Blueprint innovation: 16 interviews with international architects

Kengo Kuma

Kengo Kuma. Copyright DBOXKengo Kuma. Copyright DBOX

Kengo Kuma embraces the past and the future in equal measure, while experimenting with lightness, transparency and materiality. Inspired by Japanese traditions, he often talks about a ‘screen’, a ‘void’, an ‘enveloping’ roof, but his techniques involve a radical rethinking of materials - dissolving, ‘atomising’, weaving and folding them, using innovative methods. A prolific writer and professor, with offices in Tokyo, Paris and Beijing, Kuma has his own research laboratory at Tokyo University, where he also runs a course in advanced digital design and fabrication.

There are a couple of different translations for the word ‘innovation’ in Japanese. I have made my own, though, which is ‘kufu’ (pronounced as kufou). It is written in Chinese characters as , which means seeking a better way through trial and error. It has some ‘manual’ nuance, which sounds particularly Japanese. I like this word and I think it is the most appropriate to ‘innovation’.

Komatsu Seiren Fabric Laboratory, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, 2015. This former office building was turned into a museum and used carbon-fibre rods to protect it from earthquakes Photo: Takumi OtaKomatsu Seiren Fabric Laboratory, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, 2015. This former office building was turned into a museum and used carbon-fibre rods to protect it from earthquakes. Photo: Takumi Ota

I can think of many innovations in my projects, but the series of wooden framing (kigumi, combining a bar-shaped piece of wood to form and extend to a proper structure) projects can be said to be the most innovative, starting with Cidori (2007), to GC, Starbucks and Sunny Hills in Japan, all of which were developed step by step.

Searching for the potentials of new materials is always interesting to me - it is important to look for new things that can replace concrete and steel. I also consider it useful for architecture students, too. When you work on a new material for architecture you need to test its strength and other aspects, which automatically requires being innovative.

In my recent Komatsu project [the renovation of an office building in Japan], carbon fibre gains flexibility by twisting it. My aim is to make structural materials that are human-friendly and easy to handle. Carbon fibre is close to spider silk, yes.

Komatsu Seiren Fabric Laboratory, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, 2015. This former office building was turned into a museum and used carbon-fibre rods to protect it from earthquakes. Photo: Takumi OtaKomatsu Seiren Fabric Laboratory, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, 2015. This former office building was turned into a museum and used carbon-fibre rods to protect it from earthquakes. Photo: Takumi Ota

It’s the same idea of bundling thin and light stuff. Studying natural things and applying them to the modern world with scientific reinforcement is crucial. It also resolves many of our environmental issues.

Definitely, beauty and innovation can co-exist. But we do not approach with a fixed visual image about the material. Throughout the process of experiment - which is part of innovation - we often realise the beauty and grace of the material we are working on. Of course, innovation is essential for humanity as well as for the environment. We now know the limit of typical materials of the 20th century, and architects should no longer sit back and play shape-making games with conventional materials. Human beings are now placed in an extremely difficult time and environment. CF

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