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Kuma Chameleon

Kengo Kuma’s Complete Works exceeds expectations of a typical monograph, addressing the cultural and moral dimensions of the Japanese architect’s career

In 1991 the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma was commissioned to design a car showroom, now funeral home, in Tokyo. What he produced was a uniquely baroque style of Postmodernism with an astonishingly awkward character − a squat block, dominated by an extruded seven-storey Ionic column, whose vast ovarian volutes overshadowed a ‘crumbling’ Roman temple on one side, and a high-tech shopping volume on the other.

Where lesser men might have allowed this architectural chimerato stain their portfolios forever, at this point Kengo Kuma instead employed a piece of writing to radically transform his career. This single act of critical self-reflection, crystallised into text, triggered a metamorphosis both ideological and aesthetic, and established a line of argument that drives his architecture to this day.

It is this inseparable relationship of design to words, and vice versa, that marks Kuma apart from his contemporaries: neither Kazuyo Sejima nor Shigeru Ban, for example, are known for their written work. By contrast, Kuma is both prolific and articulate.

His 2008 book Anti-Object is among the most significant architectural texts to be published this century. It deftly rejected the iconic sculptural formalism of the boom years, denounced the fiscal immorality underpinning globalised society, and yet managed to remain propositional about new directions architecture might take. The book’s influence was magnified by its timely appearance at the height of the 2008 global financial crisis.

With this in mind, Kuma doesn’t so much publish writing, as deploy it. So the Complete Works shouldn’t be understood as just another library reference monograph. It is a concerted attempt to popularise Kuma’s interpretation of Frampton’s theory of Critical Regionalism.

‘What I am most interested in now’, he writes, ‘is inverting the structure of a culture that is centred around the city.’ For a publication entitled Complete Works, however, it is heavily, and strategically, edited around this theme. Only two-dozen projects (of 130+) are presented, albeit beautifully photographed and in thorough detail. These are arranged into three categories of material and architectural effect: water-glass; wood-grass-bamboo; stone-earth-ceramic.

The obvious phenomenological aspects of these categories would probably suffice for another Japanese Critical Regionalist, like Tadao Ando perhaps. However, for Kuma they assume more serious moral dimensions − deeply rooted in a rejection of urban cultural hegemony and a resistance to the decline of the rural.

He waxes lyrical about the neglected skills of the craftsman, and the beauty of Japan’s topography (invoking the distinct fragrance of each valley according to its flora). He describes how to effect the dematerialisation of architecture, how to decompose its elements into particles that can float freely in a world neither wholly artificial nor wholly natural.

Just as with Anti-Object, the context for the Complete Works is integral to understanding the purpose of the book. Kuma uses his manifesto-like preface to rail against the metropolis as a locus for society’s intellectual and technological progress. But it is his comments about the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that expose the real motivation behind the book.

Kuma deplores the architectural homogeneity produced by modernity, and sees the earthquake and tsunami as providing an opportunity to redress the balance of this social and cultural decline.

‘The Tohoku we saw destroyed … was not the Tohoku that had been a paradise for craftsmen. Row after row of prefabricated housing units had been assembled from parts made in factories, and the people in those units commuted to work in the cities by car. A lifestyle similar to that of the American suburbs had destroyed the rich and distinctive culture of the region. When I saw the tsunami washing away those American-style houses and cars, Noah’s flood came to mind. God had sent the biblical flood to punish an arrogant, corrupt society. The earthquake and tsunami seemed to me an expression of the anger of the gods at the way all of us had forgotten or ignored the fearsome power of nature.’

There is another aspect to his engagement with this context. On the last pages of Rem Koolhaas’s recent Metabolist history, Project Japan, a wistful Toyo Ito surveys a razed village in Tohoku. Reconstruction is compared to postwar Japan, supposedly analogous to the one that produced the Metabolist movement. Ito’s directorship of the 2012 Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was his first public response to Tohoku: numerous iterations of a now built alternative housing scheme that involved residents in the design of their own homes.

Complete Works is Kuma’s response, but you also get the impression it is a rebuttal of Ito, who is after all technically his senpai (an honorific term denoting an elder or mentor). There is a strict hierarchy of social influence in Japanese culture, in which each younger generation of apprentice kōhai must respect their senpai.

Having said that, Kuma wrote recently in the AA’s Fulcrum magazine, ‘this is, in fact, only the situation as it appears on the surface. In fact all kōhai are desperately trying to overtake their senpai. For example, the work of the so-called Third Generation of postwar architects, Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito, is a biting criticism of the achievements of the Second Generation, Fumihiko Maki, Arata Isozaki and Kisho Kurokawa. In turn, the work of the Fourth Generation, people like Sejima-san and I, is a criticism and repudiation of the Third Generation. We may be all smiles when we meet, drink together, go to karaoke together, and so on, but in fact, deep down, we’re always wondering how we can surpass the architecture of our senpai.’

In a painfully polite way, through the elegant glossy pages of this Thames & Hudson monograph, Kuma is drawing a line in the sand against Ito’s generation − who fully embraced the techno-fetishism of the modern city − and making clear his political intent: ‘Universal principles exist in the world, but at the same time the world is a collection of countless heterogeneous places.’

With regards to Frampton’s introductory essay, it is certainly comprehensive, if a little predictable. It is not revolutionary (especially following the polemics of Kuma’s preface). However, those unfamiliar with Kuma’s work, and especially the close relationship it has with his writing and Japanese culture, will find this an excellent introduction. Kuma first met Frampton in 1985 at Columbia University, and acknowledges the enormous influence Critical Regionalism had upon the evolution of his work. In this respect, the text by Frampton is a complementary example of the sympathy between the two.

The final word must go to the architecture itself, which is immaculate. The refinement and elegance is everything one would expect of an architect closely allied to Japanese craftsmen. It is also remarkable the quality that Kuma achieves even outside Japan − his 2010 Glass/Wood House in New Canaan, Connecticut is equally excellently finished. While formally diverse (which is to be expected of such tailored responses to location), there is an almost insistent consistency about the work.

To somewhat contradict an earlier point, just because Complete Works should be primarily understood in its broader context does not mean it is not an accomplished monograph and an invaluable addition to any architect’s library.

Kengo Kuma Complete Works, Kenneth Frampton, Thames & Hudson, £39.95

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