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One of the inspirations for this project has been Kengo Kuma, a prominent Japanese architect, famous for works such as the Great (Bamboo) Wall in China.  He is advocating “architecture that loses.” (or that “yields”)

This is counterintuitive because, as we’ve just reviewed, architecture have had to be developed to overcome the threats posed by nature, to protect our fragile body.  It almost seems like architecture is expected to win, not lose.  What does he mean by this?

In his book “小さな建築 (Small Architecture),” Kuma points out that the history of modern architecture has also been the history of fights against disasters.  Catastrophic disasters such as The Great Fire of London, The Lisbon Earthquake and The Great Chicago Fire, turned some of the largest, most vibrant cities of their time into rubble, and affected tens of thousands of people.

1755 Lisbon Earthquake, Public Domain

Every time such disasters damaged people’s lives on a massive scale, they felt vulnerable and tried to rely on architecture for protection and security.  Buildings became larger, harder and sturdier, leveraging state-of-the art engineering. (Kuma also describes the architecture in the 20th century “the era of concrete”) 

Yes, the stronger, the better.  No wood, but concrete. That was our answer to how we would win – how we would overcome the threats posed by nature.

But then, Japan was hit by a once-in-one thousand year, tantalizing M9 earthquake in March 11, 2011. It killed more than 18,000 people, jeopardized a nuclear power plant, and destroyed and washed away tens of thousands of “modern” buildings, made of steel and concrete.  The buildings we all believed to be strong enough to defy the power of nature collapsed in a blink of an eye.  It was a heart wrenching view that made people feel desperate and helpless. The meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant revealed yet another vulnerability surrounding advanced technology:  sometimes we have no idea what the whole consequences will be, even when they are brought on by our own technology. 

Ofunato, Iwate, Japan after 3.11 Earthquake By DVIDSHUB [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Modern architecture realized leveraging the power of technology, clearly lost. Even though it had focused on becoming bigger and stronger, it wasn’t enough to face this brutal power of nature.

It was a wake-up call, recalls Kuma, in his book.  After the 3/11 catastrophe, he further enhanced his philosophy of “architecture that loses.”  The fundamental idea is to embrace the fact that humans are fragile, and humans can lose to nature.  He emphasizes the importance of accepting the fact that technology cannot always overcome nature, and provide us with everything we need.  He says we should start from appreciating the limitations and restrictions inherently associated with building anything.

However, he is not talking about holding a white flag and surrendering.  It is actually the opposite.  By accepting vulnerabilities and limitations, enormous potential emerges, Kuma says. If “stronger the better” types of modern architecture disconnected us from the vast wild world, architecture that knows how to lose will open the door for human-scale resilience, agility and beauty.  It will allow us to find the way for us to connect directly, spontaneously and proactively with the outside world, instead of sitting behind the chains of systems completely shielded and isolated.

“Architecture that loses” poses two fundamental questions regarding the nature-technology-human interaction, critical to thinking about Zero and satisfaction.

  1. Is technology the only and almighty answer to face and extract satisfaction from nature? Does “more” technology always makes us feel happier?
  2. When technology does most of the tasks for us (if not all), where does our satisfaction belong to? Is it by us, or is it somewhere external to us? If it’s outside us, what will happen if we lose access to the technology that’s bringing us happiness?

Having those questions in mind, let’s take a look at House Vision, an innovative Japanese exhibition surrounding urban living.