There is a passage in Kengo Kuma’s manifesto ‘Anti-Object’ that describes the design process of his studio’s proposals for the Japanese Pavilion exhibition design at the 1995 Venice Biennale. Fitting out an existing pavilion structure is an interesting ‘creative reuse’ challenge – made more so by fact that the space must be reinvented afresh again and again every year, forever attempting to create something original and unique from the recycled layouts. Approaches to altering buildings can learn much from these spontaneous experiments in remodeling and three points that Kuma’s project particularly impressed upon me were the following.
1. Rigorous understanding the original building
Both the narrative of its life as a built structure and the context surrounding its creative inception; Why was it designed like this, what did it achieve, where did it fail, and can the hindsight we are afforded now contribute to a meaningful re-appraisal of its original ambitions?
2. Understanding its experience as a movement rather than a form
Kuma talks a great deal about experiencing architecture temporally, and how our interactions with buildings are a timeline beginning as we approach from afar and ending as the form finally disappears from our view. The progression of interior spaces is therefore choreography, and as such the location of an intervention should be considered from its position in this sequence as well as its physical position within the structure.
The most successful interventions are those that achieve the maximum effect from the minimum physical disruption, and as such simple solutions such as re-editing the existing sequence might achieve the required results, rather than extending or demolishing elements of the original design.
Kuma’s exhibition design achieved all three of these principles by firstly considering the pavilion not as a gallery space but as an extension of the garden in which it was set (a new appraisal of the building’s original design). He then used the vernacular language of Japanese garden design, of water and pathway, to create a controlled route, effecting very specific influence over the experience of the pavilion and the display of the art inside (building as movement rather than form). Finally the boldest move was to reverse the building’s layout, bringing the public in through the unassumingly modest back door and exiting via the formal entry (a simple switch which allowed the building to be experienced in a completely fresh way).
Although I have never visited the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, those 3 ideas have always resonated with me as sound principles to work by when approaching work to an existing building, applicable at any scale from small temporary interior fit out to a total refurbishment and extension.