New View
for Vancouver

Kengo Kuma’s first BC gig is a stunning
bilateral hybrid of culture and nature


A giant of contemporary Japanese architecture, Kengo Kuma was born in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1954. He has designed buildings in more than 20 countries and received numerous accolades, including the Architectural Institute of Japan Prize for Design and the French Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award.


The genesis of his impressive career can be traced back to when the young Kuma atten­ded the 1964 Olympics, where he was struck by Kenzo Tange’s iconic Yoyogi National Gym­nasium. After studying architecture at The University of Tokyo and working at two Japanese companies, he continued his studies in the mid-1980s as a visiting researcher at Columbia University in New York City. 

Following his return to Japan, he set up the Spatial Design Studio in 1987, and Kengo Kuma & Associates in 1990.

Kuma’s architectural inspiration came full circle when he was chosen by the Japanese government to design the National Stadium that will be used for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, which have been postponed until next year. 

In addition, plenty of other work has kept his studio busy. One project that recently has been turning heads is the curved-silhouette resi­den­tial tower in Vancouver. Known as Alberni, the 43-story apartment building is to be completed next year. It is located in Vancouver’s West End neighbourhood, near the entrance to Stanley Park.

The Canadian recently spoke with Kuma over Zoom to find out more about Alberni and his views on architecture.

My basic philosophy is to respect the culture and environment of the country or location where I am working.

Tell us about Alberni.

The design for this large-scale project celebrates the presence of nature in Vancouver. We have worked on towers in the past, but not to this scale and level of detail, so the undertaking is an architect’s dream. The tower features two concave sides to produce a curved form, while the trees and moss surrounding the building are a nod to traditional Japanese gardens.


What is the concept behind the project?

This is the first residential high-rise project I have undertaken in North America, and my initial inspiration came from the location which, I believe, is a hub of Asian and North American culture. 

To reflect this, the building is a hybrid struc­ture of concrete and lumber designed to combine Asian and North American cultural sensibilities. It shows my vision for architecture which, I believe, should blend in with the surrounding environment and culture. 

Because I know Canadian people appreciate the beauty and power of architecture, I have placed on the tower’s roof terrace a traditional tea ceremony pavilion that, surrounded by stones, overlooks the city’s downtown district. The wooden structure features sliding glass walls and a low-slung overhanging roof. 

What makes the design special? 

It is, perhaps, the fact that the design protects the view of city corridors, and that the exterior is glass and aluminum, to reflect neighbouring buildings on the lower levels and the sky on the upper levels. Moreover, the building exudes a warm materiality with its wood balconies and bamboo interior details. The structure’s mixed-use design includes restaurants and retail facilities at street level, along with a Japanese garden. 

I believe that, while skyscrapers were isolated monuments in the last century, in the 21st cen­tury they should be part of the overall urban design. But perhaps the most important detail is that we are incorporating traditional features while creating something that has a personality and imparts a new image of a tower. 

Is your design sensitive to Canadian culture?

My basic philosophy is to respect the culture and environment of the country or location where I am working. Thus I always use local materials and collaborate with local craftsmen to ensure that each project is a cultural exchange. 

In my design for Alberni, for example, I used local Canadian wood — which is considered to be the country’s treasure. I have great admiration for the way that Canadian people treat and protect nature, and here especially I can see similarities between Canadian and Japanese design. This helped me create a building that is a symbol of a new age — a new period of natural design. 

People are pushing for a more nature-related approach.

How’d you use wood in such a tall building?

I am very concerned with lightness and the use of wood in buildings. It is easy to achieve lightness with small wooden buildings, but it is very difficult with a building of this size. Working with very good engineers, however, we were able to build a structure combining wood and concrete to achieve the right kind of transparency. By using wooden planks, each with a gap to give wind and light access to the building, we achieved lightness and transparency.


What message do your projects have?

In big cities, too many concrete buildings are being constructed purely for business purposes. In my opinion, this has been destroying cities over the past 60 years, so we must find a smart way to live in limited space. Since forest areas account for some 70 per cent of Japan, we must develop a way of working with what remains.

However, since such confinement is not ex­clu­sive to Japan, we must apply wisdom at a universal level. It is important for the en­vironment that we learn to live in any space and that we conserve energy. I would like Canada to lead the way in this, because it is a country blessed with a vast wealth of natural resources.

What changes will the Olympics bring?

I believe that, for the Olympics next year, we should not follow the modernist style of our previous Olympics. The Yoyogi National Gym­nasium was designed for that event by Kenzo Tange, a star architect at the time, whose work became a symbol of those Games. The struc­ture is a beautiful concrete and steel building featuring a suspended roof. I recall being amazed by the advanced technology that had been used in the building’s design. 

During the 1964 Olympics, Japan was in the process of economic expansion and believed that industrialization was good for society. These days, doubt surrounds such thinking and people are pushing for a more nature-related approach. In the belief that the National Stadium should reflect this, I used wood as the main material for the building, which is a symbol of a new age, a new period of natural design. 

What goals guide your work?

My main goal is to recover Japanese building traditions and to reinterpret them to suit con­tem­po­rary lifestyles. To do so, I take my inspi­ration from nature, especially light and wood. Through my designs, I try to express in projects the emotional content of materials and their natural characteristics, blending these with traditional Japanese mores. 

An adequate study of a location is essential to integrating a project with its surroundings. In this way, the balance will not be disturbed but, rather, be a natural extension of that delicate balance, only one built by human hands. In the Alberni project, my design uses the forces of nature and is in harmony with its environment.