Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Originally from Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nsenda Lukumwena is an architect based in western Japan. Born five years before his country achieved independence from Belgium, Lukumwena grew up amid a period of civic strife. While studying architecture in university, he came across a photograph of a traditional building in Kyoto that inspired his first thoughts of visiting Japan. The photo presented soft, delicate sunlight filtered through paper, something different from anything he’d seen in Africa. After receiving a qualification from Osaka University, Lukumwena worked at several architectural firms before founding his own, based in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, where he designs buildings that use light and color in creative ways.
July 18, 2017
Japanophiles: Nsenda Lukumwena
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Initially asked to work on one small part of this home, Lukumwena ended up revamping the entire property. He always pays careful attention to light and lighting.
These days, more and more foreigners are engaging in Japanese occupations that not so long ago might have struck many Japanese (and foreigners) as extremely difficult for outsiders to undertake.
In the Japanophiles series, we have encountered many examples: a tea ceremony teacher; a nakai (waitress) working in a sophisticated Japanese restaurant; a maker of Japanese armor; a practitioner of minyo (folk music).
Architectural design, meanwhile, is an example of a less traditional, or at least less specifically Japanese, profession that at first glance might seem more accessible to foreigners. It is not that difficult, for example, to imagine an appropriately qualified foreign architect being hired by one of Japan's large housing companies.
But what's unusual about the Japanophiles guest on this occasion is that he has managed to establish himself as an independent architect. Nsenda Lukumwenda from the Democratic Republic of the Congo works out of his own design office in Ashiya, a city adjacent to Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture, western Japan.
As we discover in the program, there are ingrained customs and mindsets in the building trade that tend to hinder the entry of independent architects. So how did Lukumwena manage to succeed?
As we follow him around in everyday life, we start to see just how important it is for Lukumwena to discuss matters directly with each stakeholder in a project: with a person who will paint a curved wall that Lukumwena wants to build; with a person who can provide him with special glass that will make a door look unique; with a person who will supervise the construction of a private home; and with a customer—a representative of all the people who will spend years engaging directly with the space that Lukumwena designs.
One feature of Lukumwena's approach is to engage directly with the people who will actually implement his design.
Lukumwena discusses aspects of a new home with the site manager, at the construction site.
Host Peter Barakan is invited to visit the home of one of Lukumwena's previous customers, and here we learn that while the actual work to revamp the interior took a combined three months, the entire process from planning to completion took two years. The rest of the time was devoted to such tasks as assessing exactly what the customer wanted.
We discover that the outputs of such attentive, active listening include features that go beyond expectations. We learn, for example, how much this particular customer has come to enjoy the look of the light at different times of day when walking down a staircase that Lukumwena designed.
Nsenda Lukumwena and Peter Barakan discuss an interior makeover that Lukumwena undertook.
We also eavesdrop on a meeting where the architect seeks the opinion of a painter, who later tells us not only that such a conversation is very unusual in the Japanese building industry, but that he greatly enjoys the opportunity to discuss matters in person with the architect.
Having had two houses constructed in Japan over the years, this writer can assure the reader that people working for Japanese housing companies also listen attentively to the customer and adjust design templates accordingly.
Yet it seems clear that in each of his projects, Lukumwena strives to go the extra mile in order to understand exactly what the customer wants, and in order to understand how to achieve the best possible results.
In making this effort, he would seem at first glance to be doing no more than upholding much-admired features of the Japanese service tradition. But hearing that this approach is somewhat unusual among architects prompts thoughts about the benefits that might accrue to Japan as a whole if a more widespread effort was made to bridge the gap that seems to exist, or to have emerged, between workers on the front line (or genba in Japanese) and professionals in more exalted positions—the kind of individual referred to respectfully as sensei, a word written with characters that might be interpreted as meaning "ahead on life's path."
Charismatic and iconoclastic, as well as action-oriented and approachable, Nsenda Lukumwena is one sensei who seems to be showing us a valuable direction to move forward on life's path, with his eagerness to respect the genba and to listen.
Nsenda Lukumwena has worked on a variety of buildings. This wedding hall also features a special focus on light.
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