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Artificial Land

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I’m currently reading Casey Mack’s recent book, “Digesting Metabolism: Artificial Land in Japan 1960-2200” when I’m both teaching a short course on Modern Japanese Architecture and, at the same time, interested in making better use of enclosed volume in residential spaces by squeezing an extra cubic meter of living space out of 30 cu.m [c.f. Headroom] or an extra 16 out of 250. It’s led me to think architecture in the form of fixed elements such as floors and walls aren’t always necessary to increase living area within a fixed volume. A bunk bed for example, can provide an additional two square meters of sleeping area at reduced height. However, if a residential volume has the height, then inserting a mezzanine level can provide additional living area with headrooms that, though less, may still be acceptable for the activities they accommodate.

Any building with more than one storey is artificial land in the sense that it provides useable in excess of the fixed area of the site. We call this the Floor Area Ratio but it could equally well be called the Artificial Land Area Ratio. Buildings having more than one storey indicate land pressure and when they’re mixed use buildings it’s because different uses compete for the same land. It’s often the case that different uses are separated by level. Many cultures have a history of shop owners living above shops, for example.

People who live above shops or, for that matter, offices don’t have to work in those shops or offices. Large developments of this type are often called podium developments because the structure for one use is the base for another. The 8m x 8m column grid of a car park is equally suited to residential use above. The same grid can be extended to create buildings approximately 20 metres wide to ensure adequate daylighting and still leave some area to allow skylights to illuminate atriums in the shopping mall below.

Basements are another way of stacking different uses to create more artificial land area. This next example stacks three different uses with the market at natural ground level and everything else on artificial land above or below. As is the way, the car park is unseen and thus devoid of architectural invention. Although these new surfaces are built on, they’re not artificial land in the sense that the land is waiting for something – anything, anytime – to be built on it. These platforms have been designed to accommodate very specific uses in very specific ways.

Casey Mack’s book is a post-occupation survey of Metabolism and focusses on the notion of artificial land – an idea big in Japan at the time. Circa 1962, there was even a committee called the Artificial Land Committee sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Construction and the Architectural Institute of Japan. Never knew that., I shouldn’t be so surprised because, when a problem is perceived as the lack of land, then the solution is to artificially make more land. Reclamation is the most obvious way of doing that and reclamation there was.

Instead of making land artificially by reclamation, Kenzo Tange proposed building artificial platforms above the water of Tokyo Bay with his 1960 Tokyo Bay Proposal. The average depth of Tokyo Bay is twelve metres so his proposal was do-able structurally but even gold-plating it with a cross-bay transportation infrastructure can’t have made the sums stack up, if indeed sums had anything to do with it. Although there’s not much in the way of artificial land that’s not being used for either residences or infrastructure, the proposal does have the opportunity for filling in the spaces. This proposal counts as Metabolism as long as there are spaces with the potential to be filled in but, as most cities have such spaces, this is not saying very much.

Something was definitely in the air in 1960, not least of all Arata Isozaki’s City in the Air. Fifty-odd years on, this project always gets a mention but what more can be said? All I can say now is that even if we suspend disbelief about the structure, the direction the bathwater flows (not so much clockwise or anticlockwise but down or up), and don’t regard this proposal as artificial land, there’s still the problem of degrading the quality of life and the value of the land of people living below due to reduced sunlight and increased congestion. This solution may solve a problem of lack of living space but creates many new ones, giving truth to Paul Rudolph’s saying of the architecture of Mies’ architecture that it was successful only because it solved so few problems. In 1960s Japan you either had to be visionary and not solve any problems or go down the Houses Are Art route and invent new ones.

As ever, when faced with the two seemingly opposite options of creating artificial land and building on it, or creating artificial land by building over land or water, there’s always a third option which is a mash-mash of the other two. In the case of Tokyo’s growth, it was to make real artificial land by reclaiming parts of Tokyo Bay and then building rather conventional buildings of it. This is Tokyo’s Harumi district.

For years I’d known of Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1958 Harumi Apartments but was ignorant of their internal configuration. It’s a mini-megastructure with stacked three-storey high modules accessed by the middle floors, with smaller apartments on those levels and a flight of stairs up or down to larger dual-aspect apartments. The apartment layouts themselves are delightfully simple and with lightweight wood framing and partitions. Theoretically, these three-storey volumes defined by the primary structural supports had the potential to be reconfigured but this was not to be. Height limits for the area were removed in 1970 and the building demolished in 1997 to make way for higher, and higher-density development. That Metabolism the architectural notion made way for metabolism the urban reality suggests a inherent problem of scale. At what level was all its reorganization and regeneration to take place? The metabolism of cities is about buildings and not individual dwelling units. Making artificial land by reclaiming it places fewer restrictions on what or how to build. Moreover, any buildings can be demolished and replaced as and when needed but this happens anyway in the metabolic life of a city. The problem is that perpetual change in the form of demolition and reconstruction on artificial land or even regular land is not the stuff from which architectural movements are made.

Even if its drivers were noble, Metabolism was always better at representing change than embodying it. The Postmodern sickness of a representation of something being as good as if not better than the real thing was already there in Metabolism. Kisho Kurokawa’s 1964 Nakagin Capsule Tower looks as if it might share some DNA with Isozaki’s City in the Air because it’s another representation of things being able to change and evolve but, this time, the gaps were only implied by occasional alternations of the direction of the capsules. There are however two more important differences. The first is that it was built and the second is that it was built over its own land. Seen from the Shinkansen (a.k.a. 新幹線, Japan’s HSR, Bullet Train) it always welcomed one back north to Tokyo.

Buildings such as Tange’s 1966 Yamanashi Press Center and his 1967 Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center  left some spaces unenclosed to represent the possibility of change over time. Nothing changed with the latter but the former has gained a bit of weight. over the years. The promise of Metabolism was always more appealing when unfulfilled and this is perhaps another manifestation of architecture’s predisposition to view spatial redundancy as a form of aesthetic decadence and thus architecturally exciting, if not beautiful. As long as those spaces aren’t filled in and used, they’re just new examples of decadent wastage – of structurally enclosing more space than necessary but, as soon as those spaces are filled, they represent penny-pinching expedience and that’s usually the last thing wanted.

Another problem is the degree of control the architect was to have had over the final appearance of the structure for any given degree of change or adaption. These three famous and famously unrealized proposals by Kurokawa (1961) Isozaki (1960 and Tange (1960) suggest the answer is “Not much”. The “metabolism” of these proposals is intended to operate at the level of the dwelling but these three proposals are all very urban objects.

I’d grown up reading about Metabolism but hadn’t given it much thought of late but two examples in Digesting Metabolism made me reconsider it in terms of artificial land. The first was Masato Otaka’s 1968 Sakaide Artificial Ground project. The simple idea was to build a large slab and put residential buildings above it and retail spaces below. It’s a winning concept but there doesn’t seem to be that much land left over on top, and the retail areas below seem dismal. The platform – or rather, the columns and beams supporting the platform – allow for some reworking of what’s on top. There have been proposals for further development but, ultimately, the amount and type of development will be limited by the allowable bearing capacity of the supports. What to an architect is flexibility is structural redundancy to an engineer, a cost item to a quantity surveyor and a red flag to a client. [In hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to invest some concrete in buildings that were more like this, instead of squandering it on buildings with little or no scope for adaption?]

The typology of a raised platform above access and retail has been reworked most recently by Ma Yansong with MAD’s Baiziwan Social Housing. [c.f. Professional Development]. I think the takeaway is that access+retail and amenity+residential can be stacked but don’t have to be completely separated from each other and that actually, when stacked, the two types of land still retain their identity and have something to offer the other. Real land can’t do this. There’s life in this artificial land idea yet.

Separating retail and communal amenity space isn’t a new idea but realizing they have something to offer each other is. The example below is from a housing estate in Hong Kong. Probably post 1970 but not particularly new.

With the Baiziwan proposal, the ground level retail areas can be changed, extended, consolidated or added to as is the way of ground level retail space anywhere but little can be done with the residential above. Change has meaning only in terms of moving to a larger or a smaller apartment. There’s no structural redundancy, and the use of precast concrete shells for the apartments means there’s no construction redundancy either. The use of artificial land as believable amenity space is important however even if it’s not calculated as inhabitable floor area. The other project that made me think again about the relevance of Metabolism as an architectural idea was Sawada Mansions in Kochi, Japan, begun in 1971 by husband and wife team Kano and Hiroe Sawada. They taught themselves how to pour concrete columns, beams and slabs and built the structure with a driveway snaking up and through it to allow vehicle access and, by extension, making all apartments an extension of the ground plane. Apartments on the left side (in the image below) are dual aspect but all have what we would call deck access. Space within the structure is assigned to persons asking for it, and apartments completed accordingly although, with consolidations and divisions, the number of apartments at any one time has been about 65 plus or minus.

Staircases were built as a when necessary. An elevator was added to access a top-floor workshop. Residents come and go and the space changes. It’s a simple building built simply and managed simply. It succeeds without the complex apparatus of the architecture and construction industries. Residents seem happy despite many of them getting on in years. When built it was totally illegal but now seems to be tolerated by the municipality, is loved by the residents and locals, and has something of a cult following elsewhere. All the Sawadas did was build some artificial land in the form of slabs and let everything else happen. It’s an incidental yet pure manifestation of everything Metabolism wanted to be but wasn’t.

We might want to think more simply about what to do with our current surfeit of spaces designed to be shopping malls or offices.

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