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Published in Building Design, 4 May 2001, p15-171.

Some architectural sites offer a definitive moment in history that never leaves the popular cultural imagination. Yokohama's Osanbashi Pier was the first Japanese pier to be opened to foreign trade, in 1858. Commodore Perry's fleet of US sailors in their 'black ships' were finally given landing rights, and Japan's long period of virtual isolation from the world came to an end. It is here at this unique place of entry that Foreign Office Architects (FOA), the London-based practice headed by Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera Polo, are building the city's new 50.000sqm International Port Terminal building, following their competition win back in 1995.

That FOA is working in Yokohama, Japan's third largest city and the 2nd largest port in the world, chimes very well in terms of the international dimension of its heritage and identity as a place where barriers between cultures were formally dissolved. The architects also have a good name for a local job, suggesting in the playfully tongue-in-cheek guise of officialdom an openness in cultural context. They also have a continuous presence in an office overlooking the site, which ought to ensure their creative ambitions are implemented in a city that makes no secret of its ambition to compete architecturally with Tokyo and other Asian metropolises. The linking of new urban identity, in cities like Sydney or Bilbao, with strong architectural statements has had a catalytic effect on civic ambitions globally, and Japan, in spite of its fragile economic state, is certainly not immune to these.

Yokohama's Minato Mirai 21 area at Yokohama's bay has over the last few years developed into an aggressively punctuated skyline of 'super-tall' buildings, and attractions like the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise, an artificial island with a 107m freefall ride. The 296 metres, 70 storey Landmark Tower, completed by Stubbins in 1993, takes you on a vertical 'white knuckle' elevation, at 750m per second, of 35 seconds to reach the Sky Garden. An international visitor can easily discern local singularities, such as Yamate, one of the first areas in modern Japan to be settled by foreigners, as well as well as the tankers and cruise ships of the port, and mix them freely. He or she will certainly see ship building references into FOA's Port Terminal, constructed entirely in steel to resist earthquake damage, which has now been on site for over a year after extensive piling work.

Developing as a 450 x 70 x 18m building on the pier, it does indeed have a heroic scale of construction with more horizontal terms of intimacy with both city and water. Dominated by cranes swivelling in a circle, like birds plucking steel plate sections from the water, the site is cordoned off into three zones of work for the three contractors. As FOA drawings show, the components for building on site are largely being accessed by sea. Since last summer, 15,000 tons of pre-fabricated sections formed out of steel plates have been brought by ship from workshops in Korea and hoisted from the waiting boats into position. Flurries of drawings of tiny girder form sequences like origami instructions in FOA's site office reveal that the steel structure is made of a whole series of longitudinally placed girders being stacked up. "All the structural types are blurred, and each piece is performing several roles", explain the architects. "The girders are making floor, wall and column conditions, some acting as plenums" (structural elements conducting services).

The girders hold folds in triangulated shapes spanning between them (and cantilevers at either end, the farthest away at the point of ship access), making what will be seamlessly connected levels of the building. These will be a series of open loop cycles of public spaces and Terminal access in a variety of alternative paths rolling up from the parking and apron to a roof plaza and visitors' deck, a set of designated functions, with scope for flexibility. Traditionally, the envelope of a building and its load bearing structure are separate. Here, though, the surface of the continuous ground folds into itself, forming origami-style creases that not only create the paths through the building, but provide structural strength.

The building has to be ready in time for the World Cup final in May 2002. As a transportation project designed to fulfil an equally important role as civic space, it has an epic spatial sequence the clients, the City of Yokohama's Port and Harbour office, saw the environmental logic of. FOA were determined to avoid 'the characteristic linear organisation of a pier'. Their CAD images of the seductively undulating topography of its differentiated structure are memorably iconic, but although the Terminal is physically sited on a pier surrounded by water, it would be a mistake to see it as discrete from context. On the contrary, it is designed to be an extension of the city, and of Yamashita Pier onto the bay, a hybrid between a park and a building, a landscape and a structure. Its wavy topography will complement the the adjacent park space, a favoured destination for canoodling couples. In connecting the ground of the city to the terminal's boarding level, FOA are creating a continuously varied 'park' landscape of gently sloped surfaces that connect across three levels rather than becoming ramps or stairs. Outside and inside become one, and the circulation integrates terminal and public space elements with a non-linear landscape free of staircases, in which you never retrace your steps.

"We would not have won the competition if the building had not had the form of a wave", Moussavi explains. FOA don't usually work with metaphors, but, for an organic structure that evokes Hokusai, "this image has saved the project at times". The architects' approach is backed up a commitment to painstaking research, starting through flow diagrams, statistics and circulation issues to make architecture result from radical but cohesive material organisations. These, rather than images or conceptual ideas, are more potent as "...vehicles of transcultural communication", they say. This is fertile ground for subverting conventional architectural space, and it was the flowing nature of FOA's proposal that put them in good stead in conveying the intentions behind their working methods to some bemused faces at the early press conferences.

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The building (cost: £135m at the current exchange rate) will be in the vanguard of original public architecture in Japan when it's finished. When Toyo Ito, one of the competition judges, first saw FOA's entry amongst the total number of 660 submitted, it immediately struck him as highly unusual even to the Japanese in its spatial logic. FOA didn't present conventional plans, but drawings of a space formed by three dimensional curves, that 'modified the very concept of architecture', a solution that gave a 'spatial fluidity' to a building dedicated to circulation. He contrasted this potential with the Sydney Opera House, 'a monument that exalts the limit between land and sea', emphasising external architectural form and elevation, rather than plan or the flow of internal space, as FOA's scheme for the Port Terminal does.

A labour of love as well as their first major building since it went on site in the autumn of 1999 after a protracted phase in which funding was confirmed, the Port Terminal has necessitated the practice's focus seven days a week. Zaera Polo prefers a small, young and tight-knit 'dream team' of architects, mostly Japanese, handpicked from the practice's international architectural school networks, working consistently with the fervor of jazz musicians or IT hackers. An early estimate by the client's project manager was for 30-40 architects, but FOA's process-related construction rationale makes such a number unnecessary. The architects are managing well with 14, and have adopted a partly Japanese ethos of working. "The lack of segmentation between individuals in Japan means an organisation works in a more constrained but cohesive manner, which has a good effect on construction", explains Zaera Polo. "In a country like Japan a foreigner does not master the system. Clients explain the rules and conventions from scratch. You are by default in a position of questioning boundaries". The architects' first project in Japan, he stresses that it has evolved from Japanese cultural influences like origami's folded surfaces, and the inspiration of the Japanese garden, with its complex organisation of nature and variegated natural textures, has been very strong.

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"When we came to Japan after setting up our local office, there was a very short detail design phase", Moussavi explains. It was at this point, Zaera Polo adds, that they made "the geometry of the building as defined by the competition design feasible as a manufacturing system". Fortunately, "Japan has a very advanced construction industry", he feels. "It's a country where it's still possible to make make good architecture because there is a cultural and social interest". Building FOA's audacious structure, with its intriguing geometries - curvatures, triangulations, folds and bifurcations - needed good manufacturing rather than contractors' site control. FOA has a knack of bringing consultants right into their hub and they booked the first class structural engineer, Kunio Watanabe, who set up Structural Design Group in Tokyo in 1969, and has worked with Maki in Japan and on Rafael Vinoly's Tokyo Forum. The team has 'a very close knit relationship' with 61-year-old Watanabe and his firm, who works continuously alongside them in the same pre-fabricated site office. For Watanabe, "'s a unique building. FOA are young and highly challenging as architects".

When he first saw their design, he knew it would be a difficult but worthwhile project to build. He explains that when Utzon designed the Sydney Opera House, "...he drew freely by hand, but the building looks very different." FOA's architecture is more organic. They're trying to make the curve the hand drawing". It's proving a learning curve for the Japanese steel fabricators: "They are still in the 70s and work by hand, not computers, but they are intent on implementing the architects' logic of modifiable geometry. The process of making a FOA building is very different to one, say by Gehry, who works out a precise idea of a spatial effect, to be constructed in this exact form, as a kind of scaffolding of an image. With Yokohama, Watanabe likes the challenge of achieving the organic in both shape and structure, and FOA's synthesising of material processes in a sequential development, adapting construction in the light of new information along the way. For one year they talked about how to combine the idea of the shell as a strong structure with origami. "When it's finished, no-one can make it again", Watanabe explains with a twinkle in his eye.

© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
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