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The Age of Cloth

Kengo Kuma and Associates

Since architecture involves something inherently hard and heavy, there are times that the softness of cloth becomes intensely desirable, so spending time selecting a curtain fabric may well be an attempt to relieve the stress of designing buildings. When I learned about the passion that Carlo Scarpa had for fabric and the demanding requests he made of craftsmen to alleviate the hard, heavy characteristics of architecture, the sense of affinity I had for his architecture increased.

However, not satisfied with the beauty of curtains alone, I have taken on the reckless challenge of creating architecture using cloth a number of times.

When I was asked to design a tearoom for the garden at Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst, the museum director advised me that if made from wood, it might well be vandalised in the space of a day.
I therefore decided to use cloth, a material that is weaker and softer than wood. Designing the tearoom as a temporary structure to be erected only when used protects it from vandalism. Tearooms in Japan have always been temporary spaces, created by partitions inside a large home, so creating a tearoom using cloth can be considered in line with the spirit of a tradition that considers temporary spaces as something beautiful.

The cloth tearoom I designed for the National Building Museum was made with a combination of a balloon filled with helium gas and an ultrathin cloth material called Super-Organza (11g per 1m2). At the time I was looking for a material I could pack in a suitcase to save shipping costs and came up with the idea of the tearoom as a floating structure (Fu-an). Following this I again used Super-Organza for the Ceramic Yin Yang installation at the University of Milan. It was a fresh experience for me: an image suddenly appears on the cloth like a mirage - something that almost seems not to exist - so much does the fabric resemble the sort of material an angel’s clothes would be made of.

The Meme Meadows Experimental House I designed for the cold climate of Hokkaido, a large island in northern Japan, was the result of a desire to take on the challenge of using two layers of cloth to build an un-insulated house heated by a convection flow of warm air between the two layers. It was important for me to have both the roof and walls made from cloth. Although this made construction difficult, it achieved a level of softness and gentleness not possible with ordinary architecture.

I recently reread “S, M, L, XL” by Rem Koolhaas and was very happy to see a photograph of a full-scale model of the Kröller-Müller’s house designed by Mies made from white cloth that had a slight resemblance to my Meme. In his book Rem points out that creating a cloth structure was a key opportunity for Mies, the son of a stone mason, enabling him to cross over to light modernist architecture. It also matches my idea of “The Age of Cloth”, and I found it extremely interesting.

After creating this “full-scale cloth model” Mies often used the softness and sensuality of cloth in his architecture. Rem again points out that the flexibility of silk, velvet and leather served a major role in his anti-architecture. Interesting too is the large role played by Mies’ mistress, Lilly Reich, which makes you ponder the relationship between architects and women.

Strangely, however, Rem also surprisingly reveals that the cloth model episode was a complete fabrication of Philip Johnson, curator of MOMA’s 1947 Mies Exhibit. By dropping such a bombshell though, Rem’s essay itself takes on the unstable structure of cloth.

My investigation of this area continues. In Taiwan I covered a pavilion (called the Wind eaves) with an organic curtain called ETFE. At the Toyama Glass Museum we attempted lace curtains with myriad pockets into which were inserted artificial Toyama flowers to create a vertical flower garden. Recently, I have become interested in furniture. Instead of using fabric in the traditional way, pieces of cut cloth are used to emphasize the thinness and softness of the material. Just changing how the edges are made allows the cloth to express itself in a variety of ways, just as women do.

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