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Architect Kengo Kuma's Plans For The Portland Japanese Garden


Architecture critic Randy Gragg takes us on a tour through Kengo Kuma's designs for the Japanese Garden and the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, as well as several highlights from Kuma's portfolio.

State of Wonder is starting a new series focused on architecture, design and the changing face of the city with columnist-in-residence Randy Gragg.

Gragg is the executive director of the John Yeon Center for Architecture and the Landscape at the University of Oregon. He previously worked as the editor-in-chief at Portland Monthly and as the long-time architecture critic at the Oregonian.

For our first story together, we’re going to look at one of the most significant building projects going on in the city right now: the expansion of the Portland Japanese Garden.

It’s a $33.5 million project that will transform the garden from one of the leading facilities in the country into one of the leaders in the world. And it’s being speared by Kengo Kuma, perhaps the leading Japanese architect of his generation. Kuma recently won the right to design the stadium for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Cultural Crossing, Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon (2017)
The Cultural Crossing village will deploy a gunkol plan, which translates into “the flying geese” — the V formations of migrating birds.

Cultural Crossing, Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon (2017) The Cultural Crossing village will deploy a gunkol plan, which translates into “the flying geese” — the V formations of migrating birds.

Courtesy of Kengo Kuma and Associates

“This Japanese garden is as beautiful as Japanese gardens in Japan,” Kuma told Gragg during a tour of the site. “More than that, it’s more unique, it’s more strong, because of the landscape.”

According to Kuma, Japanese gardens in Japan are usually built on flat land, which makes the undulating crest of the West Hills a striking feature, one he wanted to emphasize in his design for the garden’s expansion.

As Gragg pointed out, what the Japanese Garden has lacked is an entrance. Up until now, visitors have had to climb a winding hill path to a parking lot with an old gate. Kuma’s plan will build a gate at the base of the hill and then transform the parking lot at the top into a cultural village with a floating, cantilevered cafe hanging over the hill path.

“The landscaping and the architectures are connected in a unique way,” said Kuma. “From here people can see this cafe is floating on the hill. And between the two buildings the people can feel a kind of intimate village starts from here. Basically the idea for those new buildings is creating one village, not a big building. We divide the building into small pieces; we try to create the human scale in this village.”

Gragg will speak with Kuma and well-known Japanese architecture scholar Botond Bognar on Saturday, Feb. 6, at 2 p.m. at the Portland Art Museum. The main event is sold out, but there may be overflow seating. 

The Center for Architecture, 403 NW 11th Ave., will display “Tsunagu: Connecting to the Architecture of Kengo Kuma,” a retrospective of the architect’s career, through Feb. 29. 

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