Japan Unlayered: Not Lost In Translation

By Laura Goldstein

Architect Kengo Kuma with a model of Alberni. Photo Dennis Gocer, The Collective You

Master Architect, Kengo Kuma’s First Residential Skyscraper In North America, Is the Jewel In The Crown of Japanese Exhibition In Vancouver

The Japanese philosophy of ‘layering’ in which architecture, craftsmanship and design cross-pollinate to create one lifestyle experience, is illuminated and demystified in Japan Unlayered. The Fairmont Pacific Rim, Vancouver has been transformed into a microcosm of ‘the land of the rising sun,’ with a multi-sensory exhibition on two levels.

But it’s really an opportunity for the public to get to know the architecture of Kengo Kuma, who has two prominent projects to be completed for 2020: The National Stadium for the Tokyo Summer Olympics and Alberni by Kuma, his first residential skyscraper in North America, to be built near the entrance of Stanley Park, Vancouver.

Through the front doors of the Fairmont Pacific Rim, melodies of theme songs from Japanese anime TV series provide subtle ambient music. What appears at first to be a gigantic Nomura jellyfish suspended from the ceiling, is in fact, a contemporary iteration of Kengo Kuma’s Floating Teahouse, composed of 130 square meters of the Japanese textile, Super Organza made of 27- micron polyester (one sixth the thickness of a strand of hair,) suspended from a translucent helium balloon. A model wearing a red architecturally layered dress from Rei Kawakubo’s fashion house, Comme des Garçons, flutters by.

The main floor of the Fairmont Pacific Rim, host of Japan: Unlayered. Photo Ema Peter

The month-long exhibition was created by Westbank developer and art collector, Ian Gillespie and the Peterson Group, co-curated with renowned Japanese master architect, Kengo Kuma. The two men have shared sensibilities about architecture, sustainability, nature, and social responsibility and that has made them frequent collaborators. They’ve partnered on at least six projects across Vancouver and Tokyo including the exquisite traditional meditative teahouse that presides atop the 19th floor of the Shaw Tower.

“I get many of my ideas from Japanese traditions but shape- wise Alberni is not classic Japanese,” explains Kuma, 61 of the curvaceous 43-storey structure that will house 188 residential units. “Yes, it’s very organic and contextual to the environment, and the outside will be printed anodized aluminum and glass materials, so it reflects buildings and the sky.”

Kuma’s emblematic use of wood in all his structures includes lattice-like wooden screens layered over the concave portions of the tower. “To use wood is the best way to create intimacy and warmth and the design celebrates the presence of nature in Vancouver,” he says.

An embroidered BEAMS jacket. Photo Dennis Gocer, The Collective You

A strikingly layered wood stand-alone wall resembling the childhood game of pick-up sticks inside the concave space’s pool area, will be landscaped with a Japanese moss garden. “It’s a structural system,” explains Gillespie, “not just an aesthetic outcome which Kuma-san’s work embodies. “Architecturally, it’s all about the joinery that Kuma-san is famous for and the detail and quality is so exemplary.”

Kuma met with Japanese carpenters and gardeners in Vancouver when the Westbank Teahouse was constructed in 2016 and they will also be involved at Alberni by Kuma. “Their skill is so amazing, and the gardener showed me samples of moss and it was quite incredible,” says Kuma, visibly excited. “In Europe it’s not easy to obtain that Japanese quality.”

Iconic Japanese contemporary design brand, BEAMS (their status as arbiters of street fashion and “Japan Cool” design and craft, enjoy huge global fandom,) is contrasted at Japan Unlayered, by a Pop-up from MUJI – high-quality, practical and minimalist products with no label fanfare. While their collections may appear to be the antithesis of each other, both exemplify the soul of Japan; their defining principles have remained the same even with advanced technology.

BEAMS products on display. Photo Ema Peter

“BEAMS (meaning ‘new light’,) actually began as a tiny subsidiary of packaging company, Shinko Inc. right after WWII when the father of current president, Yo Shitara, saw American GI’s wearing jeans and sneakers – something that was completely unheard of in Japan at the time,” explains Kana Kinoshita, international projects manager for Beams Co. Ltd.

Opening their first store in 1976 in the trendy Harajuku district of Tokyo, it developed a cult-like following with fashion-obsessed Japanese youth. Celebrating their 40-year anniversary, 160 lifestyle stores have opened across Japan and pan-Pacific Asia. BEAMS combines in-house labels like their popular Souvenir Jackets, with big-name European and American collaborations. “When Sofia Coppola was shooting Lost In Translation in Japan in 2003, we designed a line of T-shirts and bags,” says Kinoshita. “Then in 2013 we reinterpreted the Levi 513 raw denim straight jean with contemporary Japanese finishes and sizing with the Beams brand on the Levi leather patch.”

Even Kengo Kuma is completely enamoured, wearing a Beams black Teatora jacket, presented to him the evening before, he points out to me the six hidden inside pockets he’s already filled with pens.

MUJI, which literally means ‘no logo,’ began in the 80s with 40 products. “Today we produce over 7,000 well-made, no frills, consumer and household goods from socks to clocks, cosmetics made with pure water in Japan, chocolate-filled marshmallows to furniture,” says Toru Akita, president MUJI Canada from their Pop-up at Japan Unlayered. With a commitment to recycled materials and a neutral color palette, their designs blend seamlessly into every décor. There are 800 stores in twenty-nine countries, two stores are coming to Vancouver later this year, (3 have already opened in Toronto.) Akita is as pragmatic as his products: “Consumers’ word-of-mouth is always our best advertising.”


Japan Unlayered is free of charge at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Vancouver and runs until February 28th.