Celebrating the architectural wonders of Kuma Kengo

All eyes will be on the Japan National Stadium later today for the Olympics opening ceremony. The 68,000 capacity stadium, built especially for these Olympics, was opened in December 2019. It is the creation of favorite son architect Kuma Kengo.

Kuma, who also teaches architecture, is especially known for the way in which his designs are integrated into the landscape and for his use of local and natural building materials. His long association with the cedar producing community of Yusuhara in Kochi Prefecture is often credited with sparking the latter passion.

Indeed, even Kuma’s designs for the Japan National Stadium have included his trademark wood slats and plants, features designed for both visual appeal and environmental soundness. The timbers were used to create “an urban wood structure, analogous to a natural forest”. The cedar used came from 46 of Japan’s 47 prefectures (Okinawa has no cedar, so instead contributed Ryukyu Island Pine). In case you were wondering, the random coloring of the spectator seating was intended to resemble a carpet of fallen leaves, further extending the urban forest theme.

Through September 26, 2021, the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo is hosting an exhibition featuring Kuma’s work: “Kuma Kengo: Five Purr-fect Points for a New Public Space.” This exhibition at least allows people in Tokyo to develop a deeper appreciation of Kuma’s work, even though attending Olympic events at his beautiful National Stadium is not possible.

The exhibition includes architectural models of a number of Kuma’s creations as well as displays on the materials he uses and the influences driving his designs. Kuma himself has identified five principles for his designs of public spaces: “hole,” “particles,” “oblique,” “softness,” and “time”. Kuma maintains that incorporating these five principles results in public spaces where people want to be. At the same time, he claims that he derived some of these principles from his observations of how cats in his Tokyo neighborhood of Kagurazaka occupy and interact with their urban environment, hence the use of “Purr-fect” in the exhibition’s title.

From the perspective of cats, holes are gateways from one place to another, as well as places to occupy. And Kuma’s point is that even for humans, holes can be intriguing, inviting gateways. The designs of a number of Kuma’s public buildings that feature holes are displayed but the most prominent is the 2018 V&A Dundee, a design museum building on the banks of the River Tay, Kuma’s first building in the United Kingdom. The distinctive structure features a number of apertures leading from one side of the complex to the other.

By “particles”, Kuma’s second principle, he apparently means the use of a number of component parts, often with gaps. Kuma has borrowed from traditional Japanese building techniques, such as stacked, interlocking boards to form bridges, roofs, and other support structures, but has also interlocked wood in new shapes to achieve structural support with different visual impact. The Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center in one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist neighborhoods, resembling several traditional wooden houses stacked on top of each other, present yet another version of “particles” for those who can manage to visit.

Kuma’s third principle, “Oblique,” is obvious in many of his designs including the ones pictured above. Right angles are rare. For other examples, just look at the “origami roof” of Tokyo’s Takanawa Gateway station and the China Academy of Arts’ Folk Museum nestled into a Hangzhou hillside.

A number of Kuma’s designs also embody his principle of “softness,” sometimes by their shapes and sometimes by the materials he uses.

I confess I find the final principle of “time” somewhat illusive. (If Kuma happens to read this and wants to discuss it over coffee, I will jump at the chance.) It seems Kuma wants to create buildings that stand the test of time, but at the same time, part of the exhibit featured old buildings that he has helped to preserve by renovating or repurposing through his designs, and there are many such buildings out there. In a sense, “time” is also about recycling, re-using materials and even designing buildings that can be disassembled and reassembled.

One section of the exhibition focused on Kuma’s post-disaster restoration work. As an architect who has long been involved in regional revitalization and preservation, Kuma soon became involved in helping Tohoku communities ravaged by the triple disaster of March 2011 to rebuild. In the Miyagi town of Minami Sanriku, Kuma designed the San San Shotengai, a shopping plaza featuring fish and produce shops, restaurants, coffee shops, galleries and souvenir shops. A Michi-no-eki he designed will soon be built next door. His Nakahashi footbridge crosses the Shizugawa river to lead from the San San Shotengai to the Memorial Park of Earthquake Disaster. All of these structures leverage the cedar timbers that Minami Sanriku is known for while reflecting Kuma’s design principles.

The final section returns to Kuma’s beloved street cats (you will also notice cat figurines in many of the architectural models displayed), using computer graphics to show how cats move and interact with their urban environment. The one that particularly charmed me was a video of a cat moving across a roof, with the paw prints showing up on the roof as it moved.

The National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo is located a two minute walk from Takebashi subway station. It is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00-17:00 (21:00 on Friday and Saturday). Admission: JPY1,300.

© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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