Norihiko Dan: Liquid Architecture

 It Never Rains But It Pours

Imagine: Five years from today, you’re cycling through the Japanese countryside. Dappled sunlight courses over your bicycle shorts. You see some buildings nestled in the wooded glades of some nearby hills, and think to yourself: “Why don’t I stop at that quaint little village ?” Nice idea, but in fact you have just stumbled across the site of the International Expo 2005 attracting thousands of companies and millions of visitors keen to find their direction in this brave new millennium.

That is if the governement doesn't backtrack on its original commitment to the 2005 World Expo Master Plan designed by Norihiko Dan and his collaborators, Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama and Kengo Kuma.

After propping your bike next to a tree, you follow the crowd as pied-piper like they disappear into the side of a hill. You have in fact entered the massive hill-shaped, tree-covered Eco City, almost a mile long. This is the centre point of the Expo, its vast brightly-lit, futuristic interior thronged with visitors and exhibitors. The main exhibit, however, is the vast, low-profile structure all around you. In its harmonization with its surroundings, this giant displays a degree of self-effacement that might be characterized as truly Japanese.

Back to the present. Under the shadow of Tokyo Tower, which we both agree is a giant carrot that doesn’t really blend into the city stew, I meet Norihiko Dan in his office to talk about pouring oil on the troubled waters of urban chaos with his concept of ‘Liquid architecture.’

Norihiko Dan
“Architecture is basically made up of air or gas which is space, and the hard things which are walls or form, so solid and air is the major component to form architecture and architectural space,” he says as we look at some of the exhibits from his recent exhibition at the AKI-EX Gallery in Tokyo.

“These examples give us a strong suggestion that in our conceptual level, the liquid is existing.”

So, liquid, the intermediate of the 3 main atomic stages, is not something to be realised in the external world but a way of thinking about buildings before they reach the bricks-and-mortar stage of construction. The sketches and reliefs from the exhibition have a kind of hieroglyphic, minimalist feel to them like things born old. This aspect is also reflected in his interest in ruins.

“I like ruins very much because the ruin is 100% man-made architecture in the process of coming back to nature.”

His particular love is for old fortresses because of the way they seem to interact with their environment. “They can’t deny the existence of rocks and mountains so a strong dialogue between the man-made structure and its surroundings is created.” Dan recognizes the aspect of time, a liquid force that brings change, dissolving and blending:

“Ruins represent the process of new things coming back to nature with the lapse of time. On the conceptual level, when architects create things, there is some essence we can get from these ruins.”

The way he talks about the effect of one factor on another is similar to the way a master chef talks about ingredients. He sees architecture as a stew, with elements existing separately yet blending their flavors in the space between.

“The harder part could be recognized as the major spatial volume, whereas the ground-ish part, the more liquid part of the stew, could correspond to some more minor or supportive space.”

Hachijo Atelier (1994)
For example, take a restaurant and a fashion college, as we’ll see later. These buildings have different functions, but they can’t exist in isolation. They both need public access, and, if adjacent, they may have certain aspects which clash or complement. The space between them is the place where their ‘juices’ mingle. The idea of ‘Liquid architecture,’ therefore, clearly has relevance for the urban environment. Just as a building should harmonize with its natural setting, so it should blend with its urban setting.

Although he has had many opportunities to build on green-field sites, Dan’s educational background at Tokyo University was in urban design. Just as well, because only a small percentage of people are likely to go to the next Expo, whereas the urban grotesqueness of cities like Tokyo is an everyday issue. A cubist nightmare, a jangling, disharmonious urban mass with stunted little buidings on mishappen pieces of land built with little thought for the future and no reference to their neighbours, a city full of architectural tensions sparking off each other. Anyone who has lived in Tokyo or its ilk can’t help listening to Dan with more than normal interest.

Hiyoshi Dam Centre (1999)
The key idea to deal with this chaos seems to be focus. Nowadays, buildings are thrown up without reference to their surroundings, jarring and clashing with each other. Partly this is an administrative problem. Different departments deal with different aspects of the cityscape. For example, the telephone companies put up the telephone poles; the road department concerns itself purely with roads, and the parks department with parks, with a minimum of interaction between them. Dan won the 1999 Architects Institute of Japan prize for his design of the Hiyoshi Dam Complex, with a comprehensive plan that coordinated all aspects of the project, crossing the border between architecture and civil engineering.

But coordination of factors is not everything. Dan also talks about a ‘missing gene’ in Japanese architecture. He mocks the absurd habit of creating structures surrounded with a pathetic cat’s alley of space. This is a problem of ground and figure, he explains. It would be much simpler to collect all the space around the edges and bundle it up into something more useful, rather like a Florentine courtyard. This idea is seen in practice at the Strada building (or buildings) Dan designed in Aoyama in 1991.

STRADA (1991)
“This used to be one house, but Tokyo has such an exorbitant inheritance tax so the owner of the land sold half of it. The left hand building was to become a fashion design school, the other one was to have a Japanese restaurant and bar downstairs and a residence upstairs. Usually two adjacent buildings are not commissioned to the same architect so the boundary between them becomes just a narrow slit, but for some reason I was asked by both clients to design the buildings. Since there are narrow streets both in front and back with many people walking, I decided to make a kind of shortcut and a rotunda.”

Instead of the narrow cat’s alley clogged with trash, Dan created a charming round space, like a quiet pool in a busy stream. Instead of two buildings existing as rather oversized figures in their grounds, he made the open space the figure and the buildings the ground, turning the city’s density inside out, to its own advantage. However, Dan confesses that he was a little out of step with one of his clients.

“At the very last moment prior to completion, the fashion design school owner asked me to put up a high fence. He realised that the opposite side of the entry of their school would become a Japanese restaurant which was really disturbing to him, so he asked me to put the high wall and he regretted that he allowed me to design a public space on private property. The owner of the Japanese restaurant said we want this rotunda, but the owner of the school said this should be a calm entry porch for the school. So, there were two opinions, totally conflicting, which is quite typical all over the world in high density areas.”

The way that Dan dealt with this eleventh hour crisis underlines his basic concept of creating a balance and positive energy between buildings and their context.

“For the owner of the school I put an eyestop to the entry, much smaller than he expected, but at the same time, for the owner of the restaurant, this is a kind of sign for the restaurant.” In effect, Dan preserved the beauty of his open rotunda while at the same time addressing the various concerns and interests of his two clients.

“This diplomatic mediation wasn’t just diplomacy, but was converted to the design of the objects. In enhancing the quality, not only of the natural environment, but also the complexity of the city, we are hoping to develop this meditative factor.”

For Dan there are three models to deal with the conflicts between buildings, zones, or their owners: separation, assimilation, or mediation. In Tokyo, rather than allowing one building to dominate its neighbours through form or function, or to create divisions and barriers, he clearly believes that the most suitable approach is mediation, an idea first suggested to him by the ancient Roman cityscape.

“In ancient Rome, I realized that round forms always appeared in the collision of the 2 different angles. This was the first time I realised that round objects and architecture itself, played a meditative role between two irregularities – a meeting point – otherwise the two differences create a negativity.”

Although outside an urban context, the Expo nevertheless provides an ideal opportunity to showcase Dan’s ideas to a wider international audience. The fact that the concept of mediating between a busy international expo and its natural setting won international approval suggests that Dan’s ideas have real star potential in this new millennium.


Dan explains the driving vision of the Expo the traditional concept of “Satoyama.” In the past this was a kind of intermediate space between the village and the mountain.

“It’s a kind of symbol of the coexistence of human beings and nature. The pottters would have a lot of small kilns in the forest, taking fallen timbers for burning, coexisting with the forest. We are going to extend that for modern times, making a kind of village preserving most of the landscape.”

In order to do this, 75% of the Expo will be concentrated in the hill-like Eco City, a building designed to adapt to a post-Expo existence.

“The interior is like a squid, the meat part is the future structure of the residence, the inside is a large channel for the public space. We don’t like the disposable way of International Expositions built for half a year and thrown away.”

The remaining 25% of the Expo will consist of pavilions and other buildings scattered through the surrounding forest in two Eco Parks.

However, just like the smaller drama at the Strada, here too there is a sting in the tail. The traditional idea of a satoyama Expo coexisting with, instead of imposing on, its site has come into conflict with the equally traditional idea of bureaucratic blinkeredness. .

“After Japan won, the very strong bureaucratic system tried to change this original idea.”

Apparently, the local government with the connivance of the national government has applied to develop the site by clear cutting and leveling the land to provide space for another cluster of tightly-packed, inward-looking little residences to add to Nagoya’s suburban sprawl.

“I am one of the committee members protesting against this dishonesty, because Japan made a presentation before many countries.”

To railroad through its agenda, the bureaucracy also cut intercommunication between many of the committees involved with the project, but the bureaucrats are by no means having it all their own way. Many of the committee members have reestablished links and have been coordinating their activities through e-mail.

“For the government, that seems to be a little bit of a revolutionary action.”

Dan has also been campaigning to preserve the original vision of the project through a series of articles in the Asahi Shimbun.

The future of this project doesn’t seem to be one of the areas where Dan believes in mediation. Over the next couple of months, it seems to be all or nothing, with the Japanese Ministry of Construction preparing to present its final detailed Expo plan to the Bureau of International Expositions in either March or April.

Dan’s work offers a vision of a city gradually awakening to its internal tensions and resolving them through a new holistic architecture that sees things in their context and not as things in themselves, a concept which also helps to place man in relation to nature. If Japanese architecture has been missing a gene, then there’s no harm in pointing out that Dan is an anagram for DNA.

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