In 1964, the year Japan last hosted the Summer Olympics, 10-year-old Kengo Kuma went to Tokyo with his father to look at some of the new venues that had been built for the Games. Until then, little Kengo, who loved cats, had dreamed of becoming a vet. But the moment he set eyes on Kenzo Tange’s spectacular National Gymnasium, with its sweeping suspended roof and undulating concrete base, he changed his mind: he would become an architect. More than half a century later, Kuma - now 65, and one of the most respected architects of his generation - has designed his own Olympic arena: the 60,000-capacity National Stadium for the 2020 Games that, were it not for Covid-19, would have been starting this month.

Olympic Rings monument at Tokyo Sport Olympic Square, the headquarters of JSPO & JOC

One can only imagine his frustration when, earlier this year, the Olympics were postponed to 2021. Kuma has sat out the pandemic with his wife, Satoko Shinohara, and their 35-year-old son, Taichi (both of whom are also architects) in his home in Tokyo. Speaking via Zoom, he tells me that, rather than ruing the devastation caused by the disease, he wants to concentrate on how it could spur a change for the better: “We should be thinking about the future of the city,” he says, “the future of humanity.”

Besides, Kuma - who is best known in Britain for designing the V&A’s new outpost in Dundee - is relieved that his involvement in the stadium, which was completed last November, is finally over. “So many people were watching the project, I felt a strong pressure,” he says.

No wonder: the genesis of Japan’s pounds 1 billion National Stadium has been fraught. Eight years ago, the competition to design it was won by the British architect Zaha Hadid, who died in 2016. As opposition to her futuristic plan mounted, and costs spiralled, she was removed from the project, and Kuma - who suggested a modest alternative with a lower silhouette (think: humble wooden napkin ring, in place of Hadid’s aerodynamic bike helmet) - was appointed instead.

What was wrong with her original proposal? “Zaha was a very talented architect,” replies Kuma, carefully. The problem was, he says, the stadium’s sensitive location in Yoyogi Park, next to Meiji Shrine. “It is one of the most important shrines in Tokyo,” he says, “and the stadium sits in a very special forest adjacent to the shrine. So, it’s a kind of sacred space.” According to Kuma, Hadid’s “very tall building”, clad in a “neutral white material”, simply did “not fit with the forest”. Whereas, his design - which, at 154ft, was less than two thirds the height of Hadid’s scheme - “tried to show respect” to the stadium’s hallowed surroundings.

Capitol Hotel Tokyu  building Picture credit: Shutterstock

In homage to the nearby forest, the exterior of Kuma’s stadium consists of up to five layers of gigantic overhanging eaves - evoking, as he says, a “five-storey pagoda” - built using timber, including cedar and larch, from all 47 prefectures of Japan. The terraces have also been planted with more than 47,000 trees, representing 130 different species, so that, as Kuma puts it, the entire arena is a sort of “living tree”.

“I wanted to create a symbol of the Japanese respect for the environment,” Kuma says. “Traditionally, in the forest, people didn’t make big buildings, but always wanted to create in harmony with their environment.” As statements go, then, Kuma’s stadium is a deliberately muted contrast to the 1964 arena that inspired him. But these days, Kuma says, “People’s needs are the total opposite.” What we want in 2020 is “quietness” and “environmentally friendly” buildings, he explains.

Harmony with surroundings is the goal of everything Kuma designs. Consider the lobby of the Capitol Hotel Tokyu, which he created exactly 10 years ago; in celebration of the anniversary, it is from that very hotel that Kuma, a smiling yet serious man in a black jacket and white T-shirt, calls me.

The building occupies an enviable position between the Diet of Japan - the workplace of prime minister Shinzo Abe - and the centuries-old Hie Shrine. Kuma took his cue for the high-ceilinged lobby from the latter. Adamant that he wanted something different from “the normal luxurious hotel space”, covered with “hard materials” such as marble, he decided to use “softer” wood to impart a sense of “warmness”. The result is a dazzling installation of criss-crossing hinoki cypress planks, like the underside of a shrine’s roof. (According to Kuma, the belly of a roof is more important in Japanese architecture than the top of it.) “The use of wood can totally change the atmosphere of an interior,” he tells me. In this case, by restricting himself to thin, sharp-edged wooden elements, he conjured up something “very delicate”.

 

LOVE FOR WOOD

Over the years, Kuma has worked with various materials and in many styles. One of his earliest creations, for instance, was the M2 Building in Tokyo: a flashy car showroom in reinforced concrete, completed in 1991, with a massive, postmodern ionic column in the centre, housing the lift shaft. (Recently, Kuma has said he felt “embarrassed” by the building.)

Really, though, he is known for his long-standing love affair with wood, which has become something of a signature for his firm of about 300 employees in Tokyo, Paris, Shanghai and Beijing. “Wood is a magical material,” Kuma tells me. His fetish for it may have something to do with growing up in a traditional Japanese house, with rice-paper screens and a wooden frame, built by his grandfather.

He laments Japan’s postwar revolt against wood. “Before the Second World War,” Kuma explains, “Tokyo was basically a city of wood. The size of the city - ceiling heights, the width of streets - was determined by the limits of wood, and so Tokyo had an intimate human scale. But, after the Second World War, we had many natural disasters that changed our society.” As a result, Japan’s building code was altered, with wood effectively outlawed.

“It was very sad for our city,” Kuma says. “Structures in concrete and steel with no limit on dimensions came to dominate Tokyo. And I believe that the human body doesn’t like that kind of huge scale.” In his own architecture, Kuma says, he aspires to the “humanisation of our planet”.

V&A Museum of Design, Dundee in Scotland. Picture credit: Shutterstock

 

SIMPLE IS KEY

Kuma has always had an unfashionable passion for simple, low-lying buildings. In the late 1970s, he went on a two-month field trip across the Sahara, researching villages whose “beauty”, he says, has never left him. Ironically, he only began to appreciate Japanese material culture and design while living in New York, as a visiting scholar at Columbia. He established his own practice in Tokyo in 1987, during the economic boom, but when the bubble burst, Kuma spent the so-called “lost decade” of the 1990s working in Japan’s countryside. In a single mountain town on the island of Shikoku in the south of Japan, for instance, Kuma has created four buildings - two hotels, a town hall, and a museum - with a fifth under construction.

“During those 10 years,” he tells me, “when I didn’t do a single project in Tokyo, I learnt many things from those craftsmen. They understand the magic of natural materials.” He smiles. “They’re better teachers than university professors.” Traditional techniques - using fermented persimmon juice to waterproof external washi (Japanese handmade paper) walls, coating the ends of wooden girders with powdered shellfish to protect against water erosion - still characterise Kuma’s designs today.

 

ACCIDENT CHANGED EVERYTHING

Another “trigger”, as he puts it, for the radical shift in his architecture was the life-threatening accident that he suffered shortly before Japan’s stock market crash of 1991. One day, he placed his hand on a large glass table, when “suddenly it cracked”, severing nerves and veins, and exposing the bone.

Before the accident, he says, “I played a lot of tennis and golf, and sketched with my right hand. But all that stopped.” Even today, he adds, holding up his hand for the camera on his laptop, “I cannot control some of my fingers.” (He wears T-shirts because he finds shirt buttons tricky to manipulate.) After the accident, Kuma decided to “change myself”, and made peace with the prospect of his self-imposed rural “exile”.

In the countryside, Kuma refined his architectural philosophy. He started using surprising phrases, such as “defeated” or “weak” to describe his architecture. Architects, he once said, should be “very shy”. He became convinced that the “goal of society” in the 20th century - to construct “outstanding, symbolic buildings, to make skyscrapers” - was fundamentally out of step with people’s needs and desires.

As a result, Kuma, unlike many famous “starchitects”, has no interest in letting “the ego of the artist” dictate a building’s form. Critics call his work “anti-monumental”. Often, he “dematerialises” buildings by cladding them with small modular elements such as thin strips of wood, ingeniously suspended roof tiles, or, in the case of V&A Dundee - which, he says, was inspired by granite cliffs on Scotland’s coast - panels of precast concrete. This is sometimes called his “particle aesthetic”.

Kuma says it took 20 years for the world to come around to his vision, and only now do “people want to understand my aesthetics and method”. Natural materials such as wood are back in favour: “I am designing wooden buildings in many countries, not only Japan,” he says, citing the stacked timber boxes of a new modern art museum in Turkey. “Definitions of happiness and richness are changing. People no longer want to own huge apartments. They want to enjoy small spaces.”

Kuma’s celebration of littleness has been vindicated by the pandemic. “Most people are working from home now,” he says, “so big office buildings aren’t needed any more. We can go in a totally different direction, away from big boxes and big towers.” This is, he adds, “a new attitude, a new phenomenon. The world is changing.”

A lot of older architects and designers “don’t want to understand that change”, he says. But he sees it plainly in his students. “They are very interested in renovation - using an old building to add something. They’re not interested in making skyscrapers or monumental buildings at all. It’s a totally different mentality.” In the future, Kuma believes, architecture will once again become “intimate”.

Think of that next year, when you tune in to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Tokyo. “Intimate” isn’t a word most people would associate with a stadium. But, in the case of Kuma’s unassuming arena, it feels remarkably apt.

Kengo Kuma   Picture credit: Shutterstock

 

My Life as an Architect in 25 Buildings by Kengo Kuma, will be published by Thames & Hudson early next year. Kengo Kuma: Complete Works (T&H) is out now