Kengo Kuma forms an interesting theory of architecture – through its weakness but not in the sense of its structural integrity. This is formed by breaking down or dissolving the perception of solidity in his projects. This “humble” approach of treating materiality and form of architecture was influenced by a destructive tsunami off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku in 2011. After Mother Nature’s havoc, Kuma thought it best to work with natural materials rather than industrial ones. That is by valuing humility before nature which can be found in the selection of a material as it is usually an afterthought in the architectural process.

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Sunny hills Cake Shop by Kengo Kuma. ( ©Daici Ano, 2014)

Rather than industrial materials such as concrete, steel, and glass, Kuma uses natural materials such as stone or wood, to create ephemeral structures. Kuma says, “My aim is not to create particle-like works of architecture. I want to create a condition that is as vague and ambiguous as drifting particles. The closest thing to such a condition is a rainbow.” (Belogolovsky, 2009)

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Sunny hills Cake Shop, Interior. ( ©Daici Ano, 2014)

“Starchitecture” was successful in selling architecture as a monumental brand image. Typically, these contemporaries stand out from the context which can seem quite alienating or intimidating to the viewer. In an age where architecture is experienced through a fixed photograph, Kuma rejects formalism and intends on creating an architecture that encapsulates the spatial experience as a whole such as touch or smell. Kuma has wrapped this Tokyo bakery, Sunny hills Cake Shop, in a delicate wooden lattice to simulate a forest-like spectacle amid a busy city. The structure uses the ancient Japanese joinery technique of Jigoku-gumi, which employs interlocking. The voids generated as a result of the interlocking allow for the interiors to be playfully illuminated making it an engaging experience for the visitors. By enabling these interior spaces to change along with the outside throughout the day and seasons, we see how “weakness” can make for a rich spatial experience instead of a static one.

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China Academy of Arts’ Folk Art Museum, Interior. ( ©Eiichi Kano, 2015)

To Kuma, the impact is made with a more sensitive way of blending the architecture in its setting, calling it an architecture of “defeat” so much so that it is minimized to highlight the context. In such an architecture, the sensations experienced are celebrated more than its mere mass. He believed in creating Architecture that is not imposing on the environment but rather one that complements the surroundings to create a sense of comfort for the users. He sought to use the constraints of a specific site/location as an opportunity for his architecture to be “defeated”. The following example demonstrates the site-specific and humble material approach he uses to make a statement with his architecture.  

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China Academy of Arts’ Folk Art Museum. ( ©Eiichi Kano, 2015)

On the hillsides of what was previously a tea field, a folk art museum in Hangzhou mimics the natural landscape with its gabled rooftop’s rising and falling slope. Using the topography as an inspiration as he always does, the 5,000-square-metre building is fragmented into many parts, each part decked in a series of grey tiles, resembling a clustered village. Authentic within its setting, Kuma reuses discarded tiling from local housing for screening and roofing, with sizes that vary which is a part of the charm. To playfully control the amount of light into the rooms inside, tiles hung on the stainless steel wire fastened across the outer wall, create a wonderful light and shade pattern. Instead of erecting a volume that brought attention to itself rather than the natural surroundings, he employs a breakdown of volumes with voids to let in light. 

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2013 Serpentine pavilion Fujimoto designed in London’s Kensington Gardens. ( ©Jim Stephenson, 2013)

Similarly, in Sou Fujimoto’s lens, a fortified seeming architecture has the possibility of negatively affecting human behavior. He believed that architecture should enable an ambiguous exploration between human shelter and nature. Adaptive architecture which can offer affordances with its design is what impacts human behavior positively.  This sentiment of making weak architecture is also an approach Fujimoto shares with Kuma as do most Japanese architects, thanks to their traditional culture. This sort of “weak” architecture can be seen in the 2013 Serpentine pavilion Fujimoto designed in London’s Kensington Gardens. Essentially the pavilion is created through a three-dimensional steel grid of about 40-centimeter modules yet despite the artificial lattice, it appears light and cloud-like. Rather than an artificial mass blocking the green landscape, Fujimoto wanted to strike a balance with a translucent structure between nature and architecture that people could freely explore. Instead of stacking the units on top of each other, Fujimoto has created an irregular grid of white poles slowly ascending upwards in terraced layers melting with the green landscape. 

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Clouds like pavilion functions as seating. ( ©Jim Stephenson, 2013)

The sides are broken to let people in and the top levels of the grid are fitted with transparent polycarbonate circles to protect from rain and reflect sunlight. Contrast has been achieved with a soft organic structure on the whole compared to the rigid geometric units. This makes for a soft ambiguous landscape that blurs the boundaries between interior and exterior. Thus by weakening architecture, Fujimoto has successfully simulated a playful landscape where the inside feels like the outside and vice versa. Additionally, it has become a multipurpose space where people have naturally adopted the grid as seating, lookout points, or simply put a shelter. This natural human behavior is what Fujimoto hoped to achieve by what he deems as a flexible or weakened architecture that allows for these affordances. 

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House N – Nested structure. ( ©Sou Fujimoto Architects, 2008)

House N is another architectural example where Fujimoto designs a progressive series of 3 shells nested inside each other according to privacy levels. Instead of a solid stagnant wall between a typical house and its garden/street area, he demonstrates how a shelter can be lively with a gradation in its domain where the lines between public and private are blurred. Rather than emphasizing the form or space, he intended to reveal the richness that lies in-between the indoors and outdoors. By exploring the concept of “weakness” in the works of these 2 brilliant architects, we see how architecture is not just about the form it possesses, for it to be a successful spectacle. Rather, it’s the range of experiences it can lend to its users.

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House N – Nested structure. ( ©Sou Fujimoto Architects, 2008)

References

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Goodwin, K., 2014. Meet the Architects: Kengo Kuma | Sensing spaces. [online] Royalacademy.org.uk. Available at: <https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/meet-the-architects-kengo-kuma> [Accessed 26 August 2020].

Belogolovsky, V., 2009. One on One: Elusive Architecture: Interview With Kengo Kuma. [online] Archnewsnow. Available at: <http://www.archnewsnow.com/features/Feature286.htm> [Accessed 29 August 2020].

Pallister, J., 2014. “The Criteria For Architecture Is Humbleness,” Says Kengo Kuma. [online] Dezeen. Available at: <https://www.dezeen.com/2014/03/11/kengo-kuma-interview-architecture-after-2011-japan-tsunami/> [Accessed 26 August 2020].

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Frearson, A., 2014. Sunnyhills Cake Shop By Kengo Kuma Wrapped By Intricate Timber Lattice. [online] Dezeen. Available at: <https://www.dezeen.com/2014/02/25/sunnyhills-at-minami-aoyama-by-kengo-kuma/#:~:text=An%20intricate%20three%2Ddimensional%20lattice,architect%20Kengo%20Kuma%20(%2B%20slideshow).&text=%22Our%20aim%20was%20to%20create,centre%2C%22%20said%20Kengo%20Kuma.> [Accessed 27 August 2020].

Kloppenburg, J., n.d. “Architecture Should Not Be The Protagonist Of The Environment”: Architizer Interviews Kengo Kuma. [online] Architizer. Available at: <https://architizer.com/blog/practice/materials/architecture-not-the-protagonist-kengo-kuma/> [Accessed 27 August 2020].

Corkill, E., 2010. Architect Triumphs in Defeat. [online] The Japan Times. Available at: <https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2010/10/03/general/architect-triumphs-in-defeat/#.X0elbcgzZPY> [Accessed 27 August 2020].

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Portilla, D., 2013. Serpentine Pavilion / Sou Fujimoto. [online] ArchDaily. Available at: <https://www.archdaily.com/384289/serpentine-pavilion-sou-fujimoto> [Accessed 28 August 2020].

Davis, A., 2013. “I Tried To Create Something Melting Into The Green”- Sou Fujimoto. [online] Dezeen. Available at: <https://www.dezeen.com/2013/09/29/i-tried-to-create-something-between-architecture-and-nature-sou-fujimoto-on-serpentine-gallery-pavilion-2013/#:~:text=Built%20on%20the%20lawn%20outside,from%20rain%20and%20reflect%20sunlight.> [Accessed 28 August 2020].

ArchDaily. 2011. House N / Sou Fujimoto Architects. [online] Available at: <https://www.archdaily.com/7484/house-n-sou-fujimoto> [Accessed 29 August 2020].

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Author

Evangelin Vergis, a passionate student of architecture design believes that architecture is a language nesting people,their conversations, experiences, dreams and history. A poet and songwriter, words shall scarcely run dry especially when reflecting on architecture, the poetics of space where art,science and philosophies intersect!

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