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Asakusa Culture Tourist Center
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The Asakusa district has always been a busy entertainment area of Tokyo. The rise in the tourist flow created a need to accommodate the district for tourists better. Thus, the eight-storey building of Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre (ACTIC) appeared alongside with the traditional outlines of the Kaminarimon gate and Senso-ji temple. Kengo Kuma, the architect of the Asakusa Tower, attempted to overcome the prevailing in architecture globalism by integrating the past and the present into the architectural design of the new wood-and-glass building. Although Kuma eliminated the issue of earthquake destruction by reinterpreting the structure of a pagoda, the injunction of a high degree of the international design can be viewed as a transgression in the historical part of the city.
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Asakusa has been known as an entertainment district since the Edo period, when rice was kept in the nearby storehouses and then was given to peasants as payment. Later Kabuki theaters and geisha houses were built and the road leading to them was overloaded with the vendors stalls. During the Second World War, the bombings damaged some areas in the Asakusa district. It affected tourism in the region. Some buildings were reconstructed. For example, Senso-ji, the renowned Shinto shrine, was rebuilt and resumed attracting tourists as before the war. However, Asakusas entertainment district still experienced lack of tourists. Anyway, the appearance of high-rise buildings helped attracting visitors. In the recent years, the outlines of the Asakusa Tower decorated the city skyline. In 2011, Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre was erected in the midst of the ancient area.
Built at an intersection of two main streets in Asakusa, the building is a streamlined mass of wood, steel and glass, materials loved and used by Kengo Kuma. The famous Japanese architect used uneven strata of different storeys layered with diagonally shaped spaces making the building give an impression of perpetual motion. Built right after the devastating earthquake in Japan, the contemporary design of the Asakusa Tower continued the process of the visual revitalization of Tokyo.
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One of the principles of the renowned architect is modernism and break from the tradition of the twentieth century. Kuma says: Togo Murano, Isoya Yoshida and other sukiya masters had their own sect and separated systems. They liked that kind of refinement. I want to break it. Therefore, Kuma likes to combine in his designs the traditions of the ancient masters of the past and new materials and technologies that make possible ground-breaking appearance, as well as great performance of all parts of the building. Inasmuch as the problem of earthquakes is pressing, Kuma used the principle of a pagoda that due to flexible wooden junction could withstand the most violent shakes of the ground. The modernity was expressed in the use of streamlines design and modern materials, such as glass and steel.
Kumo did all possible to place the tall building of the Asakusa Tower into the ancient district. The Asakusa Tower is placed opposite the Kaminarimon gate with the red lantern and fits very well to the pagoda next to Senso-ji temple hinting at their similarities. It is curious how, while having a different silhouette, Kumas building emulates the structure of a pagoda. Not only vertical orientation and horizontal segmentation are similar to pagoda, materials, such as wood, prolong the comparison. However, pagodas layers are usually different in size and finished with a spire, while the Asakusa Tower is of a unified width and has an open area from which visitors can observe the district and where they can sit and have lunch. The function of the building is also modern; its full name is the Asakusa Tourist Information Center and it functions as a tourist information center, conference rooms, multi-purpose halls and an exhibition space.
Although the ACTIC can be considered successful in amalgamating the past and the present in its design, both positive and negative influences of the structure can be outlined. Among the positive effects are Kumas aversion to a unified appearance of concrete blocks of buildings favored by the international design, use of wood so traditional for Japanese architecture and use of ancient architectural techniques to prevent the structure from earthquake damage. Meanwhile, negative influences include radical alterations of the local scenery, low sustainability due to short longevity of modern construction materials and psychological reasons. Additionally, a high-rise architecture in some tourist areas, although attracting tourists, does not necessarily positively influence local people and the environment. All the above-mentioned reasons will be discussed in details below.
The destructive consequences of the Second World War helped the Japanese authorities to transform cities into modern places. The scrap and build policy was implemented and many modern buildings appeared. However, then the authorities made a U-turn and announced that now they should respect nature and respect history. It resulted in Tokyo being often called a city of chaos, where the old and the new, the small and the large, the artificial and the natural are mixed together without any discernible order. You will encounter this phenomenon which is both a weakness and an attraction in many Asian cities.
Kengo Kuma has always been sensitive to the architectural and cultural context and tried to fit his structures into the landscape. He is famous for his 1990s burying architecture where he adjusted his projects to natural settings. Kuma melted his structures of steel and glass into voids and concaves of the landscape. In Introduction for his Selected Works written together with Botond Bognar, Kuma says about his philosophy, My ultimate aim is to erase architecture. It is his concise way to express his desire to successfully marry buildings and the environment, new introductions and context, glass and concrete and everyday peoples lives. Knowing about it can assist in better understanding the architects thoughts behind the Asakusa Tower design.
According to Kuma, one of the means to melt the environment and the building is transparency, but he does not believe that a straightforward use of glass solves the task. Kuma says that Mies van der Rohes glass houses are opposed to nature, while Le Corbusiers concrete looks quite natural. Kuma sees that the solution is to dissolve the building and the environment. Since the period when Kuma designed the Stone Museum in Nasu in the early 2000s, concrete, being the architects least favorite material, revealed itself in the most positive way because it occurred to Kuma to fragment it and, thus, lighten the structure.
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Kuma began using the same principle of fragmentation with other materials. Using the wooden slats, instead of, for example, concrete walls or any other solid surfaces, Kuma allowed light to move freely. Thus, people do not feel separated from the environment. According to Kuma, a wooden slat wall united the inside with the outside more effectively than a glass wall would. In the Asacusa Tower, Kuma used oak for floor boards and cedar for window shades, as wood is a natural and warm material. The naturalness of the material helped erase architecture and make people feel closer to nature. To increase the risk of fires, wood was treated non-flammable. For Kuma, the return of wood into Japanese architecture is a matter of pride and a sense of rightness. Wood has always been the mentality of Japan and now it can be recovered.
After the terrible earthquake of 2011, Kuma was eager to assist in solving the seismic problem. Indeed, as an island country, Japan has been suffering from the earthquakes of different magnitudes throughout its history. Anyway, many scientists find it surprising that that the ancient wooden pagodas are safe from earthquakes, while huge and visibly strong buildings often crumble after them. Kuma turned to the experience of ancient architects and introduced their methods into his designs making his structures stronger and more resilient to earthquakes.
The structure of pagoda utilizes three anti seismic principles. First, pagodas are made only of wood and its physical properties allow wood to bend and move enough to withstand an earthquake. Second, the timbers of a pagoda fasten with mortise joints without nails in such a way that when shaken during an earthquake the timbers rub against each other but do not click out of its places. Finally, the third principle is the layering of storeys decreasing their size upwards. In Japanese, they do not even say storey but layer (not five-story pagoda but five-layer tower go-ju no to). Thanks to all the principles, each layer of the pagoda moves independently during an earthquake. Schematically the movement of the pagoda can be represented as a jelly or a dancing snake. Slowly wobbling the structure does not lose its balance and stands firmly on the ground.
The Asakusa Tower uses both wood and steel in its structure. There is no information in English about the Asakusa Towers earthquake resistance. However, in MUJI prefab houses Kuma used the technology of joining beams with high-tech fasteners to make earthquake-resistant structures. Additionally, the layered structure of the ACTIC could also help withstand an earthquake.
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Meanwhile, the conjuncture of the past and the present can be condemned by the others. As Kuma said in the quote above, the same feature can be both a virtue and a disadvantage. The British architectural magazine Building Design warmly chastises Kumas urban projects saying that his attempts to bring nature into a gritty metropolitan setting are less successful perhaps than his domestic designs, such as the Lotus House, the Plastic House, the Rice Paper House and the like. Comparing Kumas the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy flagmanship store on Omotesando, also covered in wooden slats, with Kazuyo Sejims the Dior flagship store clad in sparkling glass, Gerrard OCarroll finds the latter more poetic and unapologetically celebrat[ing] the more urban materials of glass and perspex.
Among negative influences of the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center is the general effect of globalization, the representative of which is the building. The main threat of the new architecture is an uncurbed desire of architects to satisfy their egos, while making groundbreaking buildings in stark contrast to the environment. It is an arguable issue whether Kumas Asakusa Tower defies architectural heritage of the district or melts into it. At least, the architect did all possible to blend the new construction into the existing landscape relying upon the ancient methods but transforming traditions through the prism of his experience and artistic taste.
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Another negative influence of modern architecture is the use of technology. Unlike the traditional architecture that used durable stone and brick, modern constructions are vulnerable regarding the long-term use and are subject to the influence of natural forces, such as rot, mold, corrosion and UV radiation. Glass curtain walls, also present in Kumas Asacusa Tower, are prone to deterioration related to moisture content during ageing, as well as fatigue and wear. There can also be issues with insulating properties causing condensation: Exposure to ultraviolet radiation degrades gaskets and seals allowing water to enter the wall.
In addition, glass and steel facades lack insulating properties. The Asakusa Tower looks incredibly sleek and thin, which is very attractive, but it also means that with light the heat and the cold can easily filter inside. Unlike thick massive stone walls of the pre-modern architecture, contemporary structures need to spend much efforts, money and energy on keeping the balance of temperature and moisture inside of the premises. Flat roofs also contribute to the overloading of heating and air-conditioning systems. While Kuma is proud to remove the last barriers between people and the nature to let them freely interact, renovation specialists claim that the elimination of the environmental separation afforded by pitched roof attics of earlier architectural periods does not have a good influence on the structures. The absence of insulation under pitched roof attics demands additional measures of insulation to prevent condensation and excessive loss of heat.
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Among negative consequences of minimalist structures are also negative psychological effects. Scientists insist that minimalist design causes cognitive problems in people. Especially prone to them are socially and economically disadvantaged groups, such as children and the elderly. Due to a lack of rich experiential aesthetic variety, such categories of people may experience mental health conditions that primarily affect mood, memory, learning and perception. Scientists claim that even if a person finds the environment appealing and having desirable qualities such as drama, contrast, novelty, and so on, anyway, such qualities are not enough for an adequate development and well-being of a person. People benefit from biophilic environments (which connect a person with nature), which is extremely important for cognitive abilities. Research in environmental psychology suggests that what human physiology needs are fractal scales, patterning, spatial layering, interlocking geometries, and the like.
The purpose of Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center is obvious from its name. Being placed in a crowded tourist district, the Tower is an island where a tired tourist can have a rest and receive necessary information. The eight layers of the construction provide enough space for a large number of people and a variety of services, such as an Internet center, a conference hall, meetings rooms, cafes, etc. The bustling area presents a great interest for people who like to look and observe and a good vantage point on the roof is an ideal place to see the city from the big height. Tourism always stimulates high-rise structures.
After the Second World War, Asakusa was lacking tourists because large parts of the district were destroyed. While the neighboring Senso-ji was attracting tourists after its renovation, Asakusa resumed its functioning only after the 634 meter tall Tokyo Skytree was built nearby. Since then, many high-rise building were added and it helped rise tourism in the area.
However, the rise in a number of tourists in local areas also has its disadvantages. Specialists in conservation and renovation claim that tourism affects culturally rich areas. Among the most obvious impacts is environmental and financial but there is also a negative social effect. Local people began to change their value systems and lifestyle and behavioral patterns imitating tourists. Due to a difference in income, local people may feel discouraged seeing the wealth of tourist (or what seems wealth to them) and feel reluctant towards work. Moreover, high-rise structures also affect local people: the impact high rise buildings have on a landscape and the communities living within that landscape is usually self-evident. As for the impact on architecture, high-rise buildings affect heritage districts in the manner described above. Not everyone favors the amalgam of the past and the present, and the presence of several high-rise buildings against a landscape of low-rise dwellings can lead to complete alterations of the local scenery.
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Since 2011, the modern building of the Asakusa Tower has been hovering over the urban landscape of traditional red pagodas and low structures. Some believe that in the ACTIC, Kuma was not enough eclectic. Twenty five years ago he shocked the public with his M2 Building and its powerful Doric order column. Therefore, there was an opinion that a more relevant infrastructural emblem for the potential for greater cultural connectivity across the city is probably more desirable. However, a shocking solution would not assist in melting architecture into the environment; and nowadays it is a very important task. An architect should remember about context and do not place his ambitions above the greater good of sustainability and the preservation of cultural heritage. Therefore, Kuma can be assured that he has done all possible in fitting the Asakusa Tower into the context of the ancient historical area, while demonstrating and developing his artistic talent. In current case, the performance did not hamper the ability.
Summing up it can be said that Kumas Asakusa Tower influences the district in a positive way by its clever interpretations of the Japanese architectural and aesthetic traditions seen in the repetition of pagoda outlines and a traditional for Japan use of wood. Among the negative impacts some may see the alterations of the local scenery, low sustainability due to short longevity of modern construction materials and psychological reasons that diminish cognitive abilities in the vulnerable groups of people.
Being situated in the tourist district Asakusa, next to Kaminarimon gate and Senso-ji temple, Asakusa Tower is a lofty symbol of the reinvention of the historic area. Reinterpreting the structure of a pagoda, Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center is the combination of past and present thanks to Kumas original design and innovative materials and technologies.
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