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Kengo Kuma, Furniture, and Materiality | Immateriality

Architecture Design Furniture Interior Japan

Kuma the Architect-

Many believe that Kengo Kuma is a Pritzker Prize winning architect to be. His role as the designer of the new 2020 Tokyo Olympics stadium is sure to push this already world-renowned architect and University of Tokyo professor even further into the limelight. Kuma's stadium design makes prevalent use of wood and greenery, yet it captures the zeitgeist of today just as Hadid's avant-garde design did, just in a different way. ((Above) Sunny Hills Dessert Shop in Tokyo. Credit: Tokyobling)

One interesting aspect of Kuma as an architect is that while he is known now for his personal style and design philosophy, his early working experience was in one of the largest corporate design and project management firms, Nihon Sekkei, and a major Japanese contractor and builder, Toda Corporation. This practical work experience helped him build his technical foundation, and master material and structure as a means for the interpretation of light and space.

(Left) Corbusier's Villa Savoye employs light and literal and phenomenal transparency - important elements that can also be observed in Kuma's designs. Credit: Richard Pare (Right) Aalto's Muuratsalo Experimental House uses natural materials and is inclusive of the nature around it, another important aspect for Kuma. Credit: Vanesa Serrano Romero
The Toshima Ward Building is located in a very urban setting, but Kuma designed the building with panels that provide layers of transparency and greenery to create a sense of openness for people inside the building. Credit: Kawasumi & Kobayashi Kenji
The Towada Community Center was designed by Kuma with the goal of bringing more interest back to the rural areas of Japan. The peaks of the roof are meant to mimic the surrounding townscape of small houses. Credit: Kenta Hasegawa

Kuma’s stated goal for his work is to recover the tradition of Japanese buildings, which refers more to the philosophies and virtues of traditional Japanese architecture than its forms. In Kuma’s view, architecture in the 20th century focused too much on the buildings themselves and not on their relationship with the environment around them. With his designs he aims to “recover the place” by making buildings that are in line and respectful of their surroundings, a concept that is at the heart of traditional Japanese architecture. He manipulates light and layers to create a new kind of transparency that frames the surrounding spaces, and experiments with natural materials. In this sense, Kuma is carrying on the mission of Corbusier and Aalto in the 21st century.

Tectonics in Kuma’s Designs-

Examples of Kuma's Chidori furniture, which use traditional nailless joints so that they can be easily assembled and disassembled when needed. Credit: Kengo Kuma

A prominent element in Kuma's work is the chidori structure. The chidori (plover) has a peculiar way of crossing its legs as it walks, hence the term chidori-koushi (Japanese houndstooth). Chidori-koushi is also the name for a type of nailless wood joint, commonly used in a cleverly structured, interlocking wooden puzzle toy. Inspired by this traditional wooden toy, Kengo Kuma saw the potential for the ingenious structure to be used in architecture and furniture in a new way.

A Chidori shelving unit. Credit: Kengo Kuma
Wooden Planks that interlock to form the joints of Kuma's Chidori furniture pieces. Credit: Kengo Kuma

The catastrophic Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 prompted Kuma to develop the Chidori furniture system, as a way to assist the speedy and sustainable reconstruction of the devastated communities. The system is modular, and consists of twelve timber planks with variations in the construction points, that can be pieced together to form any shape using chidori-koushi joints. This system provides flexibility, since it can be used for a variety of purposes and uses nailless joints that allow it to be assembled and disassembled without additional tools. Such flexibility is especially valuable in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Blocks made with chidori joinery. Credit: Kengo Kuma

Materiality and Immateriality in Kuma’s Furniture-

However, the Chidori furniture system does not mark the first time Kuma used the chidori-koushi joint in furniture. Kuma previously implemented the technique in his GC Chair and NC Chair, which we carry at OOKKUU. Both chairs share a similar stylistic language, and more importantly, they both reflect Kuma’s view of the relationship between an object and its environment.

Starbucks in Dazaifu, Japan, designed by Kengo Kuma to complement the near-by Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine. Credit: Kengo Kuma

Kuma designed the NC Chair for the Nezu Museum Café. This minimalistic chair embodies strength and elegance. The chair is reduced to two finely upholstered thin planes and four slim legs; not to hide its presence but to blend it into the natural surroundings of the beautiful museum.  Viewing it from the side, the chair almost disappears with its thin line profile.

Kuma's NC Chair represents his minimalistic aesthetic. Credit: Time & Style

If the NC Chair is about materiality in a phenomenal sense, the GC Chair is about immateriality in the literal sense. The upholstery, and in fact the back plane, is further reduced to a nailless frame that is stackable, and shares the same language as Kuma's chidori structure architecture. Viewing it from the front or from the side, the chair almost disappears with its slim frame profile, attempting to immaterialize itself in one more dimension compared to the NC Chair.

Kuma's GC Chair uses chidori joinery for transparency and features an open back that acts as a frame for the space around it. Credit: Daici Ano

Kuma has stated that the figure he draws the most inspiration from is Sen no Rikyu, the 16th century Japanese tea master who greatly influenced Chanoyu (way of tea). Sen no Rikyu is said to have been the first to emphasize several key aspects of the ceremony; including rustic simplicity, directness of approach, and honesty of self. In Kuma’s play with materiality and immateriality, and his interpretation of the Chidori structure in the design of the NC and GC Chair, we can see his appreciation of those qualities.

By Hubert Ho and Danielle Johnson, OOKKUU

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