Kengo Kuma, a 64-year-old Japanese architect, founded his firm in the early 1990s, just as the Japanese financial crisis was beginning to bite. Work was hard to find. Instead of grand public projects, he was forced to take commissions in small towns where the tradition of timber house-building continued. Times have changed. Earlier this year he opened V&A Dundee, a brave, cliff-like concrete outpost of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Bigger still is his stadium for the 2020 summer Olympics, currently under construction in Tokyo, which will stand out from other Olympic venues by being lined with trees. Yet his early years left their mark. Despite his fame, he is still happiest designing modest timber pavilions and homes. Wood, he likes to say, is his best friend.
The 120x120 House, completed this year, is set amid Tokyo’s suburban sprawl. It owes its name to the lattice of 120mm by 120mm cypress timbers that make up its enigmatic façade. The design is a playful reference to Chidori, a centuries-old Japanese toy comprising 12mm timber sections that can be assembled to create abstract geometric structures as well as miniature furniture. In Kuma’s enlarged version, the wood creates a play of daylight and shadow in the sequence of interlocking rooms inside, where the atmosphere is calm, warm and studiously harmonious. The effect mirrors the way sunlight filters through forests, and also reflects Kuma’s fascination with Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic meditation on Japanese aesthetics, “In Praise of Shadows”.
Kuma has explored many different styles and materials – he has built a house in Tokyo out of plastic, another by the Great Wall of China out of bamboo, and hewn a museum in the Japanese city of Nasu out of stone. But this quietly beautiful building in the suburbs of Japan’s capital is a satisfying architectural homecoming.