Kengo Kuma: A Public Space for Beijing
Text: Nels Frye Photos: dbox
Sanlitun SOHO is located in the Chaoyang District of Beijing and is comprised of five shopping malls and nine office and apartment buildings of varying heights.
Kengo Kuma is a world renowned Japanese architect known for 21st century influence on traditional architecture. He was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1954. After graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1979, he moved to New York and studied at Colombia University eventually earning himself a Ph.D in Architecture. In 1990 he established his own firm, Kengo Kuma & Associates, which now has offices internationally in France, China and Japan. Over the course of his career he was won numerous architectural awards. In 1997 Kuma won the Architectural Institute of Japan Award and recently in 2012 The Restaurant and Bar Design award for the best international space.
Everybody in Beijing knows about your work, you’re probably one of the most famous architects in this city, if not this country. Why do you think that’s the case?
I think I am very lucky. “Bamboo House” was my first project. The character of it was very different from the normal architectural houses in Beijing. As for the material and design, it was opposite from the normal Beijing style. After Bamboo House, I worked on the Sanlitun project and the Opposite House. I found a walkable plaza to use, which was also very different from a normal Beijing commercial project. A normal project in Beijing doesn’t usually use the outside space and the theme of our design was outside space. This makes the designs very unique.
This is the most interesting public space in the city, the south village especially, plus Opposite House. It’s an interesting place for people to meet, but it’s strange in a way because Beijing is not a very nice place to be outside.
From the beginning of this project I was told from the client that the Beijing crime was very bad, the winter was very cold, and pollution was very bad. However, I proposed to them that even in that kind of condition, for a design in the 21st century, we should use outside space as much as we can. It is more ecological and even in the winter people want to walk outside. Walking in Sanlitun is an experience, even in the winter. The smell of BBQ and the sun coming down from the shops makes a very active experience and I wanted to bring that pedestrian design to a new big development. I love this kind of experience and I believe that through this we can keep pedestrian culture.
So what about your influence for Sanlitun Soho?
The plan for Sanlitun Soho was not to build one skyscraper, but to divide it into some small towers. This is different from the Tokyo style towers because in Tokyo, designs are based on one big tower. The philosophy for the Sanlitun Soho project was that it is a community project. The project is based on a collective form design. My professor in Japan, who was also my mentor, used collective form. At the time, the big single towers were the leading modern movement in architecture. My professor’s take on modernism was that it is more about the experience on the ground. I think his theory is still very effective and especially for these developments as a more organic development.
Could you give some advice to young architects?
I think the most important thing for students is to travel and to see lots of places. When I was studying architecture, I made lots of trips with my friends. My best experience as a student was when I traveled to the Sahara desert. The Sahara was so different from my life in Tokyo, I started to find the diversity of the world. To have that kind of experience as a student can help afterward and if you start practicing architecture and go far it can be hard. It is important to see new places, meet new people, and most importantly, learn how to communicate with other cultures.
If you could design or renovate any hotel, in any city, what would the project be like?
I like cities with history. Chengdu is beautiful. Of course, I would love to work on something in New York as well because it is very interesting. I love to design for China because each city has a different character and culture. Whenever I go to a new place I find something interesting about the history of the place which gives me inspiration for new projects.