“We should create a building that is a symbol of a new age”
Kengo Kuma in conversation with It’s Nice That
Following the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, which destroyed over 450,000 buildings, and the westernisation that occurred in the nation after World War II, Japan’s long-running relationship with concrete began. This love affair culminated in architectural landmarks such as Le Corbusier’s National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, which stands as a sign of the material’s dominance in modern Japanese architecture. Concrete took hold of Japan’s cityscapes and it hasn’t let go since.
But with the climate crisis now the most pressing disaster facing humanity, the need for sensitive, sustainable design has never been more urgent. Gone are the days when we could build whatever we wanted, wherever we wanted, with little concern for the environmental ramifications. The future of architecture has never before been so closely tied to the future of the planet. And in our search for solutions, much inspiration can be found in the practices of architects such as Kengo Kuma.
Born in Yokohama in 1954, he established his firm, Kengo Kuma & Associates, just a little over a decade after graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1979. Since then, through an approach that combines innovation and tradition, he has gone on to champion the use of materials such as stone and wood in contemporary architectural design.
A longstanding proponent of creating symbiotic relationships between manmade structures and their natural surroundings, he has designed buildings around the world, including several in China and the stunning V&A Dundee in Scotland, which opened to the public last year. Yet Kuma is currently in the process of applying his architectural philosophies to a project of unprecedented scale and importance: Japan’s National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics, which is currently nearing completion.
INT What inspired you when you were designing the National Stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?
KK My initial inspiration came from the location of the project itself. Built on the site of the previous national stadium, it is situated in Meiji Jingu Gaien, Tokyo’s most beautiful park. Working in harmony with this park and its forests was very important for the project.
My other major inspiration was the difference between the upcoming 2020 Olympics and the Olympics in 1964. The former national stadium was designed by Kenzo Tange, an architectural star of that period, whose Yoyogi National Gymnasium became a symbol of the first Tokyo Olympics. It’s a beautiful concrete and steel building with a structural system that features a suspended roof. At the time, people were shocked by the advanced technology that had been applied to the building’s design.
But for the 2020 Olympics we should not follow this kind of typical Modernist style. We should create a building that is a symbol of a new age, a new period of natural design. During the 1964 Olympics, Japan was in the process of economic expansion and held the belief that industrialisation was good for society; but with 2020 approaching, there is much doubt about these things and people are pushing for a more natural approach in society. The national stadium should represent this, which is why I used wood as the main material for the building.
“We should create a building that is a symbol of a new age, a new period of natural design.”
INT What have been the biggest challenges you have faced during this project?
KK Using wood for such a huge building is unusual. Some people are worried about the maintenance of the wood and that sourcing the material will mean the destruction of forests. In response to the first concern, we have proposed a special treatment for the wood which will extend its lifespan. As for the second concern, we have explained that creating a cycle of cutting down the trees and planting new ones is actually very necessary to maintain Japan’s forests, and the team of scientists and engineers we are working with are in agreement.
INT You have said that sourcing your materials locally is very important to you when you are working on a project. Was this the case with the National Stadium?
KK Yes, we have used cedar wood that has come from every prefecture in Japan, except Okinawa which supplied Luchu pine. There are 47 prefectures and they have all worked together to provide us with the materials. I think this kind of collaboration is very good for the entire country.
“In the 20th Century, we forgot these kinds of designs. That’s what I’m trying to go back to.”
Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum, © 2010 Takumi Ota Photography
INT Would you say there is a problem with sustainability in modern architecture?
KK Yes, modern architecture relies heavily on concrete, which is not a sustainable material. But wood helps to absorb CO2 and combat global warming, and using local wood is better than using wood from other countries even though, for us, wood from the USA, Russia and Canada is much cheaper.
INT Do you think sustainability in architecture is less of an issue in Japan?
KKHistorically, traditional Japanese architecture uses very sustainable designs that incorporate features such as natural ventilation instead of air conditioning, and things like that. But in the 20th century, as Western culture came to Japan, we forgot these kinds of designs. That’s what I’m trying to go back to.
“My philosophy is just to respect the culture and environment of the place I am working.”
Kengo Kuma: V&A Dundee, Scotland, Photography © Hufton+Crow
INT There have been many studies on how Japanese design has influenced Western architecture, but in what ways has there been Western influence on Japanese architecture?
KK There has definitely been an exchange. After the end of World War II in 1945, the concrete building came to Japan from America and the cityscape of Tokyo changed completely. I think this is a great pity, because Japanese cities used to be very intimate and built on a much more human scale. But I think our national stadium can be the catalyst that will transform Tokyo back from a concrete city. I want it to set an example that will help alter the direction of Japanese architectural design.
INT Your practice is very concerned with “lightness” in buildings. How did this factor into your design for the National Stadium?
KK It’s easy to achieve lightness with small wooden buildings, but with a building of this size it’s tough. Working with very good engineers, we resolved to build a composite structure of wood and steel. By combining these materials, we can achieve the right kind of transparency. We used wooden planks and each one has a gap to allow wind and light to come into the stadium. By incorporating these details we can achieve lightness.
“My dream is to start my own school and pass my lessons on to younger generations.”
INT Your philosophies in architecture and design are well known, but when working abroad do you have to compromise at all to make them more palatable?
KK There’s compromise with every project. But this is not relevant to my philosophy, because my philosophy at its most basic level is just to respect the culture and environment of the country or place I am working in. I always use local materials and collaborate with local craftsmen so that each project becomes a product of that cultural exchange. For example, with my design for the new Victoria & Albert Museum in Dundee, I was very influenced by architectural tradition in Scotland. I have great admiration for the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and I could see the similarities between his designs and Japanese design, and this helped me to create a unique building.
INT What does the future hold for Japanese architecture?
KK Too many concrete buildings are being constructed in Japanese cities purely for business purposes. In my opinion, this has been destroying cities for the past 60 years and I want to stop us from heading in this direction. We must also find a smart way to live in limited space. Japan is very small and 70 per cent of it is made up of forests, leaving us only the remaining 30 per cent to use. So we must develop a way to work within these confinements. But this is not just exclusive to Japan. We need to apply this wisdom on a universal level, because it’s important for the environment that we learn to live in small spaces and conserve energy. I want Japan to be able to lead the way in this.
INT Finally, what does the future hold for you? You’re a successful architect who has worked on a huge range of projects. What do you still want to achieve?
KK My dream is to start my own school and pass my lessons on to younger generations in the same way that Frank Lloyd Wright did with his School of Architecture at Taliesin [in Wisconsin]. He has inspired me in many ways, but I think this has been his biggest influence on me. It will be an international school in Tokyo, where students will be taught the art of building in harmony with nature. This will be a big chance to change the direction of architecture and design.
Kengo Kuma: Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum, © 2010 Takumi Ota Photography