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The Yokohama International Port Terminal

Irénée Scalbert


In the 1920’s the theory of relativity prompted Sigfried Giedion to invent the concept of space-time. Again an interest in science brings time at the heart of architecture. But time today is not claimed as a mere fourth dimension. Rather it is seen to bring order in a chaotic world. It makes today different from yesterday. Thanks to its irreversibility, it creates singularities in buildings no less than in nature.

This insight underpins the new architecture. For FOA and a growing number of other practices, buildings are not plans translated into space or ideas turned into stone. They are not creations of the mind: they are effects of time. Ilya Prigogine among scientists, Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze among philosophers elaborated on a similar productive conception of time. However nothing more may have been heard on the subject among architects without Benoit Mandelbrot. Architects may not have read his books of mathematics, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, but the geometry which he invented and the sensational images which it produced provided the essential relay, esthetically and practically, between nature and architecture, between scientific knowledge and the imagination of space.

For Mandelbrot, drawings are essential means to the development of an intuition. Whereas a mathematical formula relates only to a small aspect of the relationship between reality and its model, the eye, he claims, has enormous powers of integration and discrimination. Moreover his computer reconstructions of the complex shapes of clouds, mountains, coastlines and trees flatter geometry: once regarded as arduous and abstract, it now seems playful and sensuous. For the architects who explored the creative possibilities of computers in the 1990’s, this was a revelation.

Mandelbrot foresaw the esthetic possibilities of the new geometry. He distinguished between “scalebound” and ”scaling” objects. Miesian buildings for instance are “scalebound”. They are objects in which elements of scale such as a window grid are few in number and each have a distinct size. They represent to Mandelbrot a throwback to Euclid. On the other hand Tony Garnier’s Opera House in Paris, with its proliferation of details and its craggy outline, is a “scaling” building. Like the mountains and coastlines which Mandelbrot studied, it has many different scales which interact confusedly and merge in a continuum.

Instances of scaling were also found in the visual arts, for instance in Leonardo’s drawing of the Deluge and in The Great Wave by Hokusai, an artist “fascinated by eddies and whorls of every kind” and much  admired by Mandelbrot. Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi, too, called upon the authority of Hokusai. They consulted books on his work during the competition for the Yokohama International Port Terminal. Later on, needing to sway a Japanese audience struggling to understand their winning entry, they invoked with great effect the spirit of the artist and referred to the same print which had so appealed to Mandelbrot.

Prigogine had sought answers to the philosophical questions raised by his work in Bergson and to a lesser extent Leibniz. A few years later, Sanford Kwinter and Jeffrey Kipnis, both of them critics who championed the new architecture, again referred (presumably after Prigogine) to Bergson and Leibniz. But they favoured the more spatially evocative and often incomprehensible writings of Deleuze, notably his Bergsonism, his Fold, Leibniz and the Baroque, and Mille Plateaux. Out of this intellectual melange new words entered the architectural vocabulary: surface, fold, topology, organisation, singularities, coherence, deterritorialisation, reterritorialisation, etc. New techniques were developed: topological grids, intensive tiling, diagrammatic performance among them. The search for complexity in architecture was matched by a no less complex and often abstruse language.

With the completion of the Yokohama International Port Terminal, the semantic fog is lifting and the theory can be evaluated against a building of considerable size and startling appearance. As soon as the design was released to the press, the roof surface became an icon for the new architecture, its frontispiece describing a vast, exposed, boundless space steeped in Deleuze’s nomadology. Beneath it, in the ferry terminal proper, the theory was exposed to a first set of constraints associated with planning. Below still, in the car-park, it faced a second set of constraints linked with building. The configuration of the project in three distinct surfaces – roof, terminal and car-park - presents the equivalent of a cross-section cut through the history of the project ranging from still barely formed speculations in the competition entry to hard-headed construction.

From the beginning FOA intended to bring together ferry passengers and the people of Yokohama in “a machine of integration”. They wished to establish a “seamless connection” with the ground of the city. In addition there was to be no separation between envelope and structure in a building where stresses are absorbed by “singularities within a material continuum”. Not only was the building to have no column – a feature which caused disbelief among engineers – not only was its space strangely continuous: it also seemed to be made in a single substance, as yet neither the paper of origami imagined during the competition nor the steel of shipyards later used in the construction, by a kind of alchemical process only known to computers.

FOA’s vision recalls the views expressed by Giedion in 1928 in Bauen in Frankreich. In four magnificent pages boldly titled “Architecture”, Giedion doubts that architecture can survive under the weight of its momumentality. Architecture is no longer spatial or plastic. Its boundaries become blurred, fields overlap, moving elements like elevators become parts of buildings. No longer distinct from the city, buildings seek to connect with it, to fall in line with the indivisible life process of which architecture is only a part, “even if a special one”. The exalted task of the architect is to transform the surface of the earth, to envision new grounds which are artificial and continuous. Above all, he must imagine forms which are neither abstract, neutral or homogeneous like the pioneering steel structures of the nineteenth century, but are instead concrete and differentiated.

However the sponsors of the competition wanted something else. In the concept of “ni-wa-minato” (“very-bright-with-the-sunshine”) they had made explicit their desire to see a great symbol. The new ferry terminal should be able to achieve for Yokohama what Kansai International Airport did for Osaka, perhaps even what Utzon’s Opera House did for Sydney. The commentary provided by Arata Isozaki, who was vice-chairman of the jury, is almost exclusively concerned with symbolic matters. In the last stage of the judging, the shortlist featured a shape relating to that of a Japanese sword (Matsumoto + Shinohara’s scheme), a rational plan crowned by a large symbolic glass box reminiscent, to Isozaki’s mind, of a traditional oriental roof (Rikken Yamamoto), the back of a whale (Ryoji Suzuki) and FOA’s scheme which curiously did not register on Isozaki’s symbolic scale: “an innovative idea cutting through, he wrote, the style/anti-style pluralism”. FOA’s entry appeared to mean nothing by itself. The jury emphasized the radical simplicity of its appearance. The design, they wisely concluded, will set off the boats moored along the pier. Reciprocally it will be made more attractive by the presence of the ships.

FOA’s masterstroke, however, was to transform the 500 sq.m. garden specified in the brief into an 18,000 sq.m. open space on a scale with the nearby Yamashita Park. They could not have known at the time that given the political sensitivity of building at the interface between city centre and harbour, this move was just right. Growing competition with other Asian ports led the city of Yokohama to launch an aggressive development policy seeking to transform its harbour into the hub port of East Asia. Vast container terminals were recently completed or are under construction on land reclaimed from the bay. These developments are in effect cutting the 3.6 million inhabitants of Yokohama from the sea  – the nearest beach is now several miles away – and put pressure on the local politicians to attach to these large-scale industrial facilities amenities designed for the enjoyment of the  local population.

The 270 hectares of container parking which make the Honmoku Pier were supplemented with the little appendage of a fishing jetty projecting into the sea. The even larger and newer Minami Honmoku Pier will be contained on two sides by a green belt, helping to transform Yokohama, in the words of an official brochure, into “an energetic harbour leading the world” as well as “a port full of charm for our citizens”. Given this context, it is not hard to understand why the lay-members of the jury, all of them politicians, should have leaped on the proposal for a large public space on the site of the terminal, and why the client, the Port Habour Bureau, is not overly keen (unlike the architects) to bring together passengers and citizens.

The connection between the new terminal and the town centre is far less equivocal. The terminal stands at one end of the artery with which the centre is identified, the stadium marking the opposite end. The pairing of these two buildings represents a great deal more than a symbol, for the new terminal was a key element in Yokohama’s bid to host the World Cup Final. It gave the city an advantage over Saitama, its less accessible but better equipped rival to the north of Tokyo. According to Kunio Watanabe of the Structural Design Group, the charismatic structural engineer for the new ferry terminal, the timing of the World Cup was decisive. It prompted understandably nervous city officials to go ahead with a project for which there was no precedent and to complete its construction before the start of the games.

The two key factors which defined the context of the project, the bid  to host the World Cup Final and the fear of alienating citizens through excessive industrial development, put a particular light on the seamless connections envisaged by FOA. In addition there was little in the immediate surroundings to legitimize a sensitive response to the local fabric. Where then could FOA’s “new gounds” intersect with the context? Could the gospel of continuity ever be more than a metaphor? Within the framework of the competition, FOA could do no more than dig in and develop a feeling for the brief and for the presence of the sea. In the event, both provided powerful alibis for the seamless forms with which the new architecture had become infatuated.

Given the aim and the sophistication of the theory, the building at Yokohama is surprisingly reticent. It presents itself as a datascape without the data, as a construction whose story became unretrievable as if to prove that it can stand on its own merit without the props of reason. The access drive rises gently to the level of the plazza and the main entrance, leaving one unprepared for the spaces beyond. On either side projecting belvederes reach forward to enclose the forecourt and overlook the incoming traffic. The strangeness of the scene gradually takes hold. Broad timber pavements rise on either side of the drive, their timber curb sitting directly on the asphalt. The access road widens on the ascent, suggesting by a chance optical effect that it is slightly arched (it is not). As one reaches the forecourt, the space appears to dip slightly as if, having climbed something like a forearm, one had landed in the palm of a hand. The setting makes an inviting gesture to the sky and leads one, quite appropriately, to anticipate the presence of the sea.

Hemmed in between the bus shelters and the belvederes, valleys lead onto the roof. True to expectation, one finds the sea beyond a broad timber deck running in a straight line for a cool 350 meters. Treading  further onto the roof is like venturing on the body of Gulliver: it remains cautiously alien. Neither scalebound nor scaling, it recognizes only two scales: the micro-patterns of the timber deck and the macro-forms of its undulations, skin lines and body lumps. Perhaps as many as 10,000 people will gather here to watch Yokohama’s bi-annual fireworks. Little else is known about the uses of this 24-hour public space which, the architects acknowledge, will grow over time.

Most furniture is out of plumb, as if blown by the wind in the barren, desolate place which the roof will at times inevitably be. A theme emerges in which an assortment of ideas - water, grass, dunes, beach, deck, boat, etc. – produce a strong maritime resonance. Like in the original design, bits of uncertain use and unfamiliar form are dotted across the space and signify its intended nomadic character. But how could a building be truly nomadic? How could it be like a landscape, at once wholly open-ended in its occupation and exhaustively determined in its form? As if to echo a recurrent problem in the sciences of nature, how could it be the result of both chance and necessity? City officials did rise to the political opportunity presented by the new public space, but not to the extent of supplementing it with a meaningful brief. As a result the basis for its necessity must be found in the plan of the terminal below.

The complex forms of the building are widely understood to be the outcome of an experiment with computers. In turn the fascination with the generation of complex forms helped to conceal the project’s ideological content. In an interview conducted in 1994 for El Croquis by Zaera-Polo with Peter Eisenman, the discussion between them comes to a head on a fundamental issue. Zaera-Polo reiterates his commitment to a rule-based design method of the kind employed by Eisenman. But unlike Eisenman, he argues that the first move should not be arbitrary, that architects cannot produce anything relevant unless some intention be declared from the outset. Rules need purpose.

Accordingly the rules deduced by FOA from the brief for the terminal were carried out with a sophistication, a force of conviction and a raw coherence seldom seen in the functionalism of old. Throughout the modern period, functionalism followed one of two paths: for the majority form followed programme, while for a minority including Mies van der Rohe and engineers like Nervi whom the Modern movement co-opted, form followed structure. This distinction between function and structure, between men and materials was central to the humanist tradition of Modernism. In the Yokohama project this distinction is superseded. Programme and structure became fused and determine jointly the form of the architecture. The originality is in fact more profund: function has became atomised, digitalised, architecture now being  produced by a kind of unitary operation repeated as many times as necessary.

The operation retained by FOA for the Yokohama competition is the fold. At a large scale the fold helped to bring the “flying carpet” of the roof in contact with the ground, providing points of support and a principle for organising circulation in the building. At a small scale it aimed to introduce rigidity in surfaces by turning and returning them again onto themselves. Crucially the fold was consistent with the intellectual athmosphere – fractals, Deleuze, Kipnis, etc. – which prevailed in FOA’s milieu.

In a lecture delivered at the Architectural Association in the wake of their competition success, Zaera-Polo and Moussavi showed a figure drawn for the Rorschach psychological test (then one of their favorite images). The figure presented a striking resemblance to the Yokohama cross sections, complete with freely formed roof, cavern-like interiors, projecting boarding decks and recessed supports below. Like the Yokohama project the Rorschach test originates in a fold which is the means by which ink is spread on the two halves of a sheet of paper to produce a figure. Inevitably the figure is symmetrical with, as Rorschach, a Swiss clinical physician, tersely observed, “very little difference between the two halves”. Rorschach’s experiments in the interpretation of accidental ink blobs showed that elated individuals “perceive” while depressed others “interpret”. This led him to conclude that there exists no clear boundary between perception and interpretation, and that interpretation is merely a special kind of perception. There is between representations and objects of nature a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind.

FOA justified the symmetry of the terminal building as a by-product of the brief, with ships flanking the pier of both sides. This makes good sense. In addition it is possible to associate the pervasive symmetry, complete with the “little differences between the two halves”, with a Rorschach-like original fold, and to conceive the project as an imaginative perception of the brief, as if the brief had presented itself to the architects as a test of their perceptive powers. Thus form would follow perception in a way that brings to mind Bergson’s discussion of the eye. “The eye, with its marvellous complexity of structure, may be, he wrote, only the simple act of vision”, the complexity of the organ being indissociable from the unity of its function.

Nature need not give it a thought, but how were FOA to grapple with this unity of function? How could they, to paraphrase Bergson, feel their object – the shifting brief - so as to get its mobile impression at every instant? In a situation which kept changing almost to the end, the terminal offered a stable reference. From the outset it was imagined as a horizontal layer situated between the apron and the roof piazza. Its level was fixed at five meters, the height required for boarding ships. The 6% gradient of the access drive and the area required for the traffic plazza determined the position of the main entrance. Points of support for the terminal needed to be within specified distances from the edge of the apron falling under international control, the distance being shorter on the north than on the south side. Above, the narrow boarding decks running the entire length of the building needed to project further out towards the water edge to connect with the movable fingers of standard length leading onto the ships. These restrictions imposed by administration, structure, technical equipment and common sense caused the ramps to swerve - which they do more sharply on the south side where the distance between the points of support below and the boarding decks above is at its widest. In addition the superimposition of the ramps leading onto the roof occasioned further deflections to allow for head clearance on the ramps below.

Along the sides of the building, the intricate arrangement of brief  requirements and site constraints caused a kind of turbulence and gave the plan the character of necessity. Yet the terminal building is essentially a shed. It consists literally in two rooms of haunting immensity, like nave and chancel, lifted above the ground to make space for the car-park. At 170 meters, the length of the terminal alone far exceeds that of most cathedrals. At never more than 10 meters, its height is less than that of most churches. As one becomes accustomed to the relative darkness of the space, one notices not the nervous swerve of the ramps which separate the nave from the aisles, but their shallow inclines. The complexity proposed by the theory and described by the plan gives way to regularity, moderation and a kind of saturnine dimness. At the end of the terminal where an uplift might be expected as one might, a transept or a tower, there is of course nothing of the kind. To the contrary, the ceiling which until then sloped imperceptibly, falls sharply and draws the eye through the looking glass to the carpark below which, from here, vividly recalls the hold of a ship.

The citizens’ facilities occupying the end of the building are responsible for this downlift, pressing down as it were on the roof surface to bring it in line with the five-meters boarding level. Including at first a Hall of Civic Exchange flanked by restaurants, shopping and exhibition areas, they were later substantially reduced. But the idea of a hall for public and commercial use survived, flanked to the north by a restaurant and to the south by a belvedere including VIP facilities. Though on rare occasions the hall will be open to passengers to celebrate the arrival or the departure of a ship, it will be reserved for local events, for instance graduation ceremonies, weddings, gymnastics competitions, market fairs and public dances. From the outset it was envisaged that the position of the hall will draw visitors to the end of the pier and help bring the roof piazza to life. But the parochial and intermittent uses presently under consideration are unlikely to achieve this aim and take the measure of the exceptional situation.

The large areas of glazing at both ends of the hall and the comparatively modest length of the hall – at 75 meter, it is slightly shorter than most cathedrals - make it a lighter space than the terminal. While the terminal may be said to be Romanesque in character (a character which Victor Hugo described as “sombre, mysterious, low and as if overwhelmed by the weight of the semicircular arch”) the hall appears by contrast tall and airy like a Gothic church. The folds, being fewer in number, appear larger and their faces, being closer to the natural light, are more contrasted and contribute a powerful monumentality to the space. It is here that the likeness with a cathedral, further aided by the current uncertainty concerning its purpose and by the vast window overlooking the sea (even if not quite a rose) is most irresistible. In its form, situation and character, the hall recalls Schinkel’s powerful romantic fantasy of circa 1814, The Gothic Cathedral by the Water.

In a building which is allegedly moulded upon the outline of a brief, the multi-purpose hall presents a paradox. While the design became increasingly precise as it was rushed towards the completion date, the brief for the citizens’ facilities was becoming increasingly vague. Ultimately the hall reflects less its own necessity than its history. It provides a somewhat mordant illustration of FOA’s conception of the plan as “simply the state that it is, given the level of intelligence it has reached.” According to this definition, a building must not be judged by external standards (for this would reflect a Platonic bias) or even by those set by its plans. If the origin is merely the point where a project happens to start, completion is the point where design happens to end, and they have no further significance. In a theory which recognizes the smooth, seamless passage of time and the coherence of its effects, a project can be declared complete at any stage of its process – a view which is hard to reconcile with the notions of accountability and professionalism.

Inspired by the new sciences of nature, this understanding rests on the assumption that nature and architecture belong to the same material world. But it overlooks a fundamental difference between both. Building projects may be, like nature, developed and realised in real time, but the rules which guide their developments exist outside real time. The entire conception of architecture is based upon events which, it is assumed, will take place. Events being to some degree unpredictable, architecture projects are, unlike nature, essentially speculative. As  Zaero-Polo reminded Eisenman, they are “intentional”. Moreover  architectural forms are inert: they ignore the cycle of seasons, they neither create nor die. However great the temptation exerted by computer animations, architecture remains, to paraphrase Goethe, frozen motion. This is why FOA must refer not merely to the time and to the history of a project but to its “accelerated time”, to its “micro-history”, in an attempt to dissolve the sugar of architecture into the water of nature.

Bergson himself never claimed (architecture theorists, please note!) that architecture could be absorbed within the perpetual becoming of life. To the contrary, he made a fundamental distinction between the “organisation” of nature and the “manufacture” of men. Manufacture, he wrote, “consists in shaping matter, in making it supple and in bending it, in converting it into an instrument in order to become master of it.” It consists in “assembling parts of matter… in order to obtain from them a common action” which is constituted in an ideal. Moreover (and crucially) this assembly follows a “plan” which “closes the future whose form it indicates”. Plans represent this absence of future, the essential stillness of architecture. Construction alone can manifest the passing of time. But to accomplish this, a project must transgress its plans. It must as it were jump ahead of itself, in a field where events are not governed by some external purpose but are instead unpredictable and irretrievable. It is in such rare and brief moments, when a project becomes spontaneous becoming, that the new architecture can be said to be fulfilled.

In the new sciences even rules are expected to change under the effect of time. Mandelbrot for instance did not want to solve equations. These were not static descriptions that could be verified at any time. Rather by a process of iteration, by repeatedly feeding a particular number into them, each time equations produced a new number. They became dynamic processes. Likewise in the new architecture. FOA did not want a definitive plan. They sought instead the iteration loop, the “no-return” diagram which, when repeated, would produce the specific order of the project. They imagined their project as a microcosm of nature, as an organisation of matter engaged, like nature, in productive activity. 

The small sketch of a “self-similar structure” shows how direct the impact of these ideas actually was. It was rushed by FOA without the assistance of an engineer in the last twenty minutes before the dispatch of the competition documents to Japan. At this early stage, the drawing was intended as a mere concept imitating the structure of corrugated cardboard. Having started as a pure geometry, as a scaling set in the architects’ eye, the structure became gradually more “oriented”. It came to describe a geometry of situation (as topology used to be known). For instance gravity introduced a verticality by which surfaces, with the underside made in steel and the upper side clad in timber, became differentiated. Local characteristics further contributed singularities: ramps swerved to make specific connections, trusses were inserted within certain folds as reinforcement, corrugations were introduced in the tall glazing areas which could not support their own weight. As Giedion said of the Galerie des Machines built in Paris in 1889, materials were not held in a closed system but floated in a field of shifting forces. The progressive connection between components gradually defined the structure. “Construction became form.”

FOA sought out the moments when new configurations emerged. They experienced these developments not as the unwitting and sometimes unwelcome consequences of their plans but as revelations which came from within the project as if from the depth of nature. One moment in particular was memorable. For several months FOA had struggled with the geometry of the project. The number of cross-sections had increased dramatically from the initial 32 in the competition entry to 248 corresponding to the basic 1.8 meter width of a fold. It soon became clear that merely to increase the level of definition of the sections was not going to work and that another approach was needed. The key was the invention of “control lines” which described in three dimensions the undulations of the girders. The steel plates forming the floor and sides of the ramps, the “U”-shaped stiffeners to which these are welded were rotated in plan as well as tilted in elevation to adhere to these lines. Increasingly the parallel cross-sections became irrelevant. They had been replaced with circles of different sizes rolled against the length of the control lines which defined the girders. Together they formed bubbles on the plans as if to suggest that the project, taking a subliminal cue from Prigogine’s thermodynamics, had passed from a liquid state to a state of ebullition. Nothing was straight anymore. The project had reached an apparently chaotic state in which all that seemed to remain of the plan, of the closure referred to by Bergson, was a point in the future: the completion date.

There remained to find an elegant solution for the lateral folds. A first attempt consisted in setting them perpendicular to the face of the girders. This worked well for the cantilevers of the boarding decks. The two plates of each fold had become symmetrical and identical and the number of different parts was halved. In the median section however, the folds were framed by two sets of girders which were never  symmetrical at any point along their length. No rule emerged to help determine how and where, if fixed at right angle to both girders, they were to meet in the middle. If on the other hand the folds were parallel to one another, they intersected the face of the girders in random ways, making each plate of each fold a special case and adding significantly to the cost of construction. It became clear that the configuration of the folds was not going to be deduced from that of the girders. It was instead to proceed from the centre outwards, from a line equidistant to both sets of girders. This gently curving line became a “spine” on either side of which the halves of each fold were strictly symmetrical. In this way the regularity of the folds was optimised, and the remaining irregularities were absorbed in the intermediate folds.

At this moment, everything seemed to fall into place as if of its own accord. Neither the control lines nor the folds were set in reference to an orthogonal grid. They defined instead a “topological grid”, a kind of local grid specifically adapted to the forms of the project. Instead of referring each part to a particular band or square, the new grid established functions or vectors that connected the parts between themselves, thereby diminishing the amount of information required for the determination of the form. Construction became form, though in a reverse movement from that envisaged by Giedion. Architecture no longer needed to be shorn of its tradition and its monumentality in order to expose a well-engineered ossature. To the contrary, construction could now be reclaimed for architecture. It could become plastic and spatial in ways that were until then unattainable in conventional building. If according to Watanabe, the design of the structure had by convention been the responsibility of engineers, it was now led by the feeling of the architects. FOA’s instinct, he suggests, are closer to Antonio Gaudi’s than it is, to Felix Candela’s.

With hindsight, the sequence of events leading to a mixed solution (cantilevered perpendicular folds to the sides of the building and parallel folds in the central areas) presents a convincing rationale. But the alternative in which all folds would have been made perpendicular to the girders continues to nag, the more so because neither options, being equally unprecedented, were ruled out by the engineers. It may have produced a spatial order in which there would have been no systemic discontinuity between girders and folds, between lateral supports and transversal arches. In short, a complex order in which the rises and swerves of the ramps would have fanned outwards to produce the kind of seamless efflorescence which characterises the vaults of Gothic cathedrals, the fractal sets of Mandelbrot and Edward Lorenz’s turbulent models of the weather.

As built the spine is unnoticeable to the naked eye, especially in the car-park where the folds are for the most part horizontal and repeat with almost unbroken regularity. The space is neither scalebound nor scaling. The parts relate neither to the observer nor to each other: they have no scale. Owing to the extreme disproportion of the length to the height (350 to about 5 meters), the folds attain a fabulous size. They seem to be as short as they are deep, and to be almost close enough to be touched with the hand. The light coming from the sides barely reaches the middle folds which peak downwards for greater strength.

Here is a crypt where knights and bishops might rest, its space necessarily compressed by the edifice above. Time which had dominated the conception of the project comes to a stand-still as if it were too weak, too insubstantial to resist the triumphant march of space. Here the ramps lay to the sides like recumbent figures, their bodies filled with concrete, twisting and turning in their sleep, casting long sheaves of steel which brush against the vaults as if in a dream. Nothing suggests that they were made to carry. At the far end of the building a ramp reaches inwards with a swerve, while another, lying as if head to toe, rises by not touching, stretches to the light and out of sight. In this moment the building confounds the predictions described in its plans. Seldom has architecture appeared more nonchalent, more like a vision, rising from the bed of its foundations not to carry a prescribed load but rather to trace by a feat of engineering the most graceful line from the car-park to the roof, from dead matter to live speculation.

“Architecture, FOA like to say, is the engineering of material life.” We saw the confusion which the idea of material life, applied indiscriminately to nature and architecture, introduces in the conception of the plan. Another conflict stems from the desire to align architecture with engineering, with the practical application of scientific knowledge. Its source lies in an ambiguity at the heart of FOA’s interest in science. If the architects chose to apply the new sciences of nature in the field of construction, it would not be unreasonable to expect that the turbulent effects described by the girders might be further deployed in the vaults. But the design of the vaults suggests (the curving spine not withstanding) the application of another kind of knowledge: that of building science. While the girders proliferate effects all of them unique, the folds demonstrate to the contrary the necessity for repetition. As if, at the junction between girders and folds, a theory originating in the sciences of nature were forced into making the concessions required by building science. As if the spontaneous emergence of nature were thrown in disarray before the concerted efforts necessary to marshall a plan. As if the dunes of the roof were undermined by the repeated undertow effect of the folds.

Repetition, Ove Arup argued in the context of the Sydney Opera House, is the key to economical construction. Repetition, Zaera-Polo claimed on the basis of his experience in Yokohama, must exist in order to meet the deadline. All this, it may be. Still, doubters will see in the embrace of repetition a retraction by FOA of their early aims, a necessary coming to on the part of young and relatively inexperienced architects. They will mind the inconsistency. But great adventures in the building trades are seldom rational. They are, like the big cathedrals, capricious concretions of time.

In the last resort, FOA’s cathedral for a material age is not founded upon scientific knowledge (no adventure could be) but upon an act of faith. It stands on the belief that in the near future computers will provide the invisible reason of architecture. Computers conceal a whole eschatology of creation. They lead us into conceiving spaces which are no longer homogeneous but are, like nature, continuous, coherent and differentiated. They open our eyes to the proliferation of nuances and they fine-tune our sensibility. There needs to be no more discontinuity between between design and manufacture, between CAD and CAM, between information and matter - so long as manufacturers, Watanabe argues, stop fabricating by hand and adapt their methods to the computer. There needs to be no further discontinuity between conception and vision. The computer has instaured, in James Gleick’s felicitous phrase, “a new mathematics of the eye”.

Some will compare the combination of mathematical speculation and visionary imagination with the rhetoric of the Baroque. Others will draw parallels between the minor asymmetries of its plans and the sensibility of the Rococo. Still others will be reminded by the development of its structure of the spirit of the Gothic. But comparisons with the art of the past merely gloss over FOA’s achievement. More than a new esthetic, the Yokohama project points to another relation between fabrication and seeing, between the mathematics of pragmatic construction and its seldom ideal but often beautiful effects. While equations are indeed productive, vision remains central to the process for it is the eye which, pace Mandelbrot, integrates and discriminates.


The article is based on interviews with Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi held in February 1995, October 1995 and May 2002, and lectures given by them at the Architectural Association in London in June 1995, December 1999 and October 2001. Other interviews were held in April 2002 with Kunio Watanabe and Taro Yokoyama of the Structural Design Group, Tokyo, Toshio Kumakura of the Port Harbour Bureau, Yokohama, and Masao Ohtaki of the Yokohama City Assembly.

Texts by Moussavi and Zaera-Polo:
- Yokohama International Port Terminal, in AA Files 29, Summer 1995
- Interview, A+U, February 2000
- FOA Code Remix 2000, 2G, 2001
- Rollercoaster Construction, Verb 1, 2001 (includes a text by Kunio Watanabe on the development of the structural design)

Other texts
- Theory and Practice: A Scientific Autobiography, A+U, February 2002
- Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (1911)
- Peter Eisenman, El Croquis (1997)
- Sigfried Giedion, Building in France (1928)
- James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (1987)
- Benoit B. Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1982)
- Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Scalebound or scaling shapes: A useful distinction in the visual art and in the natural sciences, in Leonardo, Vol.14, Nr.1, Winter 1981, pp.45-47
- Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order out of chaos (1994)
- Hermann Rorschach, Psychodiagnostics (1942)

Note: The wavy handrail over a large timber deck is a picture of the roof of the Yokohama International Port Terminal.


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