Kengo Kuma is a Japanese architect and professor in the Department of Architecture (Graduate School of Engineering) at the University of Tokyo. Frequently compared to contemporaries Shigeru Ban and Kazuyo Sejima, Kuma is also noted for his prolific writings.
Early life and education
Kuma was born in Yokohama and attended Eiko Gakuen junior and senior high schools. After graduating in Architecture from the University of Tokyo in 1979, he worked for a time at Nihon Sekkei and Toda Corporation. He then moved to New York City in the USA for further studies at Columbia University as a visiting researcher from 1985 to 1986.
In 1987, he founded the “Spatial Design Studio”, and in 1990, he established his own firm “Kengo Kuma & Associates”. He has taught at Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Keio University, wherein 2008, Kuma was awarded his Ph.D. in Architecture. As a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Tokyo, he runs diverse research projects concerning architecture, urbanity, and design within his own Laboratory, Kuma Lab. His firm, Kengo Kuma & Associates employs over 150 architects in Tokyo and Paris, designing projects of diverse type and scale throughout the world.
Kuma’s stated goal is to recover the tradition of Japanese buildings and to reinterpret these traditions for the 21st century. In 1997, he won the Architectural Institute of Japan Award and in 2009 was made an Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. Kuma lectures extensively and is the author of numerous books and articles discussing and criticizing approaches in contemporary architecture. His seminal text Anti-Object: The Dissolution and Disintegration of Architecture written in 2008, calls for an architecture of relations, respecting its surroundings instead of dominating them. Kuma’s projects maintain a keen interest in the manipulation of light with nature through the material.
Although remaining in continuity with Japanese traditions with the clarity of structural solutions, implied tectonics, and the importance of light and transparency, Kengo Kuma does not restrain himself to the banal and superficial use of ‘light’ materials. Instead, he goes much deeper, extending to the mechanisms of composition to expand the possibilities of materiality. He utilizes technological advancements that can challenge unexpected materials, such as stone, into providing the same sense of lightness and softness as glass or wood. Kuma attempts to attain a sense of spatial immateriality as a consequence of the ‘particulate nature’ of the light and establishing a relationship between a space and the natural round around it.
“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.” –Kengo Kuma
In many of Kengo Kuma’s projects, attention is focused on the connection spaces; on the segments between inside and outside, and one room to the next. The choice of materials stems not so much from an intention to guide the design of the forms but to conform to the existing surroundings from a desire to compare similar materials, yet show the technical advances that have made possible new uses.
When dealing with stonework, for example, Kuma displays a different character from the preexisting buildings of solid, heavy, traditional masonry construction. Instead, his work surprises the eye by slimming down and dissolving the walls in an effort to express a certain “lightness” and immateriality, suggesting an illusion of ambiguity and weakness not common to the solidity of stone construction.
Key projects include the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo, Bamboo Wall House in China, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) Group’s Japan headquarters, Besançon Art Center in France, and one of the largest spas in the Caribbean for Mandarin Oriental Dellis Cay.
Stone Roof, a private residence in Nagano, Japan, built in 2010, consists of a roof that is meant to spring from the ground, providing a complete enclosure to the home. Local stone was chosen to intimately relate itself to the preexisting natural environment of the mountainside. The exterior stonework is made light and airy by cutting each stone into thin slices and bracing each slice as a pivoting panel. In this way, the heavy quality of the stone is diluted and provides the eye with an illusion of lightness, allowing light and air directly into space within. With this choice of material and construction, a new kind of transparency emerges; one that not only frames nature the way a glass curtain wall would but also deeply relates itself to the mountainside.
In 2016, Kuma also delved into designing pre-fabricated pavilions in partnership with Revolution Pre-crafted. He designed the mobile multifunctional pavilion named The Aluminum Cloud Pavilion. The structure, composed of aluminum panels joined using the Kangou technique, can be used as a teahouse or a space of meditation.
Kuma Lab is a Research Laboratory headed by Kuma based in the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo’s Hongo Campus that was started in 2009. In 2012, Kuma Lab published the book Patterns and Layering, Japanese Spatial Culture, Nature and Architecture, including the research from various Doctoral Candidate Lab members.
Its research topics consist of a comprehensive survey of architectural, urban, community, landscape, and product designs; a survey of structural, material, and mechanical designs; and methodology for bridging sustainable, physical, and information designs. Its activities include participation in architectural design competitions, organization, and management of regional and international design workshops, joint research with other departments at the University of Tokyo, and research and proposal to aid the recovery from the Great East Japan earthquake.