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Kengo Kuma (born 1954) is a much acclaimed Japanese architect.
Kuma was born in Yokohama, Japan, 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 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 office “Kengo Kuma & Associates”. He has taught at Columbia University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Keio University, where in 2008, Kuma was awarded his Ph.D. in Architecture. Kuma is currently Professor at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Tokyo, running diverse research projects concerning architecture, urbanity and design within his own Laboratory, Kuma Lab. His office 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 from 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 materiality. 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.
Although remaining in continuity with Japanese traditions with the clarity of structural solutions, implied tectonics, and 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 which can challenge unexpected materials, such as stone, into providing the same sense of lightness and softness as glass or wood. Kengo 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 Commune by the Great Wall of China 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 stone work, for example, Kengo 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.
Stone Roof, a private residence in Nagano, Japan, built in 2010, consists of a roof which is meant to spring from the ground, providing a complete enclosure to the home. A local stone was chosen to intimately relate itself to the preexisting natural environment of the mountain side. The exterior stone work 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 stone is diluted and provides the eye with an illusion of lightness, allowing light and air directly into the 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 mountain side.