Designing for Two Cultures: Takemune Takuma '98
Designing for Two Cultures: Takemune Takuma '98

Takemune Takuma '98 received his bachelor of architecture degree from Cornell University in 2004. By then, he had spent much of his teens and early twenties in the U.S. and decided to move back to his native Tokyo. After stints at a few architecture firms, he decided to quit to roam around Japan with a sketchbook, recording what he saw. In 2007, he moved to Mexico City to work in the office of renowned Mexican architect Alberto Kalach. In 2013, Takuma, still residing in Mexico City, decided to set up his own practice. Since then, his main focus has been fusing Mexican architectural elements with Japanese sensibilities. But when an earthquake struck on Sept. 19, he returned from a trip to Japan to find the city in rubble. Hotchkiss Magazine talked to him about how to better design buildings for natural disasters, his recent projects, and what inspired him at Hotchkiss.

Q: What was the impact of the quake on the city? Were any buildings spared?

A: My office and home were saved, and my neighborhood is mostly okay. It's not that the entire city is flattened. But it does make you wonder. You can reinforce your house to your heart's desire, but when a big earthquake strikes, you could be visiting one of these collapsed buildings. It's up to fate and luck, really. The actual damage in the city is sporadic. However, the buildings that failed did so devastatingly. A similar earthquake struck Mexico City in 1985, in which the number of collapsed buildings and victims was far greater. After the event, the building code was supposedly updated to ensure the safety of future constructions ("Japanese Standard," a local engineer once told me). As far as construction goes, Mexico can adapt the building and engineering techniques practiced in Japan or California and make structures more earthquake-resistant. But for most projects, the cost will be prohibitively high. I visited Kobe, Japan, two months after the great earthquake of 1995, and I saw much more destruction there. So Japanese engineering is not a panacea, either. In the aftermath, the government updated the building code and emergency contingency plans and structurally retrofitted many buildings. I'm afraid that Mexico has no resources or political will to do the same, and that's what worries me. Corruption in the construction industry is well-known and exists everywhere, but the problem is widespread and entrenched in Mexico. It is a known fact that clients and contractors pay bribes to get building permits from local governments, environmental and historic-preservation regulators — even to unions and corrupt police to "maintain peace" around construction sites. Many contractors and firms disband and disappear after a project is finished, making it hard to seek accountability when something goes south.

Q: How does your practice fit into that landscape?

A: I'm not sure what kind of image my architectural practice gives off, but in reality, it is mostly a quiet, one-man operation. In Mexico, as an independent architect, I have yet to have an opportunity to design a brand-new building except for a few that ended as projects. Recently, many reasons brought to my attention this issue of corruption, and I agonize over it. It pains me to think that to be an architect in Mexico means, in one way or another, to participate in this system of corruption. This is not an architectural problem. It is a structural problem of the society, economy, and politics, for which I have no good answer yet.

Q: What prompted you to quit your job at the firm in Tokyo and wander around with your sketchbook? What are some of the tenets of Japanese design that you took back with you?

A: Architecture is a grueling profession. When I was working in an office, I hardly had free time to do anything else. I got sick of it, dropped everything, and basically became a bum. It is hard to pinpoint the essence of traditional Japanese architecture. I am drawn to its atmosphere and ambience created by disparate elements, materials, and gardens. I use it as a point of departure and a source of inspiration. I'm not too keen on historicism, as some architects and scholars use it as a kind of dogma of design.

"Conifer," a townhouse in Tokyo, Japan, designed by Takuma

Q: How did you end up in Mexico, and what made you want to work for Alberto Kalach? What's the biggest difference between Japanese and Mexican architecture?

A: After living in Japan for a few years, I got an itch to get out of the country again. Mexico just happened to be the opportunity that fell in my lap. I saw Alberto Kalach's work in architecture magazines. His work had a very earthy, fundamental quality, a wild yet refined aura that spoke to me. Just out of curiosity, I sent him my CV and portfolio. After six months, he sent me an email: "If you're still interested, come over." In Japan, contemporary architecture is geared towards the avant-garde and involves the use of new technology and building materials. The result often exhibits lightness and complexity. In Mexico, especially in Kalach's work, architecture has "primitive" strength and is more grounded.

Q: Tell me how you first became interested in design. Did any of the classes at Hotchkiss spark your interest?

A: I was always inclined to "make things" as a small boy and enjoyed art classes at school. My first encounter with architecture, I recall, was a TV documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright. Hotchkiss's fine arts program was the first "real" art class I enrolled in. By that, I mean it taught the basics of theory and techniques required to be an artist, as opposed to one of those "just grab a brush and paint something pretty" kind of classes. During those years, I remember being intrigued by Cubist art and Art Deco-era architecture. If I may add, though: in retrospect, the arts in general were regarded very lowly at Hotchkiss and did not receive the respect (or funding) they deserved. For most students, art was something they took once during four years so they looked "well-rounded" when the time to fill their college application rolled around. Among all the excellent art teachers at the School, I think I had (and still have) a great rapport with Brad Faus. He knew how to teach the fundamentals, but also gave us fun assignments that let us explore our creativity and imagination.

This interview appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.