Kengo Kuma: Zen, design and Dundee

ON A dazzling Dundee afternoon, Kengo Kuma, the architect responsible for the new £45 million V&A Museum to be built on the city’s waterfront, gazes out over a Tay more than living up to its ‘silvery’ reputation.
The Bamboo Wall House, or Great Wall House, China. By Kengo Kuma & Associates.The Bamboo Wall House, or Great Wall House, China. By Kengo Kuma & Associates.
The Bamboo Wall House, or Great Wall House, China. By Kengo Kuma & Associates.

Turning back to the city and meditating on the site, where construction begins this year on a museum scheduled to be up and running by 2015, the internationally renowned designer is the embodiment of Zen.

Despite describing it as his “most challenging project so far”, he is chilled. In town to give a public talk on the building and his 
international architectural projects that evening at Dundee University, his short cropped hair, loosely structured jacket, chinos and trainers, all black, are simplicity itself.

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Everything is in harmony as he meditates on the site, currently home to the vast block that is the Olympia leisure centre, which will be replaced by two ship-like structures sitting in pools of water and linked by an archway, referencing the maritime lines of Discovery berthed next door. With a facade clad in long stacked strata of reconstituted stone, it will cast long shadows and shapes when the sun shines like it does today.

‘Harmony’ is a word Kuma uses a lot when he speaks in measured, thoughtful tones, which, like his architecture, embody the Japanese philosophy of less is more. Then there are ‘space’, ‘light’ and ‘nature’, all of these being integral to a style of design aimed at “framing nature”.

“In Japanese architecture, the harmony of nature is very important,” he says. “It’s different from western classical architecture, where hard geometry is most important. Harmony is the object, soft shapes. I want to apply Japanese philosophy to design. That idea can be translated to anywhere in the world and to this beautiful environment here. I love the beauty of rivers and the nature of Scotland is similar to Japan. The water, the mountains … I’m from Yokohama, next to the ocean, and I like the water form very much, sometimes river, sometimes ocean. Most of our projects are facing the water,” he says.

“Dundee is a beautiful city,” continues Kuma, “but it was commercially weak for a while, and if a new building sits between the river and the city, it’s a connector of two worlds. It activates the city. If we can recreate the connection it means we can recover it as a place. The project is a museum, but the aim is to bring the people’s activity to the edge of the city. It’s our most challenging project so far because it’s half out of the water and it’s the first time we’ve done the weaving together of two buildings over water.”

For a city that owes its once industrial and mercantile might to the river on which it sits, Kuma’s affinity for the element makes him an obvious choice to design the building that will be the centrepiece of Dundee’s waterfront 
regeneration. One of 120 entries in the competition to design the museum, the Kuma building was a popular winner.

Such is the level of interest in the project, that 15,000 people viewed an exhibition of the designs and the 700 tickets for a talk last week were long ago sold out. Last time he visited, in 2011, so many wanted to hear him speak he had to do a second night. He’s a popular 
figure and his walkabouts inspire cries of, “Hey, Kengo!” from locals.

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Born in 1954, in Japan’s second largest city, the 58-year-old is professor at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of 
Tokyo and has won many awards, including the 1997 Architectural Institute of Japan Award. His buildings dot the globe from Tokyo to Marseille, some tiny, some vast, all characterised by a simplicity of form that has a delicate beauty and apes the shapes of the natural world. There is his Stone Museum in Japan, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) group’s Japanese headquarters, the Bamboo House near the Great Wall of China close to Beijing, and more ethereal projects such as a floating tea room.

Materials used include soil in an adobe storehouse, or volcanic stones. In the interior of the Dundee building, there will be extensive use of oak – “like the whisky barrels”, arranged in his trademark stacking format. Kuma is also a fan of whisky, preferring his dram smokey. An Islay malt perhaps? “No, Yamazaki”, he says that’s Japan’s oldest distillery, which has been producing single malts since 1923.

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Housing 1,700 square metres of gallery space, V&A at Dundee has been developed with Scottish practice Cre8architecture. Driven by Design Dundee Ltd (DDL), a partnership between the V&A, the University of Dundee, the University of Abertay Dundee, Dundee City Council and Scottish Enterprise, the project is funded by a combination of £15 million of Scottish Government money, with the rest to come from Heritage Lottery funding, public bodies and private 

It will sit right on the waterfront, despite having been pulled back on to the land for reasons of pragmatism and price, and as well as looking shipshape with its prow sticking out over the 
water, it also references the cliffs 
further up the coast near Arbroath.

“I think we were selected because our building is not only a space for art,” says Kuma, “It is also a commercial space and a space for people. I looked at the other submissions for the competition and some were beautiful, but just sculptures. Ours is not a sculpture. We want to create relationships. The idea for the V&A is multi-activity, not only for exhibitions. We want to define the museum of the 21st century.”

Philip Long, director of V&A at 
Dundee, is hugely enthusiastic about Kuma’s design and what it will do to showcase what Scotland has to offer. “V&A at Dundee goes back to the original roots of the V&A and the aim of 
inspiring design in the UK, so there will be all sorts of activities to generate both design and business as well as bringing exhibitions that are usually only seen in London.

“It’s not an annex or an outstation. It will contribute overall to Scotland and to a broader public sense of design. There’s an extraordinary design history in this country, from Thomas Telford to Jonathan Saunders, but that has been hidden for too long and the permanent collection will show that. Scotland has had great success in visual and contemporary arts and we want its design successes to be recognised too, and inspire future generations.”

For Kuma, the building bug bit early, when the whole family was drafted into his father’s constant alterations to the family home. A businessman who worked for Mitsubishi, he would 
include the family every weekend on his extensions project.

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“My father kept changing the house. He loved design. Every Saturday and Sunday we would expand the house. He would ask the whole family to join in, my sister, my mother and I. We did the easier bits of construction and painting – he got carpenters to do the bigger things. It was democratic and started from a discussion. Everyone would submit ideas, such as the shape of the windows, how the blinds would be. Sometimes there was a fight …” he laughs.

Kuma obviously relished these DIY episodes and, by the age of ten, had 
decided on a career in architecture. “Before that I wanted to be a vet 
because I loved cats very much as a child, and still do, but I can’t have them because I travel too much.”

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He’s away from his wife Satoko, who also teaches architecture at Tokyo University, and son Taichi, who is in his 20s and training to be an architect, for two weeks out of every month, with Kengo Kuma & Associates’ European base in Paris and building projects underway worldwide. But, another family of 
architects? Would he work with them? “No, it’s not good to work with family …” he laughs again.

As well as the family influence on his career choice, Kuma cites another trigger in the shape of the 1964 Olympics held in Tokyo. Japan spent over £2 billion on new buildings such as Kenzo Tange’s Olympic Stadium with its huge, swooping roof, and the success of the games helped re-establish Japan as part of the international community after the Second World War.

“There were great stadiums and gymnasiums built. They were shockingly very different from other normal buildings and it made a big impression on me,” he says.

Another huge influence is Frank Lloyd Wright, with his obsession for designing structures in harmony with humanity and its environment and who first visited Japan in 1905.

“Frank Lloyd Wright is a bridge 
between western and Japanese architecture. He learnt many things from 
Japan such as using local materials from the place. I like to do this too. It is part of returning to a tradition of Japanese architecture where natural materials were important and also made for strong buildings.

“I am the first to do this. Before me most of the Japanese architects were using concrete and steel, but I was the first to use natural materials. In Japan, after the Second World War, the country tried to follow the US with steel and concrete designs and the generation before mine was working in the age of economic expansion. They worked in a happy period and could spend much money, but my generation started to work after the burst of the bubble in 1990 so it’s a hard economy and we are changing and finding our own 
tradition again. I’m the first generation who are going back to wood, paper earth. And using natural neighbourhood materials means it’s a very sustainable design.”

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Kuma doesn’t just design on a grand scale, the small things are important too – the furniture in his buildings, for example. “I want to make harmony between the buildings and small items inside and I like making furniture. The chairs in the Dundee building will be important, matching.”

If we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty detail, what about the toilets, given that the Japanese are masters of the super-duper self-cleaning, heated seat whizz-bang cludgies? Kuma considers why Japan’s designers might give urinals such great attention, although the exact details of the facilities remain lost in translation.

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“It comes from Zen. Cleaning is most important for the priest and then people are cleaning their floors every day and through this kind of cleaning, they get closer to a higher 
level in the religion. It’s a philosophy. My family is Buddhist, but we are 
inspired by Zen. I love Zen very much. The Zen temple in Kamakura is a 

Further design influences have a Scottish link in the shape of golf, a passion passed down by his father who played with a hickory club and favoured 
smaller, tougher, Scottish link-style courses rather than the easy, open US versions. “From golf I learned about the skill of communication with nature, the harmony of sea and land on those courses. The linking of design and the location came from golf. I don’t get time to play much, but I’ve been coming to Scotland for 20 years and played Gleneagles, St Andrews, lots of courses,” he says.

Down by the water, near the spot where the building’s prow will jut out into the Tay, nature is in harmony too. A baby seal basks against the jetty wall in the winter sun, being photographed by Ian Beattie and his daughter Megan. What do they think of the V&A design?

“It’s great for Dundee, great for us to come and see” says the 44-year-old gamekeeper from Meigle in Perthshire.

“It’ll bring something economically to the area. And it’ll be distinctive. It’ll be like Sydney Opera House. Cycling along here just now I was thinking it reminded me of Buenos Aires. I was there two years ago, and the river front is just like this. They have more restaurants, but apart from that – and the fact it’s zero degrees – same thing. And with a museum that looks pretty good too, what more do you want?”

Twitter @JanetChristie2