Architects have to lose, lose like Japan did.

Kengo Kuma’s defeated architecture as the future of architecture explained with the Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center.

Lon Y Law
15 min readMay 9, 2019

Where developed in the west, modernist architecture was introduced to the East, to Japan in 1854 along with the official opening of the country. The 1868 Meji Restoration consolidated a Western system in Japan, including the western style of modernist architecture. As time progressed a new fusion between traditional Japanese and contemporary architecture emerged. The end of WWII provided a blank canvas to architects, allowing the 5 generations of post-war architects to express their own ideas freely. How is Japanese tradition dealt with by these architects and what makes Kengo Kuma successful whose style will likely be the future of contemporary Japanese architecture?

Pre 1945

1868 marked the end of the Bakufu (military government), the return of power to the emperor Meji and a new system from the west. This also brings along architecture, thinking and society. Copied directly from the west, stone and masonry buildings started appearing and the western way started dominating.

[Fig01] Meiji Palace Interior View (1888)
[Fig02] Nara Prefecture Office with Wide Japanese Roof (1895)

As Japan becomes stronger in military power, the once dominate western style appealed less. Japanese architects started to go back to their own origin, looking at how traditional Japanese architecture could return to the spotlight. The already established western style was merged with traditional Japanese architecture. The Meji Palace (1888) marked the first official governmental architecture of this new type of fusion, with the exterior in masonry and the interior remaining traditional. The Nara Prefecture Office (1895) served as the standard style for years to come, later named the imperial crown style, referring to buildings with a Japanese style roof on top of a neo-classical construction.

Although the first world war (1912–1926) made Japan more powerful and rich, the Great Kanto earthquake (1923) brought the country’s economy to its worst, provoking architects to re-think the dominating imperial crown style. Born was a new style that distilled the essence of Japanese philosophy and tea house culture, a new type of simplistic architecture that is philosophical and spiritual. Examples include the Nobuko Yoshiya Villa (1936) and the Shigeo Iwanami Villa (1940).

(Left) [Fig03] Nobuko Yoshiya Villa (1936), (Right) [fig04] Shigeo Iwanami Villa (1940)

9, August 1945 marked another important date, 2 nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, marking the end of the 2nd world war, leaving Japan with the fading imperial crown style, the new spiritual style and a blank canvas.

The Red and White Factions

Coined by architectural historian Terunobu Fujimori (1946-), the red and white factions refer to the 2 different styles that emerged from the late Meji period. Red refers to the expressionist, the imperial crown style and white refers to the philosophical and spiritual style. The classic example of these contrasting styles is the Nikko Tosho-gu (1617) (Red) versus the Katsura Imperial Villa (1649) (White), the first one expressed all emotions through the building in the form of ornamentations while the latter only retained the necessary.

(Left) Nikkō Tōshō-gū (1617), (Right) Katsura Imperial Villa (1649)

The Red faction

Architects from the red faction are enthusiast of the land and respect the long history of the relationship between the land and architecture. With the history of the imperial crown style, their designs are usually memetic and often provide obvious traits of the characteristics of traditional Japanese architecture, with Kenzo Tange (1913–2005) (1st generation of Post-war architects) being one of the most famous architects.

[Fig07] Kagawa Prefectural Office (1959) showing columns and beams that mimic traditional Japanese architecture

Disagreed with the rising white faction, the Kagawa Prefectural Office (1959) by Tange showed how tradition could be seen on an expressional way. Tange believed that traditional Japanese characteristics in contemporary architecture should not be spiritual,it should be expressed, through the intertwining of contemporary and traditional styles, in the creation of architecture. (Tange, 1955) Although using concrete, the form completely derives from traditional timber architecture, with columns and beams to be seen everywhere. It is however heavily criticised to be too traditional. With a new type of material — reinforced concrete at his disposal, Tange chose to mimic old timber structure. “It was felt that the translation of the ancient Japanese timber construction style into the idiom of concrete was not called for.” (Kultermann, 1970) In the global trend of technological and style progression, a sudden return to traditional style appears rather odd. It is especially obvious when contrasted to the interior of the building, which used a central concrete core and a very western layout of pilotis.

Not to be mistaken, the building was a massive success and is still standing in the prefecture of Kagawa in Japan. Criticism were only towards the choice of style, where it appears to be more a traditional Japanese building than a modern building, other than the fact that it is built in concrete and is multi-storeyed. This raises the question of whether Tange’s approach — the red faction is truly a suitable future to contemporary Japanese architecture.

The White Faction

In favour of the distilled essence, the white faction values reason and the abstract. They believe that the Japanese tradition and its characteristics should be felt through the building instead of showing, with a few usual styles being the play with the layering of space and the use of simple elements in the design derived from traditional Japanese houses. Some of the architects include Fumihiko Maki (1928-) (2nd generation) and Sou Fujimoto (1971-) (5th generation).

[fig08] Kaze no Oka Crematorium (1997)
[Fig09] N House (2008)

Kaze no Oka crematorium (1997) by Maki is a classic example of the craft. Although the building is built entirely in modernist style, traces of traditional Japanese architecture is able to be felt, from the journey to the layout and the landscape of the building. By only using simple geometries and layout, the building forces the visitor to take in all materials and details, feeling the building for themselves.

Another example would be the N house (2008) by Sou Fujimoto. Same as the crematorium, the building does not provide any traces of traditional Japanese architecture to be seen. In this building, the play with space is more obvious. Rather than a physical barrier that changes from outside to inside immediately, the house blurred the lines, creating “in between” spaces, which would serve as new spaces that houses different functions. Similar to that of a Japanese Engawa, the outer layer of the house serves as both a circulation route and an internal courtyard, with sunlight flooding from holes throughout the building.

Yet these designs posed a huge problem that all contemporary architecture faces — it is without an identity, the building “can be just picked up and dropped elsewhere and still function the same”. This is especially true in N house, where the one-of-its-kind building stands out from all neighbouring buildings.

Red + White = Pink

It is obvious that both the red and white faction alone is not the future of architecture, with one being too traditional and the other being identity-less. Around the time of the 3rd generation of post-war architects (~1970) a new faction emerged. A merge of red and white, these architects create designs that combines both of the factions, achieving the balance of expressed characteristics, philosophical thinking and contemporary design. These architects include Tadao Ando (1941-) (3rd generation) and Kengo Kuma (1954-) (4th generation).

[Fig10] Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church (Church of light) (1989) interior view

Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church (Church of light) (1989) is one of the best examples of the new pink faction. With the use of concrete, Ando used created a simple box and a wall element that determined the exterior of the building, a classic white faction design method, allowing the visitor to feel the building. Yet Ando paid attention to the journey, using openings of different sizes to create different of space, guiding the visitor through the building, a usual hand from the red faction.

The new faction that these two architects followed made them renowned all over the world, acknowledging the approach. Based on the new pink faction, Kuma developed a new theory, published in his book Defeated Architecture (Kuma, 2004). The theory further consolidated the important role that the faction plays on the architectural stage.

Defeated Architecture

“What is defeated architecture? I think it’s about what kind of burden architecture is causing. (Since the 20th century,) buildings started to become extremely massive, overloading the environment, and it can be really troublesome. It’s not about using huge buildings to win. To the environment, defeated architecture is not only physical but also the sub-environmental integration of people-to-people relationships.” (Kuma, 2012)

[Fig11] Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center (2012)

Defeated architecture criticises the strong impression that high-rise modernist buildings in the 20th century creates. It argues that rather than architecture, the land and its environment should be the main focus. The theory opposes the idea of “huge blocks of concrete” in favour to simple and delicate geometries that serves as a back-drop for the local landscape. If the theory is to described in a word, “weak” would be the suitable description. Opposite to tall and strong building, it favours architecture that are inspired from the land, that which uses materials from the local environment and that which respect the land. Opposite to strong concrete and steel beams, it favours small and intricate materials that are relatable on a human scale, such as timber louvres that are often used in Kuma’s designs.

The theory combines the enthusiasm that the red faction has towards the land with the simple unobstructed geometries that reveal subtle traits from the white faction. It could be said that defeated architecture is basically the new pink faction, yet it solved one of the biggest issue that all previous factions could not — height.

In an ever-growing city, up is the only way, as shown in many metropolis such as Hong Kong and Tokyo. However, none of the factions were able to tackle to issue of high-rise building as “the land” have virtually no meaning and “the environment” only consist neighbouring buildings. To understand how the theory of defeated architecture successfully solve this problem and how is it implemented in a high-rise building, the next chapter is going to analyse a project designed by Kuma, a 40m high-rise building situated in the heart of Tokyo — the Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center.

Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center (2012)

[Fig12] Bird-eye view of site

The Asakusa culture and tourism center (referred to as “the tourism center” below) is an information center located in Asakusa of Tokyo, Japan, providing information and spreading Japanese culture to visitors. One of the special features that the site offer is the combination of old and new. Although situated in the city center and surrounded by high-rise buildings, the area also houses the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo — the Sensoji.

The whole complex of the temple of Sensoji is made up of 5 parts, starting from the temple, first the Sensoji temple itself, then the five-storied pagoda, the Hozomon gate, the nakamise shopping street and finally the outer Kaminarimon gate which touches the main street, serving as the entrance gate for visitors.

With such a complex combination of historic and modern building, it is the best location to showcase Kuma’s theory of defeated architecture.

The expressionist

The brief was to design a 40m building that would have a multi-use purpose. However, the footprint of the site is only a mere 240m2. This make any design bound to appear to be a tower. The design take inspiration from an old type of building called the Hiraya, a traditional Japanese house, which have wide and low roofs that shelter people from all elements. This specific characteristics of the hiraya provides a chance for a connection to the building on a human scale, as the roof is directly seen and felt by the users occupying it. Kuma used the simple geometry of a hiraya to design a tower that people could relate, something that anyone could appreciate on a personal level.

[Fig13] Breaking down a tower, making it relatable on a human scale

The use of hirayas provided a way to connect the building on a human scale, yet the building and its surrounding landscape and context remained disconnected. With the roof as the primary way of connection, the walls are a weakening force that separates the roof and the ground, the inside and outside. To eliminate this, the walls are divided into smaller pieces, resulting in thin vertical louvres, a resemblance of thin timber columns in traditional Japanese architecture. These louvres eliminated the strong presence of “the wall”, serving as both the function of a wall and the visual connection between the interior of the building and the surrounding site.

(Left) [Fig14] Louvres breaks the element of the wall, (Middle) [Fig15] Louvres viewed from outside, (Right) [Fig16] The Tourism Center seen from afar

The design stack multiple of these hirayas on top of each other, creating a high-rise building that is still able to keep the individual connection on a human scale through the wide roofs. With the strong presence of the vertical element of the wall eliminated and diffused, the building connects the inside and outside. Each hiraya correspond to a roof level of a building in the tourism center’s surrounding. When looked from afar, the building blends into the old existing buildings from the Edo period, becoming a part of the street. Along with vertical louvres, it creates a gradual change that blurs the interior and exterior, further weakening the presence of the building.

The Spiritual

To create a building that would link both the historical complex and the contemporary urban setting, Kuma took inspiration from the original layering layout of the Sensoji complex. Instead of have one entrance that divide the inside and the outside, the Hozomon gate and the Kaminarimon gate serves as a gradual transition that changes the atmosphere slightly until the visitor arrives at the holy place of the Sensoji. Mimicking the layering of spaces, the design extend the layers into the building, elongating the nakamise shopping street and its lively atmosphere.

(Left) [Fig17] Connected ground and first floor interior view of the Tourism Center, (Middle) [Fig18] Staircase that leads to top floor of the Tourism Center, (Right) [Fig19] View from top floor towards the Sensoji, notion of “floating particles”

With the use of hirayas in the design, the building connects the whole Sensoji complex from the temple to the top floor of the tourism center, creating “a new section” that is previously not existed in conventional architecture. In the interior of the building, the ground and first floor of the building combines into a double height space, specially fitted to ‘extend’ the outside. The 2 levels are connected with a spiral staircase, which had been used since in old times to extend horizontal spaces while maintaining a one-storey nature.

Each floor is connected with a staircase that serves as the primary circulation, positioned at the back to the building to make visitors feel like they are going from ground to first floor every time. Without realising, they arrive at the top floor of the building, which is an open-air garden that allow visitors to look out both the direction of the Sensoji and the Tokyo Skytree. “I want to create the feeling that at first there is the ground, then it extends three-dimensionally, which then the ground reaches 40 meters in the air.” (Kuma, 2016)

The top floor provides the best view towards the whole Sensoji complex, and is best enjoyed on a foggy day, where visitors could only see the nakamise and the temple “floating” among the fog. This is one of the essences of Japanese philosophy, one must be there at the right time, as only nature have the power and humans can only follow and conform to nature.

The Tourism Center showed characteristics from the expressionist and the spiritual, also tackling the problem of height, showing how a defeated architecture not only applies to broad open land but also the dense and packed city center, creating architecture that is both modern and traditional, inspired, built and enjoyed by the local.

Defeated architecture as the future

In order to claim that the theory of defeated architecture is going to become the spotlight of architecture, it is important to understand why is Japanese architecture so popular in the first place. There are 2 parts that make up the success of Japanese architecture — form and philosophy.

Started with mimicking, western architecture was accepted and moulded with traditional Japanese architecture as time passed. The birth of the red faction created designs that show obvious traditional traits in contemporary architecture. The later transition to and birth of the white faction drove the mainstream to the use of simple geometries that require the visitor to experience the philosophy of tradition.

It was around the time when Bauhaus (1919–1933) was rising in contemporary architecture that the white faction was born (after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923). Although the two developed independently from different places, their style of material honesty, clear geometries and their values towards simplicity were similar if not the same. With the Katsura Imperial Villa praised by architects such as Walter Gropius and Bruno Taut, the spotlight was on to Japanese architecture, quickly rising in popularity.

Different from Western architectural history, where god is the central figure and all had been to serve Him, the East worshiped nature. In Eastern philosophy, man is never the center, shown in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. This governed the architecture that was created, as in nature is always the most important matter — the notion of built around a tree instead of removing a tree. Architecture itself is derived from the respect to the land and had always been about creating harmony with the surroundings.

From copying to combining, to the birth of the red faction, then the transition to the white faction, which went back to red with Tange, and slowly merging, creating a new faction that combines both the red and white. Centuries of clash between contemporary architecture and traditional Japanese architecture gave birth to Kuma’s theory of defeated architecture. Seen from the Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center, the obvious traditional Japanese architectural characteristics, the spiritual experiences and the solution for height all merge together in harmony, proving the success of the theory of defeated architecture. Yet how is it the future?

Initiated in 2013, the Chinese Belt and Road initiative gradually brought huge amount of Chinese work force to the Middle East and the West. This geopolitical move has proven to be extremely successful, especially in promoting Eastern culture and philosophy by the workers there. Along with Japan’s tax reform, bringing down the cost in Japan, and the loosening of immigration rules, more and more people are aware of the East and its culture. Where the work force abroad seeks a lifestyle and practice philosophies from home, more western people are going to Japan. As Japan is the one of the few countries that are able produce such a unique style, the amount of work Japanese architects would receive is likely to rise. Under the global pursue of sustainability and well-being, only the theory of defeated architecture, backed by the 4000 years of collective history and philosophy from the Chinese and Japanese, fundamentally addresses these issues. With the solution the problem of height, where traditional Japanese architecture come short, displayed in the Tourism Center, it can be presented as a all rounded theory for future architectures.

In this chaotic world, simplicity is valued extremely high, making Japanese architecture hugely popular. Together with the theory of defeated architecture, there is without a doubt that it is going to be the future of architecture.

(Most images were found online, and are only used for demonstration purposes)

Alini, L. and Kuma, K. (2007). Kengo Kuma: works and projects, Luigi Alini with an essay by Kengo Kuma. Milan: Electa Architecture. Bognar, B. (2009). Material immaterial the new work of Kengo Kuma. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Bourque, S.C.A.M. (2015) ‘Sublimity, Negativity, and Architecture. An Essay on Negative Architecture through Kant to Adorno’. Rivista di estetica. (58), pp.166–174.

Classora Knowledge Base (2016). Ranking of the World’s Richest Countries by GDP (1967). Available at: ports/t24369/general/ranking-of-the-worlds-richest-countries-by-gdp?edition=1967&fields= [Accessed January 27, 2019].

Drew, P. and Isozaki, A. (1982). The architecture of Arata Isozaki. London: Granada.

GorgeousSpaceCo.Ltd.(2012).(KengoKumaInterview)負負負負負負負(PioneeroftheNegativeArchitectureConcept).Availableat:https://www. [Accessed January 28, 2019].

Gropius, W. (1972). Apollo in the democracy. [Tokyo]: Shokokusha.

Jiang, Y. (Year unknown). ‘The Dissolution and Disintegration of Architecture’. M-arch Research Proposal. (1), pp. 1–6.

Kuma, K. and Frampton, K. (2017). Kengo Kuma: complete works. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Kuma, K. (2012) Anti-object: the dissolution and disintegration of architectures. London: Architectural Association Publications.

Kuma, K. (2008). (Natural Architecture). Tokyo: (Iwanami Bookstore).

Kuma, K. (2004). (Negative Architecture) .Tokyo: (Iwanami Bookstore).

Lin, B. (2016). (What is Negative architecture and Weak architecture? An introduction on Kengo Kuma and Sou Fujimoto’s architectural beliefs). Available at: http://decomyplac [Accessed January 28, 2019].

Tange, K. and Kultermann, U. (1970). Kenzo Tange, 1946–1969. Zürich: Verlag für Architektur Artemis.
黎雋維. (2019).【日本建築】建築師也有紅白之分 ─「野武士」安藤忠雄的例外. [online] Stand News. Available at:

com/culture/日本建築-建築師也有紅白之分-野武士-安藤忠雄的例外/ [Accessed 3 Mar. 2019].

Thanks for reading. I am a final year student studying architecture in Northumbria university. Feel free to get in touch or check out my website.