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Kengo Kuma: 'We should respect nature and history'

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Japanese star Kengo Kuma, who headlined at this year’s MIPIM, talks to the AJ about his waterside V&A project in Dundee and rebuilding Japan’s tsunami-hit areas

How is the V&A Dundee project going – is the scheme what you expected?
I’m very pleased with the progress.This is a complex and exciting project and [it is being made] better and better as we proceed in the detail design and materials selection.I’m very happy with the current scheme, both for the way it integrates itself with the context and its relation with the river, but also for the feeling we are creating for each space through the use of materials and the choice of details.

Many people foresaw that the contest-winning scheme, which was originally planned to sit in the River Tay, would have to move inland. Did you?
The current V&A at Dundee scheme reflects the original competition design and my original concepts for the building are intact namely, the building as a gate between the city and the river, its organic integration with the context etc.
All the from the competition design are part of the normal design process for a complex project like this, and our approach to architecture is to never stop the design process, so that at any moment if we find a solution that improves the design we are happy to develop it and propose it.
At the moment we have the best V&A at Dundee design we ever had since the beginning of the process.
Moving the building inland has not only left intact all my original concepts but has improved the relation of the city with the river and the ability of the building to strongly connect the two.

How have you found working in the UK  – and how does it differ to the process in Japan?
Differences exist between clients and how they wish to work, but not between countries.

Which recently completed project in the UK do you admire?
Thomas Heatherwick’s double-decker bus

Have you been involved in any of the tsunami rebuild work – and how is the reconstruction of the area going?
I set up a group called “Kishin-no-kai” with a few of my fellow architects, to face the reality of the disaster and how we could contribute the reconstruction. We raised funds ourselves for each of us to build a get-together place for people living in temporary shelters. In central Tokyo, I feel strongly about the Kabuki Theatre, which we designed for their renovation. I am hoping that the new theatre will lift up the spirit of Japanese people.  

How has the approach to design changing in Japan and since the tsunami two years ago?
In the years after World War II Japan tried to destroy its past with its ‘scrap and build’policy. But following the disaster, the next direction and big lesson is that we should respect nature and respect history.
[There are a raft of schemes] such as the renovation of the 1914 Tokyo Station which has seen historic buildings rebuilt exactly as they had been.

Kengo Kuma's Asakusa - a tourist information center, conference room, multi-purpose hall and an exhibition space housed within eight traditional one storey buildings stacked on top of each other

Kengo Kuma’s Asakusa - a tourist information center, conference room, multi-purpose hall and an exhibition space housed within eight traditional one storey buildings stacked on top of each other

The UK has a major housing crisis. Do you have any tips for our government about how to solve it?
I am reluctant if I am a right person to be asked, but the housing shortage usually stems from big cities that are far overpopulated. People concentrate on capital cities because they see more opportunities for jobs. This is perhaps not limited to the UK, but any government should revitalize their country’s non-capital (regional) towns and cities. They must make those places liveable, affordable and enjoyable to stay on – with stable jobs and interesting things to do in life. That would help them solve the fundamental problem of the housing.

Because of the recession the number of smaller practices has ballooned in the UK. What advice would you give to an architect just setting up in business?
Accept any project, however small or taking place far from where you are. I had been out of work in Tokyo for nearly a decade, after the bursting of the ‘bubble economy.’ But it gave me a great chance, however, to design lots of interesting buildings outside Tokyo, which formed a basis of my philosophy up to now. I am convinced that unfavourable economy is a good opportunity for architects.

Tell us something about yourself that not many architects in the UK would know?

You may know my works mostly through photos. But I have to say it is just one aspect. The works of my practice are more to do with a feel, texture and smell, which you experience only at the site.   




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