Japanese architect Kengo Kuma is renowned worldwide for his expertly crafted buildings, respect for materials and commitment to architecture pedagogy.
He currently has two projects underway in Australia, both in Sydney, including Darling Square at Sydney’s Darling Harbour and Wanda Hotel at Circular Quay.
Architecture & Design caught up with Kuma to discuss the Wanda project and his experience working in Australia.
You were involved with Dalian Wanda's $1 billion redevelopment of Gold Fields House. What were some of the challenges of the project?
We won the competition in June together with our friends at Crone, and we have just completed the first phase of the design. The challenges have much to do with the prominence of the site, which is almost in the shadow of Jorn Utzon's Opera House, and the iconic Harbour Bridge. It's a lot of pressure to put something distinctive, well-designed, but not overpowering. The new tower should be a responsible but iconic and beautiful addition to Sydney's beloved waterfront; this balance is always delicate. Other challenges include the vast number of decision-makers involved, but again we have some really great working relationships with our teammates at Crone and at Arup, and some key people both at Wanda (our client) and the City of Sydney have been supportive of the vision.
What was your approach to the project? Was this different from other projects?
The approach to the project on a general level is one that we normally take, philosophically: that architecture should be an interface for people and nature. We do this through themes of connection to the surrounding environment, human scale, and a predilection for local materials and details. Our basic architectural idea is one of continuity, linking the city to the tower as a single gesture of garden, stone, glass, public space, hotel, and human activity. You can see this with the gentle twist of the tower, aligning first to the logic of the city grid and laneways, and then making a transition to the orientation of the hotel to the Harbour views. The city scale, building scale, and human scale are negotiated by the use of big "pixels," which you can see in the images of the design. The project is connected to Sydney, not separated from it, and should be for visitors to the area as well as to the hotel. It is like a citizen of sorts, a public figure, also with spaces around its base for people to share. Therefore our approach is both generally consistent in the way we design, and highly specific to the specialised conditions of Sydney, to the waterfront, and to the blocks in which the building sits.
Tokyo has a very specific type of architecture. How does this influence your work in other countries?
I would widen this to Japanese architecture in general rather than "Tokyo architecture.” With regards to our regulations or city planning/zoning in Tokyo, and how this shapes our building volumes, then actually nearly all places in the world have their ways of shaping envelopes. The situation in Sydney is not much different, only the governing conditions might be more location-specific. In terms of density that people can experience here, then again it has much to do with a geographic influence on the amount of buildable land throughout Japan, not just Tokyo. With the exception of the excesses seen during the 1980s and 1990s Bubble Era, Japan has historically had to make the most of limited space and resources, so much so that it became the conduit of beauty itself. That is: the act of finding the essence of something yields a kind of aesthetic that many people like to call Japanese. Japan has been at it for some time. But actually the real value in finding the essence of a thing or a place is in specificity--thus in our case, for the Sydney project, we are most interested in the phenomenon of the Sydney laneway, the specific kinds of sandstone in the area, and the qualities of light in that part of New South Wales. I'm not sure it's Japanese only in approach, but our lens brings these ideas into focus.
How would you define Tokyo architecture?
I don't. Maybe by density, by shadows (the casting of which is regulated), and by seismic stability. It's varied and heterogeneous here, eclectic maybe, but this is not only in Tokyo. There is not really "Tokyo architecture" along aesthetic lines.
What is your favourite building in Tokyo and why?
When I was ten years old, my father took me to Kenzo Tange's 1964 Olympic Gymnasium (pictured right). It had such an impact on me that it inspired me to become an architect. It's very hard to choose a favorite building, but this is one that stands out. Tange's command of structure, technology, and beautiful space is moving to me, even today. You can imagine that with my upcoming project for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the personal meaning has only increased.
Is there something Australia could learn to Japan's approach to architecture?
This is a very difficult question, because there are many very talented Australian architects doing amazing things, beautiful things. They are already highly knowledgeable about place-making and material use, climate, and environment in Australia's vast regions. So I cannot claim that Japan can teach anything there. But on a societal level, I hope that Australia regards its homegrown talent as much as we do here, in the same way that Japanese society holds us architects in Japan in high regard. I hope that the collaboration with Crone, Arup, and the City of Sydney can help strengthen the relationship between designers, the people for whom we design, and the value of great design in society.
What is one building, anywhere in the world, you wish you had designed and why?
It's always the next building, in the next new place. We love people, places, and designing for them.