Japanese Garden: Photographed by Shannon Korta

Past Meets Future

2019-06-19 | 3 min. read

Next summer, as the sporting world descends on Japan for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, its centerpiece venue for the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as track and field competitions, will be the 68,000-seat National Stadium, designed by star architect Kengo Kuma.

Though it is a state-of-the-art venue packed with technology, the National Stadium has already gained notice for its distinctive use of natural wood and greenery, as well as its overhanging eaves and park setting—all of which harken back to the traditional Japanese architecture of temples and shrines. That’s no accident.

Japanese Garden: Photographed by Shannon Korta

Now 65, Kuma has evolved from his days as a young architect, when projects such as 1991’s M2 Building in Tokyo showed a postmodern flair, channeling history more as caricature than homage. But as his career continued with a succession of acclaimed museums and houses over the 1990s and 2000s, his work took on greater subtlety and timelessness. Which was perfect for the Portland Japanese Garden.

Japanese Garden: Photographed by Shannon Korta

As evidenced by a new book on Kuma’s first American project, Kengo Kuma: Portland Japanese Garden, while the architect’s work is distinctly modern--clean lines and glass-ensconced forms--he also embraces historic influences. “Kengo looks upon the past as not being divorced from the present, which is, perhaps, a fault of modern architecture,” says the book’s co-author Botond Bognár, a longtime University of Illinois architecture professor. “The precedents go back to the very beginning of his career. He doesn’t see architecture as an object which stands alone, apart from its environment.”

Japanese Garden: Photographed by Shannon Korta

First opened in 1961 and nestled into the forested West Hills overlooking the city’s downtown, the 5.5-acre Portland Japanese Garden is the largest Japanese garden in the United States. The trio of new Kuma-designed buildings completed in 2017, known as the Cultural Crossing, provide spaces for attending classes, lectures and gallery exhibits. There is also a cube-shaped glass Japanese tea house known as the Umami Café that cantilevers dramatically from the hillside. The views feel like being in a treehouse as one looks past the upper reaches of Douglas firs rooted down the hillside.

Kuma’s $33.5 million Cultural Crossing has earned rave reviews as a kind of contemporary interpretation of historic Japanese pagodas. “In Japan, gardens tend to be frozen in time: like a gallery piece. It’s something to be viewed. But here, there is an engaged, interactive involvement,” explains Balazs Bognár, the book’s co-author, design director of Kengo Kuma Associates, and Botond Bognár’s son. “In a way, the Portland Japanese Garden might even be more essential to the spirit of what a Japanese garden can be.”

Japanese Garden: Photographed by Shannon Korta

At first glance, some of the Cultural Crossing buildings look like an old Buddhist temple. But then you notice the aluminum-paneled eaves, the precision glass and the vegetative roof. If the forms seem traditional, the details are decidedly 21st century. Kuma’s architecture has an experimental side that comes from his roots in academia. Besides being a guest lecturer at numerous American universities, in 2009 he founded the Kuma Lab, a research laboratory in the University of Tokyo’s department of architecture. Three years later, Kuma Lab published the 2012 book Patterns and Layering, Japanese Spatial Culture, Nature and Architecture, based on research by his graduate students.

Building Kuma’s Japanese Garden campus was a challenge. The project ran over budget and some of the architect’s initial material selections, particularly when imported from across the Pacific, had to be scrapped for locally-available options. Yet Kuma believes that turned out to be for the good of the project. “The budget was one of the most difficult parts, but that’s not necessarily bad,” the architect explained in a recent talk at the Cultural Crossing. “If we have too much money, sometimes people don’t want to find the best solution. For this project, the process of finding solutions [with replacement materials] is a kind of polish: not doing much, but seeking the simple beauty in a limited condition. That’s an important part of design and we learn many things from this process.”

Japanese Garden: Photographed by Shannon Korta

At the beginning of the project, for instance, the architect wanted wood imported from Japan and even to bring Japanese carpenters to Portland. Ultimately, “We didn’t do that,” Kuma adds, “But the material we used here, cedar, is local and it’s amazingly beautiful. The best material for the building is from the mountain behind. The climate of the mountain is the same as the site. A natural harmony can happen.”

Today Kengo Kuma’s firm is seeing large-scale projects opening around the world, from the new V&A Dundee in Scotland (an outpost of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum), resembling an abstracted ship with its layers of precast concrete, to the upcoming Rolex Tower in Dallas, which appears to twist upward from its base like a cross between a glass office building and a medieval Japanese castle.

Japanese Garden: Photographed by Shannon Korta

Yet it would be a mistake to look at Kuma’s architecture as mere sculpture, says Botond Bognár, for the subtleties of these designs, are meant to reveal themselves over time. “The more I go back to these buildings, the more that’s revealed.”

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