Kengo Kuma Exhibition: A LAB for materials
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.
At the end of the day, architecture is about materials, or the conversation between humans and those materials. It is so because we need to rely on something apprehend-able such as materials in order to communicate with the overwhelmingly large and uncertain world – nature. If we choose the wrong materials, our conversation could be altered and we’ll feel out of place. Indeed, concrete shaped the 20th century and our conversation with the world became hard and tough. We felt tense.
It’s time to start a livelier conversation with materials again.
(Translation by Mihoyo Fuji)
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 Woods are difficult to mass-produce, paper is fragile and flammable, bamboo is breakable, stones are heavy, earth is out of date, etc., etc.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.
Wood is one of Kuma’s signature materials, and he often “weaves” it into his designs as structure or finish. Whereas you hardly weave building materials, you can acquire unique “looseness” or flexibility when you do so, says Kuma. Weaving makes buildings more like our clothes – soft, light and fluid.
“The Great (Bamboo) Wall” in China is probably one of Kuma’s most widely known works. But it involved much experimentation to use bamboo as a structural material because it breaks easily when it dries. After many trials, it still remains a difficult material to deal with, says Kuma, but that is exactly why bamboo continues to fascinate him.
Paper is not a usual construction material because it is weak. But this is an advantage for Kuma who pursues “loosely whole” architecture. He likes the duality of paper – especially Japanese traditional paper – that can be solid and/or liquid. Leveraging such characteristics, Kuma even applied paper to the surface of metal to transform it to something ambiguous and soft.
Stone was not Kuma’s first material of choice because it is hard and heavy. But the Colonia Güell designed by Antoni Gaudi changed his perception. Inspired by the way Gaudi leveraged natural, unprocessed stone to make pillars that almost looked like trees, Kuma started to experiment with new ways to unleash the natural potential of stone.
The house where he grew up had walls finished with earth. While they were solid walls, they also absorbed moisture when cleaned with water. And when they were dry, they spread dust. For Kuma, earth (soil) was something that could change its form and flexibility by belonging to the world of solid, liquid and air. He leverages earth as a catalyst to design architecture that could spontaneously bind humans with the natural environment.
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.
Glass is opaque, but is still a material. It’s important to let it “behave,” instead of treating it as if there was nothing there, says Kuma. The choice of the thickness is the key for glass because its “materiality” – how hard, heavy or thick it is – manifests almost only through its edge. It is very important to pay attention to the edges when finishing materials, especially glass, says Kuma.
Since Kuma pursues architecture that can become as light and soft as clothes, he is drawn to fibers. In the same way that textiles, or woven threads, can wrap our bodies softly and flexibly, Kuma wants to design buildings that envelop us smoothly and naturally. He has been trying different ways to weave fibers in order to let new kinds of softness emerge in our living environment.
Traditionally, people had built houses by combining wood and roofing tiles almost anywhere in the world. Since tiles are made by firing locally produced clay, they represent local geography and climate. As fire always fascinate us with its magical power, we feel some sort of fondness for tiles, a product of direct firing.
Overcoming his initial perception that resin was an industrial, synthetic material, Kuma started to experiment with it aggressively in later years because he saw new opportunities in its flexibility that allowed him to build things, such as an aggregation of small cells and/or units. It is the way that living organisms, including humans, are designed.
Metal wasn’t Kuma’s material of choice because he considered steel, the most widely used metal for construction, shaped the hard, divisive architecture of the 20th century along with concrete. But shape memory alloys changed his perception. Inspired, he designed a pavilion that would change its shape as the temperature changed. By embracing metal, Kuma is pursuing a unique mixture of strength and softness in his architecture.