The death of desire towards architecture

Architect the Kengo Kuma way

Lon Y Law
11 min readDec 15, 2018

Since humans settled down, lands and houses had been a sign of wealth. As we enter the 20th century, modern housing schemes and corporate advertisement constantly reinforced us with the idea that owning a house enriches our lives and make us rich, both physically and inside. Together with the push of the economic boom, people became wealthier, and so did their desire. We desire more housing, so we put up thousands of buildings. We desire speed, so these buildings were all put up in a week. We desire attention, so we build weird looking architectures. We wanted them to be tall and big, so these buildings grew taller and bigger, finally covering the entire sky. We build as we desire, we are the champion of all.

Yet, events like 9–11 and the 1955 Hanshin Great Earthquake told us our concrete giants were not so strong after all. Those who bought into these housing scheme fell from the richest to the poorest, having to not only lose their home but bear the weight of rebuilding and heavy debts. These events not only showed us how fragile our contemporary architecture is, but also where desire had lead us.

Rather than rushing to victory in building the tallest and most majestic building, is it possible that we can re-connect architecture to humans, to once again appreciate the harmony between landscape, human, architecture and time. Instead of cold and unforgiving concrete, can we use glass, wood, bamboo, or even water?

Can we abandon our desire? Can architecture be defeated rather than victorious?

The Japanese Post-war economic miracle

Losing the war made the Japanese turned to their economy, achieving domestic economic reform and full-scale industrialization along with redevelopment of its major cities. By 1967, Japan was already the world second largest economic entity (Classora Knowledge Base, 2016) [1]. People became rich. Everyone wanted to have a more secure life, with the help of governmental home ownership policy, they owned a house, their very own “secured fortress”.

The year 1980. After redevelopment, the country caught the economic Shinkansen[2] and everything started to move at light speed. Concrete blocks dried in half a day and buildings finished in matter of weeks, the Nikkei index grew thousands of points by the hour and asset prices skyrocketed day after day. A lavish atmosphere of money floating everywhere paired with the myth of the never-dropping asset price resulted in huge amount of money poured into the market.

People started to care only about the outcome, the form of the building.

And thus ever-increasing demand and slowly-finishing housing projects selling at a higher-than-ever-before price kick-started the asset price bubble. The desire towards speed in finishing these housing turned engineers to reinforced concrete. People started to care only about the outcome, the form of the building. In order to sell more units, developers started to commission architects to design weird looking architectures to attract attention, and maximizing the area that the building take up in a site. Together they created skyscrapers that tower among the clouds, operating independently in their privately-owned grid. It was 1987 and Japan was at its finest.

It was not long until the events that crushed our contemporary architectural dream — the 9–11 attack and the 1955 Hanshin Great Earthquake. The World Trade Center, one of tallest building on earth, crumbled and collapsed like sand castle. On the other hand, the earthquake killed 6,434 people and destroyed nearly 250,000 properties (Kobe City Fire Department, 2008) [3]. Architecture as a shelter, a protection place lost its meaning almost immediately.

These consecutive events revealed 4 things. Concrete, desire, privatization and overload.

Without doubt, all would agree that reinforced concrete is the best invention of the 20th century. It allowed us to build in an unprecedented scale, to shape buildings in any style. Upon achieving these engineering marvels, our desire grew. We desire taller and grandeur buildings, more outstanding form that attracts attention, and we desire them to be ours and only ours. The desire of privatization made us gamble our lifetime savings on to housing units, it made us segment lands and draw borders to safeguard our properties. The desire to control our desire made the division and segmentation more severe. The uncontrollable desire and privatization soon overloaded everything, causing bubbles to burst and buildings to crumble.

Defeated architecture (負ける建築)

Negative architecture is a theory developed by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. In Japanese, “負ける” (ma-ke-ru) means “to be defeated” or “to burden”, and “建築” (ken-chiku) means architecture.

“What is defeated architecture? I think it’s about what kind of burden it 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) [4]

It is important not to be confused with negative space, which have the meaning of empty and void space in a piece of architecture. Though commonly referred to as Negative architecture, the word “負ける建築” is better to be understood as being defeated, opposite to “勝つ建築” (ka-tsu ken-chiku), which means victorious or winning architecture, referring to the weird-looking, eye-catching, business-oriented and height-aimed architecture that strive to be just a little taller than its neighbour.

In the last chapter, 4 things were revealed — concrete, desire, privatization and overload. These 4 societal problems formed the backbone in creating the theory of defeated architecture. The creation of reinforced concrete boosted our desire, which we started to privatize and control it, leading to us overloading the environment. For a long time in the mainstream direction of our society, there had been an unspoken relationship of “subject” and “object”. Human was the subject correspond to architecture being the object, architecture was the subject correspond to the environment as the object. In our attempt to control our desire, we divided the process of design into segments for easy control, each part functioning discretely, yet resulted in our architecture and society being isolated and segmented. Kuma questions this current state of society that we operate in, arguing that we live in a world that is inclusive, that operates in chaos, no matter how hard we try to control it.

Defeated Architecture aims to stop the desire-centred model of building, to change the result-centred mind-set and to put an end to the relationship between “subject” and “object”. It also encourages the use of local materials and to look at the bigger picture, combining human, environment and architecture in the process to create architecture that is alive, to reconnect the lost links between the three.

It is easy to see the words in action through Kuma’s works of architecture. His designs are soft, humble, inclusive and is always looking at the greater scheme, looking at site, architecture and its surrounding as a whole entity, creating living architecture that harmonizes with its environment as well as us humans.

Water / Glass

[Figure 1]: Sea-facing angle photography of Water/Glass (Attali, Year unknown)

Suspended between sea and sky, as if one is standing in front of the ocean, Water/Glass blends all into one, showing one desire-less scenery. Perfectly captured by photographer Erieta Attali (Figure 1), the villa is one of the best work to show Kuma’s theory.

Being raised near the ocean, it was only natural that Kuma was fond of it, though not the water but its fluidity and continuous openness. “Water has the characteristic of expanding horizontally, therefore it is usually wide open with little to none constructed to get in its way. […] Under the force of gravity both sand and water flattened and expanse comfortably on the horizontal, calming and relaxing our bodies (Kuma ,2008, P.50) [6] “.

The idea was to create a house that uses only water[7]. All along he knew that it would be impossible to achieve, yet the use of other materials would disrupt the perfect view of the infinite horizon. To construct a piece of architecture yet retaining that atmosphere, glass was used to not block any views and a disappearing water edge was constructed to further connect the viewer to the ocean, creating a smooth and transparent surface that would not dare to obstruct any view. By taking away all obstacles, one is left with the continuous outward flow of water vanishing on the edge, sometimes with ripples generated by the wind.

Filtered and refracted by the grating on the roof, photons scattered across the sheet of flowing mirror, giving birth to fairies dancing on the surface, glimmering and glittering. (Figure 2)

[Figure 2]: Ripple created by scattering of light (Fujitsuka, Year unknown)

Nature, or rather the universe is never static. It is always moving, from the largest celestial body to the smallest quantum fluctuations. Staticity as we know it is just humans observing a mere second in the 13-billion-year-old universe. In the grand scale, all are moving, flowing, continuous. Same as nature, architecture should be always moving, it should be a continuous sensory experience for visitors. Unlike walls, glass allows a continuous flow of journey, with different variations of lighting and atmosphere. In a grander scale, all work together to create a dissolved, uninterrupted space where boundaries varnishes. Breaking boundaries, viewing it as a whole and creating a fluidity to the villa. Rather than building a hundred-storey tower to enjoy the view, the dull and desire-less villa stay close to the ground (only 3 storeys), and by using weak materials like glass, it expanse the view, giving it all to the viewer.

[Figure 3]: Nakagawa-machi Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art (Guarino, Year unknown)

Nakagawa-machi Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art

In a piece of open land, anything could be built on it, yet Kuma chose to build a one storey building, again another example of the desire-less architecture. The Hiroshige Museum of art is built to house the then discovered artworks by Hiroshige Ando in 1998. (Kuma, 2008, P.108) [10] Standing humbly in Nakagawa, the structure blends seamlessly with its surrounding (Figure 3).

Upon his first visit to the site, Kuma noticed a wooden warehouse. Out of curiosity, he naturally walked towards the structure, but his attention was quickly caught by another. Perhaps because of the age of the warehouse, cedar trees were growing against the back wall.

With the use of a humble structure, the museum preserved all attentions for the mountains behind. It also acts as a connection, linking humans to nature and once again looking at the bigger scheme and creating architecture that blends with nature, as if the wooden structure and the forest has existed since the dawn of time, replicating the same scene at the warehouse that Kuma discovered.

“The vision that I had was the atmosphere created by the quality of light and air. Layers over layers of space in between giant cedar woods, light shining from the leaves’ tiny gaps, gentle breezes going through your hair.” (Kuma, 2008, P.109) [11] These words were said before breaking ground, yet they became the most accurate words to describe the interior, which is another main feature of the structure, as what seemed to be dark from the outside creates the most fascinating play of light on the inside. (Figure 4)

[Figure 4]: Interior of Hiroshige museum of art (Seto, 2014)

In order to tune the interior to provide the necessary focal lighting to the artworks, part of the roofing was sealed from natural light. In its part are these washi (rice paper) to guide visitors through the spaces, which is also another carefully designed element.

Humans have a nature of walking towards light. Knowing this psychology, it is rather easy to create suggestive routes. On a screen (figure 4), the intensity of the light gradually increases when approaching the edge before completely disappearing, driving visitor’s attention to the artworks inside, lid by a sharp spotlight.

Whether it is indoor or outdoor, the Hiroshige museum of art showed again the aim in looking at the grander scheme and preserving the focus for what is important, be it an artwork or the entire forest, with the desire-less wooden structure only there to blend and provide the necessary functions.

The death of desire towards architecture

In the 19th century the world industrialized and in the next century it greatly improved those technology. We built huge buildings, then we built megacities and we linked those cities up to get a megapolis. It appears as if “We have the power to do it so we do it” had been the moto for all cities. To fulfil our desires we lost the earth, snow on both poles disappears and temperature rises every year. Compare to huge and tall giants, Kuma demonstrated that small and humble buildings can be beautiful as well and this type of architecture is growing in popularity.

The problem that we face today is too much desire. In this capitalistic world we are reinforced with the idea that we would like to own, encouraging us to want, to desire. Just as Kuma argued, we need to throw away our desires. By building without strong desires, we are rewarded with nature’s most beautiful gifts, in Water/Glass one we get the infinite horizon and in the Hiroshige museum we get the beautiful mountains. To achieve that one must look at the bigger picture, to be able to look at the relationship between architecture, human and nature and it could only be done when there is no desire. Without desire, almost all problems that Kuma identified could be gone. Without desire we would not build these towering skyscrapers, without desire we would not privatize properties, without desire we would have never overloaded nature. With the death of desire towards architecture we can reinvent architecture.


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