The Most Important Attribute for Architects in the Modern Age

Welcome to Business x Design, a new newsletter on the power of design. In this email, Clay Chandler discusses who the New York Times called “the most famous Japanese architect Americans have never heard of.” What else would you like to see from us? This newsletter is a work in progress supported by you, our readers. Reply to this email with your suggestions and feedback. 

Financial Times critic Edwin Heathcote has written that “modern architecture is the story of the starchitect, the architect as lone genius, the brilliant flair of the sketch on the napkin, the celebrity, the worldwide renown.”

Japanese architect Kengo Kuma begs to differ.

At Fortune’s Brainstorm Design dinner in Tokyo last week, Kuma made an impassioned plea for humility, which he called “the most important attribute” for architects in the modern age—and affirmed his belief that the “arrogance of designers and engineers” was the great tragedy of the 20th century.

Kuma’s aversion to idolizing architects is a paradox. He himself is one of the field’s most celebrated talents. His individual genius is evident in a host of extraordinary structures including the Asakusa Culture Tourism Centre (2012) in Japan, the Darling Exchange in Sydney, Australia (2018), the V&A Design Museum in Dundee, Scotland (2018), and the recently completed Odunpazari Modern Museum in Eskisehir, Turkey.

Kuma has designed relatively few buildings outside of Asia; a recent New York Times profile called him “the most famous Japanese architect Americans have never heard of.”

That’s about to change. Last month, crews officially completed construction of Kuma’s biggest project to date: Japan’s National Stadium, which will host the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2020 Olympic Games.

The commission for the stadium originally was awarded to Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid. But her proposal—which some said looked like enormous bicycle helmet—proved so flamboyant and expensive that it provoked public outcry. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe cancelled Hadid’s contract. Kuma was chosen to replace her.

Kuma’s design is a triumph of modesty over modernism. It makes extensive use of native cedar and larch, and features an all-timber-and-steel frame allowing greenery to spill over the sides of the structure. And his version’s low profile, open-air columns and half-covered roof proved easier and far cheaper to build than Hadid’s plan.

Kuma told us that he was inspired to become an architect after visiting Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium as a boy. The gymnasium, built for the 1964 Summer Olympics, stands just a mile away from Kuma’s structure. It’s a modernist masterpiece, a vast cantilevered canopy forged from concrete and steel with scant regard for the surrounding landscape.

Kuma said he dabbled briefly in that style, but came to reject it in favor an ethos that sees architecture as a means to restore balance and harmony to the environment rather than to try to bend nature to man’s will. His interest in sustainable design and building with wood, bamboo and other natural materials dates back to Japan’s 1980s financial bubble. The “triple tragedies” of Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis reinforced his conviction that designers must recognize their limitations.

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The relationship between design and the environment also shines through a new report on business, tech and design trends, published today by Fjord, the global design consultancy. Fjord’s trends report, now in its 13th year, reflects the wisdom of 1,300 designers in 33 studios who have distilled their insights into seven key trends that will shape the “experience business” in the coming year.

There’s a lot to ponder in Fjord Trends 2020, such as the idea that facial and body recognition technologies will transform humans into “walking barcodes,” and that we are rapidly moving beyond mere automation to a world of blended human and artificial intelligence.

But what caught my attention was No. 7: “life-centered design.”

Fjord argues the notion of “user-centered design” is starting to feel too narrow and selfish. The report suggests it’s no longer enough for designers to cater solely to the desires of a single consumer. Increasingly, they’ll be expected to design not just for one human life, but for all life—“to think of people as part of an ecosystem rather than at the center of everything.”

That’s a powerful idea, and one I hope we’ll explore at Brainstorm Design in Singapore.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler


This edition of Business x Design was curated by Margaret Rhodes.

Classic blue. Pantone’s Color of the Year franchise has announced the color of 2020: “classic blue.” Thanks to the ballooning media frenzy that surrounds the campaign, you can see how the color works in just about everything, including fine art (ArtNet), wedding décor (Brides), and travel gifts (Forbes). As far as marketing stunts go, you have to hand it to Pantone. The much-ballyhooed color reveal seems to get more media coverage each year, spawning gift guides and think pieces on the national mood. That’s not to mention the rumored licensing deals Pantone strikes with merchandising companies—keep an eye out, and “classic blue” will surely start to appear in your line of sight in the months to come. [Pantone

Lighten up. Air New Zealand is trying something new: inviting passengers to eat their coffee cups. Made from edible biscotti by New Zealand company Twiice, they signal the latest effort to reduce the single-use cup waste that piles up on long flights. Airlines are continually tinkering with food and beverage programs, both to entice passengers and to shave off cargo weight for efficiency's sake. Edible packaging dovetails neatly with both of those goals. Even if it comes off as a curious novelty to some, the micro-industry deserves more widespread adoption than it’s gotten so far. [Fast Company]

At the door. Bjarke Ingels Group has made a smart lock. Friday, as the lock is called, is intended to be a “humble” kind of connected device—no unnecessary flashing lights or gratuitous notifications. Coming out of BIG Ideas, the firm’s R&D division, it enters the market more than six years after Yves Béhar’s August smart lock, making it a puzzling choice for a high-concept, big-budget architecture firm that’s recently revealed plans for projects such as floating villages and a new HQ for Google. It’s likely that the smart lock is only the beginning: The front door is simply the gateway to the rest of the home’s digital infrastructure. [Dezeen]


The Sound of Silence: Why Automakers Are Changing the Noise That Electric Vehicles (Don’t) Make by Jennifer Alsever

China’s ‘Big Gamble’: Lessons From the Bike Sharing Bust May Hang Over Its A.I. Boom by Grady McGregor

Facebook’s A.I. Masters the Card Game Hanabi by Jonathan Vanian

Startup Trying to Prevent Food Waste Closes $15.3 Million Funding Round by Beth Kowitt


Wealthy societies have a “stuff” problem—as in, there’s too much of it, few places for it to go, and risk for those who accept it. In Thailand, a network of e-waste recycling factories has cropped up now that China has stopped taking electronic trash, The New York Times reports. Recycling old laptops and batteries has a virtuous pretense. The reality is far more dangerous: Smoke from the factory incinerators chokes the atmosphere, and toxic metals seep into the ground, ruining farmland and making locals ill. From the Times:

“Why don’t you in the West recycle your own waste?” said Phayao Jaroonwong, a farmer east of Bangkok, who said her crops had withered after an electronic waste factory moved in next door.

“Thailand can’t take it anymore,” she said. “We shouldn’t be the world’s dumping ground.”

It’s a problem of almost unfathomable scale, and it has an obvious culprit. The proliferation of cheap technology means devices have never been easier to buy, but also harder to repurpose. In his new book “Secondhand,” Adam Minter considers the flat-panel television. From his interview on NPR’s Fresh Air:

If you think back say, 20, 25 years ago, a television that was 10 years old was something that could be...refurbished and reused. But these days, you can go and you can buy yourself a flat-panel television at an electronics retailer. When you go to storage units and see these flat-panel TVs sitting in them, somebody may have [thought], "I'm just going to store it here for a couple of years." By the time it's opened up and people say it's time to donate the stuff, that's not merchandise. That's something that's going to go to an electronics recycler. And that kind of phenomenon is increasing. 

As companies push new stuff—not to mention upgraded versions of that aforementioned stuff—it would be productive for them to propose ideas for where the retired models should go. Because, simply put, they have to go somewhere.

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