Kisho Kurokawa: sometimes resented, always professional
Whatever else he might be, Kisho Kurokawa cannot be accused of being shy and retiring - and, as anyone in public life knows, you don't become rich and famous without attracting a fair amount of criticism. Kurokawa is at least moderately rich, sharing with his glamorous actress wife a lifestyle of material comfort (and occasional excesses - including a collection of vintage Aston Martins), tempered by the disciplines of his Buddhist education. It is, however, his fame - and its basis in professional and intellectual achievement - which has occasionally attracted resentful comment from peers and critics. The opening of the riba's Kurokawa Retrospective exhibition this week presents an opportunity to appraise this Japanese architect's career - also prompting wider questions regarding the ethics and motivation of our profession.
The facts speak for themselves. Kurokawa has built many dozens of buildings, in numerous countries, almost any one of which is of sufficient merit (and photogenic appeal) to deserve several pages of coverage in the glossiest of professional journals. Many of the buildings are very large, all are thoughtfully planned, and, without exception, they are thoroughly detailed and well constructed. For their level of professional competence, if nothing else, British architects could do far worse than to study Kurokawa's buildings and projects in some detail.
The controversy, however, stems from the fact that Kurokawa doesn't aspire to mere competence, but to distinction based on an all-embracing philosophy as well as a skill in making formally pleasing buildings. Throughout his career, Kurokawa has sought to relate his designs to philosophical movements - frequently ones largely of his own invention, or at least reinterpretation. Kurokawa emerged as one of the leaders of the Japanese avant garde, relating the formal invention of Archigram to the cultural and economic tradition of continuous change which characterises his own country's architecture and urbanism. It was Kurokawa who, more than any of his (older) fellow Metabolists, succeeded in creating the movements's monuments.
Metabolism's youthful experimentation has moved, with the times, to altogether more serious stuff. Kurokawa's office today is an organisation employing some 100 architects and 50 cad technicians. The firm's workload spans most sectors, with recent projects including offices, shopping centres, hotels, airports and - as ever - museums. Regardless of the scale of operations, Kurokawa remains the quintessential signature designer, initiating every project, and refusing to compromise with unsympathetic clients. Inevitably, with commercial success and creative consolidation have come accusations of betrayal and megalomania. Among younger Japanese architects there are many who see Kurokawa as 'yesterday's man', no longer cutting edge. This is surely no disgrace - as there is an inevitability in the process of institutionalisation which almost every international signature designer would acknowledge. Kurokawa (like Rogers) can in any case absolve himself of such accusations by pointing to his support of younger desgners. Many of his proteges have launched promising solo careers. Rather like Philip Johnson, Kurokawa has become a mentor and sponsor of the continuing avant garde, remaining aware of contemporary trends in his own work.
Nobody can deny that he has manipulated the media with skill; or that the plethora of monographs and profiles featuring his work are financially subsidised by his firm. But Kurokawa's buildings and projects continue to be published widely even where the journals concerned remain entirely independent of his commercial support; and how many contemporary architectural monographs do not, in some measure, rely on subsidies or sponsorship of one kind or another? Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright were masters of self-promotion too - does this diminish their achievements? Like these early twentieth-century masters, Kisho Kurokawa might be accused of being an amateur philosopher, but he is surely a true professional among architects.