Designing Mito -- by Arata Isozaki
Quarterly Mito Geijutsu-kan No. 1, Autumn 1988

1-6-8 Goken-cho, Mito-shi, Ibaraki-ken, 310-0063 Japan
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Phone: (029)227-8111 / Fax: (029)227-8110

Q How did you develop the concept of Art Tower Mito as an architect?

A My first encounter with Art Tower Mito was at the interview for selecting the architect in charge of the project. At that time, I was asked what I thought about the so-called "idea competition" [for designing the Mito arts complex], and I replied that such contests held in Japan were mostly half-baked and hard to apply for. That [comment] made Mito City rethink its own ideas about the architect selection process. Eventually it decided to invite each architect to Mito to state his opinions, then to discuss them, based on which the decision would be made. At that time, the city had pretty much settled on its basic ideas, and I was selected with the understanding that I would abide by them. From that point on I began my work.

I started with the design of the tower. In commemoration of Mito's centennial as an official city, I proposed three different designs of a tower some 100 meters (328 feet) high, in line with the city's image. Similarly, I put forward three different layouts for the plaza. After that, I gave them a choice of three different concepts for the buildings: combining the theater, concert hall and art gallery into one building, making them independent of each other, or linking the elements of the three. After deliberating the topic with various members, it was decided to draw up plans for each of the three combinations, and then to choose the one that was the best-balanced.

The most important thing, I thought, was not to make the Art Tower Mito complex a sort of multi-purpose hall something that I knew from my several decades of experience. In Europe, concert halls, opera halls and art galleries are each placed in different buildings and operated under separate systems. In Japan as well, Kabuki and Noh theaters are distinct from regular theaters. Thus, it was decided to [shift away from the multiplex concept] and return to the original [concept] direction. In the end, the design was based on the concept of separate buildings the theater, concert hall, art gallery, tower, plaza, conference hall, organ hall, and parking area linked together within certain confines so that they could be used in combination. That was the basic motif of the design.

The next step in the design process was taken after the membership of operating committee was determined namely, Messrs. Hidekazu Yoshida, Yusuke Nakahara and Tadashi Suzuki. That brought to the fore the non-physical aspects of the design, allowing it to become even more thorough and specialized.

That, I think, is the most appropriate solution for developing facilities in Japan today. To add something new in cities such as Tokyo, with their plethora of concert halls and theaters, one possible solution is to make a point of integrating and combining the various arts, such as at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. However, in reality, the individual parts [of such building complexes] are usually operated independently of each other, meaning that the physical aspects inevitably tend to limit the non-physical aspects, rendering them incomplete. On the other hand, I would still like to leave some room for testing future possibilities [at such complexes].

Q What are your opinions on the importance and/or position of Mito as a city?

A Mito now lies only about an hour and a half from Tokyo, putting it within easy reach. It's probably even closer to Hibiya [in central Tokyo] than certain outlying regions of the metropolitan area, such as Tama or Hachioji cities, so it feels like part of the Tokyo area. That means that a day trip can be made of visiting Tokyo, unlike places such as Toga village, where you have to gather the muster to make an overnight trip.

However, that has both its negative and positive aspects: on the negative side, people can just as easily get to Tokyo from Mito [as in the reverse direction], while on the positive side, it's easy to assemble people from Tokyo there. Historically speaking, also, Mito is a different kind of city from Tokyo, with its own traditions stemming from the Edo era (1603-1868), meaning that you can play around with various distinctive qualities not found in Tokyo.

Art Tower Mito cost around ¥10 billion ($77 million) to build. If you tried to put up a building at the same cost in Tokyo, it would hardly have any impact or influence on its surroundings unless it really offered a unique idea. If you're careless [in a city like Tokyo], it's difficult to sustain operations [of an arts facility] at the pace you want in the midst of the competition from similar projects and facilities in the vicinity. That's because you're always trying to keep up with something that is constantly changing. Compared with that, a place like Mito is good for hunkering down and pursuing a single artistic goal, being close enough to Tokyo to be stimulated by it while remaining far enough away to keep [unwanted elements] away. In the Kanto [Tokyo metropolitan] region, cities lying some 100 to 150 kilometers (60 to 90 miles) from the center such as Utsunomiya and Takasaki would fall into the same category.

Looking for similar examples abroad, one could point to the relation between Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford on Avon, and London. Indeed, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) derives advantages from maintaining theaters in both locations. Mito would do well to play up the advantages of such a [geographical] relationship as it approaches problems in the future.

Accordingly, it's all right when thinking about Mito not to force it into the mold of a "typical" regional city or culture. As a matter of fact, from what I hear, when people living around Mito used to want to shop at department stores, they didn't go into downtown Mito so much as they drove to [nearby] Tsukuba; since just a little longer trip [than that] would bring one all the way to Tokyo, it was actually more convenient for people to go there [instead]. But now there seems to be a change in such behavioral patterns. Since Mito is far enough from Tokyo to be able to cast a cold eye on it, it should consider what it can do to take advantage of its position. I believe it's an easy place to develop a strategy or problem consciousness distinct from Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the confined attitude should not be adopted of looking at Mito in and of itself, limiting the perspective to the region alone, but it should be opened toward Tokyo. That is to say, an "attack" strategy should be developed that emphasizes the relation with Tokyo such a positioning is possible, I think. It's much like the role Mito played throughout the Edo era up until the end.

Q What do you have to say about current artistic trends and your architectural vision?

A Seen from the vantage of architecture and the visual arts, modern art is now at a turning point. One reason is the emergence of post-modernism in the '70s. Over the following two decades, there was a kind of reaction against or criticism of the modernism that had served as the common base [for modern art] up through the '60s. One example of that phenomenon, I believe, is the necessity that arose for artistic creation that posed the question of what could be done or made apart from the avant-garde (i.e., utopian) considerations that had been the central theme of art until the '60s. I feel that we have now reached the point where we ought to cut loose from that sort of criticism of modernism.

The present age seems to be an era in which the mainstream has disappeared. That means that we no longer have a situation in which someone can produce something that will be accepted by everyone. One might say that there is no one dominant style, but that everything has been broken into little stories. But even that [trend] has reached a point where everything that can be said has been said, bringing us back to a point where people are longing for the return of the grand story (grand récit). Some even advocate reviving modernism. However, that is merely a prediction and expectation, and not the way things really are.

In the field of architecture, you have a division between those regions or people who are advancing a more thorough pursuit of post-modernism, and those who want to completely deny it. That division should become even clearer in the next couple of years. At any rate, the situation is always transitional.

Looking back at my own experience working in the '60s, '70s and '80s, there is a lag of several years between an architect's initial conception of an idea and the fruition of that work. Projects that are now nearing completion are the results of ideas first made in the early '80s; likewise, projects now being designed will not be realized until the early '90s. In a sense, given that Art Tower Mito will be finished at the end of the '80s, it is my most representative or typical work of this decade. Before this I had been involved with the [design of the] Tsukuba Center Building, and I believe that Art Tower Mito will come to be seen as indicative of a slight change in my future direction.

Speaking from experience in my own career, it's taken about a decade for me to change from one phase of method and expression to another. So I treat Art Tower Mito as my representative project for the '80s. The term "Late Modernism" (among various labels) has been used to describe my output in the '70s, because my conceptions were like abstract pieces of sculpture, rendered geometrically as is. In contrast, my '80s style has been characterized by an attempt to "flesh out" my works architecturally while retaining the geometric basic theme as I have dipped more into architectural history. That includes more architectural details and partial ornamentation, and has even extended to the treatment of materials and architectural style itself. In other words, the characteristic trait of my work in the '80s is a combination of abstract form with historical architectural references. And I believe that is demonstrated clearly in the design of Art Tower Mito.

I am not yet sure in which direction [architectural style] will turn in the '90s. Some people say it will return to the '70s, adopting a different form. The normal course, so to speak, of artists' methodology is to go back a decade or two and start over again. I was recently invited to Australia to give a speech at its bicentenary celebrations, and I was surprised to see myself described in a magazine there as an "architecture Picasso." That is to say, I often change my style, just as Picasso did. I did not expect to see such a description of myself. However, as viewed by the ordinary person, transformation in the field of architecture is thought to be unusually difficult, with the norm being rather to develop one style and to build upon it. In contrast, I never want to stick to a single style, wishing to escape from [the process of] bringing a certain style to perfection. My feeling is to pursue my work by placing myself in a situation of constant change. I believe that Art Tower Mito can be viewed in the context of my '80s work, although it may be seen by others as changing.

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