“The Culture of Decongestion”, Domus #915, January 8, 2008

Be it well documented examples as Detroit and the eastern part of Germany, or lesser known cases elsewhere, vast regions in the world are being left abandoned as a result of globalization, natural disasters and demographic trends. This is not a new phenomenon; however it is accelerating to a pace where it starts to affect the way we should imagine our cities and buildings.

Architects love the metropolitan condition, this smoldering melting pot of global cultures. Statistics confirming that within decades the bulk of the world population will live in cities make us feverishly propose schemes of insane density; hybrid stackings of all conceivable programs for the millions of new dwellers within this culture of congestion.

With few exceptions, current trends suggest a less splendid design scope. The densities will happen. Not planned, but within the informally built shanty mega cities of the developing world. Left to architects are the program stacks, limited to the trinity of commercial, luxury apartments and leisure, in the emerging ghettos for the super rich—the green zone. Do we deliberately condemn ourselves to this narrow condition? Is architecture a mechanism that exclusively operates within a growth-scenario, or, with bubbles popping and scarcity becoming real, would it not be more exciting, if not just wise, to explore how to operate within a new paradigm, that of decline?

Nishizawa’s Art Center Towada takes an initial step in this direction. Towada is a town in the south east of Aomori-prefecture on Honshu, Japan’s main island, about four hours north of Tokyo by bullet train. Traditionally known for its agriculture and food production, Aomori presents itself as a nourishing land of plenty. It is however an area suffering from increasing tensions on its existing social structures. An exodus to Tokyo of youths seeking jobs has left behind towns that are predominantly for the elderly. Shops close and the streets are abandoned. Urban life is lost.

Japan’s population will decline dramatically in the next 50 years. Currently at about 127 million, some estimates predict the number in 2050 to be 80 million, a reduction of almost one third of the population. This is a direct result of low birthrates and, deliberately, hardly any immigration. Aomori records its population as having peaked in 1983.

Instinctively, planners and politicians in areas of decline franticly fight the inevitable. Tourism, through culture or the glorification of the country side, seems to be the only imaginable cure to this increasingly spreading ailment. An unprecedented initiation of cultural projects has swept over the country. Great monuments are erected on deathbeds.

Towada’s impulse was no different. Under the ambitious banner Arts Towada, “a project of urban improvement with art,” the municipality has launched a five year game plan. The entire town will be infused with artistic efforts which range from installing artworks on empty lots to programming workshops and community festivals. The project is centered on locally celebrated Kanchogai-street. This cherry tree lined avenue forms the main axis of the city grid, a remnant of its historically significant irrigation system. Besides the sparsely occupied governmental buildings—in order to reduce public expense, Towada merged with a neighboring town in 2005—and abandoned lots, it is also the site for the recently opened Towada Art Center.

Nishizawa’s acumen in context and his ability to reintroduce urban qualities on the scale of architecture—in line with his celebrated Moriyama House—have generated a highly potent model for building in blight. The building is created by a dispersed gathering of white boxes. Its composition takes cues from Kanchogai Street, where open space and various sized buildings appear alternately. In orientation and position, the volumes gently play off the notion of the grid. This carefully considered arrangement allows for event- and open-air exhibition spaces between the volumes on site. Each space is connected with glass corridors—winter can be harsh in Aomori—giving the visitor a freedom to navigate. Large glazed openings make the art and activities an intricate part of the streetscape. The fine grain of the cubes—the smallest gallery is just over 15 m2—give the boxes a domestic scale. A radical new way of experiencing contemporary art is achieved by confronting the large scale work of 22 international and Japanese artists—ranging from Ron Mueck to Takashi Kuribayashi—with the intimate sized galleries.

Some of the work cannot be contained. It has escaped their box to occupy the roofs or spaces in between the building. A galloping horse by Noboru Tsubaki, in reference to Towada’s military history—is ready to dash away into this aging farm community.

One can wonder if this transplant of global contemporary art and architecture will not be rejected by this fragile body. I think not. All has been done to make it a vital organ of the local community. In its ambition, it caters to the few remaining youths. But apart from the galleries, the project houses a number of flexible spaces reserved for civic activities such as workshops, exhibitions and hobby-oriented programs. The institution actively stimulates interaction between various local communities. It houses a library, and aims to provide local information about and for Towada city. The café, situated in effect on Kanchogai Street, serves food made from local produce and a shop offers regional specialty goods and craft products, besides art related items

This settler camp merges global and local, cultural and civic. It is the beginning of a new cycle, growing out of a body in decay. When the rest of Towada has shrunk until all but the Art Center has gone, a beautiful little village remains. In the culture of decline, architects can make entire—be it smaller—cities again…