To Kengo Kuma, architecture is the “art of working with constraints”. So for him, Hong Kong architects have no excuse not to come up with creative and eye-catching designs despite size, cost and time limitations.
“How to leverage constraints is the main theme of architectural design,” the 62-year-old celebrated Japanese architect said.
“We are no free men. In the world of architectural design, freedom does not exist.”
Kuma has been tasked with designing the new National Stadium in Tokyo – the centrepiece for the 2020 Olympic Games – and was recently in town to promote his first residential skyscraper project called Alberni by Kuma, located in the North American town of Vancouver.
“My suggestion to young architects is that from constraints you should discover the art [of architecture]… Constraint is the mother of art. So, don’t give up.”
Though Hong Kong is often labelled a concrete jungle, Kuma said he loved the city’s high density housing and, pointing to the walkway systems linking Central to the Mid-Levels, admired the way architects had adapted to the sloping terrain.
Kuma, whose projects are known for their sensitivity to their surrounds, said architects should “respect the natural environment” rather than “dominate” it.
Reflecting on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Kuma said: “Before that, people believed that concrete or steel buildings were strong enough. But in the face of nature, they are actually very weak. What is important is the strength of the communities, not the hardware.
“So architects should build a community, rather than just a house. Architecture is a tool to create community. With an inviting atmosphere created by good architecture, people would get together and make plans.”
Kuma is known for his use of wood, which he said was inspired by ancient Chinese architecture.
“The basis for Japanese architecture tradition is in fact Chinese architecture. The Japanese learn a lot of things from China. I like Chinese history,” he said.
True to his philosophy, the design for the new National Stadium in Tokyo features is an oval structure with a lattice framework, with plants and trees across the exterior terraces. It will be a striking contrast to the curved concrete arena that fellow Japanese architect Kenzo Tange designed for the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Kuma said Tange’s work inspired him to become an architect, but he chose not to follow his approach.
“My method is to avoid iconic buildings. My design is to use natural materials to create a sense of harmony with the environment. I think that is what the new era of Olympics should be. In the past, the Games was considered a very monumental event and buildings designed for it were meant as new icons.
“The form of the buildings for the 2020 Games should be subtle and harmonious with the environment.”
Born in Yokohama in 1954, Kuma graduated with an architecture degree from the University of Tokyo in 1979. He later furthered his studies at Columbia University in New York before returning to Japan to set up his own workshop in the late 1980s.
Some of his most recognised works include the Nezu Museum in Tokyo, the China Academy of Arts’ Folk Art Museum in Hangzhou, Bamboo House in a forest nearby the Great Wall of China and the Darius Milhaud Conservatory of Music in Aix en Provence, France. He also has projects in Britain, Italy, Switzerland, and South Korea.