Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal

Back in 2019, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma won the contest to design the expansion of the gardens of the Gulbenkian Foundation and the new entrance of the Modern Collection of the Museum in Lisbon, Portugal. According to the architect, the museum can be a "wise example of the future as coexistence with the Earth and us", taking inspiration from nature and its relationship with architecture. In a recent No País dos Arquitectos podcast, Sara Nunes interviews Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa, architect at Kengo Kuma Associates, to talk about the expansion of the gardens and museum, along with the mission of architecture and the role of the architect, processes, and work references developed for the project.

Sara Nunes: Kengo Kuma is a renowned Japanese architect that connects Traditional Japanese Architecture and Contemporary architecture. And the project that we are going to talk about today is an example of that. Rita Topa is a Portuguese architect working at Kengo Kuma & Associates office. I know she is working very hard and she is enthusiastic about the project that we are going to talk about because it is located in her home country. This project is at Calouste Gulbenkian. It is a foundation located in Lisbon, and this foundation has a series of different buildings. The curious part is: the most iconic spaces are its gardens designed by Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles, which, actually, passed away last year, unfortunately. We know your project has two parts. One part is the refurbishment and the extension of the Modern Art Center, and the second part is the south garden. And it is curious that also in your project, the garden is the main character. What can we, as architects, learn from gardens to do better architecture, Kengo Kuma?

Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal - Image 7 of 12
Courtesy of LUXIGON / Kengo Kuma Associates

Kengo Kuma: I think, as a garden… the Garden is not part of this project. Garden is the protagonist of this project. Because through the gardens, we can feel the essence of nature and through experiences of gardens we can learn many things. Especially, the garden that exists in Gulbenkian Foundation is amazing. My first impression of the garden was that it was not part of the building, it was the protagonist of the project.

SN: To create a better relationship between the Modern Art Center and the new garden, you create a canopy inspired by the Engawa spaces from Japanese architecture. I am, really, curious to know what are these Engawa spaces.
When I found these spaces, I felt it was, really, exciting how you translated these into a contemporary language. Could you explain, to our listeners, what is an Engawa space? And how are you going to translate it into a contemporary way?

KK: Yes, in traditional Japanese architecture, we often have Engawa Spaces. The meaning of Engawa is “in-between space”, and from Engawa people can get a view to the gardens. People can look at gardens from the protective space. And, also, Engawa is creating shadows, and these shadows make a harmony between the gardens and the building. In the twentieth century, as the US modernism movement came to Japan, the Japanese architects stopped designing the Engawa. But now I try to bring back the traditional Engawa to contemporary buildings. The Engawa in Gulbenkian is a very good example of the future relationship between garden and building. Instead of a wall separating the garden and the interior, this Engawa space for Gulbenkian can connect the existing garden and the contemporary art space. Our way to translate the Engawa to the contemporary building is that Engawa is a spatial experience. It is not only in-between space – the Engawa itself can create a spatial experience, by the unique section and unique structure system. The new way of translating Engawa to the contemporary building is that this goes beyond the Japanese tradition and goes beyond the modernism movement.

Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal - Image 8 of 12
Courtesy of LUXIGON / Kengo Kuma Associates

SN: And this is interesting because Engawa spaces are made of wood. Actually, this contemporary space, and your interpretation of Engawa spaces is also made of wood inside. You have also been using wood in other projects. What have you learned from wood, that you will apply in this project? And is wood the solution for more sustainable architecture? So, now I ask two questions.

KK: The use of wood is very important for Gulbenkian project because the existing building itself is a concrete solid building. And the garden is very natural and has trees, the soil, the leaves and that kind of soft material. And the Engawa should be in between the hard material and soft material, and then we choose the wood. It balances two different, two opposite materials.

SN: You use a lot of wood in your architecture. What have you learned from using wood all these years?

KK: Before the pandemic happened, I was designing wooden buildings, a lot of wooden buildings.

Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal - Image 10 of 12
Courtesy of LUXIGON / Kengo Kuma Associates

SN: Yes.

KK: Because I want to go beyond concrete building of modernism movement, but after Covid-19, everybody began to feel that having concrete closed boxes cannot be the future material. In future, we are going back to nature, and we cannot survive anymore – that is a big lesson from Covid. So after the Covid-19, I feel a strong energy for the people to push wood for the material of buildings.

SN: I think it is very interesting because I was doing some re-search for this interview, and you said something like: “People before were more interested in the shape of the building”. And now people are questioning you about, what the materials of the buildings are. I thought it was very interesting because people show more interest in the materials of the buildings.

KK: Yes, before Covid-19, the architecture decided about making forms, making shapes. But after Covid, the materials will be the most important factor of the architecture design. The use of national material that fits with the place, which fits with the environment will be the critical point of architecture design.

Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal - Image 11 of 12
Courtesy of LUXIGON / Kengo Kuma Associates

SN: And, Rita, the Engawa space is covered in ceramic tiles. Does your Portuguese nationality had any influence on the choice of that material? And tell us, why do you choose that material?

Rita Topa: Our inspiration, indeed, came from the Portuguese Garden. You know, this tradition of having a fountain with the tiles that, in turn, come from Arabic gardens.

SN: Ah, ok!

RT: So, this was like a reinterpretation or rethinking of the material, as well as we try to work with local materials. So, this is something that happens: in any local, we are working, we try to work with the local craftsman, and bring what is the nature of the site. Even, in the beginning, as a team, this was something we needed to bring to the garden.

SN: Yes, you always have great respect for local materials. The craftsmanship and the environment. Kengo, you also have this respect for Japanese architecture. This Japanese architecture is characterized by great transparency, and you also bring that to the Modern Art Center. Tell us about it!

KK: Yes, transparency is very important because transparency can connect nature with the building. In this Engawa space, we try to minimize the structure of Engawa. So, with this structured solution, we can get transparency. The transparency and brightness of the wood connect the garden and the building.

SN: It is interesting that nature also works as an element of architecture in this project. For instance, as the water element. Explain to us how it will be used in the project.

KK: As an interior exhibition space, it is always important for the museum, but the experience of the interior is influenced by experience in the garden. The Engawa can be the connector of gardens and the interior. And the garden, itself, we design as a spatial element, with a reflecting pond, with a minimum edge, it has a very simple abstract, a fence, and a bench. All those elements are part of that artistic experience. This is our porch to the garden.

SN: Yes, because art is not going to be only inside, but also outside. You are always trying this kind of destruction of the boundaries that exist between nature, art, and architecture. I feel you, always, trying, at this project, to connect. You always connect with people, connect with nature, connect with architecture. So, you destroy the boundaries that are between them.

KK: Yes.

Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal - Image 9 of 12
Courtesy of LUXIGON / Kengo Kuma Associates

SN: And one of the goals of this project is to open the Modern Art Center, at the south garden to the city, but at the same time — and I think it quite interesting — you are creating in the garden, spaces of intimacy. Can you tell us about those spaces? And how are you planning to balance openness and intimacy?

KK: Yes, we design some pockets in the garden. We don’t want to change the garden drastically. We inserted it a small intimate pocket in the garden. And in those pockets, people can have a special experience, a very intimate and deep experience in the garden. This will be part of the artistic tours of the museum.

SN: And, Rita, I know that you have been working close to the project. The project now is under construction, and I wonder what kind of innovations and challenges are you facing in the construction process?

RT: We, actually, find it quite exciting and interesting. We start to see the things happening, but we are also doing a mockup. We have a small mockup in the garden. We are testing different sizes or expressions of the material. So, we can see on the site how it works. So that it has been quite interesting to interact with different teams, and not only with the carpentry, the metal, and the tiles – they all come together to make the particular Engawa. That has been, this is not always smooth, so that is a challenge!

SN: For sure!

RT: And we are trying to find the best details. So, it has been a quite exciting phase right now.

Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal - Image 12 of 12
Courtesy of LUXIGON / Kengo Kuma Associates

SN: Can you tell us, what the size of this test, just for the people who are earing us can imagine?

RT: Actually, people can visit on the site.

SN: Ah, ok!

RT: In this small corner of the engawa, we have one small pillar. You can see like 3 to 4 meters mockup the team has been doing. So, actually, the foundation wanted to bring this to the public. They want they are also part of this project. So, they can see the progress and see what we are trying to propose for engawa.

SN: Oh, great! It is great that the public already can see what is going on inside the construction because this is a very beloved project from Lisbon. And, Rita, what have you learn from Japanese architecture while you are working with Kengo Kuma?

RT: It is a kind of deep question. There are so many layers. You know, this is what we are saying now, about the block. We have a long tradition of building a volume. In Japan, in our office, in particular, it was like a kind of deconstructing that into plains – that creates the space, working with the void rather than the solid. One of the keys, I think, is listening to the sites. The site is, really, important for us, as well as the collaboration with the people that make the site. I think this, really, makes us eager to keep doing new projects. So, this is what I think I learn in the office.

Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal - Image 6 of 12
Courtesy of LUXIGON / Kengo Kuma Associates

SN: Great! Kengo Kuma, what have you learn about Portuguese architecture from doing this building?

KK: Portuguese architecture has a culture... I learned many things from Portugal. I feel there is some similarity between Japanese tradition and Portuguese tradition. Nature is very important. Art is very warm, and, also, material-wise we use some common materials. The porcelain is a good example of this kind of similarity. In Portugal, the tradition of porcelain and ceramic is very important.

SN: Yes!

KK: It is the same as in Japan. In that sense, the combination of ceramic roof and the wooden soffit is a kind of symbol of exchange between Portugal culture and Japanese culture.

SN: Yes, the two architectures are coming together in the same canopy.

KK: Yes, yes, and I often visited Portugal, and I really enjoyed the people’s love for nature and the people’s sympathy for us.

Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal - Image 2 of 12
Courtesy of LUXIGON / Kengo Kuma Associates

SN: How many times have you been to Gulbenkian?

KK: To Gulbenkian, three times, and other cities I visited many times.

SN: Ok. Gulbenkian celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago. With this project, you are building the future of Gulbenkian. What is your vision for the future of this place? What do you expect to be your legacy at Gulbenkian Gardens and Museum of Modern Art?

KK: I hope that Gulbenkian shows the future of the museum. I think the museum in the twentieth century, essentially, was only showing art. But museums of the twenty-first century, designed for the future, can give us a special experience with nature. And I want to show what kind of future museum exists in this Gulbenkian, as a place. The outdoor experiences will be more important after Covid-19. With Covid, people felt the risk of interior space, of the enclosed space. In Gulbenkian, people can enjoy the experience in the same indoor space and experience in the garden. It is very necessary after Covid.

Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal - Image 3 of 12
Courtesy of LUXIGON / Kengo Kuma Associates

SN: Yes, it seems that people awoke after Covid for this relation-ship with nature. We have betters and more connected relationships. You once said: “We live in an age of the garden, not the architecture”. What do you mean by that? Maybe we do not need architecture?

KK: I think Architecture sometimes is needed, but not every time. But the garden is always needed for us.

SN: What do you want to teach to future generations, not only about architecture? I make this question to understand what do you want to leave as a legacy with your architecture?

KK: I want to teach a sense of the nature of our relationship with Earth. We are living on planet Earth. We are not living in Architecture. In other words, the most important thing for us is: how to keep our environment, how to keep this Earth. The Gulbenkian can be a wise example for the future as coexistence with the Earth and us.

SN - Kengo Kuma and Rita, thank you very much for this conversation! Thank you for sharing with us more details about this wonderful project. A project that is under construction and that will be made part of Lisbon city. And thank you very much for reminding us how important is the Nature. And how Architecture can help us to connect more with Nature. Thank you very much!

KK and RT: Thank you very much! Thank you!

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Cite: No País dos Arquitectos. "Kengo Kuma and Rita Topa on the Refurbishment of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center and Gardens in Portugal" 22 Dec 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Courtesy of LUXIGON / Kengo Kuma Associates

“传统日式空间 Engawa”是什么?|专访隈研吾+Rita Topa

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