Published  11/11/2002

Kitagata Garden City, Japan

Kitagata Garden City, Japan

The second scheme was essentially led by a brief by architect Arata Isozaki, in which Martha Schwartz was to be the co-ordinating landscape architect for four separate architect-designed housing groups. This was at Kitagata Garden City, Japan.
The Garden City as established in Europe during the twentieth century, following the pioneer British experiments of Ebenezer Howard, has no equivalent as precedent within Japan itself. One reason has been that social housing as such in Japan is barely comparable as a recognisable entity. Units were placed like rabbit hutches in a basic effort to provide shelter. There were expedient rows of medium rise, high density living accommodation, which paid token service to such established European criteria as daylight factors.

At Kitagata, in Gifu Prefecture, near Nagoya deliberate steps have recently been taken to remedy this deficit by establishing a model for the future. Systemically, the innovations can for once also set an example to European local authorities and private developers alike. The architect Arata Isozaki has initiated the concept prototype, which was strongly promoted by the governor of the Prefecture, Taju Kajiwara. Perhaps because Tajiwara is a trained engineer, with a special interest in the social aspects of architecture, it got off the ground in an original way. Firstly, four individual architects were invited to draw up designs, each for a separate apartment block. All were women architects. Elizabeth Diller came from the United States, Christine Hawley from Britain, and Akiko Takahashi and Kazuyo Sejima from Japan itself. An inspired move was then to invite the landscape architect Martha Schwartz to take design responsibility for the entire surrounding exterior spaces of all three areas. In other words it was the garden landscape design that would actually provide the template which would harmonise the entire scheme.

There was yet another ingenious condition: none of the four separate women architects was given a specific site area. They were to prepare highly detailed schemes without direct allocation of a specific plot, albeit within the overall site previously set aside. This might seem to create a piecemeal prerogative: but that is to reckon without the unifying role of the landscape architect. What the separation of skills was intended to generate, however, was a range of alternative solutions. In a sense compatible with each other in terms of standards of design to be expected from architects of such quality: and a discrete cultural mix which might in the end comply with the necessary criteria for diversity and communal variety which, Ebenezer Howard failed to supply, and which, in the l960s, Jane Jacobs came to recognise as vital in city living. It would then be left to Martha Schwartz to form a creative symbiosis by means of landscaping the entire external area. Unusually therefore, a decisive design responsibility was being placed upon the landscape architect herself, Martha Schwartz herself could of course only develop her designs by reference to the submitted and approved apartment block designs of the four architects. Elizabeth Diller for example devised a flexible internal plan solution based partly on the well proven precedent of the New York city loft. Covering the north-east section of the site, Diller’s plan now angles southwards in a very gentle curve, in contrast to Takahashi’s block, which runs westwards following the East—West axis. South of this, Christine Hawley manages to break with the orthogonal axis, allowing her duplex units to face south-east or south-west. Kazuyo Sejima fills the south-western section of the site, creating a long corridor in the manner of the Japanese ‘iniwa’ (garden passage) serving a series of linear-disposed rooms: and now by establishing an ‘elbow’ she achieves a sense of enclosure, forming an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside to the block. The manoeuvres of both Hawley and Sejima, following the final site allocation allow Martha Schwartz herself considerable latitude in formulating a diversity of landscaped areas. The exterior boundary of the site is generously bounded by rows of trees, of varying depth, within a positively inspired landscaping budget for the entire project design.

The landscape architect established a strong central spine along the East-West axis, where the dispositions of the four architects had created an indeterminate, fairly wide, but somewhat vacant wedge of intermediate space. The kind of space, in fact, which if left to the devices of the average local authority twenty years ago would contain some swings, rubber-tyre based play elements, sparsely grassed swathes of lawn, and one or two abandoned bicycles, plus concrete ventilation ducts for the under-site car parking.

Essentially Schwartz was converting this space to a suite of inter-connected garden ‘rooms’. She creates a wide variety of small human spaces, almost like beads on a string. These range from a long pond dubbed the ‘Iris Canal’ close to Takahashi’s linear block, to Willow Court, to Stone Garden, (where rocks and fountains define a playpool).

To a kind of climacteric group at the eastern edge: this contains a Bamboo Garden, and four specific enclosures known as the Four Seasons Garden, again animated by a water rill., and with trees to illustrate seasonal changes, A dance floor, (to the west, to catch the evening sun) and a sports court, close to the rill, further enliven the central axis.

Schwartz was able to raise the level of the long central spine continuously, given the format of covered car parking arrangements below at ground level. This was a special bonus, but one of which she has made maximum benefit. Since the various housing arrangements permit a wide range of household sizes, and considerable age-sex range, these individuals and groups now use fully and widely, for a large range of activity the central raised ‘dais’ which is 2.5 metres above actual site datum level. This is all the more important since there is nowhere any actual ground-level living accommodation. (Car parking needs are adequately fulfilled without the need for underground car parking). The range and flexibility of use of the 14 different spaces, providing alike enclaves and openings, walkways and places simply in which to stand, sit, watch or contemplate is virtually unique. This can be said to be unique in both of the countries from which the outside-invited architects came.

This is a remarkable scheme, which demonstrates the special unifying template which skilled landscape, garden, recreational and planting design can provide. Schwartz has sown how both hard and soft landscape elements can be combined with water features, to bring together on a kind of garden mall, an entire new community.



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