Kengo Kuma is a world-renowned architect who runs the Kengo Kuma and Associates practice, an architecture office he established in 1990. His designs combine craftsmanship, materiality and sustainability creating impactful architecture throughout the world. His designs embrace the conceptual theory of architectural regionalism, where designs differ greatly depending on their location. This is due to the local identity providing us with different contextual implications. The designs are deeply rooted within their surroundings, beautifully engaging with the topography of a site or reflection of the people who once inhabited, Kuma aims to engage with what makes a region special. Kuma’s work not only engages with craftsmanship but also pushes the boundaries of technical design, embodying the act of ‘[becoming] modern and to return to sources’, a paradox posed by Paul Ricoeur. (Frampton and Foster, 1998)  

Reserving a Culture

Kengo Kuma often revitalises old building typologies, engaging with the history of the site to establish a link between the past and the present. Kuma employs regionalism by ‘uphold[ing] the individual and local architectural features against more universal and abstract ones’. (Frampton and Foster, 1998)  The Asakusa Cultural and Tourism Centre lives between the boundaries of past and present. In a similar fashion, he is able to highlight a particular cultural identity but receive globally appreciation for it. In the pursuit to establish an authentic linkage towards the site, Kuma engaged with the bygone image of the city. The city of Tokyo was previously called Edo, due to the demand for space, the Nagaya houses populated the city. They consisted of ‘single-story wooden, narrow multiplexes divided into small units’. (The Asakusa Cultural and Tourism Center designed by Kengo Kuma, 2021)

Notably, these dense environments created a catalyst for community engagement and ‘fostered [a] vibrant culture of people’. (The Asakusa Cultural and Tourism Center designed by Kengo Kuma, 2021) Ideas tend to flourish with constraint. The area of the centre was set and the only way to fulfil the programme was to stack the buildings vertically rather than along a horizontal line. The result is a building that plays with the formalities of high-rise buildings. Its exterior playfulness is not lost within the inside of the building where heights between the buildings vary making the internal experience captivating. The slopes and differences within the building were not hidden but rather highlighted, setting a precedent on experimentation. 

When considering regionalism, designing in an urban context is challenging. This is due to buildings that fall under architectural regionalism being best presented within a natural landscape to engage with the shape and topography of the site. However, the same level of detail has been achieved with the Asakusa Culture and Tourism Centre, while only using the historical characteristics of the site. This project highlights how one can engage with regionalism in a modern and experimental manner. The project can easily be recognised as being Japanese, but the intricate nature of the structural solution presents post-modern architectural thinking.

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The multi-layered elements of the Asakusa Culture and Tourism Centre_©Daichi Ano
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The interior of the building indicates the different floor and roof angles_©Daichi Ano

Conserve Feeling

Kenneth Frampton, in his Essay Towards a Critical Regionalism, Six Points of an Architecture of Resistance, states that ‘Critical Regionalism seeks to complement our normative visual experience by readdressing the tactile range of human perceptions’. (Frampton and Foster, 1998) Simply said, critical regionalism aims to use our normal visual experience and engage with our senses. Kengo Kuma makes use of this where he uses light to develop a different atmosphere within his buildings. The China Academy of Arts’ Folk-Art Museum engages with materiality in an impactful way but the consequence this creates for the internal space is even more significant.  

The light is forced to travel through tiles in such a manner that irregular patterns spill into each of the spaces. The light travelling through the space in such a soft and fluid manner gives the illusion that the tiles are light and take on the property of a soft curtain. The play with the landscape is a common characteristic of regionalism. The varying heights of the building aims to ensure that the visitors feel the impact of moving with the level changes of the landscape. The building engages with the natural topography while keeping the exterior of the building true to Kengo Kuma’s intentions. 

The intention was to engage with the topography while giving the distant appearance of a small village. The design uses old tiles from local houses once again highlighting regional architecture, where the building uses elements from the past and places them in a contemporary context. However, as Frampton has mentioned, such designs ‘cannot be reduced to mere information’ they can ‘only be decided in terms of experience itself’. (Frampton and Foster, 1998) Kengo Kuma has successfully achieved this as the building has to be understood by moving through it. 

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The different levels of the museum_©Eiichi Kano
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The light enters through the curtain of tiles_©Eiichi Kano

Kengo Kuma’s work has shown small glimpses into how architecture can fully embrace the region it is set in. He has, like some others, expanded the thought of regionalism away from the scope of vernacular architecture and our present interests. He achieved this despite but stayed true to the past by allowing it to become the centre of his design concept. The result is architecture which can be appreciated for its many facets. Architecture should stay true to the context in which it is being constructed without limiting itself in regard to technology.

References 

Frampton, K. and Foster, H., 1998. The anti-aesthetic: essays on postmodern culture. New York: New Press, pp.17-34.

zero=abundance. 2021. The Asakusa Cultural and Tourism Center designed by Kengo Kuma –. [online] Available at: <https://www.interactiongreen.com/asakusa-cultural-tourism-center-kengo-kuma/> [Accessed 14 November 2021].

Author

Halima Mohammed is an architecture student whose passions lie in investigating what makes design connect with us emotionally. She believes that architecture is always worth questioning and discussing, trusting that architecture can be analysed like a piece of literature.

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