Kuwait Embassy in Tokyo

Award-winning architect Dr Hisham N. Ashkouri breaks down Kenzo Tange’s abandoned brutalist jumble in Japan


Dr Hisham N. Ashkouri


Akane Saito & Hagen Stier


Award-winning architect Dr Hisham N. Ashkouri gives his thoughts on Kenzo Tange’s design of the Embassy of Kuwait in Tokyo

Kenzo Tange is one of the most renowned architects of the 20th century. Born in 1913 in Osaka, Tange used bold, modern forms to achieve his designs in Japan and all over the world. The architect used concrete in the most imaginative ways – almost utilising it like plastic – and he also used other materials to the best of their potential, such as the use of steel as a tensile element in his design of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium and the Embassy of Kuwait in Tokyo, Japan. To reach an understanding of his design of the embassy building, one must look back to the roots of his thinking and the evolution of his designs, which are different from typical Arabic or Islamic design.


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One can see the reciprocal flow of ideas exchanged between Japan’s most famous architects and those in the US and the Bauhaus


The Use of Masonry in Islamic Architecture 

It is important to start our article on the Embassy of Kuwait in Japan by learning about various Arabic and Islamic architecture in the Middle East and the influence of modernist architecture of the 20th century on all architects across the world, including Tange. Accordingly, we will start with traditional Islamic design and move forward through architectural landmarks built by world famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus of Germany around the 1930s and early 1940s.

In many instances throughout history, one is amazed by the ingenuity of man’s creativity in using available indigenous materials. The Islamic and Arabic context provided artisans with the ideas to create space through the use of brick masonry made of local clay. The brick masonry was further refined to create a beautiful and functional decorative religious tradition while providing a functional space for teaching, such as the case in the Madrasah Mustansiriyah, in what is now Baghdad. The use of brick masonry was one of the most economical and environmentally responsible ways to build. If the current evaluation of LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Engineering Design) standards existed during the height of Islamic Architecture, buildings built at that time would surely win the LEED Platinum or Gold Award.


Concrete Plasticity and the Creation of the Modern Form 

Today, masonry is still being used extensively, but more often than not, it’s combined with other materials such concrete, steel, wood or plastic. The story of concrete use goes back to before the Common Era, such as the application of concrete in the architecture of palaces on the island of Crete. Concrete was never applied in its modern context until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. This was due to advancements in the sciences and the forward leaps in structural engineering by combining steel reinforcement with concrete to create the post and beam structure, including the cantilever, which allowed architects to extend buildings into space or to remove the keystone from the top of an arch.

An example of modern use of concrete is the arch designed by Walter Gropius in the 1960s for the main entrance of the University of Baghdad at the Al-Jadriyah campus. Gropius designed the Baghdad University arch through the use of steel-reinforced concrete. Gropius described the arch with the missing keystone as the ‘Open Mind’ of the modern school in Baghdad, but he also demonstrated to the world that with the use of concrete the arch could symbolise free expression of form and was not limited by the masonry keystone rule. He did not need to follow the prior brick masonry examples of traditional Arabic or Islamic Design. It was an ingenious way of liberating the modern architect from the confinement of masonry in building design.

Many architects took concrete in new and innovative directions, including Kenzo Tange, by rooting concrete with cantilevers. By anchoring a beam on one end only, without any external bracing, modernist designs showed the maximum strength and beauty of concrete as a building material for a new age. In 1934, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the most eloquent expression of concrete movement into space in his design of the Fallingwater house for the a Pennsylvanian family, where the terraces extended dramatically over a falling water stream below. Wright demonstrated the strength of concrete and established the structural design, which set a precedent for new and better ways to use it.

In 1968, while heading The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC) of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Walter Gropius designed the German Ambassador’s Residence in Buenos Aires. His design was also an expression of movement in space, yet the building’s vertical pillar supports were radically different from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater design. In Wright’s design, stone masonry was used to provide vertical support for the walls in order to withstand seismic activity in that region of Pennsylvania.

When examining the Bauhaus influence of Walter Gropius on the works of Kenzo Tange in Japan, one can see the reciprocal flow of ideas exchanged between Japan’s most famous architects and those in the US and the Bauhaus. Modernist architecture was an international movement that went beyond the boundaries of countries and continents and included the Arab world. Modernist architecture expressed a new design tradition through the pure use of concrete form and modularity (horizontality as well as verticality).


A Modern Expression of Freedom in Space

In Tokyo, Tange did not have the extreme environmental conditions of heat and sand to deal with, conditions which often influenced and shaped the forms of traditional Islamic architecture. Accordingly, the Embassy of Kuwait in Tokyo took on a different, yet beautiful, expression of movement in space through the use of pure, exposed, highly-finished concrete. The Embassy of Kuwait shows the fearless application of concrete to break the boundaries of structural heights and horizontal projections.

While the concrete gave Tange the material he needed to work with in the modern era of Japanese architecture, he compartmentalised the massing of space by separating the building along vertical concrete shafts to house elevators, stairs and mechanical and electric utilities. He employed such shafts as the main structural supports of the building, a design concept found in the early examples of Bauhaus architecture in Germany. In many ways, this approach was expressed by Gropius in the German Ambassador’s residence in Argentina, too.

Today, the post-modernist era of the 20th Century has witnessed the pendulum swing back in the opposite direction: architects are looking for the roots of their architecture – in their various environments, religions, cultures and historical contexts. They are finding new expressions that reflect those values, yet are combining these with the indigenous materials of concrete, masonry, steel, plastics or wood while doing so.

We have seen within the past decade the rise of green designs usually accomplished through the LEED process. The carbon footprint of a building now has to justify its design. The use of glass must be measured against the standard performance of cooling and heating systems. Today, architects and engineers have to expertly demonstrate that their designs make environmental sense and accomplish the goals of green design.

Today’s urban consciousness of how to make buildings environmentally (and people) friendly would have undoubtedly moved Tange into a new direction when and if he had the chance again to redesign the building. In his original design, Tange achieved excellence in an era of freedom, using materials with minimal energy costs during a booming economy. A modernist masterpiece, we look towards the Kuwaiti Embassy in Tokyo and what was formed and achieved by the ingenious mind of Kenzo Tange with admiration and wonder.

This article appears in the Brownbook’s latest Design Directory, Embassy Architecture of the Middle East and North Africa