Renowned architect Kengo Kuma who designed Tokyo's Olympic Stadium talks about his dedication to sustainability and infusing nature into the Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu

Natural is the best word to describe the work of Kengo Kuma. The renowned Japanese architect, who designed the stadium for Tokyo Olympics 2020, has always eschewed flashy forms in favour of buildings in harmony with their environment.

But this modest approach doesn't mean Kuma’s designs aren't memorable. Instead, his poetic use of natural materials and constant innovation in building sustainably has ensured his work is much admired.

Indeed the architect, whom The New York Times called “the most famous Japanese architect Americans have never heard of", is greatly sought after, not just in his home country.

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Above Kengo Kuma's Tokyo Olympic Stadium (Image: iStock)

He has built a wide range of structures like the Suntory Museum of Art and Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center in Tokyo, V&A Dundee in the UK, and The Exchange, Sydney in Australia.

His eponymous firm’s work-in-progress list is impressive, having also recently won the bid to build the ambitious Founder’s Memorial in Singapore with K2LD Architects as well as its first residential project in the US, the Aman Miami.

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Above The Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu at sunset

Malaysia recently welcomed Kuma’s first building in the country, the Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu. Set against the lush backdrop of Signal Hill, the Kuma-designed architecture and interiors reflect the heritage of Sabah.

Inspired by the rainforests of Borneo, local bamboo can be found in the lobby, while the greenery-accented rooftop creates the sense of being under the jungle canopy.

Tatler Homes spoke to Kuma about how this landmark project was realised and his thoughts on sustainability. 

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Above The top floor of the building embraces the elements

How did you translate the Hyatt Centric DNA into Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu?

The client’s idea of integrating the architecture and the city was exactly the same as mine, I was thrilled to work on this project. I walked around the area and found it stimulating with the streets full of energy and activities. I wanted to bring in the surrounding liveliness vertically to the hotel.

How did you conceptualise the hotel design?

Under the idea of integrating the streets with the architecture, we aimed to create a light façade that could merge with the townscape.

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Above An intricately detailed roof canopy

Your work have always had a strong sustainability angle. Is the Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu the same?

In this hotel, every single room has its own balcony. That contributes to reducing the sunbeams coming inside, and the section of the building is designed this way. Plus, we applied wooden materials wherever possible that would help contain CO2. This is a response to global warming.

What drives you, and how do you avoid burnout and keep things fresh?

We can never be burnt out. Our approach is to place the location as the protagonist of the project. We study the history, culture, and craftsmanship behind each site. For us, working on a project is to start a fresh conversation with the place we are given. It is always full of inspiration, and there is no time to get bored.

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Above The upstairs dining area has the most amazing view

You’ve always championed sustainability and nature in your work. What is behind this philosophy, and do you see it more embraced now?

I had already held the idea of sustainability and nature when I started my practice in 1986. I feel that particularly since 2000, the world’s tendency towards sustainability and nature has become stronger. Now after having gone through the Covid crisis, everyone is sharing this thought.

What would you say is your most landmark project and why?

I’d say the Great Bamboo Wall in the suburbs of Beijing, as it was my very first project abroad, and I was able to prove that what I had been doing in Japan’s rural areas—using local materials and collaborating with local builders and craftspeople—was applicable in other countries as well.

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Above Natural materials echo the surrounding view of Signal Hill

Do you have a signature style, and if so, how would you describe it?

Our signature that is consistent from the very beginning is the approach to creating light, human-friendly architecture.

Has social media changed the way you design?

I think that social media has influenced how people perceive architecture, so the relationship between humans and buildings is also changing. I’m certainly affected by it, though I’m not very aware of it.

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Above Rooms feature views of the sea or the hills

What would you advise a young architect starting out?

Design with hands, not with minds. Create something with your hands, even on a small scale like a pavilion.

What and who inspires you?

I recently had the opportunity to see and support art by the disabled. I found much to learn from their work.

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