Articles

Craftsmanship & the Use of Old & New Materials

PANELISTS:
Kengo Kuma, Architect, Kengo Kuma Associates
Terunobu Fujimori, Professor, Institute of Industrial Science, University of Tokyo

MODERATOR:
Clifford Pearson, Senior Editor, Architectural Record

Terunobu Fujimori and Kengo Kuma both demonstrate an “incredible use of materials and understanding of craft and craftsmanship,” according to moderator Clifford Pearson. Professor Fujimori’s architecture is “wonderful and idiosyncratic” and represents a Japanese aesthetic largely unknown in America. Mr. Kuma’s aesthetic is more familiar.

Early in his career, Terunobu Fujimori’s life revolved around finding unique buildings and showing them to others, making him known as the “architectural detective.” Some of his favorite structures are a Le Corbusier-like stone hut on the boundary of Spain and Portugal; a chapel from the Celtic times in a tree in France; the oldest tree house on record, of Tudor style; and an 11th-century temple in the side of a cliff with a majestic view of mountains and clouds.

But at age 45, Prof. Fujimori’s professional life took a turn when he agreed to design a shrine for ancestor worship in the style of the Jomon era (10,000–300 BCE) in Nagano. He decided to use exclusively natural materials and old fashioned tools, and he was able to identify people who could still split wood instead of sawing it. The entire shrine was built from wood split with an iron axe. Prof. Fujimori said the villagers lamented the lack of a contemporary look, but he noted with pride how, in the architectural world, the shrine was hailed as “something very new.”

Prof. Fujimori has since extended his range of innovative materials to include natural bamboo and copper boards. He created a teahouse for former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, an acquaintance, who set a one-month deadline for completion (legend has it, the preceding structure had a three-day deadline) so that Mr. Hosokawa could use it to entertain guests. Prof. Fujimori completed the teahouse on time with the support of a volunteer corps of builders, the Jomon Construction Group, and even made the entrance larger than tradition would dictate so that French President Jacques Chirac (one of Mr. Hosokawa’s guests) could enter through it. Ultimately, President Chirac was unable to attend because of the looming war in Iraq, and the Jomon Construction Group celebrated the opening instead.

Rooftop gardens are another organic piece of structure in traditional rural settings that Prof. Fujimori has carried to interesting if extreme conclusions. He has experimented with garden flowers, weeds and vegetables. Of a dandelion experiment he conducted on his own home, he said, “I thought it would really blend with the suburban atmosphere, but the expression is a little too strong. My kids really do not like to bring their friends over. I myself never got used to it.” But, a garlic chive design turned out much better. Summer heat caused premature flowering, and Prof. Fujimori was ecstatic. He called the design “a masterpiece that shows the relationship between the plants and the architecture. You cannot tell if it’s architecture or a vegetable field.”

Kengo Kuma spoke about “materiality and tectonics of architecture.” He began with a quote from Bruno Taut, an architect and architectural theorist who fled from Nazi Germany to Japan in the 1930s, who wrote this about Japanese architecture: “The form and shape are not so important; the relationship with the environment is a more singular factor.” Mr. Kuma designed a villa next door to Taut’s home on a bluff above the Atami coast, on the eastern side of Honshu, just south of Tokyo, in which he used water as the primary material. “I always try to use local materials to resolve the architecture in its environment,” he explained.

For a museum devoted to the Ukiyo-e artist Ando Hiroshige, Mr. Kuma employed multiple layering to emphasize three-dimensional space. He substituted a special local rice paper for concrete to build walls and ceilings. For a small museum in southern Japan, he used an exceptionally loamy soil found onsite to make “very local” adobe building blocks. And for a bamboo house near the Great Wall of China, he created a special glass wall with duck feathers. (“I ate many Beijing ducks in China.”) But his commission to build the Stone Museum (Tochigi Prefecture, 2000) was a challenge: “I don’t like stone. It is too heavy and solid.” Mr. Kuma resolved the problem by creating a porous masonry structure that made the internal space “very interesting.”

In a current building project on Omotesando in Tokyo, Mr. Kuma is using wood as an exterior material to create harmony between his building and the old oak trees—a characteristic feature of Omotesando—which stand at one-half the height of the building. To ensure fire safety, he installed external sprinklers. Glass reflects the colors and shapes of the clouds and sky. Mr. Kuma explained the background of his choices: “Tokyo was formerly a city of wooden buildings, and the wood set the scale of life, which, in the past 50 years, concrete has destroyed. I would like to recover the human scale, human materials and human architecture.”

Question & Answer

Is craftsmanship dying? How do you get the quality of craftsmanship you see?

Mr. Kuma said the high level of craftsmanship in Japan is an advantage vis-à-vis the United States. The simplest way to ensure good work is to respect good work, he said. But Prof. Fujimori found it difficult, for his purposes, to persuade his craftsmen not to turn his work into an industrial product when the design calls for a more natural, intentionally rough finish.

Both of you make unexpected use of materials. Is there anything you’d like to try that you haven’t tried yet?


Mr. Kuma: Plastic curtain, “the shredded kind used in the factory or warehouse that is soft, like the skin on the body.”

Prof. Fujimori: Fire. “In Japan when there is a fire, it will be big, because wood is used in houses. But after a fire, we can see a new building. I do not know how it can be used, but I would like to try.”

Presented as part of the symposium, "Technology & Tradition in Contemporary Japanese Architecture"
on February 26, 2004.
Topics:  Design

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