The life and career of Kengo Kuma

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Kengo Kuma

Kengo Kuma is one of the most critically acclaimed Japanese architects of all time. His practice, Kengo Kuma and associates, has offices in Tokyo and Paris. He is world renown for his innate ability to merge architecture with nature and social responsibility.

Since the founding of Kengo Kuma and associates in 1990, he has completed projects in over 20 countries all over the world, and throughout his career, he has accumulated a portfolio of over 300 completed projects.

Quick facts

  • Born: Kengo Kuma, 8 august 1954, Yokohama, Japan         

  • Nationality: Japanese

  • Occupation: Architect

  • Practice: Kengo Kuma & Associates

  • Website: www.kkaa.co.jp

Synopsis

Kengo Kuma is a Japanese architect who is considered to be one of the most important contemporary Japanese architects of our time. He is also a professor at the University of Tokyo graduate school of architecture. He has his own practice known as Kengo Kuma and Associates, and is also a prolific writer with his books published in several languages.

Facts about Kengo Kuma

  1. Growing up, Kengo Kuma considered renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange as his godfather.

  2. He is known for his love of wood, which he incorporates into most of his buildings, including the stadium for the 2020 Olympics, which is still under construction.

  3. He admitted that he is embarrassed by some of his experimental-style buildings such as the M2 building in Tokyo.

  4. He is a strong advocate of Japanese traditions.

  5. He has a strong regard for nature and fuses nature with his designs so that they integrate together in harmony.

Family

Kengo Kuma was born to a Japanese family. His father was also an architect based in Japan who loved modern architecture. Kenzo Tange, who was also a Japanese architect, was considered by Kengo Kuma as his godfather.

Early life

Kengo Kuma was born in Yokohama in the Kanagawa prefecture in 1954. Kenzo kuma’s father was also an architect who loved modern architecture and would take him to buildings by Kisho Kurokawa, Kunio Maekawa, and others.

Education

For his early education, Kengo Kuma attended Eiko Gakuen junior and senior high schools. He then joined the university of Tokyo and graduated in 1979.

He then moved to New York to enroll at Columbia University as a visiting researcher from 1985 to 1986.

Personal life

Very little is known about Kengo Kuma’s personal life. He, however, revealed in an interview that he is a big fan of music and has musician friends such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, with whom he shares a similar philosophy.

Early training and influences

Kengo Kuma’s interest in architecture began when he was 10 years old when his father took him to visit the Yoyogi National Gymnasium by Kenzo Tange. After completing his bachelors, Kengo Kuma worked at Nihon Sekkei and Toda Corporation.

Architecture career

After graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1979, Kengo Kuma worked at Nihon Sekkei and TODA Corporation. Kengo Kuma founded the Spatial Design Studio in 1987.

In 1990, he established his own practice, Kengo Kuma and Associates. He has since proceeded to design some of the most unique structures both in Japan and worldwide.

Early projects

M2 building (1989-1991)

The M2 building was the first major commission of Kengo Kuma’s. The construction of the M2 building which is located in Tokyo, Japan, and completed in 2001.

The building was constructed with reinforced steel, although it gives the illusion of masonry construction. The design of the M2 building displays an extravagant kind of postmodernism.

Kitakami Canal Museum (1994)

The Kitakami Canal Museum is a small gallery located at the intersection of the Kitakami Canal, which is one of the oldest canals in Japan, and the Kitakami River.

The exterior of the structure is almost completely hidden as it is embedded. The design of the building looks like a knot which sorts out the discontinuities of the natural and manmade landscape.

Water/Glass, Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan (1995)

The Water/Glass is located in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, and its construction was completed in 1995.

Its design was greatly influenced by “Hyuga” Villa, which was designed by Bruno Taut. The design of Water/Glass intended to connect architecture with the sea with the means of a veranda of water, with the transparency of glass and water.

Stone Museum (2000)

The Stone Museum is located in Tochigi, Japan. Its construction was completed in 2002. The stone museum utilizes 80-year-old stone buildings which were used to store rice. The structure reuses the stone buildings as display space for arts and crafts made from stone. Stone louvres and porous masonry create a unique lighting effect on the inside.

Great (Bamboo) Wall House, Beijing, China (2002)

The construction of the Great (Bamboo) Wall House was completed in 2002. The basic concept of the project was to ensure that the geographical features were left as intact as possible and to utilize as much locally available materials as possible.

Bamboo, which is a symbol of natural heritage between China and Japan, is the primary material used.

LVMH Group Japan Headquarters, Osaka, Japan (2003)

The LVMH Group Japan Headquarters is located in Midosuji Street, one of Osaka’s most important shopping streets, in Japan. Its construction was completed in 2003.

In the construction of the building, panels of PET were alternated with slabs of glass-covered onyx. This ensures that the offices receive proper lighting and provide them with views of the city. 

Major projects

V&A Dundee, Dundee, United Kingdom (2018)

The V&A Dundee is located along the waterfront in the city of Dundee, Scotland, United Kingdom. The structure was constructed on a site adjacent to River Tay.

The design of the building, which resembles a cliff, proposes a new way to achieve harmony with the environment.

Xinjin Zhi Museum, Xinjin, China

The Xinjin Zhi Museum is located in Xinjin, China. The building is comprised of rows of floating traditional local tiles which are stretched tautly around the building on wire strings.

This provides shade for the glazed exterior from direct sunlight. The building is located at the gateway to the holy place of Taoism.

Lotus House, Eastern Japan, Japan (2005)

The construction of the Lotus House was completed in 2005. The house is located next to a quiet river deep in the mountains.

The main concept for the project was to lay waterways between the river and the house and plant them with lotus flowers. The walls of the structure have many holes, creating a light wall through which wind sweeps through.

Nagasaki Prefectural Museum, Nagasaki, Japan (2005)

The construction of the Nagasaki Prefectural Museum was completed in 2005. The museum is located in Nagasaki, Japan. The construction site of the Nagasaki Prefectural Museum was quite unusual since a canal ran right through the centre of the construction site.

The design of the museum, therefore, had to integrate the canal with the art museum.

The Nagasaki Prefectural Museum is comprised of two main structures built on both sides of the canal. There is a walkway which is enclosed with glass over the canal which connects the two structures.

The site is protected from the sun by louvres made of stone which create a shade. It is a response to contemporary Japanese architecture which ignores climate.  

Asakusa Tourism Centre, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan (2012)

The Asakusa Tourism Centre is located on a 326 square meter premise in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.

The building was meant to accommodate several programs such as tourist information centre, multi-purpose hall, conference room, and exhibition space. Each of these spaces is separated by roofs, vertically stacked into 8 one-storied hoses.

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Kabuki-za Theatre, Tokyo, Japan

The Kabuki-za Theatre is located in Tokyo, Japan. Its construction was completed in 2013. It is the principal theatre in Tokyo for the traditional kabuki drama form. The theatre had been reconstructed 4 times before Kengo Kuma’s new design.

The new building retains the Japanese-style facade of its previous incarnations, first of which was constructed in 1889.

Teaching career

Apart from being an architect, Kengo Kuma is also a professor and has taught in various institutions. He has taught at the Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and at the University of Keio.

He is currently a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Tokyo. 

Material theory

Kengo Kuma does not limit himself to the superficial use of light materials. Instead, he makes use of technological advancements to challenge unexpected materials such as stone to provide the same softness and lightness as wood or glass.

This brings a sense of spatial immateriality thus establishing a relationship between space and nature around it.

Top 10 buildings

  1. V&A Dundee

  2. Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum

  3. Kabuki-za Theatre

  4. Suntory Museum of Art

  5. Great (Bamboo) Wall House

  6. Water/Glass

  7. LVMH Group Japan Headquarters

  8. Asakusa Tourism Center

  9. GC Prostho Museum

  10. Lotus House

Kuma lab

Kengo Kuma also heads a Research Laboratory based in the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo’s Hongo Campus, known as Kuma Lab.

Kuma Lab was established in 2009, and is involved in carrying out extensive research on the methodology for bridging physical, sustainable and information designs.

Kuma Lab has a staff of over 200 people sourced from different places in the world. The main practice philosophy for Kuma Lab is the production of designs that connect areas of architecture with the landscape and to traverse sustainable design, physical design, and information design.

Influences

Kengo Kuma’s design process is inspired by the light and the nature of the site of the building. His influences come from unique explorations of glass, concrete, stone and wood. He is also influenced by the natural environment, which he strives to harmonize with architecture and the human body through his work.

Awards

  • 1997: Architectural Institute of Japan Award for “Noh Stage in the Forest"

  • 1997: AIA DuPONT Benedictus Award for “Water/Glass” (USA)

  • 2001: Togo Murano Award for “Nakagawa-machi Bato Hiroshige Museum”

  • 2002: Spirit of Nature Wood Architecture Award (Finland)

  • 2008: Energy Performance + Architecture Award (France)Bois Magazine International Wood Architecture Award (France)

  • 2008: LEAF Award (commercial category)

  • 2009: Decoration Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France)

  • 2010: Mainichi Art Award for “Nezu Museum”

  • 2011: The Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's Art Encouragement Prize for "Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum"

  • 2012: The Restaurant & Bar Design Awards, Restaurant Interior (Standalone) for Sake No Hana (London)

Quotes by kengo kuma

  1. “Architecture forms a vital link between people and their surroundings. It acts as a gentle buffer between the fragility of human existence and the vast world outside. How different people choose to build connections in their environment essentially defines those societies and their relationships to conditions around them.”

  2. “Nature is synonymous with change and potential. Whatever seems fixed and immutable within our myopic human time-span, is still in flux over glacial aeons because it’s free particles.”

  3. “But can there ever be a 100% achievement in architecture? I only distrust those who take that level of satisfaction in their work. All building materials harm the environment in some way, whether in production or transportation or assembly.”

  4. “You could say that my aim is ‘to recover the place’. The place is a result of nature and time; this is the most important aspect. I think my architecture is some kind of frame of nature. With it, we can experience nature more deeply and more intimately. Transparency is a characteristic of Japanese architecture; I try to use light and natural materials to get a new kind of transparency.”

  5. “If the journey of the ingredients is too long, the taste of the sushi is compromised. That is a problem that can’t be solved by modern technology, and that programme of using local material in season is the secret of good taste, and the secret of my style.”