Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Relativity of Materials
Kengo Kuma
(Published in JA The Japan Architect, 38, Summer 2000)

Why do I want to particlize materials and reduce them to tiny pieces? Why do I want to break down stone, bamboo and Japanese paper into louver-like particles? Why do I want to punch countless holes in every material?

It is not because I hate materials that I smash them and divide them into fragments. Nor is it because I dislike their tactile qualities.

On the contrary, it is because I love them. Without particlizing materials, we cannot appreciate them as materials, nor feel their vibrancy.

No matter how rich the tactile qualities of materials are, if they appear as single masses, then to me they are not vivid, because they do not change their expression. If materials are thoroughly particlized, they are transient, like rainbows. At times they clearly appear as object, but with a momentary change of light, or in respect to the observer's movement, they instantly disperse like clouds and dissolve like mist. Louvers that appeared to be walls suddenly become transparent and disappear. This transience and fragility is their charm, and their very essence.

The reason that the fragile nature of materials feels essential to me is that I wish to accomplish something with them. That is, I think of materials as basic ingredients for making things, and always want to use them proactively. But on the other hand, the outcome is never as expected, and I realize I am continuing to fall short of my own expectations. To me, torn apart by those two emotions, materials are fragile and transient, and the true attributes of a material emerge only when it is broken down into particles. In other words, particlizing materials turn them into ingredients awaiting action by the architect. They are not a result of action, but rather ingredients for action. They emerge not just as submissive ingredients, but profound ones that, without revealing their true nature, continually fail to meet the architect's expectations.

Materials can't be too big or too small. If they are too large, they become a mass. If they are reduced to particles that are too fine, they once again take on the appearance of a single mass when they are grouped together; they lose their transience and cease to be ingredients. For that reason, the size of the particles must be given careful consideration.

Their size must be determined in response to the distance between them and the observer, the relative size of other particles, and the framing. The central focus of my designs is the selection of particles and the determination of their size and details. If design were suddenly to be redefined as a process of "selecting particles", we architects would be thrown into an entirely new world. The biggest change would be that processes which so far have been divided into architectural design, garden design and urban design would be integrated into a single act: that of designing particles. The fact is that until relatively recently Japan had no boundaries separating these three areas. Teachers from Europe who visited Japan at the end of the 19th century divided into three parts an area which until then had been, in the Japanese mind, seamlessly linked. Before that, architects had concentrated their awareness on the design of particles, regardless of whether the target of the design was a building, a garden or a city. For example, garden designers felt that the central theme of their work was to consider what size gravel should be used to cover the garden. In the design of Ise Shrine, for instance, the key aspect was not the form of the buildings or their proportions, but the size and dimensions of the cobblestones, made of white granite, that formed a stone carpet around the buildings. the design of the stone garden of Ryoan-ji Temple, the most famous of all Zen temples, comprises nothing but the size of the fine gravel, along with the depth and pitch of the numerous grooves made on its surface with rakes.

In buildings too the greatest emphasis was placed on the design of particles. Before books on architecture were imported from Europe, Japanese carpenters relied almost entirely on Kiwari, a system or principle used in traditional Japanese architecture to determine the proportion and size of each component or module in the design and construction of buildings. The kiwan technique is said to resemble the orders of classical architecture as well as the size/dimension of wooden building materials, which is also referred to as the Le Corbusier Module. What makes the technique differ most from these Western architectural criteria is that Kiwari is a standard for the size/dimensions of the material wood, which is a specific particle. Another point is that without setting the size of a particular particle, deciding the dimensions of the building becomes meaningless.

As we have seen, everyone involved with architecture in Japan in the past-carpenters, gardeners, and government people engaged in urban planning-did all their designs by using particles as their standard. In this way, the entire environment became seamlessly connected, creating an environment which people found warm and comfortable.

Gilles Deleuze explains the same thing using the concept of elasticity of materials. He states that all materials have elasticity. In his view, elasticity is a reflection of the active compression of materials and all elasticity is relative. For example, if a ship travels at a certain speed, the waves become as hard as marble. In this way, any material can be solid, liquid or gaseous, depending on the forces acting on it. I agree with Deleuze that materials are relative, and that the relative state of a material is determined by the activity of the observer. Where Deleuze uses elasticity to illustrate this argument, I use particles. My aim is not only to explain this concept, but to clearly reveal the relativity of materials and make it evident, by actually reducing them to particles. If I were to add one thing to Gilles Deleize's theory, it would be that a substance's phase is not determined solely by the relationship between a substance and an entity. Rather, an infinite number of substances overlap one another in layers, and the relationship between this multi-layered substance and the entity determines a single phase in the substance's relativity. To take the phenomenon of the rainbow as an example, a rainbow does not appear only in the contest of the dyadic relativity between an entity and an object-particles of water in this case. Instead, the multi-layered relativity of the entity, particles of water, and a group of other substances (in this case, the source of light known as the sun), makes the rainbow appear.

This is just one example that shows how complex and delicate the world is, and how it is constantly shifting between modes. To clarify the uncertain delicacy of this world, I personally want to transform buildings, gardens and cities into particles. Sometimes, the world towers over us, solid as a rock, like a looming wall. Its absolute presence is such that it robs us of our courage. The fact is, however, nothing is as delicate and uncertain as the world. We are able to approach the world and act on it in a variety of ways; the world responds to us and transforms itself in an infinite number of ways. This is how much the world is free, and my hope is to identify this fact through design, which is a specific act.

In the traditional wooden structure of Japanese architecture, Kiwari was born out of craftsman-technology, it is the system that determines size and proportionality of each part.

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