We met Kuma-san in Bolzano, a few months ago, at the time of his ‘opening lecture’ at the international seminar organized by the University of Trent in collaboration with the University of Bolzano and KlimaHouse Fair.

The theme – “Resilient Ecological Design Strategies” as the title explained – focused on sustainability and new design paths for possible systems of relation between architecture and nature.

A field of research where Kengo Kuma is a great master, as proven by his many visionary building-landscapes. One emblematic case is a recent project (on these pages): the China Academy of Arts’ Folk Art Museum, in Hangzhou, southern China.

Kuma explains: “The site chosen for the new museum was a former tea plantation on a very beautiful hillside. We did not want to give the idea of a new, recently constructed building, but at the same time the intention of my studio was to make a structure that would be inserted in the landscape, becoming an essential part of it.

So we placed the building on the hill by following the natural curves of the slope, then ‘spreading out’ into the surrounding landscape.” Because in this latest experiment with eco-natural architecture, Kuma wanted to safeguard not only the environment but also a community of individuals and its constructive traditions. How? By transforming the museum into a sort of village, with lots of little ‘houses’ that punctuate the green setting.

The architect reminds us, however: “I am not interested only in the formal aspect of the place-building relationship, but also in the capacity of architecture to become part of a form or a context.” Which, in other terms, means ‘absorbing’ everything about a place: traditions, uses, materials, but also aromas, tastes, colors…

It is a way of ‘understanding’ the site very deeply, to trigger a symbiosis between inhabited and natural space; “changing the skin in relation to the environment whenever necessary, translating architecture into spaces of life and exchange,” Kuma says, adding: “Here, in the Folk Art Museum, to address the topographic complexity of the land, we have created many units that form a network of parallelograms, each with its own roof, evoking the idea of a traditional Chinese village.”

Furthermore, the salvaging of hundreds of tiles from abandoned sites has made it possible to reuse them for the new roofs and the perimeter screens (they regulate sunlight in the internal exhibition spaces), in another sustainable aspect of the project.

Recovering local and natural materials, the new building gains close ties to the place, finishes, openings, closures, outer surfaces that ‘play’ with the setting and its changes. Above all, the Folk Art Museum speaks to us of ‘patience,’ the utterly Japanese attitude of listening to and ‘sniffing at’ nature – as Kuma says – helping architecture to blend with it.

Photos by Eiichi Kano – Text by Laura Ragazzola

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The view of the museum complex from above reveals all the originality of the volume: multiple units connected by the play of the rooftops, as in a traditional Chinese settlement.
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The complex gently slopes, following the natural shape of the hill.
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The hill with flourishing vegetation.
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The axonometric reveals the game of the roof pitches that creates the effect of a village, although all the spaces communicate with each other. The recycled roof tiles have also been used to make special perimeter sunscreens.
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The perimeter ‘walls’ have been replaced by a system of screens made with old tiles strung on steel cables, to filter sunlight.
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The exhibition spaces are organized on multiple levels and connected by a detailed system of inclined planes.