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Published in World Architecture, 6/01, p42-5; 55-7.

1. Down, but not out
→ 2. Return of the native: Hitoshi Abe's Miyagi stadium

Down, but not out

After almost 10 years of 'bubble trouble', Japan's new and unconventional prime minister Junichiro Koizumi has signed his name to a 'no pain, no gain' policy to bring about the country's economic rebirth. Surprisingly, however, with department stores such as Sogo and Tokyu feeling the pinch from foreign superstore competitors, it has not all been doom and gloom for architecture during the financial crisis of the 1990s. With a decreasing birth rate and a top-heavy 'silvering' population it is appropriate that Japanese architects and their clients are rediscovering the need to think small, with a focus on the more modest end of the architectural scale such as housing and community centres.

Local amenities in the prefectures of Japan like the Kumamoto Artpolis (KAP) are an attempt to bring artistic control to a larger area by creating a new community environment that stimulates events. A group of sixty five buildings, housing, museum and workspace projects (designed by architects including Kazuhiro Ishii, Jun Aoki and Koji Takeda) evolving since its inception in 1988, it is low key, but in tune with the times. While the quality of civic space is still key in public architecture's game plan, this sea change augurs well for local needs.

While there has been a significant falling away of public projects and work for the larger, corporate firms, for younger architects there have been a number of notable advantages, says Mark Dytham of Swiss-British partnership Klein Dytham Architects (KDa), set up in 1988. Dytham is one of Japanese architecture's most energetic pioneers. With partner Astrid Klein, he has exploited opportunities for versatility with great success. The recession, he believes, has encouraged the emergence of the first generation of new young designers. "Think of the UK - punk came out of a recession," he says, as evidence of creativity flourishing in apparently unpromising situations. Because the big commissions are less readily available, there are "...more hustling opportunities for young architects". It has been up to the architects to think creatively about different ways to employ their skills. "It's now more to do with ideas than materials," he says.

The smaller, younger practices now have the same - or sometimes better - chances of scooping a major commission than the established firms. Significantly, KDa operates within a collaborative office space, DELUXE, engendering a working environment that fuses small practices in advertising, retail and graphic design, as well as architecture. KDa's recent ventures, stainless steel trees in simple pastry-cutter shapes around the periphery of Laforet department store in Harajuku, Tokyo, and an interactive billboard for Virgin Atlantic, have drawn a parallel in Japanese magazines to what Rem Koolhaas has done with his retail work: "Addressing commercialism and trying to make it into 'art' without the client really noticing".

Japan's consumer magazines are becoming increasingly interested in architecture and design. A real estate dealer spotted KDa's work in the pages of the lifestyle magazine Brutus and commissioned the architect for his Vroom! garage project. This was completed in double-quick time, like another project the Spike Cyberworks office, which took KDa three months from conception to completion. "Most of our clients want stuff tomorrow," says Dytham, who emphasises the ephemeral nature of much of Japan's architecture.

In fact, there is a feeling among some designers in Japan that the country's architecture has reached its nadir of disposability. "New residential construction in Japan is dominated by generic, mass-produced, kit-set housing. The manufacturers, owned by larger firms like Matsushita, control 99 per cent of the market, and produce an average of a million homes per year", explains FOBA associate Tom Daniell, originally from New Zealand. "In Japan a house is really a product."

Aware that the market for such an industrialised solution has peaked, FOBA director Katsu Umebayashi has devised a standardised housing system in concrete, offering an affordable Modernist aesthetic evocative of Kahn. Four are already built and 15 are being developed by the architects' associated firm FOB Homes, a remarkable blow to the status quo in house building. In a sedate suburb of Osaka, a striking urbane freestanding new home with a huge blank white wall is slowly converting the neighbours. "The whole system needs to be restructured," adds Daniell. "We'd be happy if others entered this field."

Toyo Ito's recently opened Sendai Mediatheque (see pages 46-53) is a prime example of new architecture that has emerged despite the deflationary spiral in the economy. Rethinking was inevitable. For a long time construction firms received support for new contracts, sometimes leading to seemingly pointless infrastructure, like random concrete archipelagos. As major construction projects slow, this practice is likely to be modified.

The concrete and glass Saitama University in Tokyo's outlying commuterland, by Riken Yamamoto, an architect of Tange's generation, has the purity and superb detailing typical of Japanese architecture. At the same time, its design allows you to walk on landscaped roofs. Architects in Japan are the envy of their peers elsewhere in the world because of the method of construction employed on most sites. A pioneer of high standards in architectural design is leading structural engineer Kunio Watanabe, who set up his firm the Structural Design Group in 1969. He is working with London-based Foreign Office Architects (FOA), one of the very few overseas practices currently building in Japan, on the architects' highly original organic design for the US$195 million Yokohama International Port Terminal due for completion in spring 2002. This will serve as a symbol of the city's cosmopolitan identity, heightening international interest in Japan's hosting of the World Cup in May next year. Watanabe also worked on Rafael Viñoly's Tokyo International Forum (1996) with its extraordinary roof and glass hall, and Maki's Makuhari Messe convention centre in Chiba. "Technology and design are fundamentally the same," he says, advocating the advantages of multi-disciplinary teamwork, particularly during hard times.

"Japan is a paradise in certain respects," comments Alejandro Zaera Polo, partner with Farshid Moussavi in FOA, one on a par in Europe with his native Spain. "These are countries where there is a certain cultural interest in architecture. Japan has a very advanced system of construction." In building the Port Terminal, FOA devised a process of constructing the complex forms of its steel plates, that form both surface and structure of the building, in a Korean shipyard, and then transporting them to the site by boat.

The Port Terminal, which promises to be the headline-grabbing building of next year, will be a hybrid between a park and a building growing as an extension of Yamashita Park onto the bay. Its 'genetic code', say the architects, includes origami, Japanese shipbuilding and garden design. On completion it looks likely the Terminal will renew the faith of some of Japanese architecture's doubters, whatever the economic situation in 2002.

© Lucy Bullivant

2. Return of the native:
Hitoshi Abe's Miyagi stadium

Next year all eyes will be on a less widely acclaimed project in Sendai - the Miyagi Stadium. Designed by young Japanese architect Hitoshi Abe, the stadium will be used during the 2002 football World Cup. Lucy Bullivant reports on the 'brutal elegance' of Abe's architecture.

Hitoshi Abe is one of the most interesting young architects currently working in Japan. Certainly, his Miyagi Stadium in Sendai - a town already attracting attention with Ito's Mediatheque (see pages 46-53) - is one of the most exciting buildings to have been completed in Japan in the last couple of years. As Neil Denari, Abe's teacher at SCIARC in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, says: 'His victory in the Miyagi Stadium competition resoundingly put Abe on the Japanese scene as a new type of architect: brutal and yet elegant, aggressive, yet humble.'

Abe won the stadium competition back in 1992, when he was just 30 years old. He had been studying at the graduate school of SCIARC, and working with Coop Himmelblau, but here was a compelling reason to return to his native Sendai and set up a small practice.

The stadium as a building type is ruled by the geometry of concentric circles in order to provide a central focus. In order to loosen the rigidity of this structural form the design for the Miyagi stadium combines two typologies: stadium and park. 'These have been interwoven to create a multifaceted facility', explains the architect.

The government-run building, known formally as the 'Composite Sports Garden of Miyagi' appropriately fuses with its natural surroundings, a strong theme in Japanese architecture. By using a series of arc-shaped pathways radiating from the stadium's centre Abe engages visitors entering the site and holds the attention of spectators within the stadium. The symmetrical pathways encircle the main east-facing entrance. Each route is stamped with Abe's coloured graphic orientation symbols, taking visitors ever closer to the low-lying, bowl-shaped stadium building.

Sendai was virtually destroyed during the Second World War, and rebuilt on an east-west grid. A high speed train delivers visitors to the stadium in the suburbs. 'The building is inset to the hill to reduce the stadium's gigantic image', explains Yukino Komatsu, one of Abe's architects. A 27m water tower to the left on a higher piece of land signals its presence, a light transparent structure sheathed in metal netting.

'For me, geometric form is one of the means of creating relationships between elements of the building, and the conditions of the site. These are as important as the programme', explains Abe. The large arch of the bowl shaped concrete structure is formed by keel trusses which are anchored and tensioned by a series of angled concrete ground beams. Each of the truss supports at each span is a different shape, and therefore had to be poured on site, a job that took three years.

Yoshitake Doi, an architect from Kyushi Institute of Design, compares the Miyagi stadium with Kenzo Tange's Yoyogi Stadium (1964), a form created by two curves, with the space between them defining the approach. Miyagi works on a similar principle, but has unique qualities that could not be repeated in another project. The programme and site have been harnessed to provide a flexible form with multiple access routes, matching design and function perfectly.

The final word should go to Californian architect and teacher Neil Denari. 'Arriving at SCIARC in the late 1980s, Abe quickly absorbed the lessons of tectonic dynamism and cultural flow. His proposals were obedient and anarchic at the same time, conforming to the conceits of openness and obsessive experimentation. This energy launched his career', writes Denari in the introduction to a major exhibition on the architect staged by the Institut Français d'Architecture in Paris held this spring. Denari pinpoints in Abe's work a '...supple convergence of many ideas emerging out of local and global phenomena, carefully orchestrated to meet the demands of the client, site and programme'. He detects above all '...a mix of Southern Californian training with Japanese sensibilities.' Sendai has welcomed its son home with open arms.

© 2018 Lucy Bullivant

Toyo Ito:
Sendai Mediatheque

KDa: Vroom!

KDa: Rin-Rin

Toyo Ito's...

...Sendai Mediatheque

FOA: Yokohama international port terminal