When I met Kengo Kuma in his office it was one of the warmest spring night in Japan. He welcomed me in his windy rooftop, in a four storeys building in Minamiaoyama, a business area of Tokyo. Here, the meeting room, a glass box containing about fifteen chairs, let me appreciate the thousands light of the city distributed within the horizon. A Japanese friend of mine told me that Kuma had a secret past experience in sport, so I decided to start our conversation with this ace in the hole.
I was told that you have been a basketball player. Were you as a good player as you are now a good architect?
Oh yes, I was a very good player! In basketball team-work is very important: the sense of passing the ball as soon as possible is the key of basketball. That experience, as a basketball player, was helpful to understand how to manage my office. I imported this sense in my office, when you have to pass a work to a colleague as soon as possible so as to continue the project in partnership.
I was surprised entering in your room and seeing so many chairs around this table. It has given to me a deep sense of teamwork.
Somebody thinks Architecture is a kind of art, but I think it is a kind of sport. My experience as a basketball player gave me that idea, and when I realized it, I really appreciated my past as a basketball player.
And what about your education? Who was the main architect that influenced you? What did you learn from him?
Professor Hiroshi Hara is the mentor of mine. We had a travel trip together in Africa. Actually, it was a research trip in Sahara desert in 1979, where we had been travelling for two months visiting small traditional villages. It was a kind of Paris-Dakar. Through those trips we had many conversations about what life is, what Architecture is, what humanity is. Every time we finished our visits, we started drinking and having these conversations. We had very intimate talks. In general from a student and his teacher there is a big gap of detachment, but with Prof. Hara it was totally different, we were very close. Those intimate conversations are very rare in Japan, even today. Basically, what I learnt from him was the potential of Architecture design. At that time, the Seventies, Japan was having the most exciting period in the Archietcture field: Isozaki-san was very active, Prof. Hara, Ando-san, and Ito-san too. In that hot period, we could talk about what were new directions to be pursued, what we could learn from history and tradition in the modern world. My Architecture design is still based of those conversations and his teachings.
Now you are a teacher in University too. Do you try to have the same approach of Hara san with your students?
Yes. My education method is basically avoiding the gap between professor and students, I would like to talk with them without any hesitation, as frank as possible, as egual as possible. This is the base of my education. For Architecture design this kind of fearless is important, this is exactly the pedagogical method I learnt from Hara.
In your works we can appreciate a particular attention to materiality. Why did you decide to develop this issue?
In 20th century people learnt a new method to design structures, a design based on grid systems and concrete, that was deeply connected with modernism, or even the steel design as Mies van Der Rohe did, but, before the structure design, we used to build basing on materials. We should consider the concrete a material, something beyond the structure system. Since I’ve decided to start from the material in my design workflow, I try to estrapolate from it many hints about how to do structures and how to treat surfaces, and how to delete the border between structures and surfaces, between the products, the furnitures, and the space, between the building and the landscape. In 20th century we learnt to perceive them separated. Now, I want to delete those borders again.
You mentioned surfaces. I have three words concerning your way of treating surfaces: vibrancy, transparency and dissolution. Can you explain your relation with them?
The word “integration” is the key. Integration between interior and exterior, between structures and surfaces, integration of fields we are used to consider separated. Actually, transparency is the most related to integration among the words you said. Our method of aggregation pursues this task, when we design small units they are very related to the integration between structures and surfaces, because every unit must work as a structure and as a surface at the same time.
In Japan there is a very rooted cultural identity. Traditional Japanese Architecture still inspires contemporary architects. How does it influence you?
Actually, I did not learn about traditional authentic Architecture. If I had had a good teacher about that, I couldn’t have gone beyond the tradition and find my way. So, fortunately I hadn’t had a good teacher. In my opinion, traditional Japanese Architecture and traditional African Architecture are sitting on the same ground, I always try to find some hints from them and from the experiences I had with them. Nonetheless I grew up in a traditional Japanese house, I used to sleep on the tatami mat, I used to seat on stones, enveloped in the smell of tatami, the smell of the clay wall, and I fell them as parts of my body. That kind of deep experience reflects my design. This relation between Japanese Architecture and me, is probably the basis of my creativity. Tradition is not something that sits next to me, but it is included in my body.
I would like to examine in depth the “smell issue”. You had an exhibition at the Royal Academy of London where your installation was related to smell. If we think about memories of the place we love, the smell is an evocative feature that suddenly comes to our minds. How do you deal with smell in your design?
That installation in London is very related with my general position of architect. Japanese tradition is not an Architecture style for me, it exists in my body and I wanted to express this concept with that installation. There you couldn’t find the Japanese style. It was just an ambiguous environment, but people could understand the essence of my practice from the smell of the installations. I have the same approach in my works, and this is one of the principal goal of my Architecture design.
In your projects we can find a frequent use of transitional spaces. Can you explain how you use them?
Modernists tried to divide human life in functions and follow this differentiation as a principle of design, but this kind of divisions has no meaning for human life. This is why I want to do the opposite, I want to integrate them. Human life is always flowing. So, I asked myself “how to activate the flows in my design?” Basically, I found out it trough the idea and the process of transition. This kind of never ending transitional spaces is one of the main goals of my space design.
Do you have a particular site approach? How do you consider the surrounding during the design phase?
I go to the site and I try to feel the flow and the size of the particles, for that kind of process we need to go to the site and we should walk around there. We should feel the flow of air, of the wind, of the light and of the smells, by ourselves. The videos cannot show me that kind of flows, they are just a visual experience, and trough the video we can’t feel the flows of nature of the specific place, this is why the site visit is very important for us, without going there I cannot find any solution to the site, because my design in basically a design of particles’ flows.
Which is your mission as an architect? Do you have a particular theme you are trying to pursue in your profession?
Yes, a very simple theme. As an architect, I want to go beyond the period of concrete. 20th century was the period of concrete, but now the concrete material is very related with industrialization. We live already in a different period, where people like to live without concrete, I think it’s an evidence that people start to hate it, his rigidness, his tactility, this is why I want to overcome it using authentic material.
Concerning industrialization, and contextualizing it in the globalization era, is in your opinion it still possible to have an artisanal approach to the project today?
I don’t think it is impossible, actually people are already going back to artisanship. They like making something with their own hands. Hands and materials are starting touching each other again, so I’m not afraid to lose artisanship in globalization, because I’m sure that after globalization we are going back to hands&materials. This is our way.
So, which is in your opinion the role of the architect in the 21st century in your opinion?
The role of the architect is also going back to be an artisan of materials. In 20th century the architect was a planner, a person on the top of the hierarchy of production. That kind of hierarchy has already lost its meaning, industrialization was very effective, but now people are using their own computers, and they can think by themselves. The sense of freedom of a single person is getting much bigger than it was in the last century. In this new situation, we don’t need hierarchy anymore, everybody can make things himself and we don’t need architects at the top of the hierarchy as planners, because an architect is just one of them, and his role is to stimulate creativity. In my life I want to be the person who activates that kind of new creativity.
If I ask you to leave me a word to take with me at home and to reflect about it, a kind of message for this young generation of architects, what would you say?
To use “Hands”.