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School in Tama, Tokto by Kengo Kuma

In applying historic Japanese building techniques to contemporary projects, Kengo Kuma orchestrates a synthesis of modernity and tradition, but does this approach go beyond an aesthetic level?

Unlike other areas of Tokyo, where lack of space is a serious issue, the leafy town of Tama in the north-western part of the city, home to Teikyo University Elementary School, seems to spread out in a leisurely manner. A car park nearby, attached to a large onsen (or spa) centre, is the size of a baseball field. A large cluster of danchi (government-issue concrete apartment blocks) is situated on the hill across from it.

Connected to Teikyo University, the campuses of which are dotted around this area, the new elementary school is privately owned. Although not as expensive as some of the other fee-paying schools in Tokyo, it is unlikely the children living in those blocks of danchi next door are pupils there. The university also had the money to secure over five and a half acres of land and to commission Kengo Kuma, one of the most sought-after architects in Japan.


The steel roof dissolves in places, lightening a potentially overbearing element

On arrival, you are immediately struck by its scale. Minimally clad in Japanese cedar, the buildings soar up three storeys to meet the steel roof, the exaggerated eaves of which are reminiscent of Buddhist temples. According to Kuma, the school is ‘a wooden schoolhouse of our age’. The large, single roof connecting different sections of the school has, moreover, been inspired by nagaya: traditional terraced houses arranged in a row, usually under one single roof.

For some time now, Kuma has been obsessed with re-cladding the city of Tokyo in timber. The most recent example is Asakusa Tourist Information Centre (AR November 2012), but it can be spotted in earlier projects such as Omotesando One (AR May 2004). The architect is a prolific writer, and in his latest book, Small Architecture, he uses a black-and-white photograph of old Tokyo, densely packed with low-rise timber buildings, to convey how the natural limits imposed by timber made Tokyo look ‘beautiful, cosy and soft’.

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 killed roughly 100,000 people through the fire that spread via the timber terraced houses, destroying a good part of Tokyo. The government subsequently issued a decree that all public buildings, including schools, be built in reinforced concrete. Almost overnight, then, the city was transformed from timber to concrete. Yet as Kuma observes, the recent disaster at Fukushima proved that even concrete and steel weren’t robust enough to protect us from the leak of poisonous radiation. The architect asks: what is to come out of this recent disaster?


Sunlight streams into classrooms, which can be expanded by opening the sliding doors

Kuma has resolved to ‘rethink architecture from zero’. In his book he introduces a select number of small projects he has helped to design to illustrate that ‘the world is going from big to small’. So Teikyo Elementary School isn’t included. Conceived before the disaster struck, and completed a year later in February 2012, this school is not ‘small’ either in the conceptual or materialist sense. But the architect’s obsession with timber is manifest in the project.

The elementary school sprawls rectilinearly over the total floor area of 7,781.52 square metres. The south facade, which faces the schoolyard, has been clad with alternating horizontal bands of glass and cedar, a common building material in Japan. In addition to the conventional hameita-bari (wood panel cladding), which is used to cover one side of the walls of the school’s gymnasium, Kuma has employed two other traditional methods of cladding: yamato-bari (a Japanese version of board-and-batten) and renji (vertical timber louvres used to cover windows, doors and other openings). These arrangements emphasise the scheme’s modularity, another nod to traditional terraced houses.


Using different cladding styles, varying the expansive roof’s height, as well as dematerialising part of it, Kuma has added much-needed tension and agility to the side of the building that may otherwise have been very plain and rather heavy. The top two storeys have been set back with a balcony. The architect, moreover, has toned down the protrusion of the eaves on this side, helping to make the steel roof look less conspicuous and more like the unassuming tiled roof of traditional houses. If you move far enough away from the building and squint, you can imagine the sliding glass doors transformed into delicate shoji paper screens.

Inside, most of the classrooms are on the sunny south side, and large corridors, labelled ‘lounges’, which are used as additional classrooms, run through the middle of all three floors. Communal rooms, such as the media centre, canteen, library and music rooms, are clustered on the other side. With their modified ceilings revealing the roof’s slanted shape, balconies and sloped floors connecting different levels, these communal rooms feel generously proportioned. Kuma uses chipboard − made of crushed straw, rushes and poplar − not only on the inside as acoustic wall panels, enabling the feel of openness while sliding doors are kept open even during lessons, but also on the outside, under the eaves of the unifying roof, in his bid to sell us the idea of using more wood in architecture.


Space is peeled away in the school canteen to reveal the geometry of the big slanting roof

Openness seems to be the key here. The school was envisaged as a one-storey building. With a surprisingly modest construction cost of £12.5 million, there are many good things going for the school which architects, engineers and schools, who may feel hard-done by recent cuts, could bear in mind. Some subtle ecological measures have been adopted: rainwater is collected from the roof and brought down to feed the rtificial stream and promote wildlife at the school; absorber plates have been installed on the rooftop to channel warm air down via hidden ducts to help heat the classrooms in the winter and suck hot air out of them in the summer.

Despite all this, I have a slight issue with the premise on which this school’s design is based. Architecture, particularly in the postmodern era, sometimes comes too close to fashion, and this is a perfect example. A building of concrete and steel dressed in timber is still a building of concrete and steel. Simply using wood as a decorative device to bring back the aesthetic sensibility of the old times is rather superficial and not necessarily a good strategy to cope with the present situation. A city filled with uniformly low-rise timber buildings may look aesthetically beautiful, but if you take a closer look at that period when Tokyo was packed with them, you would find that the living conditions were terrible. The houses were badly congested, not well ventilated and unhygienic, with no proper infrastructure in place.


Alluding to Tokyo’s terraced houses, Kuma employs traditional cladding techniques to clothe the steel and concrete structure with cedar, emphasising the scheme’s modularity

At the time of my visit, the school had been open for less than a month, and only had about 80 students. This may have affected my perception of the school, and details − such as the alcoves created to encourage curious children to explore space, or the small footbridges for them to cross over the dipped well of green from classrooms into the schoolyard − certainly help to break its scale down to more manageable parts for children, but the buildings still felt eerily big.

None of that creaky tactile feel of a timber schoolhouse remains here. I imagine instead the children gliding through this giant architecture like some young astronauts in the slick infinity of space.


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