TOKYO, JAPAN—Tokyo is known for its mix of modern and traditional architecture, but for long-term residents it is easy to feel like the concrete is winning out. Old buildings come down on an almost daily basis, inevitably replaced with utilitarian concrete structures that would not look out of place in Stalinist Russia.
The buildings done by acclaimed Tokyo-based architect Kengo Kuma are different. Next month, his new ward office, or city hall, for the Toshima district in Tokyo opens. In Ikebukuro, a Northern Tokyo urban wasteland, the 95 sq. meter, 49-story building stands out, pleasant and green in an otherwise drab area. Its multi-layered exterior, making use of plant life and wood, creates geometric irregularity unseen in most modern architecture with natural materials.
“The idea with the Toshima City Office was to softly divide the interior and exterior using what we named ‘Eco Veil’,” Kuma tells Quartz. “This concept groups four kinds of panels, each with its own function.” Solar panels, recycled wood, window blinds and spaces for plants are used equally to layer the exterior. “The panels work like leaves do for trees,” Kuma said. “For this building, we adapted the Japanese concept of the ‘gentle divide’ to the modern context.”
From inside, the building has fewer distractions than the city’s glass skyscrapers and brick-and-mortar constructions. Its layered exterior blocks out a portion the powerful Tokyo sunlight, without leaving the building in darkness; provides the plant life often lacking in the center of the city; and gives privacy to those working without preventing them from seeing outside.
“It receives sunshine and photosynthesizes, shuts off rain and wind, creates gentle lighting and changes the face of the building season to season.”
Kuma, who studied in Tokyo and New York, is working to reclaim Japanese architecture, which he believes was lost in country’s economic bubble era. “The 20th century was an era of division,” he says. For Kuma, a building’s main functions are to blend into its surroundings and thus avoid the modernist tendency of replacing the natural with the manmade. “Interiors and exteriors were strictly distinguished” in modern architecture, he says.
Such a distinction did not exist for him before Western influence encroached on Japan. “In traditional Japanese architecture, the partition of spaces was done with light screenings, such as lattices, or shoji screens.”
Kuma’s campaign to bring Japanese-ness back to architecture has had fascinating results. The architect’s Starbucks building in Fukuoka is like none other on the planet. Designed to fit with the architecture of nearby Dazaifu Tenmangu, a major Shinto shrine, the weaved wood makes the building seem more like a nest than an outlet of a multinational coffee chain.
In Tokyo, one of Kuma’s recent buildings, the Asakusa Tourist Center, is the perfect example of the impact he can have on an urban landscape. The layered, eight-floor building is eye-catching. Its floors appear higgledy piggledy, unequal in height and rising at odd angles. In the background, Tokyo Skytree, a 634-meter metal tower, looms over the Asahi Beer Hall, famed for the “golden turd” sculpture on its roof. The tower and the hall, both in metal and glass, and brutally modern, could not be any more different from Kuma’s.
For him, structures are primarily for creating new types of living spaces for society. “Buildings should work as natural environments, too,” Kuma said.
As the Olympics approaches, Tokyo is beginning to tear down and rebuild, develop infrastructure and modernize the city further. Some are not happy about the Olympic project. Kuma describes himself as “50/50.” While he remembers the success of the 1964 games and believes people need something to lift them after the 2011 tsunami shook Japan, he says, “I understand the [previous] event contributed a lot to growth in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan. But time has moved on and the economic climate now is completely different, too. I cannot predict whether the new face of Tokyo—whatever it looks like—will be a success.”
Japan, which is facing the depopulation of its rural areas, a graying society, and a national debt that may not remain sustainable for long, needs solutions. If not the Olympics, then what? “We have learned already that scattering subsidies about solves nothing,” Kuma says. His company has done work in rural areas to try and stop the rot. Towada City Plaza in Aomori Prefecture, for example, is an attempt to revive a Japanese area outside the urban centers. The center includes a wooden-floored children’s playroom as well as rooms for meetings and classes, and plenty of open space.
The building seems a little exuberant for a population of around 65,000.
Kuma believes architecture can contribute to solving Japan’s rural problems. “Staff members and I try to visit small or rural areas as often as possible, and meet with local people who are energetic and passionate, eager to revitalize their town,” he says. “We talk and walk a lot, and I try to discover things special about the places that the locals hadn’t paid attention to…. By creating projects for which designers and locals can work together—buildings or events—we are able to open up potential for the future. Whatever its scale, architecture can initiate communication among people.”
And that communication is not limited to the Japanese. His proudest achievement, he says, is the Great Bamboo Wall in Beijing, a “multi-Asian” structure. The building is part of a “commune” of villas in a forest near the Great Wall. The interior of Kuma’s building looks on to the forested hillside.
Unsurprisingly, the architect does not look to his contemporary peers for inspiration. The architect he most admires died in 1591—the great Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu. “He had insight that allowed him to draw out beauty unique to Japan. He was not an artist who followed overseas culture blindly.”