Book Review: Monographs on Shigeru Ban and Kengo Kuma

Shigeru Ban: Paper in Architecture essays by Riichi Miyake, edited by Ian Luna and Lauren A. Gould
Rizzoli, 2009
Hardcover, 232 pages

Material Immaterial: The New Work of Kengo Kuma by Botond Bognar
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
Hardcover/Paperback, 256 pages

These recent monographs on two well-known Japanese architects present some of the best architecture coming out of that country in recent years. Both Shigeru Ban and Kengo Kuma manage to produce a lot more buildings than the contracted bust years of their home country would attest. They do this by extending their reach outside their own borders and by exploring fairly unconventional avenues for architectural production, particularly in the case of Ban. Their buildings have certain aesthetic similarities, at the level of the fairly cliche Japanese minimalism, but Ban and Kuma have unique approaches to lead to rather idiosyncratic designs, apparent in the pages of each book.
An excellent 2003 monograph on Shigeru Ban partitioned the architect's projects into chapters based on materials, primarily paper, wood, and bamboo. Rizzoli's monograph focuses on the first, definitely his most well-known material palette, ranging from emergency shelters and temporary installations to churches and furniture. For Ban paper means cardboard, expressed in the book's textured jacket as well as the many illustrations inside. Building in cardboard requires lots and lots of experimentation, testing and documentation, in order to meet local building code requirements. Ban's technical work in this regard is presented in the earlier monograph, but Rizzoli's target audience is more general, so Miyake's essays and the project descriptions discuss these necessary complications without being esoteric for non-architects. Writing this review a mere days after the earthquake in Haiti, I can't help but appreciate Ban's disaster relief projects -- for Rwanda, Kobe, Turkey, and other places -- and think he should be involved in helping create temporary shelter for displaced survivors. Who knows, Ban may be thinking the same thing.
While Ban is known for his paper architecture amongst his much larger portfolio, Kengo Kuma is known for working in a number of materials. He will focus on one material on a particular project, but his explorations veer across the spectrum, from traditional woods and stones to innovative envelopes with different plastics. Botond Bognar, who authors the new monograph on Kuma with his son Balázs Bognár, uses materials as a way to group the architect's projects, finding strains within his work that arise from focusing on a particular material. The cover project, the Chokkura Plaza, clearly exhibits how Kuma finds an expression related to the material yet groundbreaking in its application. Here stone is interweaved with steel plates to create a screen with diamond shaped openings. It's a striking response to the porosity of the local Oya stone and its variegated surface. This is the second monograph on Kuma by Bognar in a stretch of only five years, a testament to the many fine buildings created in a short period of time. It also illustrates how much of a change can occur in that time, as Kuma changed his goal of making architecture disappearing to a similar but nuanced approach related to materials like stone that don't embody disappearance in any direct way. These projects also point to the next steps in his career: ever-larger projects that will create segments of the city, not just individual buildings "disappearing" within them.