Japanese architect Chiaki Arai works his concrete magic in the Konan Ward Cultural Centre where the program has been created in collaboration with the surrounding community. The interiors boast of multi-axial planes that are flexible and also give a unique perspective to the visitor.
One of Louis Kahn’s last apprentices, Japanese architect Chiaki Arai’s love for concrete and his expertise in using this building material is creatively expressed in the Konan Ward Cultural Centre. This project assembles four different programs – library, museum, community centre and a multipurpose theatre, on a single platform with a circular corridor connecting all of them.
Konan Ward was a new district created from several smaller surrounding towns and municipal consolidations. Chiaki Arai believes in ‘topophilia’ or the love of a place, but the dilemma that arose in Konan Ward Cultural Centre was ‘how do you create topophilia when the place was not even on the map a few years ago?’
After much deliberation, the solution was found in numerous workshops with residents, through which the design team understood the true needs of the ward residents and also nurtured the feeling of participation and love for the Centre, amongst them. The workshop gave many insights to the surroundings and the design team incorporated the comments, critiques and suggestions of the people into the design.
For example, Architect Chiaki Arai’s design response to the comment that ‘Konan Ward had only rice crackers and rice wine to offer’, was to give the theatre a colour palette that evoked a feeling of ‘rice fields full of paddy’. Similarly, the team was inspired to shuffle the museum building’s layout to bring the old farm tools collection to a prominent position, since many of the volunteers mentioned its importance.
Arai conceived the centre as four different zones, with a complex geometric volume of concrete, arranged around a cruciform circulation route, termed as the ‘Cross Streets’, and each program opening separately to the ‘street’. Inside, the architect has employed a revolutionary 3-dimensional technology in the use of concrete, with the surfaces pleating and twisting to give 3-D planes that penetrate through tight spaces, giving a unique spatial experience to the traversing people.
As we walk through the corridors, the tilted walls embedded with an array of LEDs, remind us of sci-fi movies featuring intergalactic spaces. Architect Chiaki Arai tells us, “The spaces were developed in the workshops in conjunction with the locals, hence the designs are based on somaesthetic experiences (sensory aesthetics), human scales and the usability of rooms.”
For optimum natural lighting and communication in different spaces according to their individual functional requirement, the multi-axial concrete planes are interspersed with glazed walls in many places.
Apart from the unexpected perspectives offered due to the 3-D planes of the concrete surfaces, another feature that gives the cultural centre a distinctive appeal are the circular skylights. The concrete ceiling is littered with round skylights that constantly play a game of shadow and light in the interior surfaces. Says Arai, “The rising concrete polygon structure is not merely an expression, but a distributor of natural light and air as well.”
Internal planning has focused on maximum usability and flexibility of spaces. By installing sliding walls, the designers have provided options to maximise or limit the room size as required. The design team points out, “It is not a consistent space, but an inconsistent space”.
The individual rooms like the music room, practice room, etc. have been organised as vertically nested structures. The gap remaining between these room ceilings and the skylights on the main roof fill the Cross Street with soft light that seems to aesthetically emphasise the team’s theory of ‘inconsistent space’.
But by far, the most striking space in the centre is the 400 seat multipurpose hall, where the design concept is ‘the golden ears of rice’, a notion derived from the surrounding agrarian society, whose main crop is rice. Inside, the mostly white space has a series of light bands resembling the ripe golden rice ears of rice extending from the stage to seats, defining the curving walls and ceiling. 7000 random circles speckle the side walls and function as either sound diffusers, sound absorbers or lighting elements.
Curtains and seats are also a derivative of the rice fields, a familiar landscape around Konan Ward. The material and colour palette of yellow-green seats, brown teak floorboards, and undulating white walls was chosen to invoke the feeling of abundant rice fields. The team further explains to us, “Another feature of the Hall is the configurable depth of the stage. We designed the stage acoustic reflector system.”
Concrete in its Spartan simplicity underlines the structural geometry and scale while at the same time lending the requisite minimalistic appeal. Form, structure, function and eventually aesthetics come together in a perfect symphony in the clever architectural execution of Architect Chiaki Arai at the Konan Ward Cultural Centre. The architecture has easily become a loved landmark, ‘by the people, for the people’ in the newly formed Konan Ward.
Text By K Parvathy Menon
Photographs By Sergio Pirrone, Taisuke Ogawa, Kouichi Satake, Shinkenchiku-sha Co. Ltd.