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Post-pandemic happiness isn't living in a skyscraper: architect Kengo Kuma

Traditional Japanese homes that mix indoor and outdoor space will regain traction, he says

A Kengo Kuma-designed building in Japan's Iwate Prefecture uses a traditional method of layering wood. (Photo by Shigeru Aoki)

TOKYO -- Kengo Kuma realized architecture was his calling when he saw at age 10 the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, a 1964 Summer Olympics venue designed by renowned predecessor Kenzo Tange. More than half a century later, he took part in designing the Japan National Stadium, to be used for the summer games next year.

The stadium is a hybrid structure of reinforced concrete and lumber designed to match the adjacent Meiji Jingu Gaien park, echoing Kuma's vision for architecture that blends in with the surrounding environment and culture.

Kuma, who spoke with Nikkei, has long proposed gentler buildings that tap natural materials rather than imposing structures. In a post-pandemic world, Kuma believes that his thinking will gain traction as people see more value in outdoor space to enjoy walking and appreciate traditional Japanese homes where the line between inside and outside is blurred.

He has designed buildings in more than 20 countries and received numerous architectural awards.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Kengo Kuma designed the new Takanawa Gateway Station building on East Japan Railway's Yamanote Line in Tokyo.

Q: The newly opened Takanawa Gateway Station building you designed is not packed, because of the pandemic. How will the area's redevelopment change under post-pandemic city planning?

A: There is nothing I can do about the crowd. And my policy is to not say how my buildings should be used. So regardless of what happens, I can enjoy it.

I am an overall adviser for the project. The basic idea is to create a walkway along the several hundred meters leading up to Shinagawa Station. We are not creating closed space, and it suits post-pandemic sentiment.

I think walking will become very important in the post-coronavirus era. Instead of being cooped up inside, people will be eager to walk on the street, appreciate nature and feel the wind. I think our project matches that trend.

The Japan National Stadium is designed to blend in with the surrounding Meiji Jingu Gaien facilities. (Photo by Masayuki Terazawa)

Q: Cities may look quite different going forward.

A: I hope that is the case. The demarcation between a city and outer regions will become blurred. Instead of being defined as distinct areas, they will be seen as the same continuous space. A street people walk on will also serve as a workspace and a dining space.

After the Black Death pandemic in the 14th century, people fled dirty streets to hide inside boxes. Humans had long been ruled by the illusion that happiness is living inside a box. And that tendency was fortified after the Black Death, and Renaissance architecture made those boxes even bigger. Ultimately, we arrived at the 20th-century skyscrapers designed in the U.S.

I think that trend has now reached a turning point, and now people will be more eager to be outside the box. We have spent a tremendous amount of energy on air conditioning, releasing heat and polluting the outside environment. Looking at that vicious circle, my instinct has told me that this is not going to last.

Old Japanese architecture did not create a clear distinction between inside and outside. Having hisashi, or eaves, right above the entrance or windows to block intense heat in summer and bring in sunlight in winter helps create a more comfortable living space. We need to go back to that type of architecture.

Until now, money was being spent on how to make the box look good, to the detriment of architecture. After the skyscraper style was established in the 20th century, we had been focusing on how to decorate the skyscrapers and make them look expensive. We did not think beyond that, and that was a retreat. Those involved in architecture as well as city planning have all been lazy. We need to recognize our laziness and bring our wisdom together to move toward a new direction. Designers and engineers have to work together.

Takanawa Gateway Station boasts a distinctive white roof. (Photo by Kai Fujii)

Q: You have talked about the concept of volume in your books. Can you elaborate on that?

A: Architecture is the craft of designing volume, and real estate brokers try to sell that volume at a high price. So volume has been the standard that has driven architecture, real estate and city planning.

How much can you get for a square meter? This has nothing to do with quality. The idea that volume provides happiness was very misguided. Rather, happiness should be defined by how freely you can walk around outside your box.

Look for new things that define happiness and affluence: this I believe is the message we glean from this pandemic.

Q: You have said you prefer airy structures that blend in with the land rather than imposing buildings that stand out.

A: I've been saying that instinctively, and that mantra has now been proved correct. In "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jane Jacobs imagined a street where people were always doing something but not all at the same time. Her vision was not a ballet performance where everyone raises their legs at the same time, but a place where dancers do what they want when they want to. I was so impressed by what she envisioned.

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