Last night Kengo Kuma spoke at Cooper Union about his current works, dating back twenty years. His goal has been to "recover the tradition of Japanese buildings" for the 21st century. My limited conception of Japanese, Chinese, or Asian architecture flying kicks from kung fu montages and typical scenic photos. But, Kuma has proved me wrong. I unknowingly know more than I thought..
For example, Frank Lloyd Wright spent some time in Japan. And I watched a long documentary about Wright so I'm comfortable bragging about him like a close relative. Many of his houses, with long, horizontal edges, and a thin, light feeling arouse the same sentiments that older Japanese, modern architects do. Even Kuma, this generation's Japanese architect, while creating fundamentally different structures, still shoves that Japanese aura in your face. And like your milk shake, I drink it up!
One thing stuck out for me about Kuma's presentation. Many of his project pictures (other than the blueprints) were purely artistic. We're given plenty of night shots with beautiful lighting. Many photos are taken at amusing angles capturing neat perspectives: in-house lily pads, Shire-worthy green grass through floor to ceiling windows, perfectly aligned bamboo walls, or glass reflecting the surrounding nature. All very awesome and coffee-book table material. He admits criticism for these pretty pictures which don't show the entire building in a practical way.
But that aesthetic emphasis was the most important point he made (indirectly) for me. I imagined him saying, "So what if I took all these beautiful photographs? I understand they aren't exactly of my building, but more importantly, this is what you see from my building." His structures complement the surrounding environment. They exalt nearby fields/mountains/ponds by arranging the building to observe nature. But it's more than that. He gives you a way, a "how" to observe. And in doing so, he says something about the purpose of these buildings.
An anecdote to explain. Nature excursions. Camping with your family, a long hike, mountain climbing, diving, exploring a remote coastal beach, fishing, sight-seeing natural phenomenon, you get the idea. These activities are all basic. Like cheap soap, we get a...dare I say, "grassroots" feeling from them. And how many times have you felt odd when in those elemental moments, immersed under a night sky of Milky Way stars illuminating a rising Haleakala Crater around you, someone's cell phone goes off and it's Alicia Keys screaming "NO ONE! NO ONE! NO ONNEEEEEEEUHHHHHAAAHH!"? Serenity broken. Everyone starts talking about how great that song is, how they're craving McDonald's, how it's colder now then only seconds before, and soon enough the stars fade, LCD screens light the land, and we're in the cabin doing mad libs.
Kengo Kuma's houses and buildings don't one-up nature. There is no competition or hierarchy, only a respectful relationship. Kuma keeps his spaces simple because sometimes, it isn't the space that needs attention, but rather its surroundings. There's more to say, but that anecdote about Haleakala Crater drained me.
Note: I'm just having fun when I write hypercritical anecdotes. But I do hate that song, LCD screens at night, and talk about craving fast food like it's something magical or worth getting sweaty over. Mad libs can stay.