This article was originally published in Architectural Review Asia-Pacific magazine #128: New Civic Realms.
In 2005 Kengo Kuma was a juror for an international architecture competition sponsored by Japanese telecom NTT DOCOMO. The competition brief called for new city visions to reflect the role of mobile phones, and in response Kuma said: “[W]e have to think about a new kind of shelter … globalism [has] turned out to be constraining, not liberating. Some people may take refuge from those fears by retreating into the shell of old-fashioned regionalism. But there may be a different kind of local and a different kind of shelter.” Seven years later, Kuma’s Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre (ACTIC) provides evidence of a resolution to that equation, reconciling his inherent ‘regional’ stance with the pluralist tendencies of his oeuvre. For over a century, from the 1840s to the 1940s, the Asakusa district incubated a unique ‘local’ culture within Edo/Tokyo’s unrestricted coalescence of commercial and entertainment interests. Could the ACTIC be the emblematic regermination that returns this district to what Yasunari Kawabata describes as a fertile “amalgam of past and present, high and popular cultures”?
Kuma’s strategy provides a concise image of the overall building, but also lightens the entire form.
Within the eight-storey building, one can make out, in elevation, silhouetted permutations of Japan’s vernacular dwellings: the machiya (townhouse), the ageya (house of entertainment) and the row-house called nagaya, to name a few. As a composition in stacked strata, Kuma takes what otherwise would be a fragmented heap and cloaks it in his signature facade of long vertical members, a reinterpretation of traditional lattice frontages. Not only does this provide a concise image of the overall building, but it also delicately lightens the entire form.
Inside this compact complex the visitor is directed to various facilities by way of purpose-designed wayfinding signage, created by graphic designer Kensaku Kato of Tokyo Pistol. Like any centre for culture, it provides spaces allocated for exhibitions, meetings and intimate conferences, as well as a theatre with informal tiered seating rising up from the floor. As the ACTIC is receptive to international tourism, it is a multi-lingual portal to the history and traditions of the district and the larger ward of Taito. Beyond its mandate of “finding, showing and supporting”, it provides new, unobstructed vantage points of the area. On the eighth floor the building opens up to a small coffee shop and observation deck, creating an important moment in the building, for within its panoramic vista, one has a clear view east past the Sumida River to Tokyo Skytree, a recently completed 634-metre broadcasting tower. Back down on the landing, between the first and second floors, Kuma has provided a wood ledge from which to pause or take advantage of its free wireless service. From this media bar, at almost one full storey above ground level, there is a direct line of sight to the mingling mass of people, rickshaws and cars in front of the Kaminarimon temple gate.
Axonometric diagram of the centre’s foyer. Image courtesy Kengo Kuma & Associates
Throughout the interior are moments of delicate crafting. These include the black, sheer window coverings by textile designer Yoko Ando, who also designed the coverings for Toyo Ito’s Tama Art University library; the horizontal, undulating wood panelling on the east wall of the second floor, revealing storage drawers for concealing stocks of printed materials; and, at basement level, rear-illuminated glass panels decorated with woodblock-printed patterns, known as Edo Chiyogami, originally found on paper dating back to Japan’s Edo period (1603–1867). And yet within its clever reinterpretations of Japanese aesthetic sensibilities, the overall stacking, hollowing and refilling of historical forms speak to a sensibility that is uniquely Kuma’s own. In a recent essay by Charles Jencks on Edouard François’ Parisian Hotel Fouquet, we find a characterisation of the building that could also apply to the ACTIC – as embodying an “attitude of mimicking and transforming the context – as an abstraction”.
The centre’s interior reinterprets Japanese aesthetic sensibilities, but the overall stacking, hollowing and refilling of historical forms is uniquely Kuma.
Although Jencks is speaking to a certain postmodern pastiche that has returned to Europe, we can see in particular works, since the millennium, this sensibility – culturally tempered – has crept back into Kuma’s buildings. When he concerns himself with a fragmentation of formal massing, the results are striking, with projects such as the Garden Terrace Nagasaki Hotel and Resort (2009), the JR Hoshakuji Station (2008) and One Omotesando (2003) generating compelling spatial decompositions of their surroundings.
The centre with the telecommunications tower of Tokyo Skytree visible, rear left.
The transgressions in Kuma’s work should not be surprising as it is at once, as Sanford Kwinter describes it, “singular and woven” – a condition of free-market, global capitalism. With ease, he is able to move from winning a museum competition in Scotland, to building a shopping mall in Beijing, to designing a Starbucks near a 20th-century shrine in Japan, to generating a body of experimental teahouse pavilions across the globe. He is a designer who has been liberated, not constrained, by globalism.
Spaces are provided for exhibitions, meetings and intimate conferences.
So it is fitting that Kuma won the competition to design the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre. It has been well documented that Asakusa’s entertainment areas were once the backbone of crass popular entertainment that freely ingested western influences; the early 20th-century sociologist and film theorist, Gondo Yasunosuke, told students, “Go to Asakusa – Asakusa’s your text”, and one only has to read The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa from the late 1920s, by Nobel laureate for literature Yasunari Kawabata, to imagine the essence of the area.
On the eighth floor the building opens up to a small coffee shop and observation deck.
While it is still too early to determine whether Asakusa can regain its standing as a place of importance for pop trends, one wonders if Kuma was too timid with the design of this building. Would, to use Jencks’ term, a “radical eclecticism”, as seen 25 years ago with Kuma’s M2 Building, have been a more appropriate response? Might the tele-communications of Skytree, one ward over, become a more relevant – infrastructural – emblem for the potential for greater cultural connectivity across the city? Certainly, a quicker train line between the existing ‘cool’ hubs of Tokyo’s southern and western wards would be a start, while keeping in mind that today’s pop culture ‘text’ is thumbed and read while in transit to the next meeting spot.