Japan’s Kengo Kuma, who has made waves with his uniquely designed buildings, inspires Rebecca Ilham to go on an exploratory trail to view his creations
WHEN my architect sister announced that she was coming to Tokyo with me, I knew that it would only be fair if our itinerary also respected her interests. I asked her to list down the buildings she would like to visit, but with her visiting Japan for the first time, she was quite flexible and only mentioned her wish to see NA House, a private residential home with transparent walls, designed by Sou Fujimoto, the subject of one of her assignments during her undergraduate years.
I must say that being an elder sister does give me a know-it-all air. Thus, unknown to her, I decided to take my sister on a loosely structured architecture trail that traces the recent works of famed Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma.
Why Kuma? Well, apart from the fact that his works are numerous, scattered around affluent neighbourhoods in Tokyo, this multiple 62-year-old Pfizer Award (akin to the architecture industry’s Nobel Prize) winner is known for his “disappearing” architecture philosophy.
Kuma blends his new, modern (and most of the time bordering on futuristic) designs into the surroundings where buildings are, creating a sense of harmony that is not unlike the Japanese principle of wa.
ASAKUSA INFORMATION CENTRE
Our first view of Kuma’s aesthetics gets us really excited. Situated by the busy intersection right opposite the imposing main gate Kaminarimon, the Asakusa Tourist Information Centre is a building that can easily be taken for granted.
Visitors might flock to it for the services offered but the glass-walled building with a wooden façade blends so well into the shitamachi (downtown) vibes of traditional Asakusa. It is a distinctive building all the same; we ooh-ed and aah-ed at how the structure is so well-balanced, with each level looking like they had been loosely stacked one on top of the other.
Once inside, we skip the crowd on the ground level and climb upstairs, where we station ourselves at the best vantage point to enjoy the views of Senso-ji and Nakamise-dori from a height (while conveniently having phones charged).
We couldn’t help noticing the interior detailing that complements the building’s façade: all wood, glass and straight lines with 3-D effects on one of the walls. Kuma delivers a good first impression on us.
So from Asakusa, we continue the hunt for the next Kuma creation in the posh shopping district of Omotesando. I’ve never been a fan of this area, even though the main street is lined by designer boutiques by renowned architects. Thus, it is a huge relief to see Sunny Hills just a turn and short walk downhill away from the glamorous boulevard.
A shop looking like Taiwan-styled pineapple cake, the building is encased in a wooden, lattice-like façade in the shape of a bamboo basket. It is simple, unassuming and humble in appearance. Unlike its flamboyant neighbours, Sunny Hills fits in with the residential ambience of where it is located. That doesn’t necessarily make it boring and uninteresting, though.
We sure find the intricate, large-scale woodwork called jugoku-gomi (which is assembled without nails or adhesive but is impossible to be dismantled once in place) interesting!
The shop assistants kindly grant us permission to look around and we waste no time in climbing up to the other floors. Decorations are minimal, but really, with its open, welcoming and clean space, Sunny Hills needs very little.
Just down the street from Sunny Hills is Nezu Museum, a private institution that houses and exhibits the Nezu family’s vast art collection which spans over three generations. I first discovered about the museum from Casa Brutus, a Japanese design and architecture magazine.
In that particular issue, the columnist (who also happens to be a famous celebrity) Sho Sakurai highlights the museum in his monthly segment, Discover Architecture. Let’s just say Nezu Museum has a special place in my heart after seeing Sho-kun posing in the bamboo pathway at the front of the newly renovated building, designed by Kuma himself.
Celebrity crush aside, the museum is a worth a visit, even if you’re not a fan of pre-modern Japanese and Asian art Note however that more than 100 pieces out of some 5,000 pieces in the collection are National Treasures, Important Cultural Properties and Important Art Objects though.
The bamboo pathway is not only an entrance to the building, it creates a sense of serenity that differentiates the premises from its contemporary neighbours. We couldn’t help feeling transported to a different place altogether.
The museum building is black in colour. The ceiling, particularly on the upper floor, is quite low, but the glass wall and unobstructed view of the lower level exudes an open, vast vibe. We take our time in the galleries, peering into almost every corner of the museum, before descending into the garden.
This is where Kuma’s magic is apparent – despite its sleek, modern design, somehow the museum integrates seamlessly with the traditional Japanese garden and teahouses hidden amongst the thick, secretive shrouds of trees and bushes.
The so-called Kengo Kuma architecture trail then takes us to an area more known for the largest fish market in the world, Tsukiji, and upscaled shopping. But charmed as we are with Ginza, our attention is never off from Kabuki-za, a building with more than 400 years of history.
Unlike other Kuma works, Kabuki-za is unique as Kuma maintains the previous façade of the kabuki (traditional Japanese play) theatre that was designed by Yoshida Isoya back in the 1950s in the style of sukiya-zukuri architecture as the front face of the building. However, he merges it with a tall, modern office tower building (renovations lasted from 2010 to 2013), upgrading Kabukiza’s functions and relevance in current times and context.
Coincidentally, kabuki is in season while we are there and there is a performance taking place that very day. We soak in the atmosphere by checking out the performance schedule, which is posted on a board in front of the building.
I must admit that I am tempted to join the line for tickets for the next single act performance (a complete kabuki play consists of several acts and lasts a whole day), but we have to move on. Therefore, I pacify myself by taking one last glimpse of the exterior and cannot verify reviews about its exquisite, luxurious interior.
DAIWA UBIQUITOUS COMPUTER BUILDING
We are racing against time because we are in the quest of Daiwa Ubiquitous Computer Building. It is in the campus of the prestigious University of Tokyo, but we have trouble pinning its exact location. It turns out that the building is situated at the end of the university periphery, and takes a while to reach on foot.
It is already dark when we finally arrive, yet the journey is not in vain. The Daiwa Building lives up to its hype in signature Kuma’s style: wood, line and repetition.
Thin strips of wood are arranged in parallel to create something that resembles a line that is not unlike a long loosely-weaved tatami mat on the exterior of the building. These tatami-like lines are then stacked neatly, creating illusions of volume, shadow and texture that redefines the structure overall look and feel. Had we arrived earlier, we would have notice that the building seems to vanish among the trees in its surroundings.
We enter the building but are greeted with a sign that the interior space is off-limits to visitors. We are not entirely upset: Daiwa is a functional research building and we shouldn’t be trespassing. So after admiring the exterior façade again, marvelling at the aesthetics and irony of having a traditional look for a study centre in a futuristic field for as long as we can (the temperature is dropping exponentially), we leave.
On the train ride back, I ask my sister if she can now leave Tokyo happy. Yes, comes the answer.
Sometimes, elder sisters do know best.