PrinciplesKengo Kuma

Kengo Kuma and Associates • Omotesando, Tokyo • September 11, 2015

Kengo Kuma is the founder and principal designer at Kengo Kuma and Associates, a leading international architectural design firm. We spoke on the flow of experience between inside and outside, people and things, building and landscape, time and body, and nature and life.


Embrace and accent the flow of the landscape

Start with context

We always start from making a model of the site, to feel the flow of the landscape. The landscape is not static; it’s dynamic—there’s always a flow that exists—not only for the site, but also for its neighbours. 

Other architects start from their own style, but we start with the neighbours, buildings and landscape. No building is isolated.

Let nature in

Bringing in the garden is very important for the office. Without feeling nature I cannot produce anything—it would be like sitting in a closed box.

I don’t like courtyard houses. If the courtyard is enclosed, then it is not natural. I prefer a “3 blocks” house over a “4 blocks” house. Hugging is better than choking.

Accent when needed

Sometimes, when people are checking their phone, looking for directions, they need an accent. Like making music, we accent the flow.

For me, composers and architects are very similar. I really love modern Jazz. I played piano… Thelonius Monk… his piano playing is magic. Good jazz music has openness. Similarly, I don’t want to restrict the experience.


Design the shape of the experience, not the shape of the building

Shape time, not material

I am not interested in the shape of the building—it’s only for the magazine photos. But the shape of the experience is really important.

I try to design time. But time is not easy to design, because time is related to the speed of a person’s movement and natural light.

So, the size of the human body is deeply related to our design because there is such a dedicated relation between the human body and time.

Model the experience

We’re always making models, which is the best way to simulate the experience in the space. Our meetings are always in front of the model, not in front of the rendering.

Materiality is a weak point of the model—if you try to add it, it’s too strong. So you have to use a white model and imagine how light hits surfaces differently.

The model is better rough because we are always moving things. If you make it too pretty, you hesitate to touch and adjust it.

Speak with space, not signs

The model three dimensionally tells us where to go, where to turn, where to stop. I try to create the real experience even in a small model.

The message from the space should be very clear—the more clear the explanation, the better. Space is a much stronger message than a sign.


Integrate people and things, integrate nature and life

Start from the relationship

For our retail design, we often start from the product itself. I imagine what happens between the product and people, and I start from that relationship.

The backdrop, lighting, and the base for the product… then the walls and the details for the space. It’s a recursive process.

It’s not interior design, it’s a kind of product design… the atmosphere—the composition between the item and the space. The product is not just the item being sold—the whole composition is the product.

Compose a conversation

Products and humans are both actors in a space. The designer should design the drama between actors. 

The paneling of corridor floors in Osaka is horizontal to people’s walking (to slow them down), but in tokyo is it parallel (to accelerate them). I love that type of difference.

Most people only think about the people in the space, but I learned this composition, this flow, from the tea ceremony. The tea bowl and tea leaf are small items to be respected, but all of it is a composition—the space is a kind of conversation. 

Integrate nature and life

This is the dance of our kind of design. The details, the building, the exterior, the surface, the space—all of those are equal, all of those are interactive. The total integration of the experience creates memory. We cannot separate things.

The totality of the experience matters most. Life is flow. If it stopped, you die—life cannot survive.

Architecture should be like a nest. Some people misunderstand architecture as artificial, but a good nest is not like that—it’s an integration between nature and life.