By Michael Webb
Kengo Kuma: Complete Works. (Thames & Hudson, $65)
In his erudite introduction, Kenneth Frampton calls Kengo Kuma “quintessentially Japanese” and the 25 projects the architect has selected are deeply rooted in the craft traditions of that country. The title is misleading: Only a quarter of Kuma’s buildings are featured, and the large commercial projects in Beijing that have sustained his practice in recent years are omitted. It’s a wise choice, for Kuma works best on a modest scale with traditional materials. In his foreword, he writes with feeling of his collaboration with traditional craftsmen in rural Shikoku and in Tohuku, a region ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami of 3/11. “The richness and strength of that culture cannot be understood until one has worked with the people who live there—until one has eaten their food, drunk their sake, talked with the craftsmen and made things with them,” he writes.
Kuma cherishes small places over big cities and has built little in Tokyo. He prizes traditional materials over concrete, which is the default choice for most Japanese architects. Buildings are arranged in three groups: Water and Glass; Wood, Grass, and Bamboo; Stone, Earth, and Ceramics. Up first is an icon to which the architect often refers: a glass house in Atami that seems to float as lightly as a soap bubble on a reflecting pool high above the Japan Sea. The concept was reinterpreted for Z58, a small corporate showcase in Shanghai. Kuma loves to veil his structures, most notably the wood slats of the Nakagawa-machi Hiroshige museum, the checkerboard stone screen of the Lotus House, and the bamboo house he contributed to the Great Wall Commune outside Beijing, which can be rented for short stays. It has proved so popular that the developer has built several replicas.
Browsing the images and Kuma’s eloquent descriptions, I remembered past trips through rural Japan, encountering some of these buildings after a long drive. Of the ones I’ve not seen, the town hall and wood bridge in Yusuhara, a remote community on Shikoku, seem the most compelling. The intricacy of the construction, and the fusion of new and old is dazzling. Closer to home, I spent several ecstatic hours exploring an addition to a classic modern house in New Canaan. Built by John Black Lee (whose name is misspelt here) for himself in 1956, and enhanced by Toshiko Mori in 1992, it was extended by Kuma with an L-plan pavilion that recalls a flight of cranes and seems to hover above the forest floor. Kuma arrived at night in a snowstorm, fell in love with the beauty of the site, and recreated a tiny piece of Japan as his first work in the US. Anyone who admires the traditional architecture of Japan, and Kuma’s genius for reinterpreting it, should commission him to build a house in Montecito before he becomes too dependent on Chinese developers.