Kengo Kuma’s exhibition “くまのもの — 隈研吾とささやく物質、かたる物質 (a LAB for materials)” is being held at the Tokyo Station Gallery from March 3, 2018 to May 6, 2018. As the Japanese title means “Kuma’s things: materials that whisper and talk”, the exhibit focuses on how Kuma leverages various materials to re-define our relationships with nature in a modern world through architecture.
As his architecture is often described as “natural,” the exhibition, which catalogues Kuma’s signature materials such as wood, paper, bamboo or resins – poses questions on how buildings and people can potentially change the way they “behave” vis-à-vis nature through architecture, when materials that shape buildings and envelop our bodies are freed from the “efficiency-above-all” mantra of the modern economy and allowed to regain their natural values and behaviors.
The exhibit is divided into 10 sections by materials. The first five materials are natural – almost primitive materials that have been used by humans at least for thousands of years: earth, stone, wood, bamboo and paper. It is striking that all of the five materials are expressed using only one simple Chinese character, and consist only of two syllables when pronounced in Japanese. It shows just how elemental and close those materials have been to our lives.
However, despite their long history, these materials are now labelled “inefficient” and are having difficulty competing in the market as economically competitive construction materials. Woods are difficult to mass-produce, paper is fragile and flammable, bamboo is breakable, stones are heavy, earth is out of date, etc., etc. But these materials should not be judged in this way, believes Kuma. As elements that are part of nature, adopted by humans over such a long period of time, they could allow us to talk and connect with nature. They are the materials that “whisper” what nature embraces.
The second group of materials in the exhibit explores more “modern” materials: metal, tile, glass, membrane/fiber and resin where metal, tile, and glass are solid, while membrane/fiber and resin are fluid. Some of the materials were not Kuma’s first choices because he felt they were artificial, hard and divisive. But as he discovered new perspectives or technologies that changed the behaviors of the materials, he had no hesitation in trying new ideas to re-define his relationships with them.