Open spaces that are free from the intrusion of buildings – that is, independent open spaces ― afford greater power and importance
After getting a master’s degree at Harvard University in the summer of 1953, I spent a year living and working in New York, a city I had dreamed about. In the 60-odd years that have passed since then, I have had countless opportunities to stay in New York, at times for a few days and at other times for weeks. Particularly in recent years, a number of projects there have led to many visits to the city.
One day, however, I suddenly found myself wondering what the primary landscape of New York is for me. It is not the image of skyscrapers crowding Manhattan. Instead, it is spacious Central Park; the Sculpture Garden in the old Museum of Modern Art; the skating rink in Rockefeller Center; Washington Square, the gateway to the Village, and the sight of seniors leisurely enjoying chess there; and Gramercy Park, which Gramercy Park Hotel – the hotel I stayed at for a workshop lasting several weeks at Columbia University in the 1970s – looks out on. These open spaces have been constants, even as neighbouring buildings have sometimes changed.
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I have explained before that Memorial Park, the centre of Ground Zero, is the most important feature of that particular project and that the buildings around it play only a subordinate role. On a visit I happened to make to Memorial Park on September 11 last year for the purposes of an interview on NHK, the attention of practically everyone there was indeed drawn to the names of those who had died in the attack that were carved into black granite in the two large sunken gardens, and the flowers that were laid.
‘Primary Landscape in Literature: Fields and Illusions of Caves’, written by the critic Takeo Okuno, made an impact on architects at the time it was published. This essay, which argued that primary landscapes are closely related to the presence cities have for people, offered a fresh perspective, particularly because architects in the 1970s felt that cities were somehow closed off. I myself have countless memories of playing with friends in open fields around my house as a child. Land not in use was not enclosed by a wall as it tends to be today. Even now, I vividly remember the landscapes of small, open lots where we spent many days. If memories and experiences of such diverse open spaces are indeed important, then it might be worthwhile to consider the nature of open spaces in cities.
I am probably not the only person who believes that the skyline of office buildings along Hibiya Avenue, seen beyond the inner moat of the Imperial Palace, is the most beautiful sight in Tokyo. East of the Palace grounds lying within the inner moat and the unapproachable expanse that includes the open space in front of the Palace runs Hibiya Avenue; beyond Tokyo Station lies the Ginza district, arguably Japan’s best-known commercial area; the government office district including the National Diet Building, the administrative centre of the country, extends west and south of the Palace; and, north of the Palace, universities and art museums lead to the park and cultural facilities in Ueno. This magnificent formation is the heart of Japan. It is the complex outcome of diverse developments undertaken since the Edo and Meiji periods – the result of efforts to see how important facilities might best be arranged around the Imperial Palace space.
Such an interpretation might indeed be made from a historical perspective, but I would like to focus instead on the fact that, if the intention is there, a central void the size of the Imperial Palace has a latent capacity to afford a spatial arrangement with desirable urban functions around it. Let us imagine what the central district of Tokyo would be like if the Palace space were not there. If the administrative, commercial and educational districts were marked off only by roads, not only would there be a loss of urban legibility but Tokyo as a whole would probably become a lot less interesting. Similarly, both Hyde Park in London and Central Park in New York organise the character of their surroundings, while serving as important centres of city life themselves.
I would like to pose the question, when an attempt is made to create a new community in the absence of existing facilities, as has been the case, for example, in places devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake, why not confer critical importance first, not on facilities, but on open spaces? Or, as I will explain below, when considering a plan to generate open spaces simultaneously with facilities, why not adopt an approach that gives open spaces as much importance as facilities? As I also explain, open spaces have the capacity to endow our urban lives with diverse potential.
In his book, The Image of the City (1960), Kevin Lynch cited path, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks as compositional elements of image. The open space I am discussing here can be understood as a territory surrounded by an edge. The relationship between an open space and the territory surrounding it is one of functional and visual separation, that is, an edge.
The urban edges that immediately come to mind are coastline, riverbank and bluff, but you can also imagine a pier if the sea lies beyond the edge, or a bridge, in the case of a river. So, inasmuch as there is a complete separation, the user is free to imagine whatever he or she wishes inside the open space. Being able to use that degree of freedom to the fullest is the gift presented to those living there. And the bridge and the pier are both points of contact between two spaces.
An open space is free precisely because it is surrounded by an edge – that is the contention I would like to substantiate here.
There are no doubt histories of diverse open spaces in world cities. If we are to deal with open spaces as a whole, we will in all likelihood need to compile a book or manual with the cooperation of many urban historians. Learning from each other is an important task in the age of globalisation. For example, an interesting relationship with the system of rule emerges from a comparison of places of interest (meisho) in Edo-period Japan and the agora in the Greek city-state. The citizens of a Greek city-state were enjoined to visit the agora daily, where they would find a market, sports facilities and even a corner for learning. In particular, effort was made from early in the history of city-states to develop the stamina of adult males, since that had a direct impact on military power, and led to the birth of the world’s first outdoor stadiums.
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In Japan, on the other hand, a feudal system ruled by the samurai class was established, and a civic society like that of Greece did not exist. Therefore, though small open spaces existed, there were no places where people could congregate. However, places of interest where people could enjoy changes in scenery wrought by the different seasons of the year were created and said to number as many as a thousand by the time of shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune. At times, even samurai of refined taste were said to visit such places. Contemporaneous woodblock prints show that places of interest frequently lay within the precincts of shrines and temples. Schools of learning were also located there, and the high rate of literacy of the population contributed to the promotion of the modernisation of Japan in the early Meiji period.
Comparing the agora of Greece with places of interest of Japan demonstrates that there was in each case a close relationship between open space and the system of government. Contrasting methods of rule were espoused – one based on assemblage and the other on dispersal.
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In Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, the remains of an ancient Roman church form the core of a square. There, an open space helps to recall the historical memories of the city. The open space is a mnemonic device.
In this world, the possibility of public participation in the creation of architecture is limited. That is because, with the exception of the vernacular architecture of the past, architecture has been a symbol of wealth and authority. Today, diverse restrictions concerning buildings and cities are in place, and arrangements that permit people to freely offer suggestions or to engage in discussions on projects are inadequate.
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If the views of citizens concerning the construction of a particular new open space could be widely solicited, it is not difficult to imagine that diverse positive suggestions would be much more easily obtained than with regard to a building. Unlike architecture, an open space is something that everyone has experienced; so opinions and suggestions are more easily proffered, concerning for example the type of facilities, including temporary ones, that might be installed there, and the way trees, water and lawns might be arranged.
Can an open space then become the core of a community? The answer is yes. However, that has to be the objective from the start. There is a good Japanese example of this. Two scholars (one of whom was a large local landowner) developed the resort area of Minamihara in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, a well-known summer tourist centre in Japan. The rules these two established were that, first, villa sites would not have gates or walls, and, second, an open field would be created in the centre with a small private tutoring school so that scholars at work would not be disturbed during the morning by their children. The Minamihara Association, which began with only a few families, now has more than a thousand members. What distinguishes Minamihara – already into its fourth generation in some cases – is that, though many families have changed their homes in residential quarters in big cities over this period, in summer the same people can always run into each other there. I have called this a ‘summer settlement’ (‘Summer Settlement’, Floating Modernism (Sayūsha: Tokyo, 2013). A bower and tennis courts are built in the open field, and numerous events such as athletic meets and firework displays are held there. Younger members who help run the association have been known to marry each other.
Hillside Terrace exists as an urban example. There, small dispersed squares and connecting paths have afforded people places conducive to encounters, and before long a community of residents and users began to develop quite naturally, suggesting that contemporary communities form in diverse ways.
In his study on the subject, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto points out that the behaviour of human beings is not the only thing that can be learned from the vernacular architecture of the past; important observations can also be gleaned from the behaviour of nature and objects. An open space offers a perfect place for studying the diverse behaviours of nature. The fact that air passing through a wooded area is cooled has been demonstrated. How about thinking of an open space as a huge natural fan? It also offers a perfect laboratory for the treatment of water. In all likelihood there is much to be learned about these things from the past too. Combining tents and trees is likely to be an appealing experiment as well, as will be explained below.
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The relationship between objects and human behaviour is also interesting. I have seen children embrace the white pillars in a square on the Senjū Campus of Tokyo Denki University by Maki and Associates. I believe the memory of being held in a mother’s arms in the past survives in one’s make-up. In a courtyard on the campus of the International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies, also designed by Maki and Associates, I installed a simple sculpture surrounded by concentric circles representing the seven rings that are a Buddhist symbol. It has become an ideal plaything for children, as can be seen in the photograph. Children love circles. Another thing they love is an open space with sloping ground. It is easy to imagine children running up and downhill. Such a place also enables a child to look out over the surrounding area in a city. The behaviour of children is universal, transcending time and place. Here too, it is hoped that people such as cultural anthropologists, sociologists and experts in the natural environment will participate in discussions.
If, additionally, facilities such as experimental housing were to be installed in such a place, a dialogue with an even wider circle of society might be initiated. Such possibilities can be explored in open spaces of the future.
High-energy accelerators costing several hundred billion yen may be important for unlocking the secrets of the universe, but open spaces that serve as simple laboratories in which everyone can participate are also important as a first step in exploring the question of what it is to be human.
In the past, important facilities such as churches and government office buildings were arranged facing the central squares of cities in Europe and the US. It is possible, therefore, to consider various combinations of open spaces and desirable buildings for the present day. Let us suppose we arranged an art museum, a library, a sports centre and a concert hall on the east, west, south and north sides of an open space. These facilities will in all likelihood seek to locate support facilities nearby to promote interaction and increase convenience. If this were a small city with a population of about 100,000, synergy among such facilities might well be possible. People can also use the open space and visit the various facilities expeditiously. Moreover, infant and junior school teachers can use the open space in various ways for instruction, so attracting the elderly.
An open space has simultaneously both a centripetal and a centrifugal quality. The force it exerts on its surroundings will no doubt influence development at the edge. At an urban level, an example is Kyoto, where a grid-pattern core is surrounded on three sides by continuous open spaces (that is, places of interest).
Or, let us imagine a scheme in which long, narrow open spaces are extended from the four sides of a core open space. What if medium- and high-rise buildings were to face these long, narrow open spaces? This arrangement suggests the high-rise buildings successfully constructed on both sides of green areas on the former site of a railway switchyard at Shinagawa Station (Shinagawa Central Garden). If wide streets lay behind these high-rise buildings and all other buildings were low rise and low density, the result would be an arrangement in which low-rise buildings and high-rise buildings coexisted without disturbing each other.
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Let us next consider an open space that is a long, narrow triangle in plan. Facilities for children and the elderly are arranged near the acute-angled apex, so that a human scale is maintained. As the width of the triangle gradually increases, play areas for adults increase correspondingly. A fair-sized athletics field and other facilities might be provided at the base of the triangle. Perhaps sports equipment shops concentrate there. A pavilion-like café where people of all ages, including children, could gather might be at the centre of the triangular space. The important thing is that focusing on open space in this way shows how it can be an opportunity to determine, from diverse human preferences and actions, a three-dimensional arrangement.
Furthermore, open spaces that offer protection against disasters are required. Japan is prone to frequent earthquakes, so open spaces have countless advantages such as providing places for evacuation, fire breaks and spaces underground for emergency facilities including the storage of material. Underground parks are soon to be realised in the US. Many new ideas exploring the possibility of putting open spaces partly underground will no doubt emerge.
By their very nature, open spaces can be used in multitudinous ways. So why not combine them with tents, the ultimate in multi-purpose interior spaces? For example, the standardised supports of tents could be conceived from the start as a set together with openings on the surface of the ground. Tents would no doubt prove of use in times of disaster and could be kept under normal circumstances in underground storage.
For large events, tents from other open spaces could be borrowed. The photograph below shows the largest tent in the state of Missouri leased for the opening in 2006 of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Washington University in St Louis, which we designed. An international conference I attended in January this year in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, was held in a tent with the capacity to accommodate several hundred people. It might be mentioned as an aside that on the final day, part of the tent was damaged as a result of heavy rain that had fallen the previous day.
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In a country such as Japan that is anticipating a loss of tax revenue as a result of a serious decline and an ageing population, the maintenance and operation of many public facilities will eventually become more difficult. When that happens, the highly flexible arrangement offered by combining open spaces and tents will no doubt attract even greater interest.
What we most lack in our everyday lives are things that appeal to our sense of humour. Another important role of open spaces is to orchestrate such things. For example, create a 100-metre track. A bell will sound when nine seconds and a fraction of a second representing the world record time set by Usain Bolt have passed. Runners will be able to measure immediately the difference between Bolt’s time and theirs. Everyone is acquainted with that strange ring called the Möbius strip. Why not install a large Möbius strip in an open space and have children experience this continuous surface with the help of attached rails? Playground equipment need not be limited to swings and slides.
‘Dad, Bolt’s bell rang when I was at 35 metres!’ A child’s excited voice exclaims at the site of the Old National Stadium in 2070. ‘I was at 40 metre when it rang’, says another. It seems as if Bolt’s great record has yet to be broken. The children of course have no idea the Olympics were held here half a century ago. The only thing that is still talked about, even among many young adults, is how at the intensely hot 2020 Games many participating athletes refused to compete …
How many years ago was it that, no longer able to pay the enormous cost of maintenance and management, the government of the ageing nation of Japan, giving in to public opinion, decided to dismantle the facility? Only the track and a lawn able to accommodate about 10,000 spectators, surrounded by trees, are left. What has become the most popular aspect of the site is a hands-on, interactive sports ground, the only one of its kind in the world, which can be enjoyed by adults and children alike. One can learn there about kemari and soccer, battledore and shuttlecock and badminton, and the history of sports. There are always parents and children from other countries as well. It has become, both inside and outside, a wonderful expanse where children can meet and get to know each other. A new must-see place has come into being in Tokyo.
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A limited competition was held for the government complex of Amaravati, a new state capital of Andhra Pradesh in south-east India (population 53 million). The key organising concept of Amaravati in the proposal by Maki and Associates is establishing a series of squares that form an axial spine running north to south through the centre of the complex. All key public and government facilities are arranged adjacent to those squares; so no monumental buildings or structures are directly on the axis itself. Accordingly, the focal point of the spine becomes the sacred River Krishna and the mountains that rise beyond it to the north.
This series of observations began with the construction of a primary (urban) landscape from memories and experiences of the fields of my childhood and the various existing open spaces of metropolises. However, I am not advocating conventional open spaces, that is, the concept of parks and places of rest and recreation, and propose instead that open spaces be the subject of much more diverse intellectual observation. Of course, they can continue to function as places of rest and recreation, but my point is that they have the potential to make our urban lives much richer. That is because, over the last century, in the process of modernisation in many places, not all Modernist architecture has succeeded in giving people the joy of urban life. Naturally, we need to develop and devise building further to achieve greater success, but I believe open spaces that are free from the intrusion of buildings – that is, independent open spaces ― afford greater power and importance.
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I would like to listen further to the opinions of people from different disciplines, for example, engineers, landscape architects and city planners as well as people from fields such as cultural anthropology, urban sociology and urban history. I have taken up open spaces as a subject of such interdisciplinary discussion. This question is likely to attract interest on a global scale, just as Architecture Without Architects (1964) by Bernard Rudofsky led to a sudden focus on vernacular buildings.
There is no limit to the subject of study if open spaces of all sizes are taken into consideration; for example, developing countries where urban populations are rapidly increasing; the further suburbanisation of mature societies; and the void spaces in cities that are increasing in inverse relationship to the decline in population in countries such as Japan.
As already pointed out, what is needed in our urban and architectural disciplines is a more active debate on this matter with people outside our fields.