Architecture Is More Than Public Works

Architecture is more than public worksArchitecture is now a common topic for everyone, even referred to in tabloids and on TV variety shows. You probably remember the debates in 2015 about the construction costs for the new National Stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games, and last year’s discussions on the relocation of Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale market to Toyosu.

Unfortunately, architecture was not portrayed as something to be admired in those instances. The heated discussions became chaotic, covering a variety of topics not necessarily related to each other. Questions of flaws in administrative procedures and the individual issues of business operators were cast together with issues of architectural design. I would say architecture finds itself in an uneasy situation.

Then there was another phenomenon — dubbed “pilgrimages to holy sites” — of people visiting certain locations featured in the “Pokemon Go” smartphone game, as well as in some animation films and dramas. You could paint them as a new form of entertainment — superimposing a fictitious place over an actual spot. But it is simply giving games and fantasy a touch of reality. What may sound like a fresh experience leaves no place for the wonder of discovering a new landscape. I would say the uneasiness I feel about architecture lies in the same context.

The field of architecture has become attached to the gigantic framework of the public works system, leaving no space for it to be evaluated from a different perspective. Furthermore, the contradictions and flaws within this system are questioned as if they are issues architecture must solve.

Zaha Hadid’s design plan for the new National Stadium — the one selected in the stadium’s first design competition — was initially appreciated for its dynamism and the uplifting feeling it conveyed. I doubt anybody, especially people on news variety shows, appreciates such aspects anymore. People’s eagerness to see an architectural structure that had never before existed was engulfed in the efficiency of business schemes.

I totally agree with the new commitment to provide full information on public projects — not only to experts concerned, but also to ordinary citizens. I also understand that game and anime creators are trying to expand their sphere to include the actual lives of their customers. But I would like to point out that the value of architecture, as well as of reality — meaning geographical spots — seems to have been swallowed up by systems such as that of public works.

On the other hand, I see new movements to renovate old shopping malls and design spaces for community use. This is certainly an attempt to change the status quo of the system, using a real architectural approach through buildings and places.

Such attempts are still very small-scale. And yet, if you see it as proof of the autonomy of places and architecture, you won’t feel any unease about it at all.

Nakagawa is a professor at Kyoto Institute of Technology and an expert on architectural history.