Makoto Sei Watanabe is an architect moved by the strength of the city. He neither loves or hates the chaos that retains some sense of order even when it visually and physically appears on the edge of giving up and collapsing. Watanabe is one of the few architects that express a keen interest in the production of architecture and the use of computer-aided technology. He is also one of the few architects to have built in times of incredible change, changes which once again are urging architects and designers to question and challenge their role in amongst great social, economic and environmental change and upheaval.
Two buildings, which have come to represent the city more than most are relatively, hard-to-find and tucked away from the main thoroughfares of Shibuya and Shinagawa. Aoyama Technical College, an independent architecture and construction school is located between Shibuya and Ebisu and K-Museum sits on the water’s edge on the peninsula of Odaiba. Watanabe’s Technical College in particular is a visual marvel made in the shape of several things coming together all at the same time. It’s an experiment with new technology, an expression of pop-culture and a building that summarizes the city it sits within, all in one. Not an easy feat!
Aoyama Technical College, 1990
Aoyama Technical College, Ebisu
Towards the end of 1980’s the Japanese economy had begun to break down, falling victim to not only it’s own shortcomings of massive redevelopment over a short period of time but also the wayward spending and risk taking seen so vividly in the Western stock exchanges of New York’s Wall Street and London’s Threadneedle Street. This decline would go on to chart a sequence of post-war recessions that would in some way affect markets across the developed world, and decimating the economies of developing countries. Japan at that time, a burgeoning country of technological and economic prowess, was becoming a cash-rich country where credit was easily obtainable and the average person saved more than they spent. A large trade surplus meant the yen vastly increased in value, Japanese- made goods were more affordable and property prices rose as the bubble economy finally gave in towards 1989. It was against this background in 1988 that an international competition was held to design a school building for a private technical college in Aoyama. Watanabe’s entry was chosen. After a mere 3 months of design a preparation, construction began and took 10 more months to complete, a ridiculously short period of time given the complexity of the project’s construction, the materials involved and it’s proximity to neighboring buildings. Despite these constraints the final immaculately finished object opened right at the point when the Japanese economy began to experience it’s worst period with the following decade, 1990- 1999, often being referred to as a ‘lost decade’. Culturally though, this has become one of Japan’s most dynamic periods, with a blossoming of youth culture that would be recognized globally by the wealth of it’s music and visual culture.
The building itself, looks like an explosion in reverse. Watanabe delights as he refers to the tanks, water-pipes, structural elements and lightning-rods extending the city as the physical surrounds extend and mature and new buildings built. Though allegorical, he sees the chaos the building creates from the street below or from it’s relationship with the neighbouring buildings surrounding it as simply expressing the very city itself. How does it continue to function when it very clearly looks on the edge of collapse? If you look at the satellite image on Google Maps its probably the most recognisable built structure for miles which is quite an achievement considering how dense and compact that part of Shibuya is.
It is a testament to the client, building and even architect that despite the doom-laden economic crisis the building was born into it still remains standing without being replaced, the common fate of lesser buildings in Tokyo. The plastic appearance of cast aluminum and stainless metal red and silver body parts are reminiscent of something more mechanical, understandable given the Japanese taste for robots, mechanics, mecha or Mobile Suits, otherwise known as Gundam. The attributed nickname for the building is actually “Gundam building”. This is only part of its image though. Watanabe designed with early computer-aided design modeling programs to master some of the heavier, less refined built pieces from the roof and lightning rods made from 40 different parts, the stabilizing rods to resist earthquakes and the 473 different special metal sections some of which were cast in aluminum. Given that the building was built in 1990 and computer-aided engineering used was not as universally familiar or as accurate or refined as it is today, it is not surprising that the resulting building looks very dated, yet it still captivates Its heavy-handedness it to be admired in an age of perfect forms and refined form-making. If you catch a glimpse of it from the end of the street it still shocks and close up you wonder how on earth it was built in the first place. That power to capture the imagination “deserves to be restored” declares Watanabe. As an architecture school you would imagine that is exactly what it should do, inspiring it’s student residents to respond as aggressively to their surrounds as the building clearly does. In a city like Tokyo it fits in perfectly and yet remains unique both at the same time.
Watanabe’s K-Museum is a stranger yet equally wonderful piece of architecture from that lost decade mentioned previously. Designed as part of a planned exposition on World Cities to be held on the banks of Tokyo Bay near Odaiba, the exposition was cancelled as Watanabe recalls “by a popularly elected governor whose background was in show business” The building, as it happens, is no shrinking violet. The governor in question, Yukio Aoshima – novelist, film director and TV actor – took over as Governor of Tokyo in 1995. His previous counterpart, Shun’ichi Suzuki, conceived the idea of holding a World Expo on Tokyo Bay to mark the end of his tenureship as he retired as Tokyo Governor in 1995. It would be built on 448 hectares of reclaimed land at the cost of ¥200 Billion (¥83 Billion of which would come from Tokyo Taxes). The United Nations was involved with 10 major cities worldwide ready to take part. Planning had taken the best part of 8 years to liaise with foreign city officials, local governmental departments, prefectures, and local community groups. Everything was in set place to give this new infrastructural piece of reclaimed land some much-needed life and mark a new chapter in the Tokyo’s growth and financial recovery. After only five weeks as the newly elected Governor of Tokyo, Aoshima, who had next to no previous political experience, cancelled the entire event and construction almost entirely stopped. Planned office developments for that area also stopped indefinitely and the area remained vacant, a vast open space. One project to slip through this bureaucratic net and be completed was another Makoto Watanabe project, K-Museum. Rising from the heart of this incipient city, the museum was to showcase new technology and represent a city on the edge of change. Again, no architectural idea was too small for Watanabe to tackle.
With no immediate context to relate to, a veritable blank canvas, Watanabe set out to introduce a very modern and alien addition to the reclaimed tract of land christened as Odaiba, the new city. With no eco-system, no natural order of things to respond to, how do you go about creating something that represents this new topological landscape a new city within Tokyo? His solution was to use light, wind, changes in topology, and abstract forms that all gaze skyward.
A piece of post-modernism at heart it takes some of the visual references around and carves them into its material. A water store, housed beneath the building and serving the adjacent site is suggested in ripples etched into the black stone of the museums’ plinth and surround forecourt. A field of fibre optics called “Touching the Wind / FIBER WAVE” clearly refer to Tokyo Bay but also the idea that this building is responsive to the passing changeable weather coming in off the sea and Tokyo Bay. Other materials were used to demonstrate the possibilities of material development and were at that time cutting-edge. Forms of semi-transparent Fiber-Reinforced Plastics (FRP) top the enclosure while bending artificial marble forms integral toilet booths. The rear of the site is a beautifully crafted in a wave of black stone planted with metal reeds, each read capped with a fibre-optic stem that illuminates at night. Currently the site is undergoing massive re-landscaping with the addition of neighboring gardens being planted. These should be completed within the coming months and access be possible from the river’s edge. For the time being you can walk the perimeter of the site and be close enough to be perplexed and enthralled by the massiveness and gracefulness of this very unique building, all but ignored by it’s surroundings.
Called a museum, K-Museum is less a collection of things and more a piece of museum-architecture in itself, a building that represents a museum rather than being one. It isn’t flexible in any way to accommodate outside exhibits and is more of a time capsule than an exhibition space. No longer standing alone K-Museum is slowly being joined by a mixture of dis-jointed development, some extreme like shopping centre Venus-Fort, some nondescript like apartment blocks and some huge with possibly the world’s largest car showroom, Toyota City within sight. The contrast between K-Museum and it’s neighbours is surprisingly mute. Across the way, a small Parisian-themed backstreet with restaurants and café sit in the shadow of a 20plus storey office block and major interchange between monorail and expressway. The irony is definitely not lost. K-Museum with its rubber and poured concrete, mirrored surfaces topped with a golden orb resonates with the confusion of Tokyo but without the urge to simply replicate it. The location and stagnant site have somehow benefited the building and although now 17 years old the it now has a vital role to play as the Odaiba’s gradual development continues.
Both buildings display a common theme. They reflect the city they sit within more strangely for the way that city has developed, perhaps even leading the way for its development despite their inception. For buildings respectively 17 and 23 years old their condition is surprisingly healthy. You wouldn’t say that of each office block and shopping mall that currently graces Tokyo’s skyline.
Further reading – “Trial by Fire” by Mark Robinson http://renfield.net/tj/9511/gov.html
Photos credit: Stuart Munro © 2013