Japan: Awaji Yumebutai by Tadao Ando
All the photos in this article are mine, unless otherwise stated. If you'd like to use any, there's no need to steal them, contact me and I'll give them to you in their full pixeled glory.
While Awaji island is close to Kobe, a 45 minute ride away by bus, this is an out of the way Conference Center. You won't happen by the Awaji-Yumebutai complex while strolling down any given street. You must go there. This, I think, increases the magic of the place because, while it's not deserted, it's really peaceful and tranquil. We arrived with just another handful of visitors, and that "aloneness" multiplied the sensorial experience to the nth degree.
Whatever it is, this is a space that can't be experienced via the Wikipedia, or the many sites (like this one) describing what it really is about.
The Awaji-Yumebutai complex is a completely different structure from those we are used to. It's also different in Japan. It's unique in its conception.
Who would go and build a whole concrete "conglomerate" by the sea? Who would think of building a garden that's more concrete than garden?
You'd never imagine that all of this concrete brought together distills peace and harmony at its purest.
Arriving in Awaji via the Akashi Bridge
Awaji is an island south of Kobe, about 45 minutes away by bus. It's connected to the mainland by the spectacular Akashi Kaikyo suspension bridge, with the longest suspended central span in the world. (1,991 meters, or 6,532 feet). Overall, it covers a distance of 3,9 kilometers, (2,43 miles). The bridge's name derives from the huge Akashi strait it crosses over.
Crossing this bridge and enjoying the views is part of the Yumebutai experience.
The Awaji-Yumebutai concept is very well described at Galinski.com, if you're interested.
Strictly speaking, this is an International Conference Center, combined with a holiday resort.
But that's not why we visited, we didn't have any "business" in Japan, nor any wish to stay in a resort either. The reason why we took a day to visit Awaji-Yumebutai was because my better half is an architecture junkie, and wouldn't let the chance pass to see this unique architectural achievement.
It helped, as well, that this is a project by Tadao Ando, one of her favorite architects, known by his peculiar and distinct use of concrete.
Besides the Conference Center and the Westin hotel, the complex hosts shops, restaurants, a huge greenhouse and a wonderful botanic garden, the Water Temple, an open air theater, pathways to stroll around and catch the sea views, and the "concrete gardens" which are, in my opinion, the jewel of that spectacular crown.
The Big Kobe Earthquake of 95'
The project was designed and planned for execution from 1994 to 2003. However, soon after construction started, the big Kobe earthquake of January 17th 1995 hit the region at a force of 7.2 Richer degrees. The epicenter was actually 20 kilometers below Awaji Island.
The whole region was devastated, leaving about 300,000 homeless and over 6,000 dead. Kobe city itself suffered the most, its injuries changing its face forever.
This natural disaster was a trigger to redesign and restructure the whole Awaji Yumebutai project as a memorial to the victims of the quake.
As a matter of fact, the concrete gardens in the complex are said to host one flower for each victim of the quake. Perhaps that's just a tall story, a poetical license, but I assure you that the story works its way to your heart, especially when you are in the gardens.
Yumebutai, The Concept
Construction reused the side of a hill that had been entirely devastated.
Architecturally, it's a complex and intricate design which combines vast open spaces with complex geometric shapes, rounded concrete walls, huge glass windows, waterfalls and ponds, all interwoven to create light and shadow effects and composing a very special spatial experience.
Symbolically, it represents rebirth through reconstruction of the devastated landscape.
Concrete is king in Yumebutai. It's somewhat hard to understand how such an inelegant material (for lack of a better word) can be used in so different a way, curving its surfaces and combining them with greenery, glass, and water to become an exceedingly graceful, pleasing to the eye (and the mind) space.
This is one of Tadao Ando's fortes, he's very skillful in his handling of concrete, as I mentioned.
The Jewel of The Crown
Obviously, that's my personal perspective, and other visitors may find other traits more appealing. For me, without the shadow of a doubt, the layered concrete gardens beat everything else in Yumebutai.
Both from below the gardens and from the top, my eyes seemed to play tricks on me. The design is so that it reminded me of that famous infinite staircase optical effect.
This is one of the reasons why it's difficult to "explain" Yumebutai and its concrete garden. You can't really wrap your mind around it until you are there, and even when you are, it's such a strange and special composition that it takes more than what I have to explain it.
There are 100 terraces, each planted with four parcels of plants from all corners of the world.
The geographic origin of the plants and flowers is split per layers, the split is not 100% precise but in general terms the African and Asian specimens are located on the lower terraces, American and tropical are the middle grounds, and the European plants can be found in the higher terraces.
Most of the plants and flowers clearly indicated it was yet too early in the season for any true show of nature. However, we did see some of the parcels in full bloom, which made us imagine what this garden would look like when all or most of the parcels bloomed.
I couldn't see enough of that peculiar garden. My calves definitely felt the experience the next day, I don't think I've gone up and down so many stairs in years, if ever!
It helped a lot that Awaji-Yumebutai is somewhat out of the way, and that we were almost by ourselves during our visit. It did help to be able to view the vastness and intricacy of the design uninterrupted by other visitors. It definitely helped to feel as one with the space.
A Modest Selection of Photos
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