Yusuhara Town Guide With Architect Kengo Kuma | CoolJapan

As a child, the architect Kengo Kuma visited the Yoyogi National Gymnasium with his father. The building’s parabolic roof formed an aperture from which light streamed indoors, and the young Kuma watched the shafts of light strike the water of the gymnasium’s pool. The light formed a shimmering pattern, and that experience of his visit left a lifelong impression on the young student. That day, Kengo Kuma decided that he wanted to be an architect.

A photo of architect Kengo Kuma

Kengo Kuma at Strelka Institute. (Photo from: Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, CC BY 2.0)

Kuma still speaks of that formative experience, and it is certain that the architect's ethos of moving away from concrete and closer to nature has its roots in that visit, and so, it is no accident that his series of work resides far from the major cities, in the quiet suburban town of Yusuhara, with its lush mountainsides full of cedar trees.

Kuma’s relationship with the town is long-standing, beginning in the 80s when he visited in support of the preservation of Yusuhara-za, a performance theatre slated for deconstruction. Ever since, he’s taken up projects in the town, starting in the 90s and continuing through the millennium, and all of his buildings there have a holistic approach to architecture and a vast appreciation of nature. One can look out the windows of these buildings and see the countryside, and in the case of Kumo-no-Ue Hotel, the cloud-themed hotel, the view the stars at night in the semicircle pond.

The trees themselves aren't just the backdrop to the buildings. Local timber is utilised heavily in their designs, both in the interior and exterior. In the town office, a wooden pavilion stands in the centre of the lobby. In Machi-no-Eki Yusuhara, the community market’s interior space, cedar pillars create the sense of an indoor forest, and in Yusuhara Town library, jutting pillars of cedar cross each other to give the interior’s ceiling an organic, aggressive design.

Interior of Yusuhara Town Library

Interior of Yusuhara Town Library. (Photo from: Kochi Visitors & Convention Association)

In two of the buildings, there are motifs rooted in tradition. The façade of the community market and hotel uses thatch, reminiscent of the roof structure of Minka houses, and Kumo-no-Ue-no-Gallery, the wooden bridge art gallery, which resembles the shape of a tree, made up of a beam supporting the structure’s interlocking pattern of eaves, both in the exterior and interior, feel both traditional and rare- traditional in the defining techniques of construction in temples everywhere in Japan, rare in the sense that the building’s interior represents the ethos of its exterior, where the simple pattern of eaves continue right onto the ceiling of the building.

It is clear that Kengo takes inspirations from everyday objects, both in nature and in construction. The cloud-themed hotel takes inspiration from airships and aeroplanes, with a roof shaped like an aeroplane wing, and large port windows that represent an airship.

Beyond appearances, these buildings ultimately serve the community of Yusuhara. Far from the rapid, dizzying pace of life in a modern city, what Kengo Kuma understands about these buildings is that they should bring people together and that what a building stands for is just as important as how it looks.

This is demonstrated most deeply in the integrated welfare facility, Yururi Yusuhara, a building with a façade of thin strips of cedar, with large square windows that create a warm interior look and which serves the elderly as a nursing home. What Kuma understands is that people are ultimately as much a part of history as the mountains and the trees, and architecture, in its communal aspects, can serve the spirit of bringing people together in a place that they want to be comfortable in.

Wooden Bridge Gallery model displayed at Kengo Kuma Museum

An architectural model of Wooden Bridge Gallery, Kengo Kuma Museum. (Photo from: Kochi Visitors & Convention Association)

This approach can be seen in the other buildings, like the town library, which would be an obvious draw for those with quiet interests such as reading, but also includes a diorama of the town’s history as well as a bouldering wall for the more active-minded. 

The subject of community brings in question the state of the future of architecture, and its uneasy relation to our current pandemic-oriented world. For Kengo Kuma, this question is a personal one — with the Olympics on hold, the debut of his National Stadium is one that has to wait for better days. But in Yusuhara, where life goes on, as it does, it is certain that a future collaboration is on the horizon.

For more information on Kengo Kuma's projects in Yusuhara, follow the link here.

(Cover photo from: Kochi Visitors & Convention Association)

Andrew Yuen writes stories on a variety of topics such as theatre, travel and mental health. He has an interest in examining culture, art and society. In addition, he writes short stories and enjoys reading in his free time.
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