interview with Architect of the Year 2020 Kengo Kuma

Putting the question: an interview with Kengo Kuma.

His buildings reinterpret traditional Japanese forms and construction methods in surprising ways. They often establish a close connection to nature and attach great relevance to the issue of sustainability: Kengo Kuma founded his architectural practice Kengo Kuma and Associates in 1990. Born in Yokohama in 1954, he studied architecture at the University of Tokyo, where he has held a professorship since 2009. In 2020, Kengo Kuma was awarded the honorary title “Architect of the Year” of the ICONIC AWARDS: Innovative Architecture. Lutz Dietzold, CEO of the German Design Council, spoke with Kuma on this occasion.

Interview by Lutz Dietzold.


Hello, Mr Kuma. It is an honour to meet you in virtual space to congratulate you on the honorary title of “Architect of the Year”. The jury of the Iconic Awards has decided: The prize for Innovative Architecture goes to you and your team this year. I am the Managing Director of the German Design Council, which has been identifying and presenting outstanding achievements in design and architecture for more than 60 years. Several of your projects have already won Iconic Awards in recent years. This time, the jury has recognised your work as a reference for world-class architecture that offers a glimpse of the future of sustainable building around the globe.

V&A Dundee Design Museum in Dundee, Schottland
V&A Dundee Design Museum in Dundee, Scotland © Hufton Crow https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee

Kengo Kuma: Thank you very much.

Sie haben einmal gesagt: „Ich möchte die Ära des Betons hinter mir lassen“ – und haben Strukturen, Gebäude und BrückenYou once said: “I want to leave the era of concrete behind me” – and built structures, buildings, and even bridges in wood. What do you think needs to change for contemporary architecture to increasingly turn to a more conscious and sustainable use of materials? aus Holz errichtet. Was muss sich Ihrer Meinung nach ändern, damit sich die zeitgenössische Architektur verstärkt einem bewussteren und nachhaltigeren Umgang mit Materialien zuwendet?

In the 20th century, like most architects, I believed that concrete and steel were the only option for any building. And indeed, in that industrial era, it was probably the best solution. But now, in the 21st century, when we are facing the environmental crisis of global warming, we should decide to build differently. After all, the method of construction with concrete has brought us many stresses. Hence my desire to break away from concrete.


“In the 21st century, when we are facing the environmental crisis of global warming, we should decide to build differently.”


Which role does light play in your design?

The Exchange, Australien
The Exchange, Australia. Photo: © Martin Mischkulnig

I am always thinking about materials and light. A material alone cannot speak to us, so material and light must always be considered together. In traditional Japanese architecture, people already thought about natural light because there was no artificial lighting. So the interior was always lit by natural light – using reflection and many other sophisticated ways. When I use light in my projects, I let this tradition inspire me.

You mentioned that you innovatively draw on traditional Japanese art and craft traditions in numerous buildings. From your personal point of view, how does the new “Japan-ness” manifest itself in architecture?

“Japan-ness” is a kind of sustainable method and also finds its limitation therein. Japan is mainly flat and available land is in very limited. Under these difficult conditions, people are urged to try to create happiness in density, in dense juxtaposition. The Japanese way of densification has a lot to do with intimacy in cramped conditions.

Is there a time or a person in your life that was particularly important to you, that had a big influence on your creative work?

The most important time for me was the 1990s. Economically, they were a very hard decade because an economic bubble had developed in our country in the 1980s until the beginning of the 1990s. Luckily, I could find enough time then to travel to remote places and small villages and work with local craftsmen on small projects. In this way, I learned many things from the rural craftsmen in the 1990s. There were not many projects that we realised back then, and they were very small, but what I learned from the craftsmen during that time formed the basis for how we designed buildings from the year 2000 onwards.

You are an explorer when it comes to materials – we have already talked about your ambition to leave concrete behind. Which kind of material innovation are you still waiting for?

I have a great interest in soft materials – and wood is of course softer than concrete. But I am also looking for materials that are much softer than wood. Research is currently producing many innovative materials, and we are ready to use these technological innovations. Recently, for example, we have been using carbon fibre – and we are excited to see what other materials the future will bring.

Ochanomizu Univ. Hisao & Hiroko TAKI PLAZA
Ochanomizu University. Hisao & Hiroko TAKI PLAZA © Keishin Horikoshi / SS Tokyo, http://www.ss-multi.co.jp/

In this context, what do you regard as the greatest challenge in today’s architecture?

Before the 19th century, architects used many different materials in building. Then, in the 20th century, the number of materials used was greatly reduced. When the Covid 19 pandemic is over, we should go back to nature and to a diversity of materials. I think this is a great chance for all of us.

When you look at the demographic development in the world’s megacities, how can architecture contribute to creating spaces with a positive relationship to nature?

Until the 20th century, homo sapiens gathered in big cities and tried to build their nests higher and higher. After the current crisis, people should find their way back to nature, and our lives should once again be more oriented towards agriculture. I am very hopeful that we will succeed in this change. Basically, I am very positive about this.

In your eyes, will the pandemic have an influence on architecture worldwide? – For example, in terms of buildings and homes being used differently and people’s expectations of architecture having changed?

Yes, looking back at the history of architectural design, I think design should be led by craftsmen. I think the 21st century as an era of craftsmen.


I think the 21st century as an era of craftsmen.”


Mr Kuma, thank you very much for taking the time to give us interesting insights into your work and your understanding of architecture. All the best for your future projects, stay healthy – and congratulations once again.

Thank you and the German Design Council – congratulations to the winners of the Iconic Awards. I am always eager to continue on my path.


Watch a part of the interview on YouTube:


Participate in the ICONIC AWARDS 2021: Innovative Architecture

Architects, engineers, specialist planners, agencies and design offices, companies in the construction and real estate industry as well as manufacturers in the design and production industry can submit their projects for the ICONIC AWARDS 2021: Innovative Architecture until 21 May.


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