Kengo Kuma and “Small” Architecture

Architect Kengo Kuma is an extraordinary author. He does an excellent job of reminding us of the true relationships of human and nature or architecture and nature, which have been driven by our ambivalent love/hate feelings toward nature.

He has been writing cautioning that the modern economy and technology made our relationship with nature too rigid, divisive and alienating that it’s now affecting our society in an irreversibly detrimental way. His insight is looking increasingly relevant in this volatile world where the tectonic plates are active, natural disasters and 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.

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.

15556766 - wall from color plastic blocks

Stack (lay):  In the book, Kuma reminds us how important it is to choose the right unit. Since our body is small, the unit should also be small.  And that’s why our old units are based on our body size as you can see in foot, or shayku (Japanese old unit equivalent to foot).  He points out that the standard size of the bricks is  8.27″ x 3.93″ x 2.36″, which fits nicely in our palms.  Bricks are easy to handle (stack-able) because of their size.  By leveraging our body size, small architecture could pursue once-forgotten beauty and pleasure: editability by users.  Just like the children make LEGO castles, we could stack small units one after another, to make our houses and buildings.  His modern “brick” is much lighter, flexible, organic and connects us directly with outside world.

11674501 - house of cards

Lean on:  Small architecture has to be self-sustainable, says Kuma. You should be able to make it on your own, and operate it on your own. You should be able to leverage your own abilities to connect yourself with the vast world/nature.  And if you focus on feasibility, the easiest solution is to “lean on” an exciting structure.  He points out that the “Primitive Hut” that Marc-Antoine Laugier described in his landmark “Essay on Architecture,” leaned on trees.

Modern architecture attempted to pursue sturdiness.  But sturdiness achieved by humans can never be perfect. If that’s the case, says Kuma, it would be worthwhile to accept the limitation and start exploring the possibilities and potential that “leaning on something” could bring to us. For example, house-of-cards structure (a typical lean-on-each-other design), often appears in his architecture.

44983172 - close up woven bamboo pattern.

Weave:  For humans, stacking up standardized materials such as bricks would be the easiest way to let a structure emerge from nothing.  Then, you can take advantage of gravity by letting the materials lean on each other.  However, you would need something to “tie” the joints when the materials lean on each other.  That’s where “weave” comes into play, Kuma says.  If you can “weave” materials that lean on each other, then architecture could be strong with minimal material input.

46146545 - vector outline classic grey ball icon on white background

Float:  If we can leverage gravity, we could also leverage air. Because small architecture wants to connect humans with outside world seamlessly, the walls should be something much lighter and more organic compared to conventional hard materials such as concrete. But walls have to achieve certain functions.  When he uses thin skin-like materials for walls, he leverages air to add needed functionality and sturdiness.  Inflated thin-fabric works like skin, giving the structure flexibility and softness. When not in need, you can deflate the structure. It’s mobile because air is omni–present.

Reference  Kuma Kengo. 小さな建築 (Small architecture). 2013. Tokyo, Japan.  Iwanami Publishing.
Quotes translated by Mihoyo Fuji.