​Tea house against concrete boxes

Photo: Ivan Gushchin / Strelka Institute

Kengo Kuma has been already admitted as the classic of modern Japanese architecture. Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum, Nezu Museum and Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center in Tokyo, Great Wall House in Beijing, Nagaoka City Hall Aore in Nigata – all these world famous buildings have united local traditions and progressive engineering development. Kuma’s architecture exists in harmony with nature and human and converges to minimalism and transparency. Thus even more surprising, that architect came to that way of creation through awareness of man-made world weakness. We’ve met Kengo Kuma after his lecture “After 3.11” to learn why Japanese tea houses should be a base for modern architecture and how megapolises may clear themselves.

Great Wall House

– You’ve said many times that catastrophes influenced you and your work. How did your creative direction changed throughout your career?

– I didn’t have a strong idea about the relationship between nature and architecture at first. I tried to embed my design to the landscape, I just tried to build the harmony between nature and constructions. After the disasters I’ve seen, I got a strong feeling, that architecture is very weak in front of power of violence of elements. Even the concrete structures, concrete boxes were feeble in front of the amazing power of nature. I hit upon the idea, if we do not respect nature, architecture is nothing in front of it. After the tsunami in 2011 I’ve been trying to make my buildings as humble as possible. We should draw a lesson from this catastrophe.

– You’ve spoken against concrete – why are you so against this material?

– When I’m talking about concrete, I mean the industrial product, when the local economy and the material have no relationship. I want to regenerate local economy, because it is the only way to be strong even against natural disasters. Local materials make buildings stronger, because they organize the circulation. And now we build houses on different parts of the country using the concrete from Tokyo. So, the economy depends too much on the capital, and such dependence makes the architecture weak.

Nagaoka City Hall Aore

– What do you think about eco-friendly tendencies that are getting more and more popular these days?

– Of course, all these sun batteries and new eco-technologies are important. But as for Japan, the equipment still comes from Tokyo. It is not bad but weak. As I’ve already said, for me usage of local materials is much more important.

– How do new technologies, the Internet influence modern architecture and are they important for you?

– Technological progress is very important for the designing process. Strange though it may seem, but it helps to make architecture more organic. Also new technologies change the architectural product. In 20th century the functionalism, that was based on calculation, dictated the terms to architecture. Buildings mission was to accommodate space to as many people as possible. But in 21st century new technologies give people the opportunity to be flexible. So, with the lapse of time, functionality of architecture changes a lot. And with the evolution of programming architecture physically grows up from new technologies. The progress gives us the opportunity to make space as flexible and transparent as possible. If several decades ago buildings were just an enclosing, nowadays progress has converted them into usable space.

Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre in Tokyo

– So many major cities around the world are built of concrete and steel, and most of them are not exactly eco-freindly. Do you think there is chance to make them more sustainable?

– In the 20th century the main dream of most of people was to buy a house. That’s why people worked hard and aimed their efforts at success. Big and expensive house was an evidence of an opulence. But now, when many people have fulfilled their dreams, they found out that their achievement is very fragile. Especially, in front of powers of nature. After horrible disasters like the earthquake and tsunami, that happened in 2011,people found new value of life. This new value comes not from concrete boxes but life itself. How to spend time of your life? – here is the most important question for humanity.

If we want to change our cities, we may bring new technologies to our lifestyle and we may, for example, work in nature, in the park. And, of course, we should make computer jangle as minimal as possible. The main tendency today is the minimizing of concrete boxes, that surround us.We may reuse such kind of buildings, find a new adaptation for them. I believe that typical cities’ landscapes would melt after a number of years.

Nagaoka City Hall Aore

– At your lecture you’ve said, that classical Japanese architecture inspires you. I know, you also work in Europe where buildings historically differ a lot. What motivate you during your work on European projects?

– My inspiration is the architecture of the periods before industrialization. If we are talking about Europe, I think about compact cities, where people live and work in the same place. I’m interested in local materials and production and I believe, that we may bring back such order of life. That’s why my dream is to design a real village. I want to build a new kind of human network, that may exist by itself without any interference.

– What building, to your opinion, is the most nature-friendly and harmonic?

– That’s a difficult question! But the first thing that came into my head was a Japanese tea houses. Historically, smallness has had a value in Japanese culture. That idea differs a lot from the architectural traditions of XXcentury, when buildings were growing bigger and bigger. Smallness is much more harmonious with nature. That’s why I recommend to all modern architects to read “The Book Of Tea” by Okakura Kakuzō. It is devoted to traditional architecture of tea houses and traditions of tea ceremonies in Japanese culture. This book may help to find a new attitude to the harmony and nature.

– Once you've said, that you would never design a house for yourself, why?

– If I design a house for myself, next day I'll change my mind and decide to make it absolutely different. But if we dream, my house would be as minimal as possible. I am traveling all the time, that’s why my home is the airplane. So, I don’t need a concrete box to live in. 

Text: Daria Golovina
Photo: www.kkaa.co.jp

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