Japenese architect Kengo Kuma visited Dallas for the completion of the new Rolex building in Harwood, which his firm designed. On August 19, Michael Friebele, Assoc. AIA, sat down with Kuma and other members of the design team to discuss his perspectives on architecture and experience designing a building for Texas. What follows is an edited version of that discussion.
Michael Friebele: Why did you become an architect?
Kengo Kuma: The first Tokyo Olympics were in 1964 when I was 10 years old. Before then, I could not name a single architect. In fact, I wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved cats. But in 1964, my father took me to the Yoyogi National Gymnasium and I was so interested. He explained to me that Japanese architect Kenzo Tange had designed it, and I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.
MF: When you first started out your practice, you made the decision to focus on craftsmanship and intimacy of scale. Could you talk about that time in your career and that decision?
KK: I started my practice in 1986. That year, the economy was booming, and I got many commissions. But suddenly, in 1990, the Japanese economy collapsed, and I didn’t have any work in Tokyo for 10 years. I’m very happy, though, because I traveled a lot to the countryside of Japan where many interesting craftsmen were working. During that decade, I worked with them on smaller projects, studying textures and materials. Since then, I have been able to learn from the tradition of place, the material of place and, without those experiences, I couldn’t achieve buildings like the Rolex building.
MF: How are you able to bring that research into practice to make a meaningful impact on the project?
KK: We create a mockup for every project so I can feel the materiality. I don’t trust drawings; drawings are just lines, but mockups have material; they allow us to check effective natural light and shadow. Also, I often go to the construction site. In the 1980s, many star architects would send drawings to Japan without visiting because clients just wanted a brand, not architecture. And I saw how that produced buildings without any heart, so I try to visit the site as much as possible and communicate with locals directly.
MF: Could you elaborate on some of the sustainable aspects and environmental responses shown in your work?
KK: The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami were a big shock for us in Japan because we believed that concrete buildings could withstand natural disasters. During this time, we learned the weakness of concrete and observed the resilience of modest hill houses, designed in the 19th century with tsunamis in mind. This was a valuable lesson. We should respect nature. It should be the basis of architectural design. If we become arrogant, the building cannot survive.
MF: Your designs for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium are presenting this new way of thinking in Japan and this new path forward. Could you elaborate a little bit more on that path?
KK: I felt that the 2020 stadium should be different, opposite that of the 1964 Olympics. The previous Olympic stadium was a huge concrete monument and, for that period, that kind of monument was really necessary to establish Japan’s place in the world. But in 2020, we belong to a totally different period. Economy and population have changed greatly. Aging has become a very serious issue for Japan, but despite this, I wanted to find happiness in 2020. Our solution was to use local wood from every region of Japan to celebrate our country’s diversity. The choice of wood as the primary material raised many questions. To counter concerns of cost and maintenance, I explained the success of the Hōryū-ji Temple in Nara. This seventh-century wooden temple has survived 1,400 years because of a thoughtful detail. Wood is used for the soffit, where it is protected from the sunlight and rain. Replaceable louvers have been carefully maintained all these years, allowing the temple to age beautifully. Once I explained that, the questions stopped.
MF: How do you go about understanding place?
KK: For the Rolex building, the most difficult issue was how to solve the gap of the site. And traffic played a part in that. It’s a very noisy street, so our solution was to use a castle wall. The castle wall is part of the earth; it is part of the natural land, which creates a very different effect from a vertical concrete wall.
MF: Upon your first visit to Dallas for this project, what were the immediate considerations?
KK: My first visit to Dallas was in 1985 when I was attending Columbia. My impression on my second visit to Dallas was that it looks totally different. How, in 30 years, had such a big change happened? From that, how to create a symbol for this “new Dallas” just became a theme of our project. And I think this is a very important project for American cities, because Harwood is trying to change American cities from a car culture. Harwood is trying to bring the European and Japanese city culture of intimacy and activity to the American city and showcase this philosophy in the Rolex building.
MF: What else have you seen change about Dallas over the last 30 years?
KK: What impressed me is the new food culture in Dallas. As always, antithetically, avant design is avant design and food is food. But now, however, they try to combine avant design and food culture and it’s very important for future avant design. In Japan, now, we have many tourists. Every year it is increasing. Five years ago, the number of tourists visiting Japan was 15 million, but the target for next year is 40 million. And the food is very important for the tourists and for city life, and Dallas is showing a very good example of combining those two things, and the Rolex building has no restaurants, but around the Rolex building we have many eating places, and it’s very important for Dallas.