In his erudite introduction, Kenneth Frampton calls Kengo Kuma “quintessentially Japanese” and the 30 projects the architect has selected are deeply rooted in the craft traditions of that country. The title is misleading: only a quarter of Kuma’s buildings are featured, and the large commercial projects in Beijing that have sustained his practice in recent years are omitted. It’s a wise choice, for Kuma works best on a modest scale with traditional materials. In his foreword, he writes with feeling of his collaboration with traditional craftsmen in rural Shikoku and in Tohuku, a region ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. “The richness and strength of that culture cannot be understood until one has worked with the people who live there—until one has eaten their food, drunk their sake, talked with the craftsmen and made things with them,” he writes.
Kuma cherishes small places over big cities and has built little in Tokyo. He prizes traditional materials over concrete, which is the default choice for most Japanese architects. Buildings are arranged in three groups: Water and Glass; Wood, Grass, and Bamboo; Stone, Earth, and Ceramics. Up first is an icon to which the architect often refers: a glass house in Atami that seems to float as lightly as a soap bubble on a reflecting pool high above the Japan Sea. The concept was reinterpreted for Z58, a small corporate showcase in Shanghai. Kuma loves to veil his structures, most notably the wood slats of the Nakagawa-machi Hiroshige museum, the checker-board stone screen of the Lotus House, and the bamboo house he contributed to the Great Wall Commune outside Beijing, which can be rented for short stays. It has proved so popular that the developer has built several replicas.
Browsing the images and Kuma’s eloquent descriptions, I remembered past trips through rural Japan, encountering some of these buildings after a long drive. Closer to home, I spent several ecstatic hours exploring an addition to a classic modern house in New Canaan. Built by John Black Lee (whose name is misspelt here) for himself in 1956, and enhanced by Toshiko Mori in 1992, it was extended by Kuma with an L-plan pavilion that recalls a flight of cranes and seems to hover above the forest floor. Kuma arrived at night in a snowstorm, fell in love with the beauty of the site, and recreated a tiny piece of Japan as his first work in the US.
In this updated edition, Kuma has added five recent projects, of which the stand-outs are the monumental Victoria and Albert Museum satellite in the Scottish city of Dundee, and an intricately detailed folk art museum in Hangzhou. The remaining entries and texts (including the misspelling of Lee) are unchanged from the first edition.
Kengo Kuma: Complete Works. Second edition. (Thames & Hudson, $75)
Author: Michael Webb
Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.