visited many buildings that were built around the same time as the RCC, and without a doubt, the RCC is the one that best conveys the atmosphere of the early 20th century.
It was an honor for me to receive Chairman Watanabe's offer to create a museum that covers the history of the RCC from its birth to the present and connects us to the future.
The work involved adding new parts to a rare architectural masterpiece that cannot be allowed to be damaged. How can we condense the heart that this architecture has? By using wood as a base and cherishing its sense of rhythm, I would like to express in this museum the atmosphere of freedom and human life that existed in the era in which RCC was born. I approached the project with that in mind.

Japan's "wood tradition"
Environmental technology attracting attention from around the world

- Mr. Kuma, who has poured his love into the material of wood, what are his future activities?

Kuma: The most important consideration is how we can contribute to environmental issues. How can we connect the sensibility and traditional architectural style that the Japanese have cultivated since ancient times with today's environmental technology?
For example, we can share with the world the traditional Japanese techniques that are environmentally friendly, such as extending the eaves deeply to let in the breeze, and processing local materials to create buildings that are unique to the area. I want to go.
Many of the overseas clients who make offers to me are also paying attention to the environmental performance of Japanese architecture and want to learn more about it. I want to do work that can meet those expectations.

- Riviera has another ``treasure'' in terms of its commitment to wood. This is the historic wooden sailing ship "Sinara" built in 1927.

Kuma: The restoration project that breathed another 100 years of life into a nearly 100-year-old ship is a great accomplishment. Compared to metal, natural materials such as wood have the impression of being fragile, but instead of going against nature, they make the most of the characteristics of wood, and on the contrary, they feel strong.

- The ``Synara Restoration Project'' aims to pass on traditional European shipbuilding techniques to Japan, and Japanese craftsmen were added to the team of 10 engineers invited from 50 countries around the world. The Japanese carpenters and furniture makers who joined the team had no experience with ships and were in a position to learn everything they wanted, but when the Sinara was once again afloat, the British carpenter said, "Japanese craftsmen are amazing. We learned a lot from them."

Kuma: Japanese people have been dealing with trees for many years. The accumulation of this knowledge can probably be applied to Western-style wooden sailing ships as well. Craftsmen with traditional techniques from each country were able to absorb each other's techniques through collaborative work.
This is the greatest treasure created by Sinara's restoration project, and can be said to be an achievement that will leave the name of Riviera for future generations. That's wonderful.

- I would like Mr. Kuma to experience Cinara directly.

Kuma: Like RCC, it was built in England in the early 20th century, and I'm excited about the Shinara, which has the warmth of wood and is filled with the thoughts of its successive owners.
I also have to go to the Riviera to listen to jazz and see the night-glow insects...

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