Points of view

Kengo Kuma in Dundee: The “Odd” Building

04.04.2019 | By PAOLO BOCCHI

He is the winner of the Wallpaper Award 2019 for the “Best New Public Building” category; recently, he has been visited by no less than William&Kate. However, if we look at Kengo Kuma’s latest project, the V&A at Dundee, something doesn’t add up.


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When I interviewed Kengo Kuma, the architect took the opportunity to recall the moment his ‘relationship’ with architecture was born.

That concept, expressed 10 years ago by his very own words during an interview, has then appeared here and there in many of his books’ prefaces and dedicated literature.


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What Kuma said was that, basically, his connection with architecture started with an insight that originated, somehow, from a feeling of “abhorrence”. The abhorrence of concrete. The architect explained how he felt genuinely uncomfortable – body and mind – each time he had to enter one of those miserable-looking “concrete boxes”. Coming into contact with concrete, he felt overwhelmed by an unsafe sensation he described with the words “I couldn’t breathe, my muscles would tense up and my body temperature drop all of a sudden”. Kengo Kuma traced the cause of this unpleasant feeling back to the (substantial) fact that he had been born and raised in a typical Japanese house; a house made of wood, built by the hands of his doctor grandfather. It was his family’s country mansion, one of those fairytale-like Japanese homes we look at with dreamy eyes; a place of naturally beautiful simplicity that left a permanent imprint in the mind of the soon-to-be architect Kengo Kuma.


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The will to break out of concrete boxes and breathe ‘real’ outside air pragmatically defined the character, boundaries and intents of Kuma’s professional life. Escaping concrete and restoring the harmony in our bodies thanks to natural materials: a choice that is deeply related to two crucial concepts in his works: culture and respect. “Without an instinctive respect for nature there is no hope of humanity surviving the 21st century. We need to find a way to replace concrete: the humankind needs it, both physically and spiritually”.


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Kuma builds on his personal experience to come up with universal concepts.

Like sustainability, something inextricably linked – according to the architect – to the concepts of local and global; what is compatible here, with a certain environment, could be rejected there by another. So which materials should be used in architecture?

Earth. Stone. Wood. Glass.

To name a few.

That’s why the recent news of the architect’s decision to include precast concrete slabs for the construction of the first Victoria & Albert Museum out of London – in Dundee, Scotland – had us quite taken aback. This project comes as part of a glorious museum tradition, established by ancestors like London’s Tate Gallery, the Pompidou museum in Paris and Bilbao’s Guggenheim: institutions that made history by shaping their cities’ identities and presences whose contents have been just as remarkable as their ‘containers’.

So now, in Dundee, we have the opportunity to visit an exhibition space hosting works by Christopher Dresser and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the history of tartan and that of Hunter boots, shipbuilding and the legendary company DC Thomson.


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However, it is in the words of Kuma himself on the project that something doesn’t sound quite right:

“We were intrigued by the beautiful cliffs of Orkney Island in the North of Scotland, and wanted to convey its natural randomness through the architecture, so we came up with the idea of stacking layers of long slabs of precast concrete”.

Precast Concrete Slabs???

For an architect that took this path driven by the will to escape concrete boxes, in the choice of the materials for this V&A in Dundee something just doesn’t add up.