BY BRIAN LIBBY
Japanese architect Kengo Kuma was on hand at the Portland Art Museum for a lecture and interview that also included University of Illinois architecture professor Botond Bognar (considered a foremost expert on Kuma and post-World War II Japanese architecture) and was moderated by the University of Oregon/John Yeon Center's Randy Gragg.
First Bognar began with a presentation on the work of Kuma, whom Japanese Garden president Stephen Bloom (who introduced the talk) called "the Frank Lloyd Wright of Japan."
"It is safe to say that Kuma is one of the most prolific and versatile architects today," Bognar said. "About that diversity he wrote, ‘I want to produce architecture freely without being constrained by techniques and methods. I want to arrive at an arch that realizes everything.’ What ties his architecture together? I think the most common feature is the ability to connect to both people and the world around them: sophisticated simplicity, rich minimalism, a disciplined understatement of his architectural expression, and a disengagement of his architect’s personality."
Bognar discussed how Kuma has evolved over his career to foster a kind of humility that is very Japanese. "What he in fact wanted to avoid is to create object as architecture," Bognar explained. "He developed a theory and practice trying to avoid designing these large monumental buildings as objects that stand apart in their environment. He began experimenting with strategies to lighten or offset this notion of a negative impact on the environment." Bognar then went on to show slides of numerous Kuma projects that experimented with glass walls and exterior screening made of a variety of materials from wood to steel to plants.
The professor also noted that while modernism was initially about rejecting historical influences, Kuma "nurtures a particularly intimate connection to Japanese architecture, and seems to foster a transformative continuum."
Then it was time for the man himself to speak. When Kengo Kuma began, he did not speak about Portland or Japan or Japanese Gardens, but instead about a source of inspiration: a wood box that Kuma's father bought when he was a child. It had been designed by Bruno Taut, a German architect and designer who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s and settled for a few years in Japan (before it too succumbed to fascism).
"Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruno Taut are the two important masters for me," Kuma said. It started from this box. My father bought it in Ginza in probably 1975. He loved that box very much. Whenever he was happy he showed me that book. He said, 'Kengo, this was designed by a very famous designer.' The box was very simple, made of Japanese wood. I thought it was amazingly beautiful. It was my first encounter with good design."
Kuma then went on to explain the connection between Taut and the Portland Japanese Garden. "Bruno Taut had come to Japan in 1933," he said. "After he came to Japan, the first day he visited Katsura Villa, which is my favorite Japanese garden. Kyoto artists wanted to show it to Taut. That day was May 4, his birthday. When he visited the gate of the Katsura Villa, he began to cry. People were so surprised. Later he explained the reason. In Japan, at the villa, he finally could find what was the goal of his design." Taut went on to write a definitive book about the villa, it is "still considered a bible," Kuma added. "Taut could find the essence of the Katsura Villa."
"I got many hints for the Portland Japanese Garden from Katsura Villa," Kuma explained. "It’s a kind of village and each building is very humble: basically one story. But the relationship between gardens and the buildings is amazing. Always there’s a connection. It’s very well connected. And that is the point of Katsura’s beauty." Kuma added that the same year Taut visited the Katsura Imperial Villa, Le Corbusier had just designed the modernist icon Villa Savoye (which opened in 1931). Taut made the connection between the restraint of historic Japanese design and modernist architecture of the time. Yet there were key differences. "European modernism is the desire for shape. But Katsura Villa, its whole form is very humble, yet the relationship is rich. That is the very important point in Taut's book. He felt Katsura was the best example of the future of design. The experience at Katsura Villa is very similar to the Portland Japanese Garden. When Portland’s was designed [by Takuma Tono], he got many hints from this garden. It’s very simple but very well proportioned, and also very humble. Humility is very important for this design."
Speaking more specifically about the Portland Japanese Garden, Kuma noted that the site is on a hillside. "The interesting thing is the usual Japanese garden has no deep forest like that. In Kyoto, to find the deep forest is not easy. But in Portland it’s a big advantage. The Portland Japanese Garden has deep forest behind the garden. The idea is to create a village in the forest. Each building is not a big building, one or two stories, and light, natural materials and transparent screens are important. We don’t want to create heaviness. The forest itself is beautiful, and the buildings should merge into the forest."
The architect made note of how not every part of his design for the Portland Japanese Garden was strictly authentic, but the design looked to the Japanese vernacular in broader ways. Of the green roofs that will be part of the Portland campus, for example, Kuma said, "A green roof cannot be found in the Katsura or the other villa. But on the traditional farmhouse in Japan, people would plant flowers on the thatched roof. So we introduced that tradition to this roof. And it is very helpful to save energy." Kuma also addressed roofing in relation to the new cultural buildings and their zigzag pattern, which in Japan is often referred to as flying geese. "It’s not straight. That creates many interesting corners. And at each corner people can get a great view: 360 degrees," he explained.
Kuma then turned his attention briefly to discussing his commission to design Tokyo's new National Stadium for the 2020 Summer Olympics, and how an ongoing conversation between modern and traditional architecture played out then and will so in his own design. Kumar talked about a major inspiration, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium for the 1964 Olympics, designed by Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. "At that time I was 10 years old," the architect recalled. "My father brought me to this stadium. I was surprised to see this beautiful building. The curvature of the roof Tange got from the Japanese temple. Also the interior was amazing: natural light washing the beautiful curve. He carefully designs that kind of effect. On that day I decided to become an architect. Before I’d wanted to become a veterinarian, because I love dogs and I love cats. But after I encountered this building, I changed my mind."
Yoyogi National Gymnasium, Tokyo (Kanegen)
With Tange's building, "the roof is very important for him," Kuma added. "People saw this as a late-modern building, but he tried to create roof shadow, and he got that from many Japanese temples. I wanted to create that kind of roof and shadow again. Shadows are very important for me, and vegetation. The location of this stadium is in Meiji Jingu Gaien Park. It’s part of the biggest shrine in Tokyo. This park is very much related with Shinto culture. I think for Shinto culture, the roof and the shadows are very important. They use the roof to create beautiful shadow."
"Our design inside the stadium, we are using wood for the structure of the roof," Kuma continued. "My idea is if the people get inside the stadium, there is the smell of wood. It has no air conditioning system, but we carefully designed a section of the soffit for controlling natural wind. Each louver has a different pitch. The distance between the louvers varies for each section. Some parts are strong, some parts are weak, by changing the pitch of louvers. But you can feel some similarity between those villas and the Japanese garden and the stadium."
After Kuma's remarks, he was interviewed by Randy Gragg, who began by asking what, given the array of projects in different countries and at different scales he has worked, constitutes the the beginning of a building design.
"To visit the site is always the beginning of design," Kuma said. "Sometimes the client sends me images of the site, sometimes movies of the site, with a letter — 'Please start the design as soon as possible' — especially Chinese clients. 'You don’t necessarily need to come to the site,' they say. But I need to go to the site. It’s where I can get inspiration. In movies and pictures, I can’t find any hint. It’s very strange. Many images they are sending, but no inspiration. But if I walk on the ground, the ground gives me some hint. Architecture at its essence is standing on the ground, and the natural light, and the wind, are belonging to the place."
"After that, we as a team sit down," the architect added. "I begin to show images and talk with them. The next step is to make the model of the site. That is also a unique method: making the site and its neighbors. The neighborhood is also very important. That model gives us many hints for the place. The 3D rendering is not giving that hint. But the models, that kind of reality, a three-dimensional reality, is very necessary for studying the project."
Gragg then asked an excellent question, or at least to me as a Japanese film buff. He noted how Kuma has previously cited filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu as influences, yet Kuma's work as an architect has been described as anti-photographic, or at least against the notion of architecture as photo-op first. How does cinema influence Kuma's work?
"Cinema gave me many hints," the architect explained. "The hint from the cinema is coming from the philosophy of directors: Kurosawa’s philosophy and Ozu’s. Ozu taught me many things. Ozu’s movies, he used many sliding doors. He used doors and their sliding element to create depths for space, and relations between people. I’m using the same method: the sliding door is defining the space. That lesson I learned from Ozu. But for each project, I adapted those ideas to the place, to the land. Then it’s not so cinematic, I think."
Bognar also noted a relationship between cinema and Japanese architecture, the latter of which reveals "scenery after scenery," he explained. "Japanese architecture is an interactive cinema. You can move through space and create the story according to your inclination. You can add up different kinds of perceptions."
Kumar then related that essential type of experience to his memory of the Katsura Imperial Garden. "I remember when I first visited Katsura I said, 'This is a huge garden.' Then I looked at the map. It was incredibly small. But every turn revealed something new. Even if you look at the same thing it can seem new. That’s particularly true in the case of Japanese architecture."
Gragg then asked Kuma about his first impressions of the Portland Japanese Garden, and how it compared to gardens in his home country. "My first visit was 2008," the architect said. "I was so surprised to see the richness of the gardens. They treated nature very carefully and with heart. It’s amazingly beautifully maintained. The result is a harmony with the environment. There's a deep forest with big trees, and the garden merging. I haven’t seen that kind of relationship between forest and gardens in Japanese gardens. The other two Kyoto gardens are beautiful gardens, but it’s not so much related to the neighbors. I was surprised. Another interesting point was the sections of the gardens had ups and downs. That kind of relationship: it’s not a big garden, but because of the up and down it’s a very rich experience. Out of Japan, it’s a kind of miracle to have that kind of garden".
If forests and hillsides are uncommon for Japanese gardens in Japan, Portland's still occupies a topographical position that's important in Japanese culture, Kuma explained. "In Japan the position of the garden between the mountain and the town is an important position. The shrine always is sitting in that kind of position, between mountain and flat ground. The shrine sends a strong message from the mountain. People believe the gods are living on the mountain, and the shrine’s message to the people is to respect the mountain: 'Please use the mountain carefully. Use the natural resources carefully.' That is the message of the shrine. Portland’s is sitting in a similar position. I love the location very much."
Kumar and Bognar also discussed how the Portland project might set an example for Japanese architecture in Japan.
"I have to go back to Kuma’s reference to Bruno Taut and Frank Lloyd Wright," Bognar said. "Typically after a major era opening to the west, the past was relegated to something not useful. It had to be Frank Lloyd Wright, Taut, and so many who came to Japan and discovered something about the Japanese past or the Japanese. Taut was instrumental in making Katsura a preserved and protected entity. Something parallel is happening. Kengo has referred to a stagnation in landscape or garden design in Japan. When something of this nature happens in the US, in this case, providing a prominent example, I really think it can set a precedent. Cultural crossings work both ways, not only coming out here but out to Japan.
"Portland is becoming very popular for Japanese," Kuma explained. "Many are interested in Portland. There are many books about Portland published in Japan, and there are many tours to japan. People believe Portland is a model of a compact 21st-century city. The Japanese Garden in Portland is considered a model of a garden for the people. They’re using it as a part of their daily life. It’s very well connected to Portland. This is a good example for the Japanese. In Japan, these gardens are beautiful, but totally separated from our daily life. It’s a pity. But here in Portland, your daily life and the gardens are very connected. When culture and nature and daily life can be tied closely, for the Japanese that’s a strong message. Japan used to have that kind of integration, but we forgot."