Designboom spoke to famed Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, about his first residential tower in North America and what he wanted to achieve:
designboom: Vancouver is a city closely tied to its varied natural surroundings, how has this influenced the approach in designing alberni?
Kengo Kuma: At a certain point this is not an independent tower. With the tower we can create the connection with this beautiful environment and we carefully designed the relationship between the unit and the view. The shape of the tower is irregular – from every unit we designed the view to the ocean, to the mountains, and eventually we achieved this unique shape. This unique shape and section is not arbitrary it is a natural solution.
DB: How does the program fit within the greater context of a transitioning and developing urban community?
KK: There is commercial [space] on the ground floor but more importantly is the moss garden, it’s the most important part. [The moss garden] is a kind of in-between space with the street and we think it should be part of the street life because the street life in Vancouver is very lively, very human. We want to give a special gift to that kind of city life. in the moss garden anything can happen, concerts, small parties, and gardens are also beautiful. a wooden lattice as a special structural system will be in this construction and people can get a sense of craftsmanship even in this kind of high rise building. The site is on a very important street- after this building we believe people will love the street more.
DB: Your projects are known for their particular attention to detail, which at a smaller scale is possible to achieve – when working at this scale do you find you are not able to detail to the same degree you would on a smaller project?
KK: Even for this kind of big project we can bring craftsmanship to the building. Normally the architects just design the skin but we designed every detail. There is the moss garden, there are special balconies, we tried to achieve the special details. From the residences and even the people walking on the street can get a sense of the preciseness of detail. In the 20th century wood disappeared from the city, but before the 20th century we were living with wood, the warmth of wood, the softness of wood. So I would like to go back to that kind of lifestyle. Now with contemporary technology we can make it happen. The wood changes the atmosphere of the building totally different from the typical towers. Some of it is inside, some is outside.
A unique aspect to the design is the use of wood, which exposes itself especially in the carved out sections of the structure. In the ‘city of green glass’ the wood in its various forms brings a touch of warmth to the public realm, especially when paired with the lush green of the moss garden. The underside of the balconies are also made up of exposed timber members which become nothing more than a shadow on clear days but when the light levels change during cloudy days the colour and texture of the wood is easily visible from the street changing the feel of the structure. The unit interiors also feature more organic timber elements that offer a more human feel. The material is not only historically a staple industry in the area but also represents the merging of two cultures, as wood has been used as a primary building material in Japan for centuries.
DB: You mentioned that it’s important to learn from every project, what have you learned after designing Alberni?
KK: With Alberni I learned how to fit a skyscraper into a beautiful city. This skyscraper is a response to the beautiful city. It is a big city but at the same time it is a part of nature and I love that kind of unique combination, a combination of functional design and beautiful design.