Kengo Kuma’s Architecture of the Future

Rejecting flashy forms in favor of buildings in harmony with their environment, the architect — poised to become world famous for his stadium for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo — is trying to reinvent his entire trade.

KENGO KUMA’S FASCINATION with architecture began when he was 10 years old and his father took him to visit Kenzo Tange’s famous Yoyogi National Gymnasium, constructed for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Tange’s arena — with its high mast and violently sloping roof, its form like a discus emerging obliquely from the earth — was a masterpiece of engineering, and remains the most breathtaking example of Japanese Modernism. Speaking to me about the building in October, in the glassed-in penthouse library above his firm’s Tokyo offices, Kuma became animated. I had only met him a few minutes earlier, in the cramped main quarters, when he swiftly emerged from his tiny, cubicle-like space in the far corner. Kuma is tall, informal — he was wearing stonewashed jeans, and a striped T-shirt under a nylon jacket with frayed and shredded shoulders — and he greeted me with a quick handshake, as if I were another employee. But he grew noticeably excited speaking about Tange’s gymnasium. “Tange treated natural light like a magician,” he said, discussing the way the panels on the ceiling reflected light bouncing off the swimming pool. “From that day, I wanted to be an architect.”

And yet Tange’s work — aggressively modern, wresting enormous form out of space, deploying the latest synthetic materials, an imposition on the landscape and an attention-grabbing demonstration of what architecture could do in a city that only 20 years earlier had been comprehensively destroyed by American bombs — could not be further from Kuma’s own aesthetic. He is the most famous Japanese architect Americans have never heard of, mostly due to his sparse record of building outside of East Asia; he has only one public commission in the United States, a “cultural village” for the Japanese Garden in Portland, Ore., whose most notable structure is a small glass box of a teahouse cantilevered past a single post, making it appear to float above a ravine. Many of his notable works are in rural areas and serve an ostensibly minor purpose — say, to exhibit a collection of Hiroshige woodblock prints, or to sell Taiwanese pineapple cakes, or to house a Starbucks in the city of Fukuoka, known equally for its ancient temples and shopping malls.

At 63 and admired in Japan, he is now poised to achieve international renown, despite having built comparatively little abroad, and having repeatedly written that he wants to “erase” his trade, to create a “defeated architecture.” His potential status as a globally known architect may hinge on one building alone, one that, given what sparked his interest in his craft, seems almost fated: the National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the site of which is about a mile from Tange’s masterpiece. It will also be his least characteristic work, and will arrive trailing controversy. The earlier winning design by the late Zaha Hadid — which resembled something between an enormous, sleek bicycle helmet and a manta ray — was the object of criticism by dozens of Japanese architects, including Pritzker Prize-winner Fumihiko Maki and the prominent Japanese postmodernist architect Arata Isozaki. The latter charged in a letter to the Japan Sports Council that the revised building was a “monumental mistake” that would be “a disgrace to future generations,” memorably describing it as a “dull, slow form, like a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away.” (Hadid, still alive at the time, responded that these detractors were angry that a Japanese architect had not been chosen.) Kuma was a signatory to a petition Maki and other architects circulated protesting its selection, and in 2015 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe canceled the commission, citing skyrocketing costs. A hasty contest was arranged, and Kuma’s proposal was selected.

And yet he betrayed ambivalence about the project, complaining about how the Olympics may be driving up construction costs throughout the country, which especially hurt rural areas where Kuma has built some of his most important structures. Kuma — not otherwise averse to taking digs at other architects — said that, besides signing the petition, he had resisted openly criticizing Hadid’s scheme at the time. The stadium site is in one of Tokyo’s few notable greenbelts, a park filled with ginkgo trees erected in the early 1900s to commemorate Emperor Meiji, and it happens to be on Kuma’s regular 30-minute commute between his home in the more traditional Kagurazaka district and his office in the fashionable Minami-Aoyama neighborhood. “I know that area very well,” he said, matter-of-factly noting that Hadid’s scheme simply “would not fit.” “I go by it every day,” he said, as if that alone was the reason he was building the stadium.

Though the resulting plan is inevitably a compromise among a number of demanding parties — Taisei Corporation (a construction company), Azusa Sekkei Co. (a design firm) and the government of Japan itself — it is, like much of Kuma’s work, rather simple in its initial impression and as unobtrusive as a massive stadium can be. Multitiered but relatively squat (at under 50 meters high, it is one-third lower than Hadid’s design), its roof unpeels to reveal a latticed wood framework. Renderings show the concourses dotted with trees, and the entire complex is hugged by parkland, pointedly emphasizing its relationship with the natural landscape. The building’s 2,000 cubic meters of cedar and larch are supposed to come from every prefecture in Japan (though recently, there have been protests about a subcontractor’s alleged contribution to deforestation in Borneo). It is, though not explicitly intended as such, a diametric statement against futuristic and self-aggrandizing designs like Hadid’s — and perhaps futuristic and self-aggrandizing architecture in general. Kuma’s luminous, spare, predominantly wood-hewn buildings often look out of place among the stark shapes that fill architecture magazines and journals. His is an architecture that seems at first glance to exude tradition and “Japan-ness,” but it turns out to be one of allusions, tricks of the eye and uncertain thresholds and limits. Surfaces mislead and deceive; materials are returned to again and again, like an obsession; the gestures to high Modernism are rejected, reassumed and renewed. Kuma, a constant source of paradoxes and ironies, often makes demagogic statements on behalf of his own brand of architectural modesty. “I want to change the definition of architecture,” he told me; in a way, he already has.

BY ITS NATURE, wood does not lend itself to spectacle. A common material in Japanese traditional architecture until the firebombing of World War II (which is to say, about 10 years before Kuma was born), it weathers easily and visibly, requires constant attention and replacement and exudes impermanence, fragility and modesty. Kuma gravitates toward it relentlessly, appropriate for someone who told me that “architects should be very shy, everywhere.”

Kuma’s pleas for shyness derive from a complex resistance to the profession he decided he wanted to enter some 50 years ago. He began his training as a proverbial angry young man, more inclined to define himself against trends, to say “no” rather than to determine what he wanted. Though visiting Tange’s gymnasium was formative, he had soured on Japanese Modernism by the time he was 16, in 1970. That year, Kuma attended the Expo ’70 in Osaka, where Tange and his “Metabolist” associates Kisho Kurokawa and Kiyonori Kikutake had displayed some of the most outlandish and eye-popping structures in the history of architecture. The Metabolists had emerged in the 1960s as the vanguard of Japanese Modernism — their name was meant to imply a flexible architecture that had a cellular, metabolic relationship to the growing city — and they produced a number of spectacular plans and futuristic visions that extended the programs of European Modernism into the realm of the fantastic: cities floating in the sea or houses vaulted into the sky. At Osaka, however, Kuma saw only exhaustion: The architects he admired were exclusively interested in producing fantastic forms, completely divorced from their environment or human needs.

Kuma found a more copacetic model for his developing interests in architecture school in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where he studied with Hiroshi Hara. The renowned theorist took Kuma and his other students on a two-month trip through the Sahel, where they visited and documented village structures of nomadic peoples. With no knowledge of the relevant languages, let alone the customs, they had to learn to manage in harsh conditions, and explain their curious interests with a flurry of exaggerated gestures and a mixture of English and French. This experience with impermanent, modest dwellings, as well as the travel through unfamiliar rural areas, gave Kuma skills and confidence that he would later use in the countryside of Japan. (A recent guide to the architecture of Japan lists over 30 major projects by Kuma’s offices, though his own website points to dozens more.)

When Kuma arrived for a yearlong fellowship at Columbia University in 1985, he was in the midst of a transitional period both in architecture and in the economic history of his country. The high tide of architectural postmodernism was cresting, just as the economies of both the U.S. and Japan were entering a period of historic growth. That year, West German, French, British, American and Japanese officials signed a treaty known as the Plaza Accord, designed to coerce the United States into devaluing its currency, thereby limiting Japanese exports — cars and electronics — that had flooded U.S. markets and driven many Americans into an existential panic over their country’s declining power. The immediate result was to give Japanese consumers a newly strong yen and, after the Bank of Japan lowered official interest rates, to overheat the domestic market. From 1985 to 1990, an enormous stock market bubble swelled. And it wasn’t just bankers and salarymen who made fortunes. The result in architectural terms was an explosion of construction throughout the country, and a seemingly unending stream of commissions for any architect who wanted them.

Kuma spent his year at Columbia immersed in the then-dominant kingdom of architectural postmodernism. He met with and interviewed the reigning figures of the day, visiting their offices and observing them at work: Philip Johnson, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Frank Gehry. But he ended up collecting his interviews in a book that was a kiss-off to the style. Published in Japan in 1989, the book was titled, rather aggressively, “Good-Bye Postmodernism.” Kuma’s feeling was that American postmodernism was tied to a bubble economy — in this case, the American bubble of the 1980s, which culminated in Black Monday in 1987 — and as a phenomenon was limited to the Western world. Nonetheless, he started his own, eponymous firm in Tokyo in 1990, and in a typical Kuma gesture, produced for his very first major building an almost canonical example of the postmodernism he had just dismissed. Called M2, it was commissioned as a Mazda showroom, but its scale and imagery far exceeded the requirements. A defiantly crazy and arguably cynical building, its standout feature is a central, monstrously oversize column crowned with an ionic capital, buttressed on either side by a bricolage of arches, made up of concrete panels meant to look like solid blocks. Postmodern architecture had always gestured toward the antique past, usually in a mode of acerbic or calculatingly boisterous irony, but Kuma’s wild gesticulations in M2 were grotesque and overwhelming. Familiarity with his later work makes it hard to fathom how an architect so fixated on humility would begin his career with such a spectacular folly.

Various external forces coincided to make Kuma’s flirtation with monumental excrescences an abortive one. Around the time that he was finishing M2, Kuma received a phone call related to some of the construction details on the building. Picking up the receiver with his left hand, he put his right hand — his drawing hand — down on a nearby glass table to balance himself, and the table shattered beneath him. The nerves and veins in his wrist were severed and the bone exposed. The injury he sustained to his hand was permanent. He lost his ability to draw in detail or fasten a button (Kuma’s habitual uniform now is a suit with a T-shirt), and — as is perhaps typical of near-death experiences — he was at once shaken and, by his own account, liberated by the experience. Another paradoxical liberation came the following year, when the Japanese economic bubble burst. For an entire decade — known proverbially as Japan’s lost decade, due to its persistently and irremediably sluggish growth, and intermittent years of recession — commissions in Tokyo completely dried up. Kuma was forced into a period of necessary reflection, and out of it he developed the practice and thought that would come to define his career.

IN A WAY that wouldn’t be possible with any other major architects one can think of, the results of Kuma’s exploration of a new style are documented in a single small mountain town on the island of Shikoku in the south of Japan. Yusuhara, a two-hour sinuous drive through hills sculpted with tanada (rice-growing terraces) from the closest major city of Kochi — itself a seven-hour train ride southwest from Tokyo — is not a name that many in Japan will recognize, unless they are familiar with Kuma’s work. With a population of just 3,600, but sprawling over a wide area, the town contains four buildings by the architect, built over a span of nearly two decades, with another currently under construction. Members of Kuma’s firm make the relatively grueling trip a few times a month, and the second day I was there, I ran into one of his many overworked epigones, looking cadaverous and damp-haired as he sucked down a can of cold Starbucks espresso; he and his team had stayed up all night working on a project before catching the train from Tokyo. Kuma’s enduring loyalty to the small Japanese town, even as his stature has grown, remains one of the distinctive aspects of his person and his architecture. For Kuma, the scale of the place has meant fewer impediments to his true passions: working with local craftsmen and using local materials. It offers freer access to the past, in a country that until the postwar era had been mostly rural.

Kuma was drawn to Yusuhara in the 1990s because he was friends with an architect working in the town; the architect asked his advice on a conservation matter regarding an old wooden theater, and the town’s mayor ended up contracting him to build a hotel. To track this work — from the Kumo-no Ue-no Hotel (completed in 1996), through to the Yusuhara Town Hall (2006), a new fruit market and hotel called Machi-no-Eki Yusuhara (2010) and the extraordinary Wooden Bridge Museum (2010) — is to watch the progress of a mind as it grows increasingly bold and fanciful in its experimentation with wood. Kuma works almost exclusively in cedar — typical both to the region and to Japanese architecture in general. Throughout his buildings, unfinished beams and panels intersect with smoother, thinner louvers. The effect is warm, of course, but also weathered and transient: Exterior panels become darkened by years of afternoon sun; interior spaces have a rough-edged sensation, and the buildings exude the scent of cedar, as if they had been freshly tossed up. In Kuma’s first hotel, still a recognizably postmodernist work (its surfboard-shaped roof is meant to resemble a cloud, since Yusuhara’s nickname is “Town Above the Clouds”), the wood appears here and there as floor slats slathered in white paint — atypical, since Kuma usually likes to leave his wood exposed. The Town Hall, finished a decade later, represents an enormous leap forward. A seemingly simple rectangular box, with a hidden concrete walled exterior, its roof is cantilevered from a traditional Japanese beam structure. A glass facade, parceled out into asymmetrical wood paneling to shade the interior, can be opened up in warmer months to the exterior. This permeability would be a recurring feature of his later work. Lingering in the warm, brightly lit lobby, where a wooden stage is set up for performances of kagura (a traditional Shinto dance native to the region), one can forget the immediate presence of bureaucracy, and all its connotations of willful obscurity.

During his years in Yusuhara, Kuma was theorizing his own work with some frequency, and his substantial body of writing reveals a repeated turning over of the same ideas and experiences, much as he constantly comes back to wood to see what else it can accomplish. Above all, Kuma is drawn to a vision of architecture that he has variously called “defeated architecture,” “small architecture” or “anti-object” architecture. It is a story of returning to the values of traditional Japanese architecture through the work of modern architects who admire them, as well as the rather simple idea — however sometimes tortuously expressed by Kuma via detours into Western philosophy and critical theory — that architecture should cease to force itself onto a landscape and should instead, through acquaintance with local materials and methods, relate itself harmoniously to its surroundings.

Presented as an argument with the traditions of Modernism and postmodernism, it is also an argument Kuma has been conducting with his forbears and his peers about the function of architecture, part of a longstanding debate about what is “Japanese” in the art. Some of the most enduring monuments to international Modernism, especially in their use of concrete, are in Japan, perhaps the only Asian country to have embraced, so fully and ardently, the movement descended from Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. Partly this is a result of the war: American firebombing decimated Japan’s wooden cities, and after that, the government limited wood as a building material in cities like Tokyo. Breakneck development since then had by the 1970s turned Japan into the world’s second-largest economy, and its exuberance for Modernist architecture exemplified this growing national self-confidence like nothing else. But as with many modernizing movements in Japan, there was always dissonance. Weren’t these massive concrete forms, these spectacular metropolises, foreign to the humble wood architecture that Japan had always cultivated? Complicating matters was the fact that Modernist architects themselves — from Bruno Taut to Richard Neutra to Frank Lloyd Wright — had been greatly influenced by prewar, traditional Japanese architecture.

Kuma was not the first to grapple with these questions. Kunio Maekawa, an acolyte of Le Corbusier, evoked the Japanese vernacular in concrete and used wood paneling throughout his buildings; decades later, Arata Isozaki alluded to the catastrophe of the American bombing campaign in buildings that resembled shards of ruins, reflecting on the problem of how Japan expresses its identity through its buildings in his essay “1960 Blue Sky of Surrender Day: Space of Darkness.” But among them, Kuma’s solution — to focus obsessively on local materials, and to build with those materials, at the expense of the overall form — may be the most distinctive. He concentrates not on the formal aspect of his buildings, but on the immediate experience they provide — on surfaces, effects and moods — all at the risk of producing structures that photograph poorly, or seem modest. Besides his evocation of Japanese forms and materials, it is precisely all the modern obsessions that he ignores — sleek designs, a privileging of style over function — that signify what is traditionally “Japanese” in his architecture. Small architecture is not his only mode, but it is the most natural expression of his approach, and a testament to how much he fights against other architects in his work.

Kuma has so defined himself against his immediate predecessors that, when his father died in 1994, he took the opportunity to design a gravesite that deliberately distinguished itself from another architect’s monument, the grave of the great Metabolist architect Kisho Kurokawa, known for the kind of complex and flashy designs that Kuma rebels against, who died in 2007 and is buried — it feels both literally and figuratively — in a cemetery that adjoins Kuma’s office. “I saw Kisho Kurokawa’s — I wanted to do the opposite,” he told me. Kuma is an indefatigable and focused individual, and I often found myself trailing behind him as he dashed from place to place. He practically ran from his office through the cemetery to the Kurokawa site, which was marked by a proud obelisk, slightly larger than the surrounding markers. “I don’t like granite,” he said. He then showed me to his father’s site nearby. It was a simple recessed space, almost like Maya Lin’s memorial to the American soldiers killed in Vietnam — the opposite of a monument. It was made of ashino stone, a flaky substance quarried north of Tokyo and the same material he used in one his best-known buildings, the Stone Museum, completed in 2000 in the ski resort destination of Tochigi Prefecture, which houses a museum and showcases an interwoven arrangement of ashino structures. “The color ages naturally,” he said, inspecting the agate-colored grave, which would become darker and redder over time. It was a classic moment for Kuma: The occasion of something deeply personal, the death of a parent, became yet another opportunity to demonstrate his principles, use traditional materials and conduct a surreptitious fight with the architectural past. He had never stopped saying no.

AMONG ALL THE arts, architecture is perhaps the most susceptible to the vicissitudes of the economy, its health uniquely dependent on the confidence of actors far outside the architect’s control: real estate investors, construction companies and corporate clients, to say nothing of interest rates set by central banks. A skyline registers with unusual acuity the history of boom-and-bust, and, with some allowance made for the delay in which buildings actually get completed, architectural fashions often swell and decline along with those same cycles. For the decades that followed the postwar era, the Modernism of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe dominated cities and even small towns across the world. But the recessions of the 1970s dented the era’s confidence, and subsequently a knowing, sophisticated, and — at least in its initial phase — deferential postmodernism took hold. By the 2000s, the deference was gone, and a slick, glass-and-metal neo-modernism — exemplified particularly by Gehry, Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Sir Norman Foster — set the tone for much architecture up until the financial crisis of 2008. Despite the ethereal condominium towers sprouting up over the global capitals of the world, there is no question that the Great Recession once again dimmed the profession’s intellectual hubris, and the last eight or so years have been a kind of interregnum. Call it “after architecture”: a period of still-unfinished searching for a new mode, ethical and stylistic, by its most thoughtful practitioners.

Kuma’s particular version of this search seems to have preceded that of most of his international peers, and unlike them he seems to have found a solution. This is partly because of the early collapse of the Japanese economy — the trauma of the 1990 bubble bursting was harsher for the country than even the effects of the 2008 worldwide crash. No longer would it be assumed, as was common in the 1980s, that Japan would become the world’s biggest economy. Indeed, the country has never truly recovered — not financially, and, just as significantly, not psychically as well — and the need to find an architecture appropriate to a sobered world of vastly diminished expectations, one aware of the costs of imposing endless development and construction on an unresilient planet, became more urgent here than it did elsewhere — at least, it certainly did for Kuma.

It is nonetheless hard to keep in mind Kuma’s self-addressed injunction to “erase” architecture when viewing his Wooden Bridge Museum, his most recently completed work in Yusuhara. Technically a functional design to integrate Kuma’s earlier hotel with a local bathhouse, the resulting structure is much greater than its ostensibly simple purpose. The gallery rises up several stories and is supported by a single strong central pillar. But most of the gallery’s weight is cantilevered off the hillside thanks to another traditional Japanese beam technique, in which small cross sections of modern laminated veneer lumber are stacked one on top of another, at perpendicular angles, creating a luminous, exhilarating sense of infinity. The effect is less of a craft being renewed than an abstract monument to that craft, and to an architect, too. Despite Kuma’s professed desire to distance himself from his forebears, it clearly resembles Arata Isozaki’s famous but unrealized “Clusters in the Air” (1960-62), a plan for housing projects in Tokyo, in which a single pillar supports capsule-like apartments, piled one above the other, like Kuma’s beams. Kuma’s rejoinder might be that his own plan represents the local traditions and materials of the surrounding region, rather than a fanciful object alien to the landscape. But the unmistakable reference suggests that Kuma has never quite abandoned his old combativeness.

The use of wood to achieve hallucinatory effects continued into Kuma’s projects outside Yusuhara. His unearthly Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art (2000) in Nakagawa-machi, a semirural town about a three-hour train ride north from Tokyo, employs the thin louvers and pitched roofs he later used in Portland. To enter the museum, you walk through an enormous open entrance: In a characteristic Kuma gesture, a strong, unbroken line connects the city and the lush hillside against which the museum backs up, perforating the museum, making it permeable. Then you turn right alongside a glass wall shimmering with thin wood slats, reflecting the line of bamboo on your left, turn right again into a foyer and then right a third time into the museum itself. The effect of the disorientation is unnerving, dissolving the boundary between surface and depth. Elsewhere in the museum, the louver patterns are reflected directly onto the glass, like a bar code. The superimposition of multiple materials complements the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Hiroshige displayed inside, with their layers of ink printing, each not quite obscuring the one beneath. Unlike his peers, he told me, “I don’t want to establish a style.” But as with Kuma’s other fights within and against the profession, this one has produced unexpected results: There is no question that a Kengo Kuma building, however much it is designed to disappear, is recognizable from a mile away. In the walls of his Stone Museum, here and there, Kuma has cut out sections of the ashino stone wall and infilled it with translucent marble. The cold light filters through and turns the wall into something that resembles an old IBM punch card.

“Architecture should go back to fabrication, to using real materials, to using the hand,” he told me. “Before industrialization, most of the world had that system.” As with many of Kuma’s programmatic statements, this is a principle or self-description designed to be betrayed. Though fond of traditional materials, he is not a fetishist, and seems just as interested in using computational design to create new effects. Later, he took me to the materials room of his lab at Tokyo University, where his students were using computers to come up with new uses for strange materials. All around me were truly bizarre, organic, basketlike shapes. Kuma fingered a loose, perforated canopy strung up by one of his students and discussed it briefly with him. It turned out to be made of coir, the threadlike skin of aging coconut husks. Was this a traditional building material, I asked him? “No!” he laughed. “Absolutely not. No one has ever used it.” But, after all, he seemed to be saying, “why not?”

KUMA LOVES SPEAKING to craftsmen, who help him discover the possibilities inherent in traditional paper, or the soft oya stone that Frank Lloyd Wright also loved and used in his (long demolished) 1923 Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. But Kuma’s use of these materials is also social, and is intended as a social criticism. For him, the Japan of the economic miracle, which built itself up on masses of concrete, long ago lost its way. Finding one’s way back to the techniques that predated modernization can also point the way to a different economic framework. “We have to create that new system,” he said. “The architect can show the system of the society.” Show people what they build, he implied, and I will show you who they are.

The earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, precipitating the tsunami that wiped out dozens of towns along the coast of Tohoku and killed over 19,000 people — the worst disaster to strike the country since the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — naturally stunned Kuma and filled him with sorrow. But, he told me, “it also confirmed the direction I was going in.” Soon after the tsunami, he drove up the coast with an associate, anxious to check on the condition of one of his buildings, and to deliver supplies to stranded and desperate people. He came upon the town of Minamisanriku, which had been 95 percent destroyed by the tsunami, with at least 8 percent of its population — around 1,200 people — killed. The fact that people had been allowed and even encouraged to build so close to the shore, despite the region having been hit dozens of times by tsunamis over the centuries, proved to him how profoundly his country had erred.

That Kuma continues to work in rural areas is unusual for an architect of his stature — he is also involved in master planning Minamisanriku’s rebuilding efforts — but that does not minimize the fact that his practice has gone well beyond the “defeated” architecture that he once called for. Kengo Kuma and Associates is now a global firm with 200 employees, and like most architecture practices, they accept commissions for, and compete for bids on, enormous condominium towers and luxury hotels. Michael Sypkens, a Dutch-Japanese architect and former employee who left in September to start his own practice, spoke fondly of Kuma’s work, and his success in turning Japanese architecture away from form to details. “Japanese space has always been about creating illusions, trying to make things appear more than they are,” he told me. In his recapture of traditional techniques, “Kuma-san was trying to create that mood, that atmosphere. … He’s doing his best to make buildings disappear, or make buildings about small things.” But he seemed to brood over the fact that Kuma had taken on too many projects from big developers, losing sight of that initial impulse. Regarding the National Stadium project, he admitted, “I don’t think anyone’s particularly proud of it in the office.”

Whether Kuma can successfully translate his rural and minute designs to a global stage remains to be seen. For now, Minamisanriku might be the purest distillation of Kuma’s practice, and in October I visited there with one of Kuma’s associates. The town was ablaze with construction: The banks of the river leading in from the menacing coast were being raised, and the river bed itself overlaid with concrete. With his predilection for small towns and their operation, Kuma had been one of the first architects to help Minamisanriku. He had erected a central market, entirely out of cedar. By no means a great building, it was nonetheless an elegant and thoughtful one: Its infinity of wood slats evoked, yet again, Kuma’s love of louvers, but also the fragility of the structure and the town itself, now being rebuilt on higher ground. Viewed from the coast, it was neither self-erasing nor defeated. It was like a warm beacon in an otherwise dark, haunted place.