July 11, 2023 - There are few architects who can say they’ve sold full residential towers in a matter of days or weeks. But renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who founded his eponymous firm in 1990, is used to this level of success.
Kuma is considered one of the 21st century's most influential architects and is responsible for the Japan National Stadium; Hôtel Swexan in Dallas; LVMH in Osaka, Japan; Aman Miami; and Alberni by Kengo Kuma in Vancouver. The Aman Miami beachfront residences sold out in 72 hours, even though the project won’t be completed for years, while Alberni sold out in just six weeks. Kuma is known for fusing traditional Japanese architecture with contemporary design and innovative elements. He fuses nature and natural materials, like cedar wood, with modern materials and site-specific design features, which makes each project unique in its own way. When asked about how his design vision has changed over three decades, he cites that it changes with each project.
“My philosophy is to keep yourself updated—copying your past is boring,” Kengo Kuma exclusively tells Forbes. “What I find interesting is that change of vision is brought in by my clients. People who commission us nowadays have a deep knowledge of our work, so they want something unlike our past.”
While he prioritizes modern and contemporary design, he is deeply influenced by old-world architecture and his home country of Japan.
“Traditions and traditional techniques in Japanese architecture are so diversified and differ from place to place and vary according to the age the building was built,” he says. “There is no such thing that can be generalized as ‘Japanese architecture.’ Therefore, reinterpreting Japanese traditions means offering various new designs. There is no way that they become similar. Also, in our practice, we work on a principle that the design should respect the history and the features of the location, which makes every project unique.”
This is also a principle he carries into his work with Westbank. Kuma and Westbank founder Ian Gillespie first met when they worked on a project in Hawaii.
“We were drawn to Kuma-san’s work for his dedication to nature and ability to blur the lines between the natural environment and the built one,” Gillespie tells Forbes. “Later when we invited Kuma-san and his team to Vancouver to work on Alberni, he introduced us to the Japanese design philosophy of layering, which has become a central theme we have been exploring ever since. As we have gotten to know the practice, our respect for Kuma-san and his team has only grown—they bring an entirely different approach to architecture that is contextual and honours its surroundings. They are all extremely talented and their work ethic has been an essential ingredient.”
Kuma is working on six projects with the Canadian developer, including Alberni by Kengo Kuma, which sold out in just six weeks when sales launched in 2016. Alberni is officially the tallest residential tower in North America that Kuma has worked on and the 43-story tower in downtown Vancouver. Amenities include a Kuma-designed Fazioli piano, a Japanese Kaiseki restaurant, and a bamboo forest.
While Kuma has several projects in the works, Alberni in Vancouver is the latest luxury residential tower to be completed and is a prime example of the architect’s singular design philosophy. He worked closely with Gillespie to bring his vision to life and, true to form, he incorporated plenty of nature into the building’s design.
“We’ve not only designed the skyscraper but also built a new relationship between the building and its environment,” Kuma says. “Ian is full of frontier spirit and that perfectly resonates with our style of working. It’s always exciting to work with Westbank.”
In terms of the residential living experience at Alberni, Gillespie says that he finds Kuma is more interested in creating a condition rather than a particular space.
“At Alberni, this has resulted in a residential typology that is uniquely beautiful and experiential,” Gillespie says. “Every detail has been carefully conceived to enrich the overall experience and evoke nature, in material or form. Deep carve outs frame Lost Lagoon to the west and accommodate large, sheltered balconies. Kigumi joinery connects spaces throughout. Wood, stone, moss, and geological formations all find their architectural counterparts. Kuma-san and his team have further designed the interiors of each residence to continue this theme, with light wood finishing throughout and custom cabinetry in organic curvilinear forms.”
As for how Kuma would like individuals to feel in his spaces? He says: “I would like people to feel the energy of nature from our projects, which surpasses the strength of 20th century modernism,” he says.
Alberni has officially opened and more of Kuma’s projects are set to be opened and announced in the coming years.