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Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009


Concretology — getting lost inside a mammoth structure

Japan is the home of concretology. This form of architecture started in the 1960s as a way to use molds, iron bars and rendering to form structures that make people say, "Whoa!"

In other parts of the world, this art form is known as "reinforced concrete." With the onset of concretology, what Japan lacked in land mass, it could now make up for in mammoth structures.

Take, for example, the Kyoto International Conference Center (Kokusai Kaikan). Built in 1966, this monstrosity sits on 156,000 sq. meters of land, has 70 meeting rooms and a giant swan (we'll get back to the swan later). With at least one conference hall with a 19-meter ceiling, the ICC Kyoto must have been aiming to have the first conference center in the world where they can hold meetings for giraffes.

The center claims to have put on more than 16,000 conferences and events. The amazing thing is that during all those events, the center has not beamed itself up into space. Like the futuristic Tokyo International Exhibition Center tower (Tokyo Big Sight) at Odaiba, visually, the ICC Kyoto fits into the class of ready-to-take-off-into-outerspace type of buildings. I'm still not convinced the Japanese won't try to launch it at North Korea should defense become necessary.

The only reason it hasn't launched yet is likely because it is too heavy. Don't despair though, if the seas keep rising like they promise, the ICC Kyoto may save all of us. Not only is it big enough to fit the entire population of Japan, but if we shape the bottom into a hull, it will float. There was a good reason they chose the ICC Kyoto as the site to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

The inside of the conference center (or, if you prefer, the "global center of intellectual exchange") has myriad levels connected by split level stairways accompanied by slopes such that while you may think you're on the second floor, you're actually not.

"Of course, there is always the problem of people getting lost," confirmed one conference staff member as if this was no big deal. I had to agree with her. I've always thought the experience of being lost was underrated.

Besides, the intention of Sachio Otani, the architect of the ICC Kyoto, was to show an interaction between architecture and art (not people). Despite this, he still managed to cleverly design a building that encourages interaction among people as in, "Excuse me, but do you know where the second floor has gone to?"

And with all the '60s style gigantic art inside the place, you have plenty of landmarks. Go past the cast metal curtain, turn left at the aluminum chandelier, and you'll be near the main Event Hall (where the main event is tripping on subtle, purposefully built undulations in the floor). In addition, there are plenty of canvass paintings sporting vivid colors and pattern combinations particular to the '60s when artists finally discovered geometric shapes.

The ICC Kyoto also offers Japanese entertainment such as the "Shakuhachi frute," and provocative Harry Potter-esque amenities, such as the Annex Hall which offers "the door of exclusive use" and the main Event Hall with the "entrance hole of the exclusive use."

The key concept of concretology is the feeling, or rather insistence, that nature and concrete collaborate. Standing inside a concrete building watching a swan paddling around a rectangular, cement pond outside, for example. Or take the public toilets that have piped in bird chirps and waterfall sounds. These features combine to make you think you're somewhere else, rather than among concrete.

And this is why the large white swan plays such a major role. Without the swan, the building would be trespassing on nature. The swan brings in the nature concept. Why such a large swan? If you're only going to have one swan, it had better be big enough that everyone can see it. And just in case you should miss him, his image can be found emblazoned on the center's coasters and paper coffee cups.

The swan even has a banquet hall named after him. According to the ICC Kyoto Web site, "The 'Swan' seats 250" for a meal. That's one busy swan.

When I was in the Swan banquet hall sipping a glass of white wine, however, the swan himself was out paddling around the pond. I went out and asked him what he thought about his digs. He looked at me thoughtfully, as if he was considering an answer, but ultimately he didn't say anything concrete.

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