A strange building project - Update (June 2000)


Civil engineering practice in Japan

In May 2000, Roger Williams posted a little piece about a building project where he lives in Hachioji. It resonated so strongly with my own observations, and is entertainingly written, so with his permission I'm putting it here. (With luck he'll be able to supply some photos nearer the scheduled opening date.)

Over the months, I have been fascinated by a large building project that is overlooked by the elevated pedestrian way I use on the way from my home to the local Keio line station--Minami Oosawa. We are told that this will be a monster mall for expensive branded goods being sold at deep discounts.

First I was impressed by the sheer size of the project. It occupies large stretches of land on both sides of the continuation of the pedestrian way at ground level. Residents were sorry that this involved doing away with a large "event" site including a partially covered amphitheatre that ran several popular events at different seasons of the year. We learned that this short-lived experiment in local entertainment had cost the housing authority three hundred million yen. All down the drain when the monster mall wanted to move in. (sigh)

Then there were the foundations. These seemed to consist of a considerable number of large square concrete rafts, placed quite closely together over the whole site area with the gaps between them crossed by typical reinforcing bars that linked them all into one huge grid. The bars link the squares together below ground level, but are not themselves encased in concrete. It looked to me like a recipe for rust at some no-so-distant future time. And I was a little concerned about how earthquake proof the whole thing would be. These were really large buildings in terms of total area, and the foundations were not particularly deep.

Now I see that the buildings are only three storeys high at their highest, so perhaps they don't have to be rigid and can instead be flexible, riding out the earthquake waves on the surface?

However, the buildings themselves really are rather odd. Although only three storeys high, the walls on some sides (not all) are considerably higher than this, creating buildings with false fronts (or sides, or backs). There doesn't seem to be any serious desire to deceive people about the true height--it's pretty obvious what's going on, if only because the same treatment isn't given to the walls on all sides.

Then there is the style of the buildings. They have almost no windows. The walls are high (higher than the building behind them in some cases) and virtually blank.

The roofing material is tiles, either a mixture of reddish brownish and yellowish tiles more or less haphazardly used to create a non-repeating speckled effect, or just plain red.

Then came the exterior decoration. I was astonished to see what looked like large painted areas in the style of Toulouse Lautrec and with various spurious French words. There would be a old-fashioned bicycle. Another part would have the head of an old man. Another would have some kind of food dish. These appeared so suddenly they might almost have been made from transfers, although they did appear to have an extremely weathered, painted look, as if they had been painted on many years ago and survived decades of seasonal changes without a repaint.

Next thing, I noticed that small armies of men were busily painting the areas between these "paintings" a uniform dull beige and carefully blending their paintwork with the edges of the original paintings, so that the latter appeared to have been painted on the coloured wall rather than having been painted FIRST. Most odd.

Then came the false windows. Remember I said there were almost no windows? Well now there are very realistically painted windows with trompe l'oeil three-dimensional sills, windows panes, etc. They are not quite good enough to deceive a careful look, although it took me a while to decide that ONE window, at least, was real.

There is also a strange, very high wall with huge arches in it that stretches between two buildings on one side of the walkway towards a very similar and closely aligned wall that runs between two buildings on the other side of the walkway. There are no signs that these two walls are going to be joined together, nor of any useful function they could possibly serve.

One thing has intrigued me. The building site was completely open to rubberneckers when the foundations were being dug and laid, but three-metre high metal panels were bolted together along both sides of the walkway as soon as the actual constructions work began on the buildings. Everything was still perfectly visible from the elevated pedestrian way, so nothing was being protected from human view.... so it seemed to be an expensive exercise in futility. The metal panels were all the same dull off-white colour.

THEN, one day, the off-white panels were suddenly being painted a whole range of astonishing colours by a small team of painters. There seemed no rhyme or reason for the colours, nor the numbers of contiguous panels that were painted the same colour. There might be two green, then five purple, one pure white, two reds, three greys, two blue, five black.... most odd.

The next day they started lettering in "names" for the colours. There was a black panel called "Yuko San's Beloved Piano." There was a bright pink one entitled "The totem pole at Kami-Yugi Kindergarten." There was a red one called "My big school satchel." Others were "The colour of Itoh Yokado's roof" or "The blue of the Atago school uniform sweats." Almost any colour you could think of in our neighbourhood is represented along this avenue. I must say the colour rendering appears to be completely accurate.

As a diversion from looking at the building construction work, it is certainly functional. And now the local residents have started naming the ones that weren't named by the painters. "Yoshiko's panties" and "The hole in Yusuke's jeans" have now been identified for all to enjoy.

Then in June, we got an update...

I must now report that the walls which created the appearance of false third floors on some but not all sides of the buildings have now been extended right round the buildings in almost all cases. So now the casual glance could really be deceived about the height of the building behind the walls. Maybe the absence of the third (and/or second) wall was merely to give convenient entry to rooftop space. Quite a lot of stuff has been moved onto the roof areas, keeping the cranes very busy.

I see that most of the rooftops have now been turned into what would look--at ground level--like open patios. All around the large central unroofed areas are roofed colonnades. Again, my first thought was that this would be rooftop parking, but this is clearly not so on some of the roofs and may not be so on any of them. There is plenty of parking space at ground level.

The irregularly sized and placed faux windows have, in some cases, been given what look like "real" shutters. This aids the illusion that they are real. Some of the shutters are permanently shut, others open.

Why? I keep wondering. And my pattern-seeking brain keeps getting frustrated. My IQ is obviously too low to figure this one out.

Some of the large Toulouse Lautrec style illustrations (well, some of them are in the style of 1920s posters) have now been partially obscured by several large, grey-painted areas whose purpose I really can't imagine. For all I know they might be the designated areas for actual windows. Or for video displays from projectors? Nah, surely not. And the irregularly placed faux windows also partially obscure some of these "paintings" on the walls.

There are several blocks of buildings sprawling over the considerable area of the site. Each major block now appears to have a strange symbol mark rising above it. In one case it is a barely recognizable treble clef. Perhaps this building will sell CDs and musical instruments? But if the purpose is to convey at a glance the kind of merchandise to be sold, I must say it doesn't work with me. Two of the symbols look vaguely familiar--one like a Dali umbrella--but others are meaningless to me.

I wondered, after writing of my initial bafflement over the interrupted span of arches than runs through the buildings on one side of the pedestrian thoroughfare and is precisely aligned with similar arches on the other side, if perhaps these might be MacDonald's arches. But I don't think so... for one thing there are too many arches. Nor do I think it's supposed to be the Pont du Gard, the famous Roman aqueduct. That, at least, has the full span complete...

The site is reputed to hold the largest name-brand discount mall in the whole of Asia. It will be opening in September.

Can't wait.

© Roger Williams, 2000