|FIRM||Kengo Kuma and Associates|
Gazing up at today’s concrete towers, it’s hard to imagine that, a century and a half ago, Tokyo was a city of wood, constructed on a human scale. Kengo Kuma and Associates’s petite cypress-slatted building for SunnyHills, a Taiwanese brand of pineapple cake, is a vision out of that older Tokyo—with a very contemporary twist. Almost immediately after being asked to design the shop and office, to stand on a corner in the residential district of Aoyama, Kengo Kuma hit upon the idea of a facade composed of thin wooden slats intersecting diagonally like branches in a grove of trees.
“In steel-framed buildings, where the distance between columns can be as wide as you like, you move away from a human scale. With wood, that span is limited to about 9 feet, so you automatically build structures that fit with an anthropomorphic sensibility,” he says. “By using wood, I could design a building that soothes the soul.”
The challenge was in the execution. Supporting a three-story structure with such thin timbers wouldn’t be easy. To solve the problem, the structural engineer suggested using a Japanese carpentry technique called jigokugumi, or the joint from hell. Traditionally found in the decorative cabinetry for teahouses and temples, the joints require no nails or glue yet lock the wooden strips together so tightly in a two-dimensional lattice that they can’t be pulled apart.
Kuma gave the joints, typically right angles, a more steamlined 30-degree/150-degree configuration, layered the latticework into a three-dimensional grid, and magnified it to building scale. Modeled with Rhinoceros and SketchUp software and assembled by hand, the intricate design was then constructed in Japanese cypress.
Filtering through the latticework, the sunshine epitomizes SunnyHills. Its pineapple cake is sold at concrete counters that rise seamlessly from the floor. The effect is unlike anything Tokyo’s 19th-century carpenters could have imagined—yet somehow in line with their sensibility.