The power of the empty space
The architect Kengo Kuma
Over the past hundred years Japan has succeeded faster than any other country in Asia in raising its economic influence to western levels. And in the process Japan has gone through a cultural and social change which has been profounder than that of any other industrialized country. The development of Japan as an industrial and naval power was initiated with the accession to power of Meiji in the year 1867. The island state, which was previously cut off from the world, rapidly opened itself up to the rest of the of world and curiosity about western culture spread rapidly. Japan's population doubled to 50 million within 45 years. Institutional architecture adapted itself to western styles, in other words first to Neoclassicism and then to Modernism. However, the real architectural change only came after the second World War. Up to that time traditional Japanese architecture had been characterised in particular by wooden construction. These houses had an average life span of 30 years. In those cities which had been completely flattened by the war there was finally an opportunity to establish long-lasting architecture in the style of the American metropolis. There was experimentation like never before. The year 1959 saw the emergence of the Metabolists, whose focus was the city of the mass society of the future. Their flexible major structures stood for the liveliness of Japanese urban development, and concrete and steel became the ultimate building materials. Kenzo Tange, Arata Isozaki and others earned world fame for the new Japanese architecture.
However the younger generation, including Kengo Kuma, who was born in 1954, has taken a completely different direction. By using natural materials, traditional methods of manufacturing and very restrained design they are paying tribute to their cultural roots and driving forward a new concept of modern Japanese architecture.
This withdrawal from Monumentalism was accompanied by the recession which began in the early nineties, and whose after-effects are still being felt today. It was also the period when Kengo Kuma decided to work in the countryside, outside of the city. In contrast to China or Korea there is very great respect in Japan for traditional craftsmanship. Kuma creates the kind of sophisticated and economical architecture can be created with building materials such as wood and stone. His aim is to bring traditional architecture back into the consciousness of the people, and to re-interpret it for the tenty-first century.
Lotus House, East Japan 2005, Photos by Daici Ano