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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese residents of Japan.

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image image Materials, Methods, and Geometries: 30 Years of Creative Exploration by Architect Kengo Kuma
James Lambiasi
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Kengo Kuma is perhaps the most renowned Japanese architect currently in practice. His international status has allowed him to attract increasingly notable commissions, carrying his prolific career to ever greater heights. However, the current exhibition of his works, Kengo Kuma: a LAB for materials, is not necessarily a platform he uses to boast over his achievements. On the contrary, Kuma takes this opportunity to highlight the humble source of his architectural philosophy of makeru kenchiku, translated as "losing architecture." "Losing" refers to the notion that it is not the building itself that should be the center of attention, but its ability to respond to its physical and cultural context, and to resonate with nature.

Kuma conveys this philosophy through the overall organization of the exhibition. Whereas a typical architecture show might present works according to building type or in sequential order, Kuma focuses on materiality. By emphasizing the importance of materials, Kuma essentially applies his philosophy of reducing the self-importance of buildings themselves by letting the exhibition showcase the fundamental properties of the materials from which they are created. Irrelevant of scale or program, be it a mega-stadium or a café interior, Kuma shows us his love of materials and offers them in ten separate categories: bamboo, wood, paper, earth, stone, metal, glass, tile, resin, and membrane.

At first glance, the oblique three-dimensional latticework of the Sunny Hills cake shop has the delicacy of a transparent veil. Upon observing the full-scale mock-up, however, one understands that the interlocking wood joinery actually provides a rigid shell structure strong enough to support a three-story building. Through this lattice, Kuma fully exploits the materiality of wood through jigoku-gumi, or "hell-joinery." Ironically he is able to spotlight the fundamental properties of wood material and Japanese traditional joinery by showing it to us in this novel weaving process.

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Sunny Hills Japan, model scale 1:50.

  Sunny Hills Japan, mock-up provided by Nakajima Construction Company.

While Sunny Hills investigates the properties of wood through a woven lattice system, the Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum presents an opportunity to investigate the tokyo wood bracket system, a traditional Japanese joinery detail used to support large eaves. Once again exploring and exploiting the materiality of wood, Kuma introduces fresh terminology by referring to this system as "wood masonry." Layering beams one upon the other in a brick-like manner, he achieves an extended cantilever structure that brings the weight of the building down to a single wooden column. This tenuous balance also evokes the image of a yajirobe, a traditional Japanese toy that can ingeniously balance itself on one point.

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Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum, model scale 1:50.

Bamboo is a material with flexibility as a property, and is flexible in its many applications as well. Used for building light structures and even for replacing steel scaffolding, it can be woven into bundles and sheets that are as strong as they are pliant. Kuma amplifies these properties in his Nangchang-Nangchang pavilion, in which the bamboo floor surface curves upward and splays into individual shoots. The form and curvature of the pavilion explore the unique characteristics of bamboo, and in doing so remain loyal to Kuma's concept of "losing architecture."

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Nangchang-Nangchang, 2013. Photo: Designhouse

Kuma explores membranes and fiber in the Floating Tea House. Using a PVC plastic balloon filled with helium and held by thin threads, he supports the feather-like weight of Super-Organza, a polyester fiber material that is considered the lightest of all fabrics. The equilibrium between the ball and the draping cloth creates a space which makes the occupant feel as if in a floating world. As with the bamboo pavilion, the uniqueness of Kuma's design highlights the expression of properties as opposed to a statement of form.

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Floating Tea House, 2007. Photo: Kengo Kuma & Associates

Contrasting with the ephemeral lightness of membranes, stone is another category within the exhibition. Though stone is hard and heavy, Kuma describes it as a material from the earth, expressing in its grain patterns the natural processes of heat, pressure or sedimentation. It is these fibrous directionalities and patterns that he tries to emphasize and express in his buildings. The V&A at Dundee, a museum at the mouth of the River Tay, draws its inspiration from the rugged seaside cliffs of Scotland. The facade consists of precast stone planks, formed in metal casts and then sandblasted to expose the natural stone aggregate. The monolithic form of the building together with the horizontal striations of the stone planks make it seem as if one is standing at the base of a natural cliff formation.

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V&A at Dundee, 2018. Photo: Ross Fraser McLean

  V&A at Dundee, model scale 1:50.

The architectural achievements of Kengo Kuma could indeed be described as fantastic or ambitious. The presentation of his works through the lens of materiality, however, allows one to understand the modest intentions that drive his creativity. By setting his goal of a "losing architecture" through the investigation of materials, he has won by providing architecture of superb imagination.

Replete with mock-ups, actual pavilions, videos, models, and material samples, this is the first architectural exhibition held by Tokyo Station Gallery for an individual architect since its Kunio Maekawa show 12 years ago. Photography is allowed for all exhibits, and sharing your experience of this unique exhibition is encouraged.



All images provided by Tokyo Station Gallery.


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Kengo Kuma: a LAB for materials
3 March - 6 May 2018
Tokyo Station Gallery
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James Lambiasi
Following completion of his Master's Degree in Architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1995, James Lambiasi has been a practicing architect and educator in Tokyo for over 20 years. He is the principal of his own firm James Lambiasi Architect, has taught as a visiting lecturer at several Tokyo universities, and has lectured extensively on his work. James served as president of the AIA Japan Chapter in 2008 and is currently the director of the AIA Japan lecture series that serves the English-speaking architectural community in Tokyo. He blogs about architecture at tokyo-architect.com.
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