While Kengo Kuma is an accomplished architect, he is also an extraordinary author. He does an excellent job of reminding us of the critical role architecture has been playing in our society, and how such role had been driven by our ambivalent love/hate relationship with nature.
Through his recent books, he has been cautioning that our relationship with nature, led by the modern economic system and manifested in architecture, has become too rigid, divisive and alienating that it’s now affecting our society (not just the environment, to emphasize) in an irreversibly detrimental way. His insight is looking increasingly relevant in this volatile world where the tectonic plates are active, extreme climate events are rampant, the population has reached to an alarming level and the politics are looking unstable everywhere. It is time to take a step back and review what we had been pursuing under the name of modern economic system.
Especially important is to find ways to shape our future in more resilient and sustainable way so that we could feel long-lasting happiness by navigating today’s rapidly society resiliently.
According to Kuma, the secrets lie in re-discovering the values that had been rejected in the context of the modern economy as ineffective, inefficient or wasteful. In a series of the books, he picks up such seemingly “negative” values as the sources of resilient, happy and sustainable solutions.
- 負ける建築 (Architecture that Yields), Iwanami Publishing, 2004
- 自然な建築 (Natural Architecture), Iwanami Publishing, 2008
- 小さな建築 (Small Architecture), Iwanami Publishing, 2013
All of the three themes – lose, natural and small – sound inappropriate as characteristics to define architecture because we believed that it had to be strong, prevailing, sturdy, artificial and large. But in each book, Kuma walks us through the history of our society as to why we’ve come to where we are now, only trusting rigid, hard, divisive, explicit and alienating buildings.
Humans are inherently small and fragile, but nature is big, forceful and overwhelming. Ever since our existence, architecture had been people’s primary device to try to defy challenges and threats posed by nature. From ancient ruins to modern skyscrapers, architecture shows our desperate efforts to overcome our fate:
Higher and become closer to god – to defy gravity and our vulnerable, uncertain destiny.
Harder and sturdier – to protect our fragile body from any threats and aggressions.
Bigger and divisive – to maximize ownership and security.
Those are all legit concerns. And there is no doubt that it was high, strong and large architecture that had been doing the best job we could ever expect.
So why does Kuma advocate a loser, weak and small architecture? He reveals one clue in the preface of his book “Small Architecture” published in 2013. When he was writing the book, a mesmerizing magnitude 9.0 Great Tohoku Earthquake occurred. Later become remembered as the “3.11,” the once-in-a-thousand-year earthquake that hit Northern part of Japan on March 11, 2011 invited unprecedented scale of tsunami, gobbling up the lives of more than 20,000 people in a blink of an eye. It also washed away many buildings – in some areas, wiped out the entire town. The scary words such as “annihilated” were used to describe the communities that completely disappeared on 3.11.
Facing staggering power of nature, our “strong” architecture collapsed unbelievably easily. What humans have built spending decades leveraging the best of modern technology and enormous amount of money turned out to be as fragile and vulnerable as tree branches. It made Kuma re-confirm the limitation of modern architecture.
The Great Lisbon Earthquake, 1755 was a wake-up call for Europeans to re-build the city that would be more earthquake and fire-proof.
Kuma also points out that it was disasters, not technologies, that have been driving and shaping the advancement of architecture especially in urban areas. Every time large earthquake or fire occurred taking away many lives, people felt enormous insecurity and fear. They rushed to architecture to shield their vulnerable bodies by hard and sturdy things. Unlike birds or fish that could move swiftly in case of emergency, humans were slow and needed secure and protective “nests,” Kuma observed.
As a completely new perspective, Kuma offers small architecture that can replace hard and big architecture. Small architecture is self-sustaining, flexible and capable of directly connecting humans with nature once again. The life with or in small architecture is self-assuring, connecting and relaxing that can bring about deep, mindful satisfaction.
He offers four perspectives that make small architecture unique: stack (lay), lean, weave and inflate.
Reference Kuma Kengo. 小さな建築 (Small architecture). 2013. Tokyo, Japan. Iwanami Publishing.
Quotes translated by Mihoyo Fuji.