BY BRIAN LIBBY
When acclaimed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma was announced last year as the architect of a major expansion to the Portland Japanese Garden, it was a coup for the city. Although we enjoy an impressive roster of home grown design talent, this is not a city that often brings in the most famous architects to contribute. But then again, the city has a more impressive list of projects by acclaimed landscape architects like Lawrence Halprin and Peter Walker having worked here than it does architects. Even if Kengo is a building designer and not a landscape designer, his new structures at the Japanese Garden will exist in the context of, well, a Japanese garden, and that is fitting well beyond the notion of his happening to be Japanese.
Recently, the Japanese Garden unveiled a $33.5 million Kuma-designed expansion plan (for which approximately 60 percent of funds has been raised) that, while only increasing its footprint by 11,328 square feet, will include three new LEED certified buildings as part of what's called a Cultural Village, as well as seven new garden spaces. (Portland's THA Architecture is the executive architect, and local landscape firm Walker Macy is the executive landscape architect.)
The original five gardens within the current Japanese Garden will remain intact. The expansion design follows the Japanese tradition of monzenmachi, or gate-front towns, where village activity exists just outside the gates of shrines and cultural sites. With the Cultural Village located outside of the main gardens, visitors can participate in festivals, art exhibitions, and workshops while preserving the gardens' sublime sense of tranquility.
Recently I interviewed Kuma by email to learn more about his plans as well his impressions of Portland and its garden.
Portland Architecture: What have been your impressions of the city of Portland, such as its architecture and urban design? Are there any particular buildings or spaces that you particularly like?
Kengo Kuma: I like the city of Portland very much, especially its urban design. It feels intimate, as the scale of each block is fixed at about 200 feet, and this makes for well-scaled city spaces in general.
How would you characterize the Portland Japanese Garden in the context of other Japanese gardens outside of Japan?
I consider that of all Japanese gardens built outside Japan, Portland’s is the Number 1. One reason is perhaps to do with the rainy climate of Portland, which is similar to that of Japan. Moreover, the garden is always in an excellent condition, thanks to the careful and tenacious maintenance by Sada Uchiyama and all the staff and locals related to the garden. Their effort is making the garden unique in the world.
Today as cities in the United States become more and more dense like Japan, can you explain the special role that Japanese gardens can play in urban settings? Do they provide a kind of tranquility that is unique?
I am convinced that the Japanese gardens can play a big role in busy urban environments. They can introduce a new way of thinking to people, a particular philosophy of contemplation and deep connection to nature and maybe even themselves, which is completely different from western-style gardens.
There seems to be a strategy for the Portland Japanese Garden's new cultural village buildings to act as both a social space and a buffer for the rest of the garden. Could you explain how this is based on traditional gardens and shrines in Japan?
I’ve found your point interesting. Yes, the new buildings can function as a social space and a passage to the rest of the garden. Indeed, Japanese shrines and temples are integrated into their environments, often built at the foot of Satoyama (semi-natural hill) and people stop by or get together there for socializing. The situation will be the same in the design for Portland Japanese Garden, too.
The new buildings seem to achieve a delicate stylistic balance, not only between traditional and modern architectural traditions but also between Japanese and American Pacific Northwest architecture. How did you approach the question of architectural style? Or did the design evolve more organically?
I have always thought that the Pacific Northwest and Japan have affinities in climate and culture. As we pursued the design, it took shape this way just naturally. It is not that we sought for a particular architectural style.
Could you explain some of the key materials that will comprise the new buildings? Of course glass is a primary material, because of the importance of natural light. But what were some of the other key materials you chose, and why?
We will use lots of wood. The texture of trees, such as cypress or cedar, determines the quality of a building. We succeeded in taking advantage of the character of Port Orford cedar, which has the same quality we wanted. I look forward to using it in the new buildings, especially for the screens. In general though, many of the materials are taken from local sources, including stone, other wood species, and natural materials with rich textures--I hope crafted with care, and pleasant to the human experience.
Portland is a city praised for its urban planning and landscape architecture, but without many signature buildings by internationally renowned architects. Given your acclaimed international reputation, did you view this commission as a chance to create a landmark, or was your design based only on the contextual needs of the project and the needs of the client?
My purpose has always been to give an identity to the building with its surroundings. Integration of the structure and its environment is what I aim in design, and this design for Portland Japanese Garden is no exception. This has been a great intersection of client vision, a fantastic site in a great city with culturally minded people, experience of the landscape, and personal philosophy--a lot of passion. It would be great if this could eventually draw people’s attention and be appreciated as my architectural character, rather than anything superficial. In the case of the Portland Japanese Garden, the design is supporting what is already there, so the new project is not supposed to be a landmark in the way that the original gardens are. I am more interested in contributing well-integrated architecture to Portland rather than a signature monument. I think this can be the strength of Portland, a more sensible approach for our times.