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A Japanese architect awed by Istanbul’s style

ISTANBUL -The ecology-minded Japanese architect Kengo Kuma was in town last week, where he told colleagues and architecture students about his latest designs at a conference at Istanbul’s Building Information Center. Since he was a student, he has been an admirer of old Turkish architecture

by Aslı Sağlam
A Japanese architect who has transformed the focus of his work from concrete buildings to ecological and sustainable designs came through Istanbul last week to talk about his architectural style.

In Istanbul, Kengo Kuma was the guest of the city’s Building Information Center, or YEM, and Chamber of Architects. As he spoke onstage, he looked a little tired from all his traveling for fairs and conferences, but he still was passionate in talking about architecture and his work, which emphasizes the materials used in a structure.

The talented architect was a student first in Tokyo, then continued his studies at New York’s Colombia University. Kuma, 55, said he learned many things from his teachers and the interesting people he met in New York. He considers his house in Yokahama, a suburb of Tokyo, where he was born, as the starting point of his career. "The 1960s were a time of economic expansion in Japan," Kuma said. "Many new houses were built, but my house was very different from those newly built modern homes." Kuma described his childhood home, which was made of wood and clay, as old and dirty. But though he was embarrassed to live in it back then, he came to believe that there was a beauty in the house because it was in a traditional style, not a contemporary one, adding that he doesn’t like to follow the typical modern trends.

In the 1980s, which Kuma described as a period of post-modernism, he studied the construction methods used in architecture and began to consider the relationship between the construction method and the design, which he considers important background to his work today.

Kuma likes reading about the histories and architecture of the places that he is going to visit. When he was a student, a professor told him that the most beautiful example of architecture was Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, a former basilica that was turned into a mosque and is now a museum.

"There should be life in the structure," he said. "Architecture is mostly considered a killer of nature, but it does not have to be, if we design in harmony with nature."

Kuma believes that Turkish architectural traditions still hold the spirit of sustainability, although he says some of the city’s high-rise buildings distract from the greatness of its architecture. "It is one of the greatest cities in the world, but it is a pity that the characteristics of the traditional architecture are disappearing," he said. "People should respect the tradition of the city and maintain the density. If the character of the city disappears, no one can put it back. It would be too late."

’Build low-rise buildings’
After visiting Istanbul many times and being interested in its history, Kuma planning to use the city’s roof styles in his future designs. He also talks about owning a house in Istanbul. If he has the chance, he would advise the city’s architects to build low-rise buildings. "I would love to design a modern-art museum. By the Bosphorus would be perfect," he said.

Emphasizing that sustainability is one of the most unique characteristics of Japanese traditional architecture, Kuma said his country has the tradition of caring about the environment because it has a very limited land area and a big population. Compared to other countries, it is also lacking in natural resources. "Under those kind of severe conditions, the Japanese people have been developing sustainable design and we try to combine the sustainability with architecture," he said, saying such practices have been important since the beginning of the country’s history.

"When Japan was under the influence of China, a large empire that does not have a culture of saving energy and natural resources, Japan placed importance on natural resources," Kuma said. "For small countries like Japan, energy waste is a big problem."

Though Kuma prefers small cities for traveling, he is more passionate about managing projects in big cities, which he says have many problems that he wants to help solve.

"What I am interested in is not the style, it’s something behind the style, such as technology and philosophy," he said, adding that the most exciting projects for him have always been about the people. "If the people I work with are interesting, I enjoy my job."

Materials are important
Kuma’s preferred materials are ones like wood, glass, bamboo and steel that more easily integrate with nature. He says architecture in the 20th century too often ignored the materials, creating concrete buildings that destroy the beauty and uniqueness of a place.

When he started out in architecture, Kuma said, he learned from books and magazines. But now he is learning from places and their local people and materials. This direct communication and interaction has been improving his architecture, he said, admitting that his style has changed a lot since he started his career in 1986, after finishing his studies and returning to Japan from New York.

At that time, he was only using concrete for his buildings. After the 1990s, which he calls an age of depression, Kuma changed his style. He started working in the countryside, learning many things from local Japanese men. He defines this "depression age" as a chance for architecture and a fortunate period for the new ecological and sustainable style. He said Japan has been so influenced by American culture and the U.S. economic system, it is losing its own traditions of local industry, craftsmanship and human relations.

 

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