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Hanamidori Cultural Centre | icon 038 | August 2006

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words Julian Worrall

Japanese parks are surrealistic landscapes of good intentions.

Unlike Japanese gardens, which are a precise embodiment of certain philosophical principles, parks in modern Japan are filled with cultural anomalies. Take Showa Memorial Park, a large recreational park in the western suburbs of Tokyo. In addition to carefully manicured trees, lakes and flowers, it has: desolate landscapes of underused leisure equipment; juvenilia such as a motorised train tricked up to look like a cartoon stagecoach from an American Western; and statues and fountains that draw on strange aesthetic languages of local government optimism that one suspects would not be out of place in North Korea or Maoist China. The Hanamidori Cultural Centre, designed by the Tokyo practice Atelier Bow-Wow in collaboration with Toyo Ito, takes its place uneasily amid this landscape. Could it be at home here?

Ito is the bigger name here, but his role in the design process was more as a guardian angel to Atelier Bow-Wow. Led by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima, Bow-Wow is a young practice that has rapidly built an international reputation with books and buildings that display an engaging combination of humour, critique and a distinctive aesthetic that draws nourishment precisely from such oddities of the everyday environment. Their Made in Tokyo and Pet Architecture were bestselling “guidebooks” to the strange constructions that Tokyo throws up. Their work is marked by a warm affection for what exists, sharpened by a desire to render it visible in compelling and credible ways.

“Hanamidori” means “flowers and greenery”. The Hanamidori Culture Centre was conceived as a facility for the development and dissemination of what the website terms “green culture”, or what might best be described in English as ecological awareness. The designers responded to this brief with an approach they nickname “parkitecture”, defined by Kaijima as “an architecture that is as comfortable as being in the shade of a tree”.

The building forms the western edge of a grassy open space grandly titled the Field of Dreams. To the east rises an escarpment of apartment blocks and shopping buildings clustered around the suburban sub-centre of Tachikawa. The land to the west of the field is built up in stepped layers to connect nearly seamlessly with the roof of the building. You enter the building either at ground level from the city side to the east, or through the roof if you’re approaching from the park side.

In true Bow-Wow fashion, the building sets out to disturb conventional orderings. The usual oppositions of ground/roof and inside/outside are rendered ambiguous. The basic diagram consists of a broad, roughly horizontal platform in a bowed rectangular shape 150m long and 30m wide, supported by 15 large cylindrical tubes of varying diameter. The platform, both roof and ground, carries an undulating natural landscape on its back and shelters an expansive and fluid space under its belly. The cylinders provide structural anchors, vertical circulation and various functional spaces. These elements are disposed in a free way, eschewing regular rhythms or geometries.

The roof platform presents a varying topography on which a convincing biotope of grass, ground-covering plants, small trees and a small pond is laid out. Landscaping and detailing reinforce the blurring between artificial and natural. At some points the illusion is nearly complete. A fence preventing people from accidentally walking off the roof is made of netting woven from fine stainless cables, cleverly managing to balance designerly invention with a conventional chainlink idiom. A pathway winds its way over the miniature hills and dales, and lamps faintly reminiscent of clutches of dropping daffodils add a touch of whimsy.

This neat landscape of ecological correctness is punctured by the machinery of vertical circulation connecting the roof to the underside of the building. An escalator drops into a large circular hole; a couple of clunky pavilions – the protruding ends of two of the cylinders – house the elevator shafts. These interventions are straightforward and unfussy – they emphasise rather than hide their eruptions into the carefully blended naturalness of the roof. Bow-Wow evidently takes pleasure in such incongruities – an illusion or expectation is set up and then punctured with deadpan nonchalance.

A different world opens up underneath the platform. Most of this area constitutes an interior zone, around 6m high, bounded by glass walls. The intention, however, is to maintain the sense of being outside. The spatial quality is open and airy, if somewhat aimless. Some spatial delineation is given by the ceiling treatment, consisting of gauzy strips of expanded aluminium and screen-printed plastic, which subtly suggests, like iron filings around magnets, a spatial force field emanating radially from the cylinders. The interior floor is finished in light grey timber boards and urethane-covered concrete; the cylinders are finished in white lime render or timber – all materials drawn from an outdoor palette. The overall impression is of a warm and light-filled openness. This is enhanced by the glazed facade facing the Field of Dreams, whose fold-up panels allow the building to completely open during the warmer months.

However, despite the freely unfolding spatiality, the approachable material palette and lashings of natural light, the interior cannot quite escape the forlorn feel of a hangar that has lost its plane. The building feels a couple of sizes too big for its contents, and visitors seem uncertain of how to read or use its generosity of scale. This spatial largesse can be said to resemble that of a park landscape – a functionally undefined space in which a range of free-wheeling activities can happen. Except that it is a building and not a park.

The metaphor of the park, or more generally of landscape, is an important touchstone here. In this project it is explicitly part of the meaning of the building – devoted as it is to “green culture”. But it also forms a more or less implicit reference in a number of significant recent buildings devoted in some sense to the idea of “the public” in Japan. Foreign Office Architects referred to this metaphor in their Yokohama International Passenger Terminal building, and Toyo Ito has used it at the Sendai Mediatheque and more recently in fluidly twisting “seamless” topologies at Island City in Fukuoka. All these projects are posing the same question: what is an appropriate architecture to express and enable a contemporary conception of the public? It is the metaphor of landscape that has provided an answer, and has yielded a certain architectural aesthetic. In brief, this includes an enthusiasm for organic form and a preference for artful randomness in composition, an explicit lack of monumentality, objecthood or image; and an elision of the categories of interior and exterior.

Such principles, contemporary extensions of the modernist concerns of spatial coherence and abstraction, are certainly to be found at Hanamidori. But here there is a certain terseness of treatment, and a refusal to abandon the figurative possibilities of architectural form-making, that I find fresh – aspects also shared by the surrounding parkscape. It is like a Toyo Ito building drawn with a spraycan. Bow-Wow’s residential work shows an infectious enthusiasm for engaging this figural dimension of architecture. This sensibility can be found laced throughout Hanamidori – in the strangely gawky cylinders that are faintly reminiscent of a cluster of Dogon dwellings, or in details such as the cartoon-like stools or the flower-like lighting poles.

But in spite of such spatial and formal elaborations, the key question at the core of the public aspirations of this architecture remains unresolved: how to occupy – to activate – all these flowing, smooth, undulating, undefined spaces? One common response – interactive technology – is in my view a red herring. At Hanamidori, there is such a system, dubbed “SIMPLE”, that projects interactive educational imagery onto the floors and walls of a couple of the cylinders. But, unsurprisingly, the end result is pretty lame. Inadequate projection brightness rendered it almost invisible, and the technology that links the viewer’s body to the projected imagery – essential for the interactivity to work – was unreliable. Carefully designed furniture offers a more promising direction of investigation.

Hanamidori succeeds most when it draws inspiration from the eclectic peculiarities of the park that it forms a part of. The blunt cylinders with their penetrations resembling eyes and mouths; the soft and hairy hem of the roof line, the laconic directness of its plywood furniture – these elements all seem to gently assert their individuality against any purifying impulse towards aesthetic coherence. And at these moments, the building is almost at home.

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