Vital Signs in Garbage City

Architects in today’s Japan are a nervous lot. Feeling “theory-less” and uncertain about the future, they see their dense urban environments and remaining fragments of countryside becoming more chaotic and uglier by the second. Arata Isozaki, one of Japan’s senior figures in architecture, said to me: “Most architecture in Japan, particularly in Tokyo, is ‘garbage’ with every possible contemporary style built and being built… a total collapse of time. Exteriors of buildings no longer matter… it’s just about interior space. It has become a kind of garbage city everywhere.”

Isozaki loves to shock with his buildings and words; but he does so partly as a wake-up call, because he is deeply concerned about the future of architecture in Japan and elsewhere.

It is little wonder that accomplished architects like Isozaki are aggressively searching for new directions, because the Japanese see trouble everywhere. They have a stagnant economy which, although still ranked second largest in the world after the United States, could soon be knocked into third place by China. Add to this an increasing awareness of global warming (even with its sophisticated modern mass transit networks Japan remains grossly dependent on its 74 million air-polluting cars), the needs of an aging population, a massive and unwelcome U.S. military presence in Okinawa, and the constant threat of another devastating earthquake. The big picture is not rosy, generating a collective state of unease. In Japan there is increasing talk about the urgent need for sweeping changes throughout society. And this means rethinking lifestyles and devising new ways of making buildings that will be more environmentally and socially responsible and that will simultaneously provide cultural continuity and aesthetic reward.

During November and December I had the opportunity to see some of what is unfolding in current Japanese architecture and urbanism and to talk with leaders in the profession. I studied projects such as the extensive new monorail system nearing completion in Naha, the capital of the southernmost prefecture, Okinawa; the bombastic Awaji Island resort-convention-garden project near Kobe by Tadao Ando; the spectacular Bejing World Exhibition and Sports Center project by Arata Isozaki; and Tokyo’s futuristic Fuji TV building by Japan’s most famous architect, Kenzo Tange, which, given his failing health, may be his last grand work.

I also studied smaller but extremely strong projects which exemplify promising new directions in Japanese architecture–vital signs of creative counterattacks on Garbage City. Presented on the pages that follow are a trio of works by Kazuyo Sejima, Toyo Ito, and Kazuhiro Ishii, all completed within the past six months. They share interests in addressing environmental issues, innovating with structure, experimenting with transparency and reflection, and imaginatively engaging programmatic issues. In each case I found these buildings to be conceptually clear, carefully constructed, and spatially exhilarating.

Completed in February 2001 and located about an hour north of Tokyo in a city of 50,000 people, the “CO2” project is the work of one of Japan’s renegade yet most socially committed architects. Kazuhiro Ishii, who was well-known in Japan in the 1970s and ’80s for a series of highly inventive, often humourous buildings (for example, the facades of his 1975 “54 Windows” house and office for a Tokyo surgeon were literally composed of 54 entirely different windows, representing complex Japanese numerology), is making a new mark on the Japanese scene with projects made largely of wood. A traditional building material in Japan, wood was overtaken in the 20th century by concrete via Le Corbusier’s influence and overly simple notions about earthquake resistance and fire protection. For Ishii wood was, and should continue to be, the essence of Japanese architecture.

Ishii says the CO2 Healthcare Centre is “about fixing CO2 inside wood, keeping it in the wood. Government forestry experts have calculated that we are storing 500 tonnes of CO2 in the 150 log columns, cut from the local region and which support the membrane Teflon roof over the main circulation and social spaces of the Centre.” He continues, “the earth is getting warmer because of CO2 emissions, and the sea is getting warmer. The earth is in a very delicate situation, so I hope that through my exaggerated expression–making the building in the shape of CO2–that this building will be a memory when beaches disappear and it’s no longer possible to make love letters in the sand.”

Ishii also points out that the clients, the Mayor and City Council, laughed when he first presented the proposal for CO2 but that they were immediately 100% behind the project, “because even this little city in Japan recognizes the emerging crisis of Planet Earth.” And Ishii is pleased that Mr. Sasaki, the vice-manager for Kajima Construction Company who built the Centre, was so supportive. “They knew it was a difficult project to realize, but they also knew that, for Japan, this architecture represented a major change for the construction world. They wanted to adapt to and participate in the environmental problem age that we are now all in and for which we must find solutions. A construction company like Kajima already knows the easy way. They know the easy days in Japan are over.”

Wandering through the elegant spaces which wrap around two lovely gardens, I felt as though I had entered a cathedral or some enchanted forest. About 30 rather conventional rectangular spaces–for child day care, club meetings, exercise and bathing, administration, service, etc.–are attached to the main circulation route, the larger of these program-specific rooms spanned with laminated wood beams imported from British Columbia. These modules can easily be changed, expanded and adapted as needed without interrupting the integrity of the primary Teflon-roofed spaces.

Sendai Mediatheque evolved from an open competition held by Sendai City in 1995, with Arata Isozaki as professional advisor and jury chair. Isozaki was instrumental in generating the hybrid, integrated program for a library, art gallery, audio-visual centre, cinema, and city information centre for physically challenged people, while at the same time insisting that the building have pure, universal space that did not try to artificially represent specific new media.

Toyo Ito proposed a Corbusian “new domino” building with Miesian transparencies–a building that, in the words of Hironori Matsubara, who worked closely with Ito on the project, “owed something to Beaubourg but which would be much softer and lighter.” Ito’s office won the competition, and this project has catapulted him into the international limelight.

And for good reason. It is an astonishingly powerful work of architecture. Situated on a tree-lined boulevard in Sendai, the building is masterful in its use of inventive vertical tube spaces and tube structures, a mix of rationality and randomness brought to life through natural light from skylights with optical devices and the continuously glazed skin (mostly textured Profilit glass). According to Ito’s office, “The tubes are 13 tree-like elements that vertically penetrate and support the seven square plates of the floors. The tubes are flexible structural members and serve as a means of vertical transportation and space for the transit of information and various energies, including light, air, water, and sound.” The south facade has a double sandwiched glass wall which helps heat the building in winter and cool it in summer.

Ito maintains that the Sendai Mediatheque, which was completed in January 2001, will be “the archetype of an entirely new architecture. It will serve as a place for the contemporary human being’s two bodies: the body that houses a flow of electrons and the primitive body that responds to nature.” Moving from floor to floor, I felt that I was in an exciting new place and time, in an incredibly fresh, optimistic architecture that, with grace and intelligence, allows us to enjoy the shock of the future

Sejima, Ito, and Ishii embody the immediate future of Japanese architecture: conceptually rigorous, programmatically inventive, environmentally conscious. And, one might add, light and bright and spare. In the ooze of today’s global mega-cities like Tokyo, where every possible ism and style, every possible shape and texture, aggregate into Garbage City, points of brilliance are cherished. More than ever we need oases in the midst of the urban storm. ca

Larry Wayne Richards is Dean of the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. He spent November and December 2000 in Japan, supported by a fellowship from The Japan Foundation. All photographs are by the author except as noted.

House in Tokyo by Kazuyo Sejima

Sejima, a dedicated minimalist in the Miesian tradition, oversees an international practice while maintaining a hectic schedule of lecturing, jurying for design competitions, and teaching (currently at ETH in Zurich). Her office staff numbers 20, housed in the upper reaches of a Tokyo warehouse. Although in the past she has been criticized for less than rigorous construction detailing and execution, her recent buildings reveal a new level of confidence and sophistication.

I visited three just-completed buildings by Sejima: her radical, glass-sheathed health and community centre for elderly people in Yokohama (imagine a very skinny, elongated Farnsworth House) and the new HH STYLE design store, and a nearby house for a young SONY designer, a gently flowing, handsomely proportioned, strangely peaceful architectural space. By Japanese standards, all three are “low budget.”

The tiny 100 square metre house, completed in October 2000 on a costly lot at the end of a narrow laneway, was by far the most memorable. Bent at the base to make room for the family station wagon, the four floors (one below grade) gently tilt forward, then back, culminating in a lovely bathroom and adjacent mesh-enclosed deck at the top. The vertical, glass-enclosed structure is steel with concrete floor plates. The same engineers worked with Ito on the Sendai building discussed on the following page.

The plan is simple–similar stacked spaces around an off-centre spiral stair. But the sectional composition and bending generate subtle surprises such as views to the sky and an enveloping warm white intimacy. This place strongly communicated domesticity and “home” without bowing one bit to nostalgia.