Bay Area Landscape

Toyo Ito reflects on the antagonism of nature, history, and the modern age through two projects

This article is excerpted from a lecture given by Toyo Ito at the CCA for the Anyplace conference in 1994. An edited version of the lecture was also published in Anyplace (New York: Anyone Corporation; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).


The calm sea at dusk is beautiful as I watch the sunset from the site office in Hinagu. Yatsushiro is known as the sea of Shiranui for its thousands of sea fires, but the rippling surface is tinted in gold and calm as lake water, being sheltered by the Amakusa Islands from the high seas. Hinagu once was a popular hot spring resort. At the end of the Meiji era, inns used to line the gently curved street that runs along the shore, crowded with tourists. No trace of those flourishing days is left today, save for seven three-storey wooden inns.

Mountains close in right behind the streets of this resort village. Looking to the land from a boat on the sea at twilight, one used to witness, as an elderly man from the town dearly calls to mind, the glistening rays of the setting sun, reflected on the folds of the mountains, looking like a golden folding screen.

Although not directly open to south seas like the Okinawa Islands, this place is also scorched with the burning sun and drenched in torrential rains that one feels would penetrate the roof. As I sit gazing at the sea to the west when the evening calm sets in, I am lured into believing in the existence of Niraikanai (eternal world). As Ken-ichi Tanigawa defines it, Niraikanai is the underworld and at the same time the starting point of the depths of consciousness and means the furrows of our memory from the time when our race found their way to reach the Japanese Archipelago riding on the Black Current.

Tomio Ohashi, photographer. Old People’s House in Yatsushiro, Japan, 1994, Toyo Ito Architects. © Tomio Ohashi

Old People’s Home in Yatsushiro (1994) was planned on a plot of land reclaimed from the sea of Shiranui. The site is desolate with the ground left exposed. Expressways are expected to penetrate the reclaimed area in a few years, and bridge piers are already standing close to the site. The site for the proposed nursing home therefore opens, on one side, to the sea of eternal Niraikanai, and on the other faces the streets of the Hinagu hot spring district located in the suburbs of Yatsushiro City. The resort village at its suffocatingly small human scale, without seeming aware (reassuring probably for most Japanese), stands in peculiarly strange contrast to the glaring sun and the sea in the west. The reclaimed area is wedged in between these two contrasting landscapes as if to dissect them, unable to assimilate with either of them. In other words, these three landscapes exist side by side independently of the others instead of becoming fused and merged. The sea that leads to Niraikanai, the desolate resort, the reclaimed land, and the overhead highway … would it be too abrupt an attempt to analogize these contrasting landscapes with the antagonism of nature, history, and the modern age (technology)? On second thought, however, this contrast is typically seen in every Japanese coastal city of all scales from megalopolises such as Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Fukuoka to much smaller local cities.

Tokyo Bay Area, which extends from Makuhari, Chiba to the site of MM21 in Yokohama via Tokyo Disneyland in Urayasu and Haneda Airport, is an ultimate example of such antagonizing landscapes. In Hinagu, despite the antagonism, we sense the overwhelming nature itself when confronted with the vast sea and the intense sunshine. In Tokyo Bay Area, on the other hand, we get an impression that the man-made land of such a magnificent expanse is almost expelling the sun and the sea. Two years ago, I wrote:

“I saw Tokyo Bay Area from a boat for the first time in three years. Each time I visit the Area I am filled with inexplicably deep emotions. It reveals the monstrously appalling aspects of the megalopolis that would otherwise never be visible from inside Tokyo. Numerous unmanned containers gliding over belt conveyers, indeterminable piles of waste, the contaminated sea, and all kinds of carrier vessels … these suggest not a waterfront but a gigantic urban backyard … The area however had transformed radically in only three years. The Bay Area which once stood behind or outside the monstrous alien was now undergoing internal changes. Along the shoreline from Shinagawa to Harumi now stand a plethora of high-rises, a large bundle of roads extends over the water to the Ariake reclaimed area, and the man-made island next to Yumenoshima (Dream Island) is connected with the existing urban area by multiple pipelines. There, bristles an incredible number of cranes on the man-made island. I stood wordless, stunned, on a 12Om-high bridge pier to witness the colossal amount of energy converging in this newly emerging city. Nostalgic sentiments about the past are but scathingly denounced. In a few years, the island will most probably be covered with a forest of high-rises and bustling with urban activities. It would appear like a high-performance artificial organ installed in an alien. Here is emerging an utterly new urban space that no one has ever experienced yet. Herds of buildings will be constructed on a totally parched and homogeneous land. No doubt they will have lost their genius loci. I dare say it is almost heart rending to see architecture alienated this much from its place.”1

  1. Architectural Landscape of a Saran-Wrap City, “Gendai Shiso”, Revue de la pensée d’aujourd’hui, September 1992  

This was written almost two years ago. In the meantime, the bridge has opened as “Rainbow Bridge”, and the monumental buildings are materializing. The artificial organ of the gigantic alien has begun to function.

The inexplicable sensations and stupefaction stirred by this man-made island evoke in me a sense of uselessness, most probably due to the immense discrepancy between what stands in front of me and the conventional concept of space (which we had long thought to be an urban city) and due to apprehension for the prospect of living in a bleak and homogenous space of such a vast scale. In a place like this, the concept of architecture to which we had faithfully adhered would seem totally meaningless. The inordinate scales of the buildings and the magnitude with which they are alienated from the place are so appalling that I am tempted to ask, “Can this proliferation of buildings in this place be called architecture at all?” Repeating the three words I used in the beginning, it seems that the space in the modern age (technology) has reached a point where it can no longer be fused with the surrounding nature or incorporated in the historical context of the place.

Tomio Ohashi, photographer. Old People’s House in Yatsushiro, Japan, 1994, Toyo Ito Architects. © Tomio Ohashi


The site for Tsukuba South Parking Building (1991-4), another project, is situated in the centre of Tsukuba Academic New Town, quite close to Tsukuba Center Building designed by Arata Isozaki (see 8311, Shinkenchiku). The Center, when completed, looked conspicuous and unsettling in this New Town. That was exactly what Isozaki had intended in his deal. After a lapse of more than ten years, however, even this architecture acclimated to the environment and this once dry and dusty place is now filled with abundant verdure, and the buildings are now set deep in the forests of greens. Of course, vacant lots are still conspicuous compared to other existing cities, the number of buildings under construction has radically decreased, and the New Town seems to have now settled into an era of stability.

Tsukuba Academic New Town is an outstanding example of post-war new town projects in Japan as it is most faithfully based on the theory of modern city planning. This is probably due to the fact that Tsukuba’s geographical conditions helped to maintain the integrity that would make it difficult to turn it into an ordinary “bed town” of an existing large city. Arata Isozaki commented when the project for Tsukuba Center Building was announced: “One of the characteristic aspects of the New Town project was, like so many ultra-large-scale projects in other fields in post-war Japan, to establish the modernist concept and method in a typically indigenous Japanese soil, so typically indigenous as to be almost too impeccable”, and “the city planning here is probably based on the concept of the garden city advocated by Howard. The concept was originally advocated to criticize the highly intensive and concentrated European type cities. The concept of the garden city itself is in fact inconsistent as it aims to construct a city within the framework of a rural environment. Somehow, spatial images in any of the twentieth-century city plannings are, one may well say, all obsessed with this singular concept, be it by a radicalist or a conservative. Therefore, it is only natural that Tsukuba Academic New Town should seek to create a low-density urban space where the greenery and roads predominated, as such was accepted as a typical image of a modern city.”

The ideal of this New Town, which was to give sufficient room for vegetation and vehicles derives from the image of a future city depicted by Le Corbusier. The basic principle of the planning including the use of modules based on the scale of vehicles, the traffic system that segregates people from vehicles by the network of pedestrian decks in the centre of the city and landscaping of the area along the streets was implemented as planned in the ocre area of the New Town today. Indeed, one finds in this New Town more greenery than in existing urban spaces, and here is a community where vehicles play a central part, as originally expected.

But if anyone asks if this was the real image of an ideal city that we had sought for over one hundred years since the dawn of the twentieth century, we would surely be at loss and set thinking. The pedestrian decks separating people from vehicles do not seem to provide a particularly attractive space. What is more distracting is the parking space. Looking down at the Centre District from the top of a high-rise, one is struck with the extraordinary conspicuity of it. Most of the vacant spaces are used as arid parking spaces, bare ground with no greenery, or with random paving at best. They are the negative spaces behind the scenes that were not depicted in the perspectives for the New Town.

Even though Tsukuba Academic New Town was not sited on reclaimed land, it was planned as a totally new system independent of and cut away from the nature of the former rural villages that used to be there. As such, this New Town also falls under the antagonism of nature, history, and modern age, as discussed in connection with the reclaimed land. In fact, at the boundary between the New Town and the adjacent agricultural land that has existed since long before the New Town was planned, a marked contrast is seen that can only be described as bizarre. What barely gives continuity to the two is perhaps the verdure. But would it be an exaggeration to say that even the plants that cover the surface of the New Town are mere means to conceal its arid and monotonous nature, just as in the reclaimed land?

Tsukuba South Parking Building, Japan, 1991-4, Toyo Ito Architects. © Shinkenchiku-sha

Scale of the Bay Area

Unlike architecture, there is no end to the making of an urban space, and a city forever keeps changing. It is a manifestation of all our activities such as politics, economy, and culture rather than human will. As such, a city can never be judged a success or failure however well planned it may be. We often speak of the human scale, but even that concept would easily change with time. Once we are accustomed to the vast scale of the Bay Area, the uncomfortableness we may feel about the grid of Tsukuba or that of Shinjuku Nishigushi Area will soon disappear. Insensitive or avaricious, most of us eventually become accustomed to a new environment.

As I watch young mothers parking their cars near the Shopping Centre, sauntering with their children in Tsukuba Academic New Town, I can visualize the future of Tokyo Teleport Town, though yet appallingly bleak now, filled with high-rises and people chattering and enjoying sunshine on the streets. Although I am filled with the apprehension of whether this will ever be a place fit for human living space, or if people can surmount this inordinately vast anti-human scale, I also stop and think that such apprehensions may only be self-righteous misgivings of an architect like me.

Let us not question its success or failure. However, we cannot deny the fact that everywhere that these development activities are based on the modernist theory of city planning they are confronting and not fusing with the nature and the historical context of the place. The theory itself lacks the argumentation that can fuse with others, nor is it willing to do so. It is argued that there we find the essence of modern technology. But the spaces under the modernist theory of city planning are all ostentatious symbolic expressions rather than a materialistic implementation of technology as it is. Mere makeshifts of covering the surface with plants could not possibly resolve the structure of the antagonism.

Is the idealistic approach of negating reality and creating an independent utopia beyond the realm of reality, an approach taken up in the beginning of this century, still reflected in the attempt of modernist theory to create an independent space that never assimilated with nature or the historical context of the space? This manifests itself if we looked how Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine for three million people and the Plan Voisin for Paris are independent of the existing urban spaces. This modernist movement, which had initially heralded social reforms, was established in Japan as early as the 1960s, and now even seems to eradicate and trample the nature and the historical context of space.

Mechanism to Create a Transparent Relationship

When I was assigned the two projects, Old People’s Home in Yatsushiro and Tsukuba South Parking Building, my initial thought was how I could put an end to the antagonism of the three spaces: nature, history, and modern age. In other words, it was an attempt to restore the once expelled relation among the modern age, the nature, and the historical context of space by constructing architecture on a land that had been flattened by modern technology.

Although no rival to Tokyo Bay Area in scale, the Hinagu reclamation is no different from it in its aridness and loss of genius loci. What made it worse was that the site was intended not for the youth but for the elderly to spend their last days of life. Initially, we thought it impossible to secure trees and fill the site with trees and flowers. Our ideas gradually changed as we frequented the site. As I said in the beginning, the tropical sun, and the sea of Shiranui overwhelmingly predominate the place. The ultimate task we had to achieve at the site in terms of architecture was to create a “place” that could link the hot spring resort with the exquisite sea. It was a task of creating a place that opens to both the land and the sea, tying them in a transparent relationship. By transparent relationship I mean a relation in which the sea, the resort village, and the reclaimed site coexist and share the space with each other instead of building a wall in-between. The nursing home would be so designed that its residents will not be confined to the arid environment of the reclaimed land. They could be embraced by the town of Hinagu and mountains behind it, the place where they were born and brought up, and at the same time be able to muse on Niraikanai as they sit gazing at the westerly sea. It is in that sense then, that the architecture starts to function as a mechanism that links the two landscapes, and not merely as a package offering a secure shelter.

If the Yatsushiro project is intended as a mechanism that links two different landscapes, the Tsukuba project is a mechanism that adjusts the scale gap between man and vehicle. Drivers are guided into the parking place, where they are transformed into pedestrians. Unlike the conventional parking place where vehicles are introduced into a package called architecture of the pedestrian scale, Tsukuba Parking Place maintains the scale of vehicles that continues from the outside roads. The dynamic scale of the New Town is thus incorporated in the architecture itself through this sense of continuity. Another important architectural object was to turn a parking place which had always been regarded as something negative into something positive. The structure that has a wide span, dynamic layout that gives an impression of being outdoors, facades that connect the outside with the inside, all these are expected to contribute to eradicating the grim impressions of a parking place.

Tsukuba South Parking Building, Japan, 1991-4, Toyo Ito Architects. © Shinkenchiku-sha

Yearning for Niraikanai

Frankly, I am perplexed about what architecture can lead to when I am faced with the flat and homogenous land of outrageous size in Tokyo Bay Area, the urban space in which we will be living in the twenty-first century. Just as the vastness of the site has invalidated our concept of community from its foundation, a concept on which we architects are still somehow relying.

Sure, the concept of community where people group together and live together is definitely changing now. It is about time architects face this fact objectively, to sever ourselves from trust in humanism remaining in the corner of our heart and to reconstruct the concept of architecture from scratch.

Upon reflection, what I have been doing was to build a conceptual urban space and construct an idealistic architecture within that space. That process itself has been effective in developing and expanding one’s images, but we are long past that phase. I feel it is my compelling responsibility to demonstrate what realistic architecture can do in real urban cities, however modest and humble my contributions may be.

And yet, even this bleak and arid man-made land of the Bay area is blessed with the cool sea breeze and the golden calms of twilight. I cannot but brood over the possibility of people, even on this man-made land, sharing the yearnings for the eternal world of Niraikanai.


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