Japan architects sell a lifestyle on global stage
By YURI KAGEYAMA
the associated press | August 08,2014
Architect Kengo Kuma speaks during an interview at his office in Tokyo.
TOKYO — A new generation of Japanese architects believes the world has fallen out of love with the 20th century steel and concrete skyscraper. They are pushing a human-friendly alternative that some say has roots in the elegant simplicity of the traditional Japanese tea house.
Instead of pursuing monuments that cry out with a message of economic power, these Pritzker Prize-winning architects are scoring success with a uniquely Japanese reinterpretation of the past.
Unlike their predecessors, who modernized Japan with Western-style edifices, they talk of fluidly defining space with screens and sliding doors, innovatively blending with nature, taking advantage of earthy materials and incorporating natural light, all trademarks of Japanese design.
Their sensibility is also a hit abroad, said Erez Golani Solomon, professor of architecture at Waseda University in Tokyo.
“Food and architecture,” said Solomon, stressing how the two are Japan’s most potent brands. “They are powerful — Japan’s strongest cultural identity.”
Kengo Kuma, one of the star architects, finds he is in demand not only in Japan and in the West but also in places such as China, which has tempestuous relations with Tokyo but now boasts a growing fan base for Kuma’s works.
Among the major China projects for Kuma are the recent Xinjin Zhi Museum, whose sloping angles and repeated tile motifs are characteristically Kuma, and the Yunnan Sales Center, a sprawling complex of shops, housing and a theater, where wooden lattice decorates the main structure overlooking a pond.
He also designs private homes for affluent Chinese who admire Zen philosophy and want to incorporate that stark aesthetic into their daily lives, he said.
Kuma, an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, a pioneering American architect known for cherishing nature and people in his designs, at times uses interlocking wooden frames, defining a building’s shape with a collage of angles that seem to change organically. Natural wood is everywhere, in screens, doors and furniture.
Japanese architecture offers warmth and kindness as it is adept in the use of natural light and artisanal craftsmanship, such as bamboo and paper. It is “working together like music,” Kuma said, to create a comfortable and luxurious spot even in a cramped space. That’s the basic principle of a Japanese tea house, he said.
“It’s part of our genetic makeup,” Kuma told The Associated Press, sitting in his Tokyo studio among elegant chairs designed by himself and others by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and pointing with disgust at the vaulting skyscrapers visible from his window.
The older generation of Japanese may have embraced the superiority of the Western lifestyle, including construction he feels is merely based on stacking blocks on top of each other, but not architects of his generation, said Kuma.
“People all over the world are sick and tired of modern monuments,” he said. “The desire for the human and the gentle is a backlash to the globalization that brought all these monster skyscrapers.”
No other place illustrates Kuma’s Japanese sense of blending with the surroundings than his Nezu Museum in Tokyo. Its sloping roofs evoke temples, and one side is all glass, facing a Henri Rousseau-evoking garden spilling with plants, Buddhist statues and a pond with irises.