In recent years, architects have increasingly focused on the integration of the built environment with the landscape. Japan offers several examples that blur these disciplinary boundaries successfully. Designed by both foreign and domestic firms, these projects owe their existence in large part to local acceptance of this practice.

“Whenever one goes to Japan, one encounters this continuous landscape, which links city to nature and in which the major shift is in the transformation of density,” writes Netherlands-based Japanese architect Moriko Kira in Japan. Towards Totalscape (Nai010 Publishers, 2001), a book that interrogates the contemporary practices of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design within Japan’s unique cultural milieu. “This seamless landscape without physical boundaries is the result of human intervention … the resulting constellation of individual points of buildings is layered onto an agricultural and geographical configuration. This is the Japanese landscape.”

Blaine Brownell Yokohama International Passenger Terminal

Perhaps the most well-known example in recent decades is the Yokohama International Passenger Terminal, by British-Iranian architect Farshid Moussavi. Known locally as Osanbashi Pier, the winning terminal scheme was one of more than 600 entries submitted to a highly publicized international design competition in 1995. The final project was completed in 2002, with a total area of almost 12 acres and a cost of almost $200 million.

To its users, the pier’s primary contribution is its provision of ample, flexible, and inherently accessible public space. The architect intentionally broke down conceptual barriers between building, site, and infrastructure, uniting all three in a single structure with a continuously flowing and intrinsically traversable section. The material expression of the upper level consists of wood planks, grass, and skeletal steel elements that serve as guardrails, benches, and light fixtures; the column-free terminal floor below is characterized by a folded steel plate ceiling. “The Yokohama International Port Terminal disrupts the sense of monumentality that typifies passenger port terminals and contributes to their isolation from daily life,” Moussavi's project description reads. "In order to combat this, the terminal has been designed to merge with the landscape of the city’s harbor and serve as a public space.”

Grin Grin
Blaine Brownell Island City Central Park or Grin Grin

Built three years later, Japanese architect Toyo Ito, Hon. FAIA's project for the city of Fukuoka’s Island City Central Park similarly exhibits a deep integration between building and landscape. Located on reclaimed land on Hakata Bay, the structure locally known as Grin Grin serves as a greenhouse and public space on the west side of a large, multi-block park.

Compared with Osanbashi Pier, Grin Grin is much more heavily planted and the paths that traverse its roofscape reveal more significant changes in elevation. The project is an undulating line of three interlocking column-free concrete shell structures, each of which has one or more elliptical skylights consisting of expansive, ventilated planes of glass. Visitors encounter climate-modified greenhouse spaces within that mimic tropical and subtropical environments, complete with a tropical aquarium and butterfly pavilion. The northern-most shell serves as an extensive, flexible gallery. The meandering trails, viewing platforms, flower beds, and grassy slopes that stretch across the roof extend the experience to include an appreciation of a locally attuned landscape.

Blaine Brownell ACROS Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall

No visit to Fukuoka would be complete without seeing ACROS Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall, designed by Argentinian architect Emilio Ambasz, Assoc. AIA's firm and completed in 1994. The 14-story mixed-use project includes more than 1 million square feet of office space, conference facilities, an exhibition hall, a proscenium theater, and a museum.

Yet such a significant interior program is barely evident when viewed from the adjacent Tenjin Central Park. From this perspective (shown above), the building appears as a continuation of the park, pulling green space up along its southern façade in the form of 15 densely afforested and publicly accessible terraces. A walk up the switchback staircases and pathways connecting these platforms is uncannily reminiscent of a mountain hike, and lush local vegetation and waterfalls help. Providing a ziggurat-shaped hall with such a generous amount of green space was the architect’s response to the city’s transformation of a former public plaza into commercial programs. According to a 2017 article in Forbes, “The building is a success story as it is fully occupied at premium rents and its exterior used by many residents—an oasis amidst the concrete jungle of Fukuoka.”

Blaine Brownell Toshima Ward Office

Kengo Kuma, Hon. FAIA’s Toshima Ward Office extends the green ziggurat concept upward in an even more vertical orientation. Completed in 2015, the similarly sized building houses offices for the Toshima municipal government, residential apartments, and a public information center. The lower floors of the building include open-air terraces loosely shrouded by what Kuma calls an “eco veil,” consisting of recycled wooden louvers, photovoltaic panels, and planted gardens.

Compared with ACROS Fukuoka, the Toshima Ward Office approaches its garden design much more episodically, its steeper slope shielded by a kind of vertically oriented trellis. Yet the effect is similar in terms of building performance: Southern-oriented spaces are protected from direct sunlight while being provided beneficial views of ample foliage. According to the architect, the ambition of the project nods to Ambasz’s aim for ACROS, as it contributes a publicly accessible vertical garden that “revives the town’s vegetation to connect its people and nature.”

Proponents of green envelopes list many compelling reasons for treating buildings as landscapes: energy savings, reduced urban heat island effect, air purification, occupant satisfaction, and the provision of habitat for local and migratory species, for starters. Yet, as these projects in Japan reveal, simply providing a green roof or living wall—while a positive first step—is not as fulfilling as a holistic conceptualization of a building-as-landscape, or totalscape. Additionally, the recently popular efforts to clad architecture in patches of green often miss another fundamental goal of providing experientially meaningful spaces for public benefit.

As Ambasz wrote in a 2010 essay for Domus, “I am lucky to have been able to demonstrate with the ACROS building that we can have ‘the green over the gray’ in the city, that it is not true that greenery is only possible in the suburbs, that heat and cold loads can be also greatly reduced using a very economical and ecological material par excellence such as earth and plants are, and that you can have 100 percent of the land and also 100 percent of the building, that is to say, we can have ‘the house and the garden’ instead of ‘the house in the garden’ … as Modernism promised us in its beginnings.”