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Kengo Kuma Global Awards Portrait

Chapter in the book 'Sustainable Archtecture 5', portrait of Kuma on the occasion of him winning the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2017

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Historians looking back at us in 200 years may note that -at a time of obvious, profound, spiraling danger for our environment- almost none of the Champions League of taste-making, competition-gobbling architects exhibited anything remotely close to an acknowledgment of the scale and meaning of this crisis. There might be lip service paid to a certain new eco-decorum through the presence of an extra consultant around the design team table, specifying a bit of ground-sourced heating, solar paneling and rainwater harvesting; but -squinting at any contemporary review, or listening to the authors occupying the top of the League- it would be almost impossible to detect anything other than an 18th-Century notion of nature as something to be contemplated for picturesque reasons, or a 22nd-century notion of extra technology saving us from our addiction to technology, a nostalgia for the future as a better place with snazzier, smarter gadgets.

Despite wide awareness of the problem, the failure of eco-conceptual trickle-up to the loudest voices in the profession has deep consequences in terms of emulation by the young and the construction of the mindset of publicity-hungry commissioning bodies. Some hide behind the fig leaf of eco-ratings, which are commonly skewed towards industrial, off-the-shelf, box-ticking solutions, and which give overwhelming importance to designed energy consumption. Such ratings rarely provide any reliable mechanism for monitoring post-occupancy behaviour and consumption, which can have huge leverage on actual performance. The elephant in the room -embodied energy from the construction process itself- is up to 50 times bigger than the annual consumption of an average building, meaning that how (and why) the building is made are vastly more important -in the short to medium term- than how it 'performs'. This gives the lie to tragedies such as Masdar City, an eco-utopia that nobody wants.

Kengo Kuma is a relatively new arrival in the Champions League, perhaps squinting a bit in the floodlights, still deciding what position to play on the pitch; he has also been roughed up by his co-Leaguer Zaha Hadid over the Tokyo Olympic Stadium contest. He is a vastly important addition to the League -and to the Global Award squad- because of his patient, modest attention to materials which are not just more sustainable, but have myriad social, historical and philosophical benefits. His embodied energy elephant is a baby Dumbo compared to some of his team-mates' mammoth footprints and -perhaps more importantly- he points us towards a haptic, craft-based, sensual occupation of the world which expresses nature not as something needing to be cured scientifically, but as a complex system with which we have innumerable common points, sympathies and synergies. The occasionally tiny scale of his work (one project is listed as 'total size: 87.88 m2') would cause a system crash for any of his co-Leaguers' business model algorithms.

Kuma very rarely -if ever- uses the familiar, do-gooding rhetoric of the eco-responsible architect, which is all about problem-solving, demonstrable performance and progress. He has, however, developed a subtle and original discourse concerning this question of 'progress' and how it relates to nature. In his book 'Natural Architecture / Small Architecture' he argues that architectural history is far from the forward-marching, technology-enabled smooth ascent that mainstream accounts would have us believe. It is, rather, a succession of irrational spasms spawned by nature's occasional outbursts at our expense, whether the earthquakes of Lisbon (1755) or Tokyo (1923) or the great fires of London (1667) or Chicago (1871). In each case -he argues- society responded by trying to get architecturally bigger, more apparently strong and enduring, in an obvious exercise of denial. The case of Tokyo he takes personally, crediting it with sweeping aside the city's wooden heritage in a regulatory paranoia, resulting in the steroidal city we know today. He told me:

I was born in a small wooden house, a very flexible building which we expanded over time, we changed the partitions very easily. I still remember the smell of the house, obviously very different from a concrete apartment. I studied at an elementary school of wood as well, something which hardly exists any more. I really want to go back to Tokyo as it was before the second world war, a city with a low silhouette, an amazing street activity. This is the basis of Japanese culture. The Japanese mentality is based on this kind of intimate city: culture, space and material are very much related. Now that we have the cityscape you see through my office window, this totally changes the mentality and the way of thinking. It’s not good for Japan: our sensitivities, our delicacy are killed by concrete. This is my motivation.

The litany of past disasters is certainly nothing compared to those yet to come as nature bites us back for having brought her down; we might eventually assimilate nature's future assaults on our coastal cities and agriculture to another paradigm of paranoia, the 'war' on terror, which -following Kuma's reasoning- involves rearing up like a wounded Godzilla and throwing vast resources at a 'problem' which is unlikely to be thus solved.

What should we do, then? Kuma -admirably, especially for a Champions League player- advocates that we get smaller, and do more with our hands; and he leads by example. He writes -regarding the Tohuku earthquake of 2011 and the attendant Fukushima disaster:

The world is beginning to scale down from big to small. We humans are starting to wean ourselves off big systems (like nuclear power), we're transforming ourselves, actively using our hands and animal wiles to create our nest and energy.

Kuma credits the stagflation episode of 1990s Japan with liberating him personally in this sense. Having emerged as the author of the overbearingly postmodern M2 building, he was cut down to size and forced to continue through a series of modest regional projects throughout the downturn. These brought him into contact with local craft and vernacular traditions -something he had already explored in west Africa with his teacher Hiroshi Hara- and gave him skill in using locally available and produced materials, especially adobe, hinoki cypress, thatch, bamboo and washi hand-made paper. It should be noted that these materials can have an outlaw quality, existing in a slightly anarchic grey economy beyond the confines of catalogues, markets and standards. Kuma -perhaps uniquely for an architect working at his level- energetically engages government figures to advance regulations and develop acceptance of new materials such as cross-laminated timber.

He literally had to roll up his sleeves and work experimentally in order for buildings such as the astonishingly modest (87.88m2!) Takayanagi Community Centre to see the light of day -a light which is now lustrously filtered through its painstakingly crafted paper facade. The same goes for bamboo, which he has used as entire culms in the Great (Bamboo) Wall house outside Beijing, employing ancestral (and industrially 'imprecise') oil treatments. A self-described 'guadua gaga,' he even imported containers of the massive Columbian bamboo just to mess around with, to see what could be done (I confess to having followed his crazy example with the Balinese Dendrocalamus Asper I imported for the Hardelot Theatre in northern France). Kuma's marvelous use of abobe bricks in the Toyoura-cho Buddha Statue Repository had a great deal to do with the skill of craftsman Akira Kuzumi, himself a different kind of repository -of millenial knowledge relating to earth construction.

This could appear as a kind of nativist, conservative return to 'roots,' but Kuma actually goes far beyond this, conceptually and materially. He advocates a 'particulate' approach to architecture, meaning that one starts -like the painter Georges Seurat- with the smallest indivisible quantity of an element, and through build-up, repetition and variation, one forms a whole which can never be detached from this smallest module. This is not the British 'high-tech' veneration of the perfectly-conceived, optimised, polished component reproduced ad infinitum to make 'architecture,' but -rather- a way of generating empathy with our surroundings, extending them as an extrapolation of things we can touch, manipulate and make for ourselves (like the flexible partitions of his childhood home). It's a question of that mysteriously unfashionable term, scale, and also of our implication within the world as an actor of its substance -rather than as a passive extra in a frozen Euclidian stage set.

In the case of the hinoki sticks used in projects such as the Sunnyhills Shop in Tokyo or the Prostho Museum Research Centre, these 'particles' are of a size which can be held in the hand; we can relate haptically to the building unit through our primary means of apprehending the world. It's no coincidence either that they can also be locally made in modest workshops, cutting out the industrialist middle-man and keeping transport down. If not grey energy, there is, however, a great deal of embodied grey matter in these two projects. The crazy wooden grids are not just for visual effect; they are structural, and -in the latter case- assembled without mechanical fixing, merely locked together following the children's 'chidori' toy. This involved experimental structural testing and many, many prototypes. It probably -contrary to many Champions co-Leaguers' habits- involved minimal computer modeling.

And you can tell: the Sunnyhills Shop -a small café and sales outlet for delicious organic pineapple cakes, made of a buzzing cloud of cypress sticks- is as bonkers as anything in Tokyo, but somehow inevitable, timely and timeless, enveloping, tender, loving its light and tiny plot, making the most out of meagre conditions to create a celebration both of Tokyo miniaturism and Japanese ingenuity with natural materials. It is truly four-dimensional, accepting patina and weathering, its structural flesh and visual envelope made of its individual filaments with an extraordinary directness, skill and rigour. You might call it a Miesian building for the eco-apocalypse age. By comparison, Herzog and de Meuron's brand new Miu Miu shop a few metres away is like decadent, overpriced Kristal champagne to Sunhyhill's profoundly satisfying sparkling organic wine.

A few streets further south of this scene lies a totally different facet of Kuma's work in the serene Nezu Museum. If Sunnyhills is a crazy pudding, Nezu is a rich, satisfying broth, composed to an old recipe but with understated contemporary virtuosity. The composition is familiar to anyone knowing the spatial tricks of a Zen Temple: low eaves calming you down, giving you a sense of being enveloped before you enter the building, and then a disorienting approach involving two perpendicular turns to erase your attachment to the corrupt world you came from. In this case you turn from the street and walk under a projecting roof of impossibly thin steel with abstracted traditional tiles on top, a wall dressed in cut bamboo to the left and a growing bamboo screen to the right. Around the second corner you are swallowed by a glazed entrance which reveals the delightful continuation of the greenery beyond the building: you have left the city to enter a contemplative garden. Inside a double-height hall -clad in sharp sheets of bamboo- signals other volumes nested under oversailing sloped roof planes. Across the garden a tea room appears to float without support, a folded, silvery soffit lending a calm and sensuous atmosphere to the experience of refreshing oneself in the midst of nature. Look very (very) closely and you can detect how the chunky seismically-determined structure is magically made to disappear from the prospect of the garden. The aim is not virtuosity for its own sake: according to Kuma, it is an anti-standard, anti-Western museum, designed to allow the contemplation of traditional Japanese art in the non-neutral conditions of omnipresent nature.

Kuma is prolific and one could go on and on, examining the superinsulated, translucent Memu Meadows Experimental House or his provocative Asakusa Cultural Tourism Information Centre which he describes as a tower made of eight single-storey buildings, and so on. French sociologist Sophie Houdart -who spent a year examining Kuma's work environment- describes it as a kind of anthill without hierarchy, full of 'little people' (Kuma included), patiently nibbling away at various problems. Houdart's teacher Bruno Latour has lent Kuma a key concept in his work, that of actor network theory, situating the citizen in an interconnected environment of things and people, all having varying degrees of agency. Kuma remarks wryly that his anthill-office practices ANT. Latour's thinking has, however, evolved substantially since this 1990s idea, specifically towards the question of Gaia, the whole planet working in concert as a vastly complex system whose predictive modeling is becoming rapidly obsolete; the unexpected will become the new norm, within our lifetimes.

In this spirit, I wonder -with great respect and anticipation- how Kuma will maintain his admirable ant-character as he progresses in the planetary Champions League. Can he break the paradigm of the permanently jetlagged, drop-in, paparazzi-hungry architect? Will he be able to energise on a much greater stage his deeply unorthodox methods and achievements?


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