The Enchantment of Concrete

For a stunning cultural center in Japan, Chiaki Arai achieves the sublime material clarity of his legendary mentor, Louis Kahn.

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The interior of the Konan Ward Cultural Center was the result of a series of design workshops that Arai conducted in the community.

Photography by Sergio Pirrone

There is something distinctly Japanese about Chiaki Arai’s use of concrete on the Konan Ward Cultural Center, his most recent project—something that, for lack of a better reference, evokes the complex and difficult coexistence of rough and refined qualities found in Japanese ceramics. But, more than this, it goes back to the earth itself. From the outside, the building’s earth-hued base appears to emerge from the landscape, but it does so gently, modestly, even. With its regularized openings and evenly spaced windows, it could be just another unremarkable public building—until you walk inside. 

The interior defines a sparkling universe of geologic intensity and cavernous, layered spaces all flowing around a multipurpose theater, library, local museum, and community center. An airy, light-filled interior “cross street” fluidly connects all these spaces, like a river running through a canyon. Here, nested and richly detailed structures seem to float and emerge from all sides, with sliding walls opening up the space. 

When I ask Arai if wabi-sabi means anything to him, he says, “That would be a good word; it has that sense of nostalgic future.” After a moment of silence, he then says, “Iki is also a good word.” A term from Japanese aesthetics, iki is one of those words that can be translated only by combining many other contradictory words in English. It may be best described as simple sophistication or spontaneous unself-consciousness. Iki is anti-perfection. For context, Tadao Ando’s work would not be considered iki. Interestingly, Japanese literary critics have used the term in reference to Haruki Murakami’s writing and, if they visited Konan, they would probably agree that it is the closest spatial equivalent to Murakami’s storytelling. 

Arai has cited the Death Star as an inspiration for Konan's design.

“For me, it’s important that the concrete has a very light feeling,” Arai says. “Like wood—paper, even.” The process for achieving such a high level of expressiveness starts with modeling in 3-D software. The set of construction drawings, which runs up to a thousand sheets, contains many drawings specifically dedicated to communicating the concrete details to the builder. And while typical detail drawings show elements in 2-D plan, elevation, or section views, Arai’s drawings also show axonometric views to better communicate the design. This is one reason the design process can take up to three to four years. “Normally, in Japan, construction firms exert a high level of control over projects during the construction phase, but in this case we had the superior technique,” Arai says. Before construction begins, the builder is given the 3-D files to work with. “They had to hire someone young who knew how to operate the software,” the architect says. In addition, Arai’s office had two staff members on-site every week to monitor and advise during the construction process. 

While the geometry of Konan seems futuristic—Arai has cited the Death Star as an inspiration—the details of the concrete and the craftsmanship that made them possible tell a more intimate story about local nostalgia and the power of place, suggesting the movement and imagery of the surrounding rice terraces. This is expressed through patterns of vertical lines cast in relief, interspersed with recessed blocks, dancing along diagonally. 

The south side of the building hints little at the spatial dynamics within.

The library is expressed in warmer tones of wood to contrast its concrete shell.

The vertical patterning was made using CNC routing machines to cut grooves of different lengths into the many sheets of plywood used for the concrete formwork. The recessed block patterning was the result of strategically placing formwork supports, producing a contrasting pattern that appears to be sprinkled throughout. Thousands of inset LED lights complete the effect by making the interiors sparkle like sunlight striking a rice paddy. To achieve a more organic and natural look, the formwork for casting the shell of the building was divided into five standardized patterns. The plywood was patterned in a shop, then trucked to the site where it was cut and placed to fit the building’s triangulated geometries. “I wanted to design something interesting,” he  says. “Something beyond time.”

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