Architecture is a medium that connects small and fragile human bodies with the vast and overwhelming expanse of nature. But because we became so obsessed with shielding and eliminating noxious, unwanted elements of nature, we started using increasingly divisive, separating solutions such as thick concrete walls. As a result, we ended up becoming disconnected from nature, as Kengo Kuma points out. As he pursues ways to seamlessly re-connect humans with nature through architecture, he has been advocating “architecture that loses”, “small architecture” or “natural architecture”, looking to reverse the course of modern architecture that has become too big, hard, sturdy, irreversible, inorganic and out of our hands.
The ”虫塚 (mushi-zuka – Mound for Insects)” is a very curious example of how Kuma’s idea to seamlessly re-connect us with nature has been realized.
It’s been old Japanese tradition to create various “塚 (tsuka)” (mounds or tombs) to appreciate and celebrate the end of life even for non-human or non-organic existences including peculiar animals (fish, frogs, cats, eels etc.), household items (e.g. knives) or tools (e.g. brushes or katana). So Takeshi Yoro, a renowned Japanese medical researcher and an author, came up with an idea to build a special monument for the bugs he had been collecting as specimens for his research. It would be located at the 建長寺 (Kencho-ji), one of the prestigious “Five Mountains” of Zen Rinzai Temple in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture built in 1253. Yoro asked Kuma to design a monument for the bugs. They both hail from Kanagawa Prefecture.
Bugs are one of the everyday natural “threats” we have feverishly been trying to expel from our lives using various devices including the private home, the most familiar piece of architecture. The important role that bugs play to support our diverse ecosystem does no matter: we just loathe them and try to discriminate against them since they appear disgusting, creepy and even hair-raising. They are bad because they sting, carry diseases, attack us, or our crops and livestock. We can go on and on, listing the reasons why bugs need to be out of our lives.
But if we think twice, bugs are not malevolent by nature. As the Mother Nature created their amazing ability/resilience to increase their population very quickly. They evolved to be small, light, often with wings, so that they could swiftly take on whatever excess nutrients humans, other creatures or plants, inadvertently left – whether it’s garbage, fertilized land or livestock. Bugs are simply very agile and adaptable, and have been important agents in the environment. It’s not their fault that they are, in general, unwanted.
In his statement for the opening ceremony of the Mushi-zuka, Takeshi Yoro said he wished to celebrate the bugs he had to kill for his research, but also acknowledged that we were facing massive insect extinction today, possibly as large as the one in the Cretaceous period that wiped out the dinosaurs. Citing a theory that we could inadvertently be killing tens of millions of insects to make, use and scrap just one car, he wished to make this monument to remember how casually we kill other creatures to pursue our own lives.
In reply to Yoro’s passion, Kuma designed a monument that was small, light and almost unnoticeable just like the bugs Yoro wished to celebrate. He wanted to express the bugs’ agility – their ability to swiftly and flexibly find their homes in various places.
As a result, a complete opposite to what we typically think of as a “monument” – that it should be large, heavy and grave – emerged. Kuma thought it would be a perfect fit for bugs and also for Zen philosophy, which is the practice of the prestigious Keicho-ji temple where the mound is sited. Just so as you know, Buddhism, including Zen, teaches to appreciate the life of every living thing, including a bug, that they are as important as ours.
Bug hunting used to be what every boy would do during summer in Japan. They would look for large beetles, stag beetles, butterflies, cicadas, grasshoppers etc. Therefore an insect box was a household item. Leveraging fond childhood memories shared by many, Kuma designed a gigantic “insect box” by spirally stacking 40 stainless wire mesh cases. As much as it looked like an insect box, it also looked like a winged bug trying to take off.
The wire was finished using a material which is a unique blend of locally produced dirt and glass fiber. This finish was applied by Shuhei Hasado, one of the most acclaimed traditional plasterers (左官) in Japan today, who is famous for various innovative/creative works that give “dirt” a totally new potential. As the wire cases received the special coating, they started looking like the bug itself.
Kuma envisions that the monument will become covered by moss in the coming years and will completely dissolve in the surrounding environment, which is actually where the young Yoro used to run around trying to catch various bugs. The monument is currently centered around the object of a weevil specimen caught by Yoro, but they imagine that everything could change as nature wishes.