With skyscrapers in the Middle East and China being the focus of attention these days, I spoke with architect Kengo Kuma, who is active throughout Asia and the West, about the state of high-rise building construction in Japan and Europe.
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Question: I'm guessing you are receiving quite a few requests to design skyscrapers. Is that true?
Kuma: I often get e-mails from China and the Middle East requesting to design a tower. However, there isn't much of a connection with context of the location (and the requested project) so I am not that eager to become involved. To the extent possible, I don't really want to design high-rise structures. If a building rises too far from the ground it becomes an abstract object. (High-rises) were a big event for 20th-century architects; however, for me, they do not represent the relationship between people and space I idealize.
Q: Currently, the number of Japanese architects holding similar views is on the increase, isn't it?
Kuma: Among the younger ones, yes. The view 'I dislike high-rises' is becoming more and more prevalent. From the outset Japanese people have had the inclination to live near the earth's surface. Additionally, people are increasingly pushing back against the general contractor-dependent society of the 20th century.
Q: Why is there a skyscraper boom occurring in China and the Middle East?
Kuma: As was the case in New York in the 1920s, skyscrapers give form to economic success and provide symbolic value, increasing the building's added value as a product. The 'build-it-and-it-will-sell' real estate boom has encountered technical solutions for erecting super high-rise buildings, just like in the Manhattan of the past.
Q: Prior to skyscrapers appearing in Manhattan, why were huge structures made by religions and political leaders?
Kuma: It was not just a simple matter of self-assertiveness; I also believe it was necessary for them to build grand structures in order to maintain power and influence.
Q: Europe also has a history of building large, cathedral-like buildings. What is the situation like there at present?
Kuma: In Europe, too, contractors involved in urban regeneration want to build skyscrapers. However, there is an equivalent amount of strong resistance to their construction from city residents who feel such structures are bothersome, and as a result debate ensues. In one sense the high-rise buildings of Europe are the most interesting. In new urban centers like the La Defense district of Paris their construction is excused, but in the older sections of cities they are not tolerated.
Q: Why is there such controversy?
Kuma: The framework of (European) cities was completed by the 19th century; there is a common feeling among people that the insertion of skyscrapers into such cityscapes is a violent act. While exploring a city's context and their own personal level of culture, the mass media, developers, investors and architects engage in heated debate. The (building's) relationship with the city and land is called into question and the debate serves as a kind of litmus test, so to speak.
Q: In Tokyo even today, there is a considerable amount of high-rise building construction under way.
Kuma: In Tokyo there is lack of uniformity in land utilization density and there are no cultural standards to go by when building. For some reason or another they (skyscrapers) are just built. If architects encountered some kind of litmus test, however, they would certainly put forth a good showing.
Q: I feel, however, that there are also simpler sentiments and desires at work, such as the feeling that large and tall structures are cool and impressive.
Kuma: I believe there are varying desires at work, including biological ones such as wanting to fly and wanting to look down from high places, as well as others such as wanting to show other people that you live in a nice place. However, it is not just a matter of simply being big. Considerable attention needs to be paid to how such size is brought into existence, culturally, structurally.
Q: You yourself are currently involved in the construction of a large high-rise building?
Kuma: Yes, construction has started on a 49-story building that will house Toshima Ward government offices and residential units. On the lower section, panels of greenery and photovoltaic panels will be arranged in a contrasting pattern, and I'm aiming to create lines evoking a smooth, gentle flow from top to bottom.
Q: As a person in the camp renouncing high-rise structures, can you recommend to others that they live in the building's residential units?
Kuma: Yes. Because I have taken sufficient cultural and structural steps with regard to the vertical measurement known as height, I can make such a recommendation.
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Born in 1954, Kengo stayed on to obtain his master's after completing undergraduate work in the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, University of Tokyo. He taught at Keio University and others before becoming a professor at Tokyo University, where he has been teaching since 2009. Major works in Japan include the M2 Building, Noh Stage in the Forest (Architectural Institute of Japan Design Prize Winner) and the Nezu Museum. He is also involved in the design for reconstruction of the Kabuki-za Theater in Tokyo. Overseas creations include the Sanlitun SOHO complex in Beijing, and the Besancon City Arts and Culture Center in France, which is scheduled for completion this year. Publications include "Jutaku-Ron" (Ten Housing Theories); "Kenchikuteki Yokubo No Shuen" (The Demise of Architectural Desire); "Makeru Kenchiku" (Losing Architecture); and "Shizen Na Kenchiku" (Natural Architecture).
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