Q&A: Kengo Kuma on Shaping the Vancouver Skyline

"Vancouver is a mixture of street cultures and skyscrapers. East and West meet here, that’s a unique part of it."

February 17, 2017

By Stacey McLachlan / Photo: Ash Tanasiychuk

Though Kengo Kuma has a lot on his plate right now—he’s currently working on both a 43-storey curving tower on Vancouver’s Georgia Street corridor and a stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics—the internationally renowned Japanese architect found time to sit down with Vancouver magazine to talk scale, structure and the importance of having a little fun.

This Vancouver residential tower you’re currently building is so striking: the curved form and lattice-like wall are unusual. Can you tell me a little more about the concept behind the project?

The unique shape of this building isn’t coming from our personal style—it’s coming from a conversation with the neighbourhood. Normally, skyscrapers are more of a sculpture, but our approach is different. The thing about Vancouver is that it’s close to the ocean and the mountains, and we wanted each unit to have a view of that. That’s what naturally shaped the building.

It seems like you might actually enjoy it when someone tells you something’s impossible.

Yes, it’s very exciting when we get a chance to realize something new. Like for this building [in Vancouver], we designed a special joinery for the soffit. People thought it was impossible, but based on the understanding of the client, we found time to create that special, unique detail.

You’ve been doing this for 30 years. How do you keep things fresh?

We are very lucky because when we do an overseas project, we have the chance to do these big projects. In Japan, it’s divided: you’re either a firm that does big projects, or a firm that does small ones. And when we change from scale to scale, that brings us new challenges.

Alberni by Kengo Kuma will be complete March 2021 (Photo: Ed White).

Do those big and small projects inform each other in any way?

Experience from a small project can be applied to a bigger scale. Going back and forth is very necessary for our design process. We try to integrate smallness into bigness, and bigness into smallness.

There’s so much playfulness in your projects. You built a nursery school with an undulating floor, and a noodle shop covered in colourful yarn. How important is a sense of discovery in a space?

For each project, we don’t want to repeat our design. Some architects repeat themselves—it’s their brand, they’re a business. But our approach is very different. For each project, direct conversation with the client is a direct conversation with the place. We can create a singularity. The Yakitori project [with the yarn] is one example of that, but everything is a very special occasion.

What’s the importance of tying nature to an urban space?

Moss is a main material for the garden for this project. Not an easy material, very tough. But the client understands the value of that kind of culture. It’s kind of a cultural project. The garden design is the essence of each culture: Japanese, Chinese. For that project we finally can design our gardens as culture.

Do you think Vancouver has its own architectural identity?

Vancouver is a mixture of street cultures and skyscrapers. In Europe, it’s only street culture, and in America, only skyscrapers. East and West meet here, that’s a unique part of it. We try to translate that mixture into the detail of anything we build here.

What drew you to architecture in the first place?

I was born in a small house. My generation faced modernization and industrialization and there was such a big contrast. I began to think, what kind of space do we need? We need good experiences; we need human experience.

A retrospective of Kuma’s work is currently on display at Japan Unlayered exhibit.

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