Welcome to Business x Design, a new newsletter on the power of design. In this email, Clay Chandler discusses who the New York Times called “the most famous Japanese architect Americans have never heard of.” What else would you like to see from us? This newsletter is a work in progress supported by you, our readers. Reply to this email with your suggestions and feedback. 

According to Financial Times critic Edwin Heathcote, the “modern architecture is the story of the starchitect, the architect as lone genius, the brilliant flair of the sketch on the napkin, the celebrity, the worldwide renown.”

Japanese architect Kengo Kuma begs to differ.

If you missed Fortune’s Brainstorm Design dinner with Kuma in Tokyo last week, here are the takeaways. Kuma made an impassioned plea for humility, which he called “the most important attribute” for architects in the modern age, and affirmed his belief that the “arrogance of designers and engineers” was the great tragedy of the 20th century.

Kuma’s aversion to idolizing architects is a paradox. He himself is one of the field’s most celebrated talents. His individual genius is evident in a host of extraordinary structures including the Asakusa Culture Tourism Centre (2012) in Japan, the Darling Exchange in Sydney, Australia (2018), the V&A Design Museum in Dundee, Scotland (2018), and the recently completed Odunpazari Modern Museum in Eskisehir, Turkey.

Kuma has designed relatively few buildings outside of Asia;
a recent New York Times profile
called him “the most famous Japanese architect Americans have never heard of.”

That’s about to change. Last month, crews officially completed construction of Kuma’s biggest project to date: Japan’s National Stadium, which will host the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2020 Olympic Games.

The commission for the stadium originally was awarded to Iraqi-born
architect Zaha Hadid. But her proposal—which some said looked like enormous
bicycle helmet
—proved so flamboyant and expensive that it provoked public
outcry. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe cancelled Hadid’s contract. Kuma was
chosen to replace her.

His design is a triumph of modesty over modernism. It makes extensive use of native cedar and larch, and features an all-timber-and-steel frame allowing greenery to spill over the sides of the structure. His version’s low profile, open-air columns and half-covered roof proved easier and far cheaper to build than Hadid’s plan.

Kuma told us that he was inspired to become an architect after
visiting Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi
National Gymnasium
as a boy. The gymnasium, built for the 1964 Summer
Olympics, stands just a mile away from Kuma’s structure. It’s a modernist
masterpiece, a vast cantilevered canopy forged from concrete and steel with
scant regard for the surrounding landscape.

Kuma said he dabbled briefly in that style, but came to reject it in favor an ethos that sees architecture as a means to restore balance and harmony to the environment rather than to try to bend nature to man’s will. His interest in sustainable design and building with wood, bamboo and other natural materials dates back to Japan’s 1980s financial bubble. The “triple tragedies” of Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis have reinforced his conviction that designers must recognize their limitations.

*          *          *

The relationship between design and the environment also shines through a new report on business, tech and design trends, published today by Fjord, the global design consultancy. Fjord’s trends report, now in its 13th year, reflects the wisdom of 1,300 designers in 33 studios who have distilled their insights into seven key trends that will shape the “experience business” in the coming year.

There’s a lot to ponder in Fjord Trends 2020, such as the idea that facial and body recognition technologies will transform humans into “walking barcodes,” and that we are rapidly moving beyond mere automation to world of blended human and artificial intelligence.

But what caught my attention was No. 7: “life-centered design.”

Fjord argues the notion of “user-centered design” is starting to feel too narrow and selfish. The report suggests it’s no longer enough for designers to cater solely to the desires of a single consumer. Increasingly, they’ll be expected to design not just for one human life, but for all life—“to think of people as part of an ecosystem rather than at the center of everything.

It’s a powerful idea, and one I hope we’ll explore at Brainstorm Design in Singapore.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
[email protected]