mountain

The building is not trying to be a mountain

The City of Mishima in Japan is twinned with Pasadena in California. Pasadena Heights is the name of a housing complex in Mishima and designed by Kiyonori Kikutake, completed 1974. I remember it from Japan Architect, the English language version of 新建築.

20120111_2321838 Here it is now, still at 35° 6’53.68″ 138°57’38.37″ Pasadena HeightsIts description on housingprototypes.org doesn’t do it justice. The Japanese language internet has more, and more recent information.

For a large project by the father of all Metabolists, Pasadena Heights is virtually unknown.

This alone makes me suspect it had something of real value to offer the world in terms of how people might live. As the Japanese are wont to say, 出る釘は打たれる。 Deru kugi wa utareru “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” And so it is with media content.

First, let’s get to know Pasadena Heights.  Here’s a plan of an apartment. There are 120.

20120111_2321839Each has two ways to enter. The first is via the 3m wide front path (1) and the terrace (3). entrance

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To the left is a void over the level below. (“Woof!”)

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The other access is from under the building using the rear walkway overlooked by the bedroom windows.

The front door opens into the kitchen that has the bathroom behind. Both are accessed directly from the living room, as are both bedrooms.

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Inside, there’s no circulation space as such. Going from one space to another is a part of life that doesn’t require a dedicated space to do it. In Japanese houses, passing through the living room and saying “I’m going to have a bath now” is what happens everyday. The usual reply is Go yukkuri! which literally translates as “Take your time!” but “Have a good one!” better conveys the sentiment.

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Now – the part of the terrace fronting the living room is lit by a void above.

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This is the garden void you passed by earlier, but of the apartment above, the plan of which is flipped and offset. It’s a confusing but remarkable configuration.

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It’s made possible by the modular plan in which the void to below and next to the path (1) , is offset one path’s width from the inner void above the living room terrace (2) and which is adjacent to the entrance garden of the flipped apartment above. The small bedroom (3) is offset a path’s width from the living room terrace void (2) and, because of that, will be beneath the living room terrace (and terrace void) of that flipped apartment above.

It all fits together like this.

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and seems to work perfectly apart from the smaller bedroom having no chance of direct sunlight.

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Another fault could be the parking. Despite being a resort with many summer houses, the climate of Mishima is warm, humid and wet in summer, and cool and wet in winter.

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Whether you take the high path or the low path to your apartment, it’s a long walk from the car or the bus stop.

Nevertheless, those two functional deficiencies aren’t enough to explain this project’s obscurity. Many far more non-fuctioning buildings with far less to offer are far more well known.

  • It seems like another case of history favouring the famous over the useful. Kikutake is certainly well enough known, but usually for his Sky House and also for his “visionary” stuff like Floating City

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rather than, say, his Aquapolis for the 1975 Okinawa Expo that, having been realised, was no longer a vision. This is the contradiction. Visionary architecture is, by definition, useless and unbuildable. This is its attraction, and its insurance.

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Like Ron Herron’s Walking City, people could safely enjoy “visions” as the provocative media stunts they were – as representations of new thinking rather than actually being challenged or threatened by anything potentially useful that might upset the status quo. To have not been amusingly visionary may have been Pasadena Heights’ downfall. I no longer think or view visionaries in a positive way. They’re distractions, pointless diversions. This, come to think of it, is what the architectural media has become. People’s imaginations are captured by sketches and renderings of buildings, not by actual buildings. As you know, I don’t have a good feeling about this.

  • The idea of a megastructure doing the light, ventilation, social, and community thing is not what people want Metabolism to have been. Instead, Kisho Korokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower is consistently chosen to represent Metabolism’s “ideal” fusion of megastructures organised as if by Nature.
  • Perhaps it’s just a case of trees vs. mountains and trees travel better. Everybody likes trees. Napkin Capsule Tower or, for that matter, Isozaki’s 1961 Cities in The Air are trees. They didn’t change anything because they were never meant to.

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The Japanese have another proverb. 鳥なき里の蝙蝠 Tori naki sato no koumori. It’s usually equated to “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” but my loose literal translation “In a land where birds can’t fly you get bats instead” is more appropriate for today’s media landscape. 

  • Pasadena Heights has something of The House That Came to Nothing about it. “Insufficiently mainstream to genuinely disturb and insufficiently crazy to entertain” I wrote and this seems to be the case here too. Let’s put this one on the IN-tray for now.
  • Perhaps it’s just too grey, too concretey. This was the problem with Brutalism and it stems from its misfit social agenda of not wanting to waste resources on things like decorative coatings and finishes that JUST DON’T MATTER. Pasadena Heights may have fared better had it been painted white. It didn’t do VS any harm. Even so, the thing about concrete is that it’s concrete – it’s there. Again, you can’t build and be visionary at the same time. As soon as it’s built, it’s no longer a vision. This was the downside of Aquapolis. It couldn’t live up to the vision.
  • Still on the topic of concrete, perhaps there just too much of it? I don’t think so. Suppose we do a reverse-BIG on this project and unconfigure it back to its most compact and conventional? All our apartments now stack vertically, without flips. The rear terrace voids remain but are now horizontal slices of a conventional lightwell. The front terrace shrinks so the front path is now an attached open access corridor. What we have is a conventional five-storey block of apartments on a slope. What’s been lost?

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The front terrace is gone and the remaining side is smaller, darker and less private. The roof of the smaller bedrooms is now the floor of the bedroom above, and the suspended floors of the rear bedrooms are now the roofs of the apartments below. Individual rear access is lost. In fact, there’s no connection to the ground and, because of that, the problem of how to get from the parking area to the apartments is now worse. In all, when you consider what this building would be like with minimal surface area, the additional concrete has been used very well. 

  • 1975 was a time of Post Modernism – the time when things started to mean stuff. Pasadena Heights was never meant to be anything more than what it was. It wasn’t pretending to be a tree, or even a mountain, or even a European mountain village (like Ando’s Rokko housing). This was not, in the idiom of the times, “where it was at”. The building outlived Post Modernism but it’s memory didn’t.

• • •

I’ve just been going through Rem Koolhaas and Hand Ulrich Obrist’s Project Japan once again. There’s lots of rare photographs implying thoroughnes, completeness and access to privileged information and, because of the age of the people interviewed, for the last time. There’s a lot of sky houses and floating cities happening. His 1961 Stratiform is there

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and so is Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Capsule Village

Capsule Village

There’s loads more if you like your structures mega and unbuilt but, as far as the built work goes, we get the usual suspects and no more – a Sony Tower here, a Yamanashi Press Centre there, and Fumihiko Maki’s Hillside Terrace. Although this last is a pleasant and successful piece of urbanism, I don’t see any Metabolism happening.

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For all their highfalutin’ statements about social change and adaption, the Metabolists didn’t produce much in the way of social change and adaption. If Nakagin Capsule Tower didn’t turn out to be a model for the future then its “visionary” status should be revoked – along with Kurokawa’s.

By overemphasising how “visionary” Metabolism was to the exclusion of all else, Koolhaas and Obrist are making sure any useful built projects aren’t recorded for future generations. Pasadena Heights is secretly archived as a potential good idea. If you think OMA’s Singapore Interlace has some shared DNA with the 1974 Soviet Tbilisi Ministry of Highways, then a similar re-imagining could be on the cards for 1974 Metabolist Pasadena Heights.

But maybe BIG got there first.

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