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Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010

Architect triumphs in defeat

Kengo Kuma's creations elevate compromise to artistry as he happily 'loses' to everything

Staff writer

Kengo Kuma might be the most self-effacing architect around. His trademarks are not large monumental forms or breathtaking sculptural shapes, but finely wrought details such as elegant stone cladding on a high-rise tower, an unlikely pitched roof or a superbly framed view on a garden.

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Considering all angles: Kengo Kuma explains his thinking during the recent JT interview at his office in Tokyo's Minami-Aoyama district. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

More often than not, Kuma's buildings defer to something external — the client's predilections, their site, the location's history, the architecture that was there before them, and even the perceived expectations of the public. Kuma refers to his own work as the "architecture of defeat" — saying that it "loses" to everything.

It is no coincidence that this architect who is willing to take on board everyone's opinions was selected for one of the most potentially controversial building projects in Japan in the last few years: the rebuilding of kabuki theater's traditional home, the Kabuki-za, in Tokyo's Ginza district.

The old building — now in the process of being torn down — was always considered iconic and historic, even though it was less than 60 years old and was actually the fourth manifestation of the theater to grace the same site.

The fifth Kabuki-za, by Kuma, will open in 2013 and will differ significantly from its predecessors in one outstanding respect, since Shochiku, the site's owners, have asked him to add in a 29-story office tower. Far from imposing his own vision on the project, Kuma must suffer a double "defeat" and bow to the demands of his clients as well as to kabuki fans' expectations.

But it's likely that Kuma will stamp his mark on the building in the very artistry of the compromise he carves out of the myriad competing constraints that are in play. Such has been the case with his other prominent jobs of late: the Nezu Museum in Tokyo's Minami-Aoyama; the Suntory Museum of Art in Roppongi, Tokyo; the Sanlitun Soho mixed-used commercial and residential project in Beijing; his proposal for the Granada Performing Arts Center in Granada, Spain; and dozens of other projects.

Kuma was born in Yokohama in 1954. He graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Tokyo in 1979, before joining the Tokyo-based corporate architectural firm Nihon Sekkei Inc. However, being determined to work for himself, he quit in 1985, spent two years doing research at Columbia University in New York City and then returned to Japan to set up his own office.

While Kuma's first major project was the stunningly discordant M2, a car showroom still punctuating the landscape in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward that he built in concrete around a central, six-story Greek column, his work since 2000 has been characterized by understated use of natural materials such as wood and stone — and, of course, their willingness to be "defeated" by everything around.

On Oct. 22, Kuma's latest large project, The Capitol Hotel Tokyu, will open just a stone's throw from the Diet building in the capital's Nagatacho district. That project, too, came with complex historical baggage, as it is next door to Hie Shrine, one of the most important in Tokyo, and its site was, for a long time after World War II, occupied by the Hilton Hotel.

Kuma's answer was to anchor his Capitol Hotel Tokyu to the site's stunning garden, which he not only retained but made a key feature of, too. It was on the morning of the hotel's opening ceremony, in early September, that Kuma took time out at his Minami-Aoyama office in central Tokyo to talk to The Japan Times about the hotel, the Kabuki-za, and much more regarding his "architecture of defeat."

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Born again: In designing the new Kabuki-za in Tokyo, Kengo Kuma faced the difficult task of mediating between a public wanting him to stay faithful to the old building and a client wanting him to add in a 29-story tower. KENGO KUMA AND ASSOCIATES

I'd like to start by asking you about your current, high-profile project to rebuild the Kabuki-za in central Tokyo. What is the new Kabuki-za going to be like?

The old Kabuki-za was dearly loved by the public, so I am trying to retain a similar air but at the same time polish it a little. So there's no change in direction per se, just a kind of brushing up of the old building.

What is going to be brushed up?

At the moment, the theater fronts on to Harumi-dori, and down the side is a small street called Kobikicho-dori, and we're going to open up the building on that side a little more. In the old building, there was just a wall on that side. In the past, kabuki was very much a part of the life of the city, so with the new building, we are hoping to reunite it with the city once again.

So the overall appearance of the building won't change too much.

Well, in addition to the theater itself, there's going to be a high-rise building that is also part of the project. I have set the high-rise building back on the block as far as possible, so when you view the site from Harumi-dori, then the Kabuki-za itself will look pretty much the same as it does now.

Will we be getting a little more legroom in the new theater?

We will be making the theater a little bigger, because people's bodies are larger than they used to be and also because people are becoming used to having more space. But I don't want to make it too spacious. It would be boring if the Kabuki-za ended up the same as every other concert hall, so the seating will still be a little cramped. With kabuki, the sense of the theater being crowded with people is important, so we need to retain that.

With this job, I get the sense that your hands were tied in that you couldn't really dramatically alter the appearance of the building. I can't help thinking that many other architects would have avoided such a job, because it limited their own creative expression. Did you not think that?

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Mixed bag: Kengo Kuma's first major commission was for this car salesroom, called M2, in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. The building, completed in 1991, was attacked by some for its hodgepodge of architectural styles — though Kuma himself says, "I think I had guts." Nonetheless, M2 is markedly different from the understated structures that now characterize his work. KENGO KUMA AND ASSOCIATES

I have done quite a bit of this sort of work, where I renovated or made additions to old buildings. So I know that such jobs are interesting. Sure, there are constraints, but there is also something very interesting about entering into a dialogue with the past. And when the building is completed, then people come and compare it with the old building — so they take an interest more than they otherwise might. So that element of enjoyment exists. I don't see it as a minus at all.

I believe that you actually see such constraints as an important element in your own creative process.

Yes, any kind of architectural job involves dealing with constraints. Even if you have what appears to be a completely open space and complete freedom to build on it, the fact is that there are always some forms of constraints.

If it's not the location's history, then it could be the climate or what's next door — anything. I think the most important skill an architect can have is the ability to identify the constraints that exist in the site.

You have an unusual term for your personal theory of architecture: "architecture of defeat," or "weak architecture," whereby an architect must allow his building to be "defeated" by the constraints imposed on it by a particular site or location.

Yes, like with the Kabuki-za — I'm losing to everyone! The old building had a very characteristic short flight of stairs straight after the entrance, and I want to incorporate that into the new design, but then the Tokyo Metropolitan Government says the theater has to be "barrier-free" so that people in wheelchairs can enter. So, I have to make compromises all the time, but the building actually benefits with each defeat.

When did you first decide that you wanted to be an architect?

The catalyst for me was the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and, in particular, architect Kenzo Tange's National Gymnasium at Yoyogi. I saw it on television and heard him speak about it. That was when I first became aware of what an architect was. I remember thinking that it seemed to be an interesting job.

You would have been 10 years old then. What was it that seemed so impressive about architecture?


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