Last month, Tokyo-based Kengo Kuma & Associates won the commission for the new National Stadium (home of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics), a decision that reflected a return to the nation’s architectural roots—not just in choosing a native to replace London-based Zaha Hadid Architects, but also in the embrace of a largely timber construction. Kuma's stadium design exemplifies a thoughtful fusion of traditional forms and materials with contemporary technologies, informed by research and experimentation tied to Kuma’s second career in academia as head of the University of Tokyo’s Kuma-Lab. Be it small-scale projects like 2002’s Great (Bamboo) Wall House or an expanded campus for the Portland Japanese Garden, set for completion next year (a related exhibit at Portland, Ore.’s Center For Architecture opens in February), Kuma seems less like a starchitect and more like a poetic artisan, seeking to build something meaningful as much as to design it.
ARCHITECT spoke with Kuma through Balazs Bognar, AIA, his firm's chief manager and also a translator, about his recent projects and his work in architectural practice and education.
ARCHITECT: What is your approach to the National Stadium design?
Kuma: Our office knows the site of the new Olympic Stadium very well, especially since it is about five minutes away on foot. I love the environment of this gaien, this outer garden park system, which has a long history. In the Meiji era, the park system was conceived as a large series of interconnected outdoor landscape spaces. Our proposal for the stadium is to reintroduce a “green connection” in the center of Tokyo. We treated the stadium as a part of the park, using natural materials as much as possible.
The other important idea was to find a way to connect the stadium to the park system by a series of shadows. Shadows under the roof are important for Japanese buildings, acting as an intermediate zone between landscape and architecture. Throughout Japanese architectural history, shadows have always connected the gardens to the building volumes.
For the stadium's program, large horizontal eaves are appropriate for sheltering a large audience and thus meets the desire to connect to the landscape and the requirements for the stadium's program. This combination probably helped win support for the design. [Toyo] Ito san's design [the other finalist] is good, but the approach is fundamentally different—it aims to be an icon as opposed to part of a larger continuity.
You’ve said that you first wanted to be an architect at age 10 after seeing architect Kenzo Tange’s buildings for the Tokyo Olympics. Where did that wonder originate?
Tokyo in the 1960s was an exciting time due to the emergence of many new projects. My father loved modern design, and he brought me to buildings by Kisho Kurokawa, Kunio Maekawa, and others. Kenzo Tange’s 1964 Olympic Gymnasium was truly outstanding; it looked very different from other modern designs. This was because Tange knew how to create Japanese symbols with then-current technology. He always tried to combine Japanese tradition with a contemporary vocabulary. I was impressed by this. After that experience, I wanted to become an architect. It was a turning point in my life.
The Portland Japanese Garden, for which you designed an expanded campus, is one of the largest outside of Japan. Why do Japanese gardens continue to resonate with people around the world?
The Portland Japanese Garden is unique because of its highly specific combination of the Pacific Northwest climate with Japanese traditional principles. The good thing about the garden is its original design, thanks to the recognition of these specific climatic conditions by the eight garden designers. They brought Japanese tradition to Portland, not by simply copying existing examples in Japan, but by adapting principles to a new situation. This is important because we, as visitors and as Japanese citizens, can feel the essence of the Japanese garden. The garden designers merged this essence with the unique site.
You have taught at a variety of universities in Japan and the U.S. How are students different today than when you began teaching? Do young designers devote enough time to drawing, or is parametric software just the modern equivalent?
Parametrically driven software is basically another tool for us designers to use. The software is powerful, but it is only a tool. I find that most students still like to use their own hands. This has not really changed over the years, and the tendency of making things by hand is returning.
I established Tokyo University Advanced Design Studies (T_ADS) when I started teaching at the University of Tokyo six years ago. The aim is to combine parametric design with monozukuri, or the hand-creation of products. In Japan, there is a strong tradition of craftsmanship, even through the 20th century when such tendencies were in decline. The Japanese architectural field still includes hand drawing and model making as part of this strong tradition. Combining these with new software to create a new Japanese design identity is the intent of T_ADS.
Is there another Japanese architect whose work you would like to see gain greater attention and opportunity?
There are many great designers in Japan. If I am asked to put a name forward, I would only do so with hesitation not because of the quality of the architect but because keeping focus on only one designer might miss a bigger picture. Sou Fujimoto is someone whose work I respect because of his office’s preference for small elements and units. His style changes often and I like his humble personality. But, actually, Fujimoto san is relatively well known already.
Historically, young architects in Japan could easily get started by acquiring small commissions, usually private residences, and for a low budget. But clients encourage experimentation with new ideas, and so it was enough to get started. This is a different tradition than in the U.S., perhaps stemming from Japan’s history with small tea houses—in most cases, the scale was small, the budget not far behind, but with clients hoping for their own unique tea house. This situation is now changing, which is a large part of the challenge facing young architects in Japan today. Clients now want to design things on their own, to be their own architects. This could signal the start of a new age of design, in which new types of architects can emerge.
Your work seems to have a reverence for history, yet it also feels contemporary. Given some of the ideological battles of the past with modernism and postmodernism, how do you find the right balance between old and new?
Our team looks for continuities. We do not try to battle ideas, instead believing at anywhere in the world, and at any time in history, it is possible to find continuity. Battles between history and current times are not good for creation or progress. In other words, old and new are part of a continuum. New creations always come out of continuity, out of an attitude of trying to find peace. It is not about copying the past, but about finding new ways forward while understanding past values. This is distinct from modernism, which stands in opposition to history for the most part—finding a battle with the past. This is also different from postmodernism, which simply quoted existing pieces and reassigned meaning, but was ultimately not a way forward. History and progress do not need to be mutually exclusive. It is always possible to find new things even within older principles.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.