by Vladimir Belogolovsky Jul 31, 2020
Internationally renowned architect Emilio Ambasz (b. 1943, Resistencia, Chaco province, Argentina) had a visionary dream early in his career – to be able “to open your door and walk out directly on a garden, regardless of how high your apartment may be… within a high density city”. He spent the subsequent decades on realising this admirable goal. One of his major accomplishments, ACROS Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall, was built 25 years ago in the heart of Fukuoka, Japan. Not only it withstood the test of time and is widely embraced as a strong cultural symbol of the city – the centre is Fukuoka’s most visited landmark – it also attracted followers among architects as an exemplary way of fusing architecture and landscape in an urban setting.
The building is one of the earliest precedents of green architecture and it is among the most often cited case studies of what a truly sustainable project should be able to do for the environment overall and for its immediate site in particular. This and other radical green projects that the architect has designed and realised since mid-1970s solidified his reputation as a pioneer and crusader of green movement in architecture. In the words of James Wines, Ambasz is the “forerunner of green architecture”. The original design of ACROS centre can be traced to buildings built in the recent years in cities from Singapore, Milan, and Copenhagen to Moscow and Shanghai.
ACROS (Asian Crossroad Over the Sea) centre is situated in Fukuoka’s financial district, adjacent both to Naka River and popular Tenjin Central Park. The idea was to build an operationally sustainable model by allocating a portion of the building to public and municipal programmes with the remaining space to be rented to revenue-producing entities. The 93,000 sqm (1,000,000 sqft) municipal government office building consists of 14 floors and four underground levels formed around a full-height exhilarating central atrium where natural light pours in through vertically sliced glass cylinder, a dome-like giant skylight. The complex is open to the public and contains the Fukuoka Music Hall, International Conference Hall, a tourist information centre, museum, exhibition area, the rooftop observation deck, and a variety of private offices and shops. The structure is a hybrid – a building with elegant, understated facades on three sides and a mountain-like public park on its fourth, south side, which can be referred to as either the building’s roof, front, back, or rather its face.
It should be pointed out that the building’s intention to present itself as a park was not simply a good gesture by the city’s political leaders, but the very reason the project could be built here at all. In fact, it had to be fought for. In 1990, the city desperately needed a new government office building. The large complex, as originally planned, would have taken away half from the two-hectare Tenjin Central Park, one of the very few patches of green in this busy commercial area. It was only logical that when people were introduced to such ill-conceived draft they erupted in protests, rejecting the idea as greedy and inhumane. A compromise was reached after a private competition among several construction companies that teamed up with prominent architects was staged. Takenaka Corporation that hired Ambasz won the competition, thanks to the architect’s ingenious proposal. It satisfied the protesters by giving them their beloved park back, while the city was able to build a big enough building to fit all the intended programmes. The improbable solution was achieved by ‘hiding’ the new building under the accessible landscaped roof configured into 14 garden terraces that together add up to one hectare. That’s how the entire park area of two hectares was preserved.
In a way, Ambasz’s climbable park is a giant stairwell to heaven. There are 14 terraces – one per floor – all accessed and interconnected by zigzagging stairs that march from the ground level all the way up to the top belvedere at the height of 60 meters to offer expansive views over the city’s harbor. Walking up, down, and across the lush setbacks, visitors can enjoy reflecting pools and waterfalls immersed in 50,000 plants of more than 120 species. Coming here one would easily forget being in the midst of a densely built city, as the unusual park recalls such ancient and faraway places as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or scenic Tegallalang Rice Terraces in Bali. Yet, the significance of Fukuoka’s seemingly mythical oasis goes beyond its beauty.
Apart from providing fresh air, reducing pollution and noise, the complex is an excellent prototype for our urban and inevitably green future. The building’s lush green roof allows for significant reduction of the urban heat island effect. It also helps to reduce and capture the rainwater runoff on the site. The vertical garden has created its own ecosystem by using rainwater for irrigation. And speaking of sustainability, we should mention the fact that the green roof notably lowers the operating costs due to the use of less energy both for heating and cooling.
Ambasz believes that architecture must be pragmatic, but its primary reason for being is to move us emotionally. It is for that reason that his architecture has a very poetic and solitary quality. It does not belong to any particular age and does not necessarily belong to any specific place either. His projects are more like dreams, even fables, in which one stumbles upon these fantastic fusions of architecture and landscape or 100 per cent buildings and 100 per cent landscapes, as he calls them. In other words, Ambasz’s architecture is founded on the concept that nature has to cover the greyness of buildings, and the aim of the architect has been that of giving back to the community the surface on which the building had to be constructed.
The Fukuoka building reflects its architect’s green design principles that he established and consistently followed in all of his work, starting from his very first project, a mask-like Casa de Retiro Espiritual, originally designed in 1975 and built in 2004 on the outskirts of Seville. Ambasz’s projects demonstrate his strong interest in reconciling architecture and nature, as the architect believes that “each building constitutes an intrusion into the vegetation, it challenges nature; we have to conceive an architecture that rises above the intrusion, that stands as an act of reconciliation”. Among Ambasz’s other major realised projects that successfully turned his theories into reality are a town-like hospital complex, Ospedale dell’Angelo and an eye bank, Banca dell’Occhio, near Venice (2008); a glass pyramid of the Mycal Cultural Center in Japan (1993); and a botanical garden, Lucille Halsell Conservatory in San Antonio, Texas (1982).
The architect’s extraordinary career is no less fascinating than his celebrated architectural creations. He breezed through Architecture School’s undergraduate program at Princeton in just one year (while also learning English). After earning his Master of Architecture, the following year, also from Princeton, he then taught at his alma mater for three years and became a co-founder of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, an experimental research think-tank in New York, conceived and headed by Peter Eisenman, his Princeton professor. From 1969 through 1976, Ambasz served as Chief Curator of Design at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he curated a number of influential initiatives, including seminal exhibitions Italy: The New Domestic Landscape (1972) and The Architecture of Luis Barragan (1976), as well as The Universitas Project, a proposal for an experimental university for 30,000 residents in upstate New York. Immediately after leaving MoMA, the architect founded Emilio Ambasz & Associates with offices in New York and Bologna, Italy. The same year he represented America at the Venice Biennale. Apart from architecture, his diverse industrial design products range from toothbrushes, light fixtures, and wristwatches to Signature 600 Diesel Engine (1996) by Cummins Engine Co. It is said to be the most fuel efficient, lightest, and fastest engine in its power range. And his Vertebra (1976) chair is famous for challenging the notion of ergonomic seating; it was the world’s first automatically adjustable office chair.
Following the work of some of the leading contemporary architects, particularly such examples as WOHA’s social housing complexes and hotels in Singapore, Zaryadye Park in Moscow by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (2017), and currently under construction 1,000 Trees residential complex in Shanghai by Thomas Heatherwick, the influence of Ambasz on their thinking is clear. “They are all my children,” he likes to point out. And his role is widely acknowledged by the most prominent of architects. Tadao Ando said, “It was Emilio Ambasz who first called our attention to nature and the environment at quite an early point in his career, and ever since he has striven to achieve a fusion of nature and architecture”. About the Fukuoka project, Ando stressed, “I believe there is no other work in which nature dominates architecture with such power and charm… Emilio Ambasz has taught us to imagine a dimension, in which nature and architecture become inseparable”.
And James Wines was even more direct when he said, “The work of Emilio Ambasz is central to any discussion of environmental architecture, and he has played a seminal role in the integration of vegetation and terrain into buildings since the 1970s… Ambasz’s conceptual direction fits most of the attractive characteristics of green architecture – the fusion with context, innovative uses of landscape, symbolism, environmental technology, and visionary theory – but, perhaps his work is most comfortably associated with the idea of landscape as an intrinsic part of buildings… Ambasz goes to the heart of the issue of green design and civilisation’s custodial role in maintaining nature”.
Many architects have designed beautiful buildings that enhanced the work of nature itself and embraced it by framing or imitating it. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in rural southwestern Pennsylvania (1939) or Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center by Renzo Piano in New Caledonia (1998) are such well-known examples. But it was Ambasz who first fused architecture and nature together and not just in some idyllic location but in the heart of a city for everyone to see it and enjoy. He dismisses the conventional thinking that cities are for buildings and suburbs are for parks. He says, “It is too easy to relegate nature in the suburbs and leave greyness in the city. It is an idea that completely lacks imagination”. He challenges us to imagine such future, in which it will become a habit of making our buildings public, interactive, climbable, and green.
Uncompromising idealism is the recurring theme that underlies all of Ambasz’s work. He believes that any architectural project not attempting to propose new or better modes of existence is unethical. The architect’s greatest contribution is in his honourable belief that “it is an ethical obligation to demonstrate that another future is possible”.