KENGO KUMA’S FASCINATION with architecture began when he was 10 years old and his father took him to visit Kenzo Tange’s famous Yoyogi National Gymnasium, constructed for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Tange’s arena — with its high mast and violently sloping roof, its form like a discus emerging obliquely from the earth — was a masterpiece of engineering, and remains the most breathtaking example of Japanese Modernism. Speaking to me about the building in October, in the glassed-in penthouse library above his firm’s Tokyo offices, Kuma became animated. I had only met him a few minutes earlier, in the cramped main quarters, when he swiftly emerged from his tiny, cubicle-like space in the far corner. Kuma is tall, informal — he was wearing stonewashed jeans, and a striped T-shirt under a nylon jacket with frayed and shredded shoulders — and he greeted me with a quick handshake, as if I were another employee. But he grew noticeably excited speaking about Tange’s gymnasium. “Tange treated natural light like a magician,” he said, discussing the way the panels on the ceiling reflected light bouncing off the swimming pool. “From that day, I wanted to be an architect.”
And yet Tange’s work — aggressively modern, wresting enormous form out of space, deploying the latest synthetic materials, an imposition on the landscape and an attention-grabbing demonstration of what architecture could do in a city that only 20 years earlier had been comprehensively destroyed by American bombs — could not be further from Kuma’s own aesthetic. He is the most famous Japanese architect Americans have never heard of, mostly due to his sparse record of building outside of East Asia; he has only one public commission in the United States, a “cultural village” for the Japanese Garden in Portland, Ore., whose most notable structure is a small glass box of a teahouse cantilevered past a single post, making it appear to float above a ravine. Many of his notable works are in rural areas and serve an ostensibly minor purpose — say, to exhibit a collection of Hiroshige woodblock prints, or to sell Taiwanese pineapple cakes, or to house a Starbucks in the city of Fukuoka, known equally for its ancient temples and shopping malls.
At 63 and admired in Japan, he is now poised to achieve international renown, despite having built comparatively little abroad, and having repeatedly written that he wants to “erase” his trade, to create a “defeated architecture.” His potential status as a globally known architect may hinge on one building alone, one that, given what sparked his interest in his craft, seems almost fated: the National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the site of which is about a mile from Tange’s masterpiece. It will also be his least characteristic work, and will arrive trailing controversy. The earlier winning design by the late Zaha Hadid — which resembled something between an enormous, sleek bicycle helmet and a manta ray — was the object of criticism by dozens of Japanese architects, including Pritzker Prize-winner Fumihiko Maki and the prominent Japanese postmodernist architect Arata Isozaki. The latter charged in a letter to the Japan Sports Council that the revised building was a “monumental mistake” that would be “a disgrace to future generations,” memorably describing it as a “dull, slow form, like a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away.” (Hadid, still alive at the time, responded that these detractors were angry that a Japanese architect had not been chosen.) Kuma was a signatory to a petition Maki and other architects circulated protesting its selection, and in 2015 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe canceled the commission, citing skyrocketing costs. A hasty contest was arranged, and Kuma’s proposal was selected.
When Kuma arrived for a yearlong fellowship at Columbia University in 1985, he was in the midst of a transitional period both in architecture and in the economic history of his country. The high tide of architectural postmodernism was cresting, just as the economies of both the U.S. and Japan were entering a period of historic growth. That year, West German, French, British, American and Japanese officials signed a treaty known as the Plaza Accord, designed to coerce the United States into devaluing its currency, thereby limiting Japanese exports — cars and electronics — that had flooded U.S. markets and driven many Americans into an existential panic over their country’s declining power. The immediate result was to give Japanese consumers a newly strong yen and, after the Bank of Japan lowered official interest rates, to overheat the domestic market. From 1985 to 1990, an enormous stock market bubble swelled. And it wasn’t just bankers and salarymen who made fortunes. The result in architectural terms was an explosion of construction throughout the country, and a seemingly unending stream of commissions for any architect who wanted them.
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