Kisho Kurokawa

Architect and planner whose design for Kuala Lumpur International Airport fused nature and technology

Sunday 18 September 2011 20:42

Kisho Kurokawa, architect and planner: born Nagoya, Japan 8 April 1934; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Tokyo 12 October 200

Kisho Kurokawa was one of the key figures in post-war Japanese architecture. His architectural work and ecological theories were widely acclaimed abroad. He will be best remembered for the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, with its adaptable, prefabricated pods providing compact living or working units, and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia.

He began his long and distinguished career in the early 1960s when he became the youngest architect of the socalled Metabolist Group. Kurokawa had studied under one of the members, Professor Kenzo Tange, at the Graduate School of Architecture, Toyko University, following his earlier training at Kyoto University, 1954-57. The group's name was based on the Greek word for change, but also signified an interest both in Buddhism and in cyclical biological processes. The members of the group, including Kiyonori Kikutake, Masato Otaka, Fumihiko Maki and Arata Isozaki, believed such processescould, in relation to architecture and urban growth, refer to the visible individuality of cell-like structures as part of a larger order such as system buildings or changing city patterns.

Kurokawa's first Metabolist project was Helix City (1961) – a series of linked, helical structures set in an artificial landscape creating "three dimensional, organic vertical land". He was involved from 1964 with the development of Tange's designs for Tokyo Bay, which were widely published internationally. Thesedesigns,which were inspired by Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA, were felt by the new generation of designerstoresemble the molecules of life.

For Kurokawa this led to an interest in extensible capsule structures and to thedemonstration of Metabolistic theories in individual buildings, which had the appearance of vertical machines. The first of these projects, the Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo in 1970 was a mass-produced, concrete tall building with renewable clip-on live and work capsule units. It is currently under threat of demolition due to asbestos content, although it had been nominated in 1997 by Docomomo International to the World Heritage committee for consideration, as one of the major innovative modern-building experiments in post-war Japan.

In 1972 the capsule housing idea was transferred to offices in Osaka for Sony headquarters in which – like Rogers and Piano's Pompidou Centre Paris – the lifts and services were externalised. Although Kurokawa built little in Tokyo until recently (his huge, wavywalled National Art Centre in Roppongi was completed last year), his work throughout Japan and his projects abroad became widely known through asuccession of well-designed schemes, but also for the link to his evolving philosophy of symbiosis that advocated a paradigm shift from "the age of the machine to the age of life".

This was the subtitle of the hugely successful "Kisho Kurokawa Retrospective" exhibition seen by nearly a million people in Japan and in Europe, in Paris, London, Berlin and in Amsterdam – where it found a home in his newly opened Van Gogh Museum extension in 1999.

After the success of the retrospective at the RIBA in London in 1998, I designed and curated with Kurokawa two further exhibitions in Manchester and at Kew Gardens, in London, the latter as part of the 2001/2 Japan Festival. Notwithstanding the great personal success of the retrospective exhibition and the well-attended lectures that accompanied it, a series of reciprocal exhibitions in Tokyo and London of work by young architects from Britain and Japan was organised. Kurokawa's goodwill, time and generosity gave these events a lasting value enhanced by the fact that he had directed generations of Japanese students to the Architectural Association School in London.

Kurokawa had less success in London as a project architect; his scheme for a Japanese Cultural Centre in Gunnersbury Park, featured in the Eco- Architecture/Eco-Cities exhibition in Kew Gardens in 2002, was eventually rejected. However, discussions have recently taken place about the siting of a signature Japan Arena project in King's Cross, while the Maggie Cancer Centre designed by Kurokawa for a site in Swansea has been given the go ahead. To coincide with the retrospective Kurokawa supervised an English translation of his book ThePhilosophy of Symbiosis.

It had had a wide influence in Japan in both environmental and political circles and won the Japan Grand Prix for Literature in 1987. In English, under the enlarged title, Each One a Hero: the philosophy of symbiosis (1997) it espoused his "Age of Life" principles in an almost Al Gore message mode, as "symbolization, deconstruction, relativity, quotation, transformation, nuance and connotation in direct opposition to the methodologies of Modernism". He stated he detested: "analysis, synthesis, adaptation, clarification and denotation".

Symbiosis in Kurokawa's definition, and again from the Greek, means "living together": "a relationship between two or more organisms that is not only advantageous, but necessary to both". One can also detect in his writing during the period of heisei (theera of peace and achievement after Emperor Hirohito's death in 1989) a subtle assertion of the growing significance to the industrialworld of Japan and South-east Asia.

Whilst Kurokawa's writings have a continuing resonance this should not obscure the importance they had on the development of his own architecture. He oversaw a large office in Tokyo (with three branches in other countries) and produced many buildings in places as diverse as Sofia, Paris, Melbourne, Singapore, Beijing and Amsterdam – so many in fact that the core works that espoused his holistic philosophy were sometimes lost in the muchwider output of a company which followed the pattern of the big American "commercial" practices.

Kurokawa was fortunate in his commissions and in the prestigious competitions he and his teams won. Many of these projects allowed him to develop interests in local, regional and international cultures.

A succession of designs from the 1970s confirm this interest, through the impressive projects he developed for regional museums, in Wakayama (Museum of Modern Art), Hiroshima (Museum of Contemporary Art), and the southernmost Museum of General Science in Ehime Province. Here, in a bland industrial landscape, he brought together an assembly of philebanforms – cylinders, cones and cubes – in a hugely successful scheme that sparkles in the sunlight with the titanium slips indiscriminately cast into the concrete walls.

For the Fifa World Cup in Japan and Korea in 2002 he prepared the Oita and Toyota stadia, the former hosting some of the key matches of the tournament. However, it is to Kuala Lumpur that one must look for a major project that testifies to Kurokawa's interest in theory and practice. The KL International Airport, situated on the edge of a large rain forest, was won in competition in 1990. Its design brought about a fusion of nature and technology, an ingenious support system combining structures and services that look like a spinney of structural trees. This project was part of a much wider concept for a Kuala Lumpur "eco-city" corridor that would link the airport with the capital.

Kurokawa's teams have won a number of master planning schemes over the past few years including the new city of Astana in Kazakhstan, the concept plan for Zhengzhou and a "central axis" project for Shenzhen, both in China. In recent years Kurokawa moved into politics, contesting the position of Mayor of Tokyo (which he lost) and afterwards running for a seat in the Upper House.

Kurokawa met his second wife, the well-known Japanese actress Ayako Wakao, when they both appeared together on a television broadcast. He told her that her beauty was quintessentially "Baroque". He received many international awards including the Gold Medal of the Paris and Sofia Academies, Honorary Fellowships from the RIBA and the American Institute of Architects and most recently the Chicago Athenaeum Museum International Architecture Award in 2006.

Dennis Sharp

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