The Kuma Kengo Exhibition: Five Purr-fect Points for a New Public Space – Exhibition at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Japanese architect, Kengo, Kuma is widely considered as a master of natural materials since he has unique ideas and skills to leverage wood, stone or even paper to design buildings that harmoniously dissolve into the surrounding environment. But his ambition does not stop there; boldly, sometimes subtly and even playfully, he also attempts to restore the natural “state” of humans, not just re-discovering the value of natural materials through his design that are at odds with the urban built environment dominated by concrete. The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, inspired by his approach, asked Kuma to create an exhibition focused on what constitutes the public-ness in buildings, rather than on buildings themselves. Kuma came up with the idea of “Five Purr-fect Points for a New Public Space.” The exhibition features 68 designs selected from among Kuma’s projects worldwide highlighting what he believes are the critical elements needed to create public spaces that allow people to get together organically, and unleash their senses to share pleasant and happy moments. Kuma sought “purr-fect” help from cats – who know how to leverage their super micro, ground-level views and senses to find every possible secret path to discover comfortable places that no one else has noticed.
Kuma Kengo: Five Purr-fect Points for a New Public Space
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
2021.6.18 – 9.26
There is one more intriguing twist to his concept. Kuma participated in designing the Japan National Stadium, the main venue for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which has been marred by an unprecedented pandemic, one of the major challenges faced in the modern era. Speaking of the Tokyo Olympics, the previous one was held in 1964, which produced an iconic piece of architecture – the Yoyogi National Gymnasium designed by Kenzo Tange. As a pioneering modern architect, Tange released “A Plan for Tokyo 1960” in 1961, a 30,000-foot view, a groundbreaking proposal to build a floating city over Tokyo Bay. Five decades after this forward-looking manifesto, Kuma answered Tange with “A Plan for Tokyo, 2020: Five Purr-fect Points for Feline Architecture” – a research project that reinterprets the urban environment by looking at it from a cat point of view. You can see the heart-warning yet radical results at the exhibition produced in collaboration with Takram, one of Japan’s top engineering design firms. They highlight how much our society has changed over the last few decades, and how our priorities need to change to pursue happiness moving forward. You will be surprised how on-point his focus on unexpectedly small, natural perspectives of cats is in today’s society. We can no longer assume that future-looking, large-scale modern systems can solve all the problems we have created – as the Japanese might have dreamt 50 years ago during the era of rapid economic growth. Now that we are confined in urban concrete jungles that only care about economic efficiency rather than each individual’s comfort or happiness, we need new perspectives for public spaces – especially as it is the crowded urban environment that led to the global pandemic. Following capricious but independent cats could remind us how we can restore our natural joy and find things that make us feel good and comfortable in today’s public environment.
Kuma’s five perspectives inspired by cats are unexpected: hole, particles, softness, oblique and time. Find out what he means, as Kuma is an excellent writer who puts a lot of thought into each element in ways you might never have thought about.
Five Purr-fect Points for a New Public Space
V&A Dundee, 2018
For Kuma, patios, atriums, and gaps placed in between a suite of buildings are all “holes” that can connect various elements: communities and the surrounding environment, heaven and earth, the here/now and something supreme. He pays great attention to how the holes in his design connect people, things or environment as they can open up new potential for buildings, large and small.
Kuma also adds what he has observed in cats: they often choose to stay in hole-like areas, rather than passing through, in order to protect themselves. In the post-COIVD world, Kuma wonders if we may feel more secure in holes, rather than being confined in large concrete “boxes.”
Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum, 2010
No matter how large a building is, it is still made of a countless number of different particles. It is the existence of these particles that keeps us feeling levelheaded even when we are surrounded by disproportionally large, modern built environment. It is possible, Kuma believes, to design pieces of architecture as a cloud, or collection of many, many particles. When that happens, they start dissolving into the surrounding environment because they are all reduced to particle-level elements that collectively constitute the whole. The smaller, the freer, especially if you treat particles as becoming even more human-friendly by thinning or rounding off the corners. It’s important to remember that our bodies are soft and fragile. When you surround them by elements with similar quality, they will start to find unexplored potential.
Takanawa Gateway Station, 2020
“Softness” has been neglected in architecture, as it assumed that only hard materials can be used to construct buildings. But for Kuma, softness is the quality of our bodies, and is the most crucial aspect in architecture. Through this project, he was reminded by cats that they would react to soft or coarse surfaces much better than hard, smooth ones, which they couldn’t even scratch.
The Japanese traditionally were keenly aware of the comforts that soft materials delivered, so they kept hard materials such as stones for exteriors, then used wood in the middle, and left soft materials such as paper closer to the center, closer to their bodies. Why don’t we apply those concepts to public spaces to realize more comfortable, happy places – not only for humans but for cats?
The Exchange, 2019
We love efficiency. It is exactly what made our civilizations progress and prosper, and modern systems are all about efficiency. But Kuma is not impressed. He laments that that we need to rely on efficiency-driven systems so heavily because they are the ones that control us once in place, and architecture has often been a part of such systems.
What if we could free ourselves from the controlling power of such systems? Kuma believes that using oblique elements could help us do that. By leveraging elements that do not belong to efficient systems – which usually prioritize vertical and horizontal strength – we could remind ourselves how diverse and chaotic the natural state of our environment used to be, and how humans were spontaneous part of it. Cats remember those times as they still roam freely, even in our modern, homogeneous-looking concrete jungles.
Harmonica Yokocho Mitaka, 2017
Modernism has been about future, and about constantly creating and building new things. But Kuma doesn’t see the “future” of architecture in that direction. He’d rather get inspiration from Jane Jacobs who advocated for old and used buildings, believing this would make urban communities more affordable and more vibrant.
He is drawn to the “oldness” of buildings as an important element, the same way he considers smallness (particles), softness or the oblique as crucial in his design. According to him, they all make architecture “weaker” or “yielding,” which has huge potential for postmodern-era architecture. As opposed to strong modern architecture, weak architecture allows buildings to restore a human based-scale and a human-touch, and this is often truer with old buildings. There are so many buildings in any given community, and each has its own “here/now,” like a clock that keeps ticking, writing its own history. There is no homogenous time, and each story contributes to making the entire community a comfortable, meaningful place for people.