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Japanese architect Kengo Kuma is focus of U. of I. scholar's latest book

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


Botond Bognar
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Photo by Kwame Ross
Architecture Professor Botond Bognar documents the work of contemporary Japanese architect Kengo Kuma in his new book, “Kengo Kuma: Selected Works.”

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In a new book documenting the work of contemporary Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, Botond Bognar calls the 50-year-old Kuma “an architect to be watched.”

Bognar should know. The professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been observing 20th- and 21st-century Japanese architecture – and those who design that country’s built environment – for more than 30 years. Past titles by Bognar include “Contemporary Japanese Architecture: Its Development and Challenge” (Van Nostrand Reinhold), “The New Japanese Architecture” (Rizzoli) and “The Japan Guide” (Princeton Architectural Press). Other books by Bognar – the 2005 recipient of the Cultural Appreciation Prize of the Architectural Institute of Japan – have explored the work of Fumihiko Maki, Togo Murano, Nikken Sekkei Ltd., and Kuma’s mentor, Hiroshi Hara.

Bognar’s latest volume, “Kengo Kuma: Selected Works” (Princeton Architectural Press), is the first full-length monograph to focus attention on the internationally renowned architect. The just-published book includes 192 color photographs and 36 drawings of the architect’s designs.

Bognar said Kuma, the recipient of numerous domestic and international architecture awards, started designing in the late 1980s, just before the collapse of Japan’s “bubble “economy,” when cash for extravagant, large-scale architectural projects still flowed freely.

“Kuma is among those whose careers were launched during the Bubble years, but whose architecture actually unfolded and matured only after the bubble burst,” Bognar wrote.

“Kuma’s generation enjoyed a head start insofar as these architects could benefit from the favorable conditions of the thriving economy as well as learn from the pioneering work of their immediate predecessors, who were the first to explore the possibilities of a new architecture that was better in tune with the information age and its new lifestyles.”

Bognar said Kuma’s designs have evolved through many stages since he established his firm, Kengo Kuma and Associates, in Tokyo in 1990. His designs have encompassed elements of traditional architecture, postmodernism, fragmentary compositions, the vernacular, ecology and nature, and phenomenology.

What set Kuma apart from his contemporaries early on, however, was his signature brand of restrained minimalism with a delicate simplicity, in which he sought to “erase architecture.”

His buildings, which are often described as light – or even “ethereal” and “evanescent” – represent “an architecture of dissolution,” Bognar said. “He wants architecture – if not literally, but philosophically or theoretically – to disappear.” One way in which the architect achieves this effect is through his use of screens or slats – made of all manner of material, from paper, plastic and glass to metal, bamboo and other woods – many of which mimic the function of the traditional Japanese shoji screen.

Bognar said Kuma’s designs also reflect a sensitivity to nature and ecology, as well as a desire to emphasize contextual connections between the structure and function of built environments. One such example is his design for the Museum of Ando Hiroshige in Bato-machi, built to house works by the 19th-century Japanese artist. The museum’s glass roof and glass walls feature latticework constructions that echo the vertical lines of rain sometimes present in Hiroshige’s wood-block prints (ukiyoe) and pen-and-ink drawings.

“As a result of Kuma’s treatment of materials – bringing them to life while increasing the tactility of their surfaces – his architectural spaces become endowed with a sensuous quality not unlike the one experienced in traditional sukiya-style architecture,” Bognar noted.

“Indeed, Kuma is among those architects in Japan who are capable of successfully blending the best of their long-standing Japanese aesthetic sensibilities with those engendered by contemporary life experiences and the latest high technologies. His use of slats, for example, is reminiscent of wooden latticework (kooshi) and bamboo mesh and curtain (sudare), which are common traditional Japanese devices that mediate between inside and outside while providing privacy.”

Kuma also is increasingly known for his use of media and other digital technologies to create seamless, fluid spaces that blur the boundaries not only between interior and exterior but real and virtual spaces as well. In a recent project, the Nam June Paik Museum in Kyonggi, South Korea – built to house the work of the internationally known media artist – Kuma’s design incorporates natural terrain, glass, water and television monitors for an effect he refers to as “digital gardening.”

In addition to museums and residences, other important designs by Kuma featured in Bognar’s book are the Stone Museum in Nasu; the Horai Onsen Bath House in Atami; and the Plastic House, the One Omoteseando (Louis Vuitton Tokyo Headquarters), and the Shinonome Apartment Building complex, all in Tokyo.