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Exposing the Expo


NORIHIKO DAN: EXPOSING THE EXPO

Every few years, somewhere around the World, vast international Expos are held, aimed at stimulating international trade and communication. These vast shows are supposed to expose new technologies and businesses to the public eye. However, the run–up to Nagoya's 2005 Expo has exposed a lot more, making many think again about how things get built in this country, where politicians and their cronies in the construction business seem to operate on their own agenda.

The 2005 Expo has already produced a rich crop of ecology scandals, exposes of government deception, and more, as I found out when I spoke to Norihiko Dan, one of the three original architects and planners of what was supposed to be the first ecological Expo.

"Perhaps the way it has exposed the worst side of Japan’s bureaucracy is the greatest achievement of this Expo," Dan jokes at his desk in his Tokyo office.

Since leaving the project, he has become something of a green crusader in a country that definitely needs one, combining his career as one of Japan's best architects with his interests in ecology and enlightened urban planning. Last year, for example, he was active in the popular but ill–famed campaign to save Gama–ike pond in Moto Azabu from development by Sunwood, a subsidiary, of the Mori Building Corporation. While earlier this year, he took on the Mori Corp. once again over its high–rise Moto–Azabu Hills development.

As usual the authorities, ignored the opinions of local people to give the go–ahead to the 29–storey apartment complex, which, because of its unusual shape, has been given the nickname of The Flyswatter by some. At its base, 33 meters wide, the building surprisingly branches out to 40 meters from the 16th floor up. So, even though it may meet earthquake safety standards, its highly unusual design sends out a deeply uncomfortable vibe.

"It's ridiculous to say that it's environmentally friendly," Dan fumes. "The designers say the shape reduces shade near the base more than a traditional rectangular building of the same floor space, but in reality it just increases the amount of shade over a wider area."

Like the building itself this argument rests on narrow foundations, as it assumes that the debate is between this design and a conventional one, whereas the truth is any high building in this area is unwelcome. It is also claimed that the narrow base will leave more space to plant trees, ignoring the ultimate logic of this argument, which would be to make a park instead!

It is this spurious environmentalism used to justify damage to the local environment that particularly irritates Dan. Something we sometimes see nowadays is a veneer of environmentalism put on new building projects to make them more acceptable to public opinion.

THE GREEN BAND AID

This pseudo–environmental strategy was seen at its worst in the planning and lobbying for the 2005 Expo, with which Dan was deeply involved.
"I believe that initially, the Japanese government, the Ministry of Construction, and the prefectural government had already decided to bulldoze and develop the Kaisho forest area," Dan explains, mentioning the unspoilt recreational woodland area near Nagoya that was supposed to serve as the site of the first truly ecological Expo.

"If they had just said they wanted to bulldoze this forest for development, there would have been a public outcry from the citizens. It was for this reason that they decided to set up the Expo."

The way that an Expo is awarded is rather similar to the way soccer World Cups and Olympic games are awarded. Various cities interested in holding an International Expo put together detailed plans and then apply to the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the governing body for international Expositions, based in Paris. Like FIFA and the IOC, the BIE then consider the plans and visit the competing cities before awarding the Expo for a particular year. For example, this year (2002) the BIE will be deciding between Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Wroclaw, Yosu, and Moscow for the 2010 Expo.

At the time of the Nagoya bid back in 1996, the main competition came from Calgary in Canada and Coomera, in the Brisbane–Gold Coast growth corridor, both highly attractive sites. So, the first problem faced by the Japanese Expo committee was how to fend off the opposition and win the award of the Expo. It was for this reason that they latched onto the idea of an environmental Expo, recruiting Dan, Kengo Kuma and Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama, all relatively young architects at the time, and asking them to prepare a plan that would hook the BIE judges. What they came up with was a truly astounding design.

The driving vision of our plan was the traditional concept of satoyama, Dan remembers.

"In the past this was a kind of intermediate space between the village and the mountain, a symbol of the coexistence of human beings and nature. The potters would have a lot of small kilns in the forest, taking fallen timbers for burning, coexisting with the forest. We wanted to extend that concept for modern times, making a kind of village that would preserve practically all the pre–existing landscape. In order to do this, 75% of the Expo was going to be concentrated in a comparatively small area in the hill–like Eco City, a building designed to adapt to a post–Expo existence. We didn’t like the disposable way of International Expositions built for half a year and then thrown away."

The Eco City was designed to have as small an environmental footprint as possible. The remaining 25% of the Expo was to consist of temporary, low–impact pavilions and other structures that would be built without harming a single tree in two Eco Parks. An ecological hard sell was developed to go with this truly green plan, including the two official mascots, the green, bush–like creatures, Mori–no–Ojiichan and Mori–no–Kodomo, literally Forest Grandfather and Forest Child.

With such a striking and original plan, the cute forest characters were probably superfluous. The Expo was in the bag. But, unknown to Dan, this winning plan that he and his colleagues had worked so hard on was nothing more than a Trojan Horse, merely intended to hoodwink the BIE to award the Expo to Japan.

HIJACKING THE DREAM

Dan started to notice that something was wrong around 1999, when rumours started to circulate about the original plan being amended.

"The plan was totally reversed from a very environmental plan to a so–called development plan. My colleague, Kengo Kuma, was persuaded to alter the plan so a wide area of forest would be flattened for conventional development."

He shows me the original plan with the Eco City set tightly between two parallel roads that diverge then converge around it.

"In this original plan, the buildings and roads are all integrated and concentrated to have the smallest possible impact on the surrounding environment," he points out. "But we later found out that the bureaucrats had objected to this integration, demanding that both roads and architecture could not be co–ordinated on the same site, and that it was necessary for financing to create more housing zones. They wanted to create the usual ugly building development sprawling out across the untouched forest from the Eco City. It was like breaking the shell of the egg and spilling the contents."

The government and its friends in the construction industry had done nothing less than use an environmental plan to win the Expo, which they had then hijacked to railroad through mass housing development in a prime greenfield site. Many of the members of the original Expo Masterplan Committee were naturally upset.

"I criticised this by saying that this Expo itself was a green band–aid. After 6 months it would come off and then there would just be this ugly scar of development."

Naturally, such shenanigans didn't go completely unnoticed. The BIE became concerned and sent a delegation to find out what was going on. The pro–developers next trick was to try and pull the wool over their eyes.

"Instead of setting up a meeting with all 20 members of the Expo Masterplan Committee, including myself, the politicians shepherded the visiting delegates into a secret meeting at the Ministry of International Trade with the new master architect, Mr. Kuma. They tried to assure them that the changes were minor and continuous and that all the members of the Expo Masterplan Committee were happy with them."

By persuading the BIE that everyone on the Japan side was in perfect agreement with the new plan, the government hoped the BIE would readily accept the fait accompli. Luckily the BIE delegates were not so easily manipulated. They angrily challenged the assertion that the changes were in harmony with the original plan in view of the fact that Dan wasn’t at the meeting.

When this attempt at deception failed, the government immediately tried the same plan in the opposite direction, pretending to those who disagreed with them here in Japan, that the BIE had accepted the changed plan even though nothing could be further from the truth.

"The BIE delegates were furious about Japan’s tricky change," Dan remembers. "But the official report from the Ministry of International Trade changed the content and said that the delegates had been very happy and that they were very satisfied with the new plan and admitted that it was continuous. This was later revealed by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which uncovered a secret document recording the conversation between the BIE delegates and the Ministry of International Trade."

POPULAR BACKLASH

The fact that the government had been caught in a direct lie caused an uproar in Nagoya as the citizens started to realize after 3 years of secret meetings what was finally going on.

"The government admitted that something wrong had happened, but merely said that it was because their presentation had not been enough. They sent people to the BIE in Paris, including the Minister of Trade himself, but still the BIEs answers were the same: 'Don't do this! Don’t destroy nature under the name of an environmental Expo. If you do this many countries will criticize not only Japan, but the whole Expo system.' The strength with which the Japanese government stuck to their objective convinced me that they had cooked up the whole Expo merely as a pretext to turn this beautiful forest into a vast ugly housing development."

Dan's efforts finally paid off. Bowing to public pressure, the Ministry of International Trade, the Ministry of Construction, and the Governor of Aichi decided to cancel the site of Kaisho forest, moving the project to Seishonen Park, a site nearer to the city that had already been developed, and appointing a new head master planner, Taiichi Sakiya, a former Minister of Finance.

"The environmental problems are much less at the new site. The roads are
already installed, so it is a hundred times better."

A final challenge remained in a large access road the pro–developers wanted to build through the forest to the new site to create access for the extra 30,000 visitors expected each day. But when Dan unveiled an alternative solution that wouldn’t require the destruction of any woodland, even this leftover was dropped.

The Expo has continued to have problems. After half a year in charge, Sakiya resigned over his own problems with the bureaucrats, to be replaced by the present master planners, the elderly team who oversaw the 1970 Osaka Expo.

"Now nobody is excited about the Expo, but the BIE will just have to go along with it because it’s too late to change the venue now. This is the worst example in the World."

BUILDING THE FUTURE

Despite this depressing tale of deception and environmental disregard, Dan remains optimistic about the future, especially with the growing public awareness in Japan about city planning and architecture stimulated both by the events of the Expo and people visiting foreign countries.

"I think Japan doesn't have any beautiful streets along which people can enjoy taking a walk and shopping, like the ordinary but beautiful streets in America or Europe. We should restructure the Japanese city. To me architecture is to enhance the quality of the land and if it’s bad to build something, then we shouldn't build it. And if there is something to be built, we should pay attention to the existing environment and the urban context."

These are principles Dan lives up to in his own architectural work as he shows me pictures of his most recent work, a recently–finished public swimming pool in Kyoto, the Kyoto Aquarena. Despite being an awkward site – surrounded on three sides by a jumble of badly coordinated houses and divided by a railway line from an area of park containing some other sports venues – the pool building and the carefully landscaped area around it is a perfect example of Dan’s ideas in action.

"First of all we didn’t remove any soil from the site," he says proudly. "We kept it on site throughout so that there were no heavy trucks creating noise, pollution, congestion, and danger in the narrow streets."

The design skilfully uses curved lines, as in the bean–shaped pool building, and straight lines, as in the rows of solar panels cutting heating costs, to harmonize with the geometry and angles of the surrounding area. Other environmental features, include the roofing of certain buildings on the site with soil and greenery, reflecting the original plan for the Expo’s Eco City.

In such elegant works as this and others, like his design for the Hiyoshi Dam Complex, which won the 1999 Architect’s Institute of Japan Prize, Dan continues to have a vital impact both on local areas as well as a wider influence on his colleagues in the world of architecture. He has also written many articles in the Asahi Shimbun and the design magazine Axis, highlighting the architectural and political flaws in the nation’s system of urban management.

One major problem is that road construction is perfectly independent from other aspects of urban design, like power lines, and sewage. Especially, there is a strong bureaucratic division between roads and the buildings on each side.

"What is needed is a wider integrated area including roads, sewage, power, telecommunications, and the buildings on each side."

At present Dan is looking into how these reformist ideas can be formulated as new laws, although, in view of the strong vested interests and pork barrel politics involved in construction, he admits that this is very difficult.

"I think one of the keys is to for local government and local people to have more power than central government. This would weaken the power of the
bureaucrats."

Dan's message offers Japan the hope of an architectural culture that isn’t just designed to make money for developers, banks, and politicians, but instead one designed to create harmony, beauty, stability, continuity and identity out of the frantic cycles of uncoordinated, patchwork demolition and unsightly rebuilding. If this dream is ever realised, then perhaps one of the pivotal moments will have been when politicians and developers tried to destroy a forest near Nagoya in the name of ecology.

Unpublished article
2002
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