The Tokyo International Forum: The Making of Public SpaceSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The invitation to deliver the John Dinkeloo Memorial Lecture is, for me, much more than an opportunity to talk at one of the many architectural schools in this country. In 1961, when I started architectural school, the picture of American architecture for us in South America was completely connected to the work of Eero Saarinen and, subsequently, to the work of John Dinkeloo and Kevin Roche. Years later, after graduation, and in times which were not as fertile as today with regard to the importance of technology and materiality in architecture, I was particularly drawn to the work of John Dinkeloo.
The education that I had was less flamboyant and less sophisticated than architectural education today. Prior to coming into architecture school, I was trained as a musician. It always struck me as a curious phenomenon that something that costs so much money, that requires so much effort, that involves so many people, and that is going to be here for so much longer than a piece of music is usually orchestrated, so to speak, with so little rigor.
In trying to understand exactly the inner workings of architectural production, I became interested in dissecting the natures of the one kind of architect who could come up with an inspired notion about how to develop a parti, and the other kind of architect who could implement it. After being in practice for some years, I realized that there is no such split, that the process through which an architectural work is produced is one complex, multi-faceted skill that requires the ability not only to design but to manage political circumstances, economics, organization of skills, and people. It is critical that design never stops, and that throughout the process of implementation, the so-called original idea is reformulated many times, even down to the last moments in which a job is actually finished.
I have always been puzzled by the division between what I call formal knowledge and tacit knowledge. It is a split from which we all have suffered. There are things that can be learned because they are formalizable, because somebody can create or construct a way of describing conceptual notions, and other things that can be learned only by doing. To me, architectural practice is essentially a long process of learning by doing.
The division between the design architect and the builder architect, between formal and tacit knowledge, is for me one of the most glaring contemporary fallacies and, I would suggest, part of the reason why the profession is in such a weakened state. This depressing aspect of architectural practice can be overcome by two things: the enthusiasm of young people and a major renovation of the educational system. In my view, these two things can counteract some of the conditions which the market has created.
Practicing architecture demands extraordinary commitment. One has to have ethics in order to go from a very large job to a very small job with the same intensity and with the same character and enthusiasm. When I was 19 years old, I won a competition for a very large building in Buenos Aires, the first high-rise in the city. At the time Roche Dinkeloo's Ford Foundation was almost complete and it was in my mind for the whole duration of that first project. Subsequently, I won a series of commissions that were all the result of competitions. When I came to the United States, it was a surprise to me to realize that competitions were not the normal way of developing a practice. Instead of having people propose ideas about programs and needs that architects could articulate, the process of selection was predicated on other things like having a certain number of people working in the office and building so many millions of dollars of construction a year. These criteria reflect an outdated mode of measuring professionalism. We need to recreate a process that instead recognizes skills, ability and excellence.
Being involved with making is the only aspect of architectural culture which I find completely satisfying. I have never been prone to philosophical posturing. Tactically, I think that we should convey to people the fact that we are here to build and not to talk about it. To build is a very difficult thing. It requires a range of skills that can only be developed with practice.
Today we are all under the pervasive influence of fantastic image-making. There is a lot of vanity associated with architecture in this setting, and this is something about which I feel very dubious. There is much confusion about this question of the autonomy of architecture as an artistic practice. Aesthetics and self-expression in architecture are not as important as the fact that it is a social act. There is an enormous social responsibility in what architects do. It is important to push beyond the obvious in order to make something more than what is required. The satisfaction of a requirement is a starting point but is not sufficient. As architects, we neither have the money nor the need for making the Tokyo International Forum. If there is somebody who needs such a building, their requirements must be satisfied first. Then, mechanisms must be sought which ensure the proposal can be enriched and transformed into something which has cultural meaning and which contributes to the sense of permanence and the betterment of the city.
Tokyo International Forum
The idea for the Tokyo International Forum was born in the late 1980s at the height of Japan's economic boom. The Governor of Tokyo wanted to mark Japan's importance in the global economy with a grand projet. The site of the Forum, formerly the center of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, was vacated as part of a master plan which called for relocating the City Hall to the city's periphery in order to restore civic and cultural functions to the center. Kenzo Tange, who had designed the City Hall, convinced the governor to decentralize the government, thus liberating a seven-acre site in the heart of the city, an unimaginably huge site for Tokyo. It was a puzzling situation; Tange offered his own building, a superb building, for demolition. He subsequently won a competition to design the new city government offices in Nishi-Shinjuku.
The site of the Forum occupies a key position on the boundary between Marunouchi, Tokyo's vital central business area, and the elegant Ginza shopping and entertainment district. The site faces the outer Imperial Palace Gardens to the west and is bounded on the east by the tracks of Japan Railways, the city's principal system of transportation. It is a highly consolidated urban setting characterized both by the grid of institutional buildings edging the Imperial Gardens and the curvilinear sweep of the railway. Four subway lines and two of the most heavily used train stations, Tokyo and Yarakucho stations, are located to the north and south of the site respectively, generating significant pedestrian traffic in the area.
The fact that the competition for the Forum was the first international architectural competition in Japan was highly significant because Japan has long been perceived as a closed society. The competition was designed to counter that xenophobic image. One of the reasons why we entered was not only because the competition was exciting in itself, but because the brief was ambitious and imaginative. It was written by an absolute master, an economist who was completely clear about what he knew and what he didn't know. He wrote the brief in an unbiased fashion, creating an intriguing list of requirements that was very difficult to solve.
The complex was to accommodate dance, musical, and theatrical performances in four theaters ranging from 600 to 5,000 seats. Each theater was required to have equal status with regard to the main entrance space of the complex. The brief also included two cinemas, facilities for conventions and trade shows, a conference center, retail and restaurants. In addition, offices, cultural information centers, a garden and a gallery for an internationally recognized art collection were to be provided. A major requirement was a strong north-south pedestrian connection through the site between Tokyo and Yarakucho stations through which around seven million people move each day very efficiently. Finally, the plan called for a 4,000-square-meter open public plaza.
The brief for the Forum described an ambition for a unique civic institution intended to serve as a focus of both cultural and business activities in the capital city of Japan. The building's program is a hybrid, a combination of cultural and multi-purpose spaces responding to the implicit goal of inducing the special synergy between artistic and economic forces intrinsic to the development of Japanese culture. Commissioned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and funded by private capital, the Forum was envisioned as a prime venue for events from around the world, a unique center promoting open dialogue and international cultural exchange.
With a vibrant but constrained site and this long list of requirements, we set out to study the competition with great intensity, as if it were a real job. We split the office into four teams to develop the four theaters independently. Trying to make sense of the work of the four design teams, we searched for a way of somehow locking the project into the site geometry. For me, an indication of good architecture is that a building is site-specific and cannot be moved anywhere else.
The crux of the design problem proved to be where to locate the public plaza. We explored many possibilities. I talked to a number of distinguished people about Tokyo and about the site in particular, and they all offered ideas and advice. But the most important insight came from a friend - a housewife who lives near and uses this part of the city regularly. Her insight was totally matter-of-fact about the nature of the ground level in Tokyo. Because Tokyo is such a condensed city, the reality of the sidewalk is multiplied at least four or five times. Two levels down and three levels up are exactly the same as walking on the street. The understanding that these levels above and below are significant led us to the notion that the building should wrap the civic space.
At the outset, people thought that our scheme was a Japanese entry — uncomplicated and perhaps even a little boring. That was exactly what we had intended to do-that is, to base the project on something other than the senseless formal innovation and pseudo-artistic form making which seem to figure so prominently in architectural circles today. To me, modernism is based upon ethical posturing about form-making. We thought that there was an interesting unexplored topic about how to find a kind of classicism in modern architecture, how to make modern architecture the natural consequence of functional response filtered through geometric control and structural legitimacy.
The plaza is both a space of transit and a destination, both a void between buildings and a positive volume. The ambiguity in the legibility of the space is intentional. People can actually feel propelled through the space but, at the same time, have the sense that this is a static place. A series of civic functions - a library-mediatech, restaurants, cafes, shops, an art gallery, and a 24-hour multi-media theater that tells the story of Japan - provide the activities that give the space its public character. In addition, the space is activated by the lobbies of the theaters at second floor level which overlook the plaza. Zelkova trees and lighting in the plaza are set out on the same nine-meter grid as the structure.
Under the landscaped plan of the plaza, a large concourse connects the access from the project to several lines of local and regional rail networks. The concourse is lined with an extensive food court with convenience shopping, continuing education facilities, and an International Exchange Salon. This circulation space wraps around a large exhibition center and becomes itself the main floor of the glass hall where the general information kiosk is located. Within the exhibition center, the nine-meter module is expanded to an 18-meter structural grid with a series of tree-like columns.
All functions of the building are accessible from the concourse level. The theaters have direct entrances from the street as well as from the concourse below so that they can be used independently or all together. Above, the lobbies of the theaters and the conference center overlook the space of the plaza and the glass hall. The conference rooms are connected to the theaters through a network of bridges across these voids, creating total flexibility of usage among the various components of the complex. From the plaza, a zig-zag ramp intersecting the bridges ascends along the length of the glass hall to the top of the building where restaurants and art galleries overlook the city and Tokyo Bay.
The Forum is open and accessible to the public 24 hours a day. It is a statement about the role of institutions in contemporary urban culture and as such, addresses issues of flexibility, permanence, openness and civic responsibility. The facilities are fully rented for the next four years. Several of next year's events will involve the whole complex, bringing some 35,000 people into the building at the same time.
The glass hall, the most dramatic space of the complex, is a 60-meter-high transparent enclosure of steel and glass in the architectural tradition of the great 19th century civic spaces. The glass hall is essentially about light and transparency. It is a metaphor for openness which stands in marked contrast to the opaque and inaccessible Imperial Gardens, the so-called dark heart of Tokyo.
Architecture, structure, and services are carefully integrated. Fire stairs are hung from the main structure. In addition to providing means of escape, they serve as expansion space for the lobbies during intermissions. The ramp along the length of the glass hall which carries visitors up to the roof is intersected by a number of bridges which, in addition to connecting spaces, work essentially as horizontal struts to resist the wind pressure on the walls of the glass hall. Rainwater from the roof comes into the parabolic arches and drains into the columns which are connected with the main water storage tank for the fire-fighting systems of the building.
With lighting at night, the bridges become floating or flying figures in the space. Light is also captured by the truss, transforming the transparent canopy by day into an enormous lighting fixture at night. The dramatic lighting of the truss has achieved what we never set out to do: the roof is becoming a horizontal landmark in the city. Landmarks are normally conceived as endless vertical structures up to the sky. In contrast, this hovers over Tokyo. It can be seen from many places and it is quite wonderful.
Architects today are too often enamored with the initial phase of work. The Tokyo Forum has an enormous consistency formally speaking; it is hard to see the difference between the final building and the competition entry, but I can assure you that they are totally different buildings in factual terms. The final building is about things that happened during the development and implementation of the initial idea. What we did over six and a half years in Tokyo was worth zero until the doors opened. If we had not succeeded in building it, I can assure you that it would not be a fraction of what it now is conceptually.
Practicing Architecture in Japan
Working on the Forum has been a permanent reminder of the opportunities and challenges that come with the internationalization of architectural practice. Japan is the third country in which I have had to take exams to become a licensed architect. You cannot imagine the level of pressure we were under. The Forum was the largest job in Japan. Work there is controlled by two or three very large architectural firms each with about 4,000 architects who felt threatened by our presence. Fortunately, we were somewhat protected by the fact that our scheme had been selected in 1989 as a result of an open competition. I passed the exams. We bravely said that we were going to do the drawings, and we did. We also managed the construction which was carried out by two very large joint ventures of major Japanese contractors.
In Japan, the major obstacle to acceptance is to demonstrate commitment. It seems difficult for us nowadays to be committed for the long haul. I moved to Japan and took most of my office along. Together with those hired in Tokyo, we had 250 people from our office on site together with 800 engineers. We had to demonstrate that we were there for the duration, not only of the project but afterwards as well. We completed the project three months ago, and we still have an office of 20 people in Tokyo taking care of details.
The amazing thing about Japan is that, once we were able to prove our commitment, the whole country turned into an incredible machine of efficiency. Every single morning we met at the beginning of the work day for calisthenics. Then the contractor would announce the basic work plan for the day. At the end of the day, around six in the evening, the same people would get together, review what had been done, and decide what was to be done the next day.
There is no hierarchy. Architects, engineers, contractors and subcontractors all work together. I gave a detailed lecture about the design of the building to the welders of the structure because in Japan, the laborers want to know what is behind the architecture of the building and why the building has the form it has. This high level of commitment and intensity on the part of labor occurs within what might rightfully be called a totally unjust competitive situation. Japanese construction is a market of around 650 billion dollars a year which gets distributed systematically among only nine construction companies who do all the work. In spite of the lack of competition, they are very interested in performance. It was marvelous to be on the same wavelength as the contractors. They are the best, absolutely the best.
Something which I now see with a different eye after an experience like this is that Japanese culture is enormously obstructive on the one hand and totally pragmatic on the other. The Western schism between high culture and commerce is non-existent there. For the Japanese, this connection - the fact that trade, commerce, performance, and art of the highest quality live together - is what inspired the Tokyo International Forum, what built it, and what is now giving it life.
On January 12, 1997, Herbert Muschamp wrote in his New York Times review of the Tokyo International Forum:
You will want to go into the Glass Hall immediately, but first you ought to look at the fire stairs set between the concrete cubes. The are the Rolex of fire stairs, immaculately engineered cascades of open-mesh steel that rise without a crude or wasted motion. If you climb a flight or two of them, you will get the key to the whole building.
It's almost unheard of for architects today to devote themselves to this level of detail. We pretend not to mind, because if we did we'd go crazy. We accept that architects develop concepts, sketches, drawing, and models, and then hand the project over to an "associated" firm to create the physical object in space. Here, we're dealing with a radically different economy of mind. The bolt beneath our feet emerged from the same esthetic intelligence that conceived the space around it. An architect is making architecture, and we almost can't stand it. It is dizzying to realize that excellence is a polite term for obsession.
Rafael Viñoly is currently at work on the Van Andel Institute building in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Rafael Viñoly is principal of the internationally recognized practice Rafael Viñoly Architects. He was born in Uruguay, completed his architectural studies at the University of Buenos Aires, and established an independent practice in New York in 1979. His studio has received several major comissions around the world. He delivered a longer version of this talk at the 1997 John Dinkeloo Memorial Lecture at the School of Architecture + Urban Planning at the University.