Kengo Kuma on Career Choices, Cross-cultural Education and His Proudest Moment in Architecture

Design:ED Podcast is an inside look into the field of architecture told from the perspective of individuals that are leading the industry. This motivational series grants unique insight into the making of a successful design career, from humble beginnings to worldwide recognition. Every week, featured guests share their personal highs and lows on their journey to success, that is sure to inspire audiences at all levels of the industry. Listening to their stories will provide a rare blueprint for anyone seeking to advance their career, and elevate their work to the next level.

In this episode of Design:ED Podcast, host Aaron Prinz speaks with Kengo Kuma about why he chose to be an architect, what difficulties architects face when starting their own office, and how has cross-cultural education influenced his work.

Kengo Kuma was born in 1954. Before establishing Kengo Kuma & Associates in 1990, he received his Master’s Degree in Architecture from the University of Tokyo, where he is currently a Professor of Architecture. After his time as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in New York, he established his office in Tokyo. Since then, Kengo Kuma & Associates has designed architectural works in over twenty countries and received prestigious awards, including the Architectural Institute of Japan Award, the Spirit of Nature Wood Architecture Award (Finland), and the International Stone Architecture Award (Italy), among others. Kengo Kuma & Associates aims to design architecture which naturally merges with its cultural and environmental surroundings, proposing gentle, human-scaled buildings. The office is constantly in search of new materials to replace concrete and steel, and seeks a new approach for architecture in a post-industrial society.

This episode is available via iTunes, Spotify, and iHeart Radio.


I was recently in Vals, Switzerland, home to Zumthor’s Thermal Baths. There are a number of redevelopments going on there, you have a hotel under construction, and there is a proposal for works by Tadao Ando, as well as, an 80 story tower by Morphosis. The village of Vals only has about 900 residence. What do you think the impact will be on the village by having such a collection of works by famous architects, especially an 80 story tower? (2:22)

“It’s a very unique place. Peter Zumthor started that type of collaboration with the local people. It can be a very good example of the new life style in the mountain, but still we should be very careful how to preserve the pureness of nature and the life of the people. The local community and the tourism should respect each other, and that is a key point of that type of project… Basically, for every process I want to create harmony with the environment. A tower is always not my interest, but I’ve heard that the architects and the local community are trying to find some solution. I’m looking forward to seeing that solution…” 

Take us back to where you grew up, what was it that made you want to pursue a career in architecture? (3:50)

“For me, the first Tokyo Olympics that happened in 1964. It was a very important event. Before 1964, Tokyo was a very small humble city. Most of the buildings were one or two story wooden buildings, but before the Olympics the government decided to start the village project and concrete freeway project. Those big structures gave me a big shock. My father brought me to the Kenzo Tange Yoyogi Gymnasium… I was so impressed by the beauty of the building, and on that day, I decided to become an architect. So, the Olympics changed my life. But in the 1970’s that economic expansion and the industrialization caused many problems, pollution and traffic jams. The tradition of Japanese cities, and the beauty of Japanese cities was totally destroyed in the 1970’s… I began to think like that. In the beginning of the 1980’s I did a research trip to Africa. I found many beautiful villages in Africa that used natural materials in harmony with the environment. That kind of harmony really gave me the idea for the future of architecture… For the 2020 Olympics we are working on the stadium project. It will be a good chance for me to show my ideas, my attitude towards the environment. That’s the reason why we used local wood for the stadium, from every prefecture of Japan. We have 47 prefectures from south to north, so I tried to use wood from every one. I want to show, that still, nature is beautiful in Japan…”  

You studied in Tokyo, and also were a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in New York. What was the impact on your design thinking from your cross-cultural education? (6:55)

“I attended Columbia from 1985-1986. It was a very interesting period with new computational design, so parametric design, becomes a kind of trend at Columbia. Bernard Tschumi came to Columbia in 1986 and started the ‘Paperless Studio.’ My friends in Columbia were following that direction. They used computers very smartly, but I didn’t feel sympathy towards that direction… Because of them, I tried to go the opposite direction, not computers… I wanted to use my hand to work with material, and feel the material with my hand. That is the direction I found in New York. Also, in New York I bought a tatami mat, it’s a floor material of a tea house. I invited my friends to have a tea ceremony. On the tatami mat, we can totally change ourselves… In Japan I didn’t feel that type of experience, but in the States I could find the importance of Japanese space. Always the travel to a new place can change myself. Still I want to travel to many places because I want to change myself. New York is a very important space. New York did change Kengo Kuma totally…”

What was the process like for you starting your own firm, and what were some of the struggles along the way, and how did you get past them? (9:30)

“After coming back from Columbia in 1986, the economy in Japan was still very good, so I could start my office very smoothly. I could do some small projects in Tokyo for fashion companies or design company. But, after three years, in the 1990’s, the so-called bubble economy burst in Japan. Then in the 1990’s I couldn’t find any project in Tokyo. Looking back, it was a big experience for myself. I had enough time to travel to the countryside, and in the small villages, luckily, I could design a small project. For example, a small public toilet in a small mountain village, and for that project, I had enough time to work with the craftsman. I learned many things from them, how to make rice paper, how to make stucco. Through those experiences, over 10 years, I could learn something that I couldn’t learn from the university…”    

What specifically did you do that made your firm, as well as your designs, stand out in order to get to where you are today? (12:30)

“For my case, I always don’t want to follow the previous generation. In Japan we have our big stars… I always want to go a different direction, but from the beginning, it’s not easy at all. Their designs look amazing, so to go a different direction looks very tough and very difficult. The thing for me was that I can work in a very different situation. The public toilet in a small village is a totally different feel for an architect. The scale is small and the cost is very limited, and the client didn’t want to have a trendy design, but that kind of tough condition gave me a big hint for future architecture. I’m always telling my students to find the new condition, to fight the tough condition because it’s a big chance for architects…” 

What is your proudest moment in architecture? (17:35)

“After the completion of the building, I like to visit the site again, after five years, after ten years, I often visit the site. Sometimes some new things are happening. I’m very proud of seeing that type of new experience in the space. I’m enjoying the new use of space. Most other architects didn’t want to see some new innovation, adding to the original design. They want to keep it as it was, precisely, but I like to see the change of space. The change of space means people find a new way of using the space. It’s very important for architectural design. If the architectural design remains as it was, it’s a kind of dead space. If the space is living, people always want to change the space. I’m very proud of seeing those kinds of things...”

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Cite: Design:ED. "Kengo Kuma on Career Choices, Cross-cultural Education and His Proudest Moment in Architecture" 27 Aug 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center / Kengo Kuma & Associates © Takeshi Yamagishi


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