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  • John Barr

From Imperial Power to Consumer Power : Imperial Palace, Kyoto to Naka Incineration Plant, Hiroshima

I recently visited and photographed two buildings that illustrate Japan’s movement from it’s pre-modern condition as a feudal, emperor-worshipping society to its post-modern condition as a consumerist, goods-worshipping society. Unlikely as it might seem, these two buildings have much in common.

The first is the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, a direct expression of Imperial power. The second is the Naka Incineration Plant in Hiroshima, which produces electric power by burning vast amounts of non-organic waste produced by the residents of the city…

So much for my rather contrived ‘power’ analogy to link the two buildings. However they are linked by more than my ‘power’ analogy. Both buildings employ a formal layout and a processional route that joins a sequence of spaces, where the next space in the sequence is framed and anticipated as the viewer moves towards it through the prior space. Expressed another way, both buildings use layering, not only to create visual depth but also to pull the visitor forward towards an unseen but partially signalled and anticipated goal. Both buildings employ scale to illustrate their civic importance. Both buildings reveal their structure. And at the heart of all this is my contention that both buildings are works of architecture that directly express their symbolic meaning and relationship to power.

Imperial Palace, Kyoto

The site of the Imperial Palace was established in the 8th century, when the Emperor Kanmu moved his court, and thus the capital, from Nara to Kyoto. Originally the emperor’s residence (the inner palace) sat within a larger palace complex that included other ceremonial and government buildings and other residences. In circumstances where the inner palace was uninhabitable (due to fire damage for example) the emperor would relocate to one of these other buildings on a temporary basis. The site of the today's Imperial Palace was originally one of these temporary residences and became the permanent location in 1331. It served as the official Imperial Palace for 500 years, until 1869, when the court and the capital moved to Tokyo shortly after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.* The palace was rebuilt several times during that period following fire damage and the current buildings were constructed in 1855.

*See previous post, Two Houses : Part 1 (Maekawa House), published July 6 2017, for more on the Meiji Restoration.

Naka Incineration Plant, Hiroshima

The Naka Incineration Plant, completed in 2004, was the brainchild of Takashi Hiraoka, mayor of Hiroshima from 1991-99. Amongst other things, Hiraoka was concerned about the spiralling increase in the amount of garbage being produced in the city. A massive and efficient new disposal plant was needed, but Hiraoka had another idea: he suggested that if the plant and its processes were open to public viewing, if citizens could see the amount of garbage that they were producing, it might lead to a change in habits and a reduction in the amount of waste. The plant itself, rather than an ‘information centre’ attached to the plant, would become an educational tool, a bit like a working industrial museum. Whether the mayor actually used the precise terminology of the museum is unclear, but he did commission Yoshio Taniguchi, Japan’s foremost living museum architect, who himself has called the design ‘my museum of garbage’.**

**See previous post, Yoshio Taniguchi : The Man in the White Suit, published August 21 2018, for more on Yoshio Taniguchi.

The plant sits across the end of a long avenue that is a continuation of the central axis that runs through Hiroshima’s Peace Park from the Peace Dome to the Peace Museum.*** The avenue terminates at the coast, with views out to Hiroshima Bay and the islands of the Seto Inland Sea, and the new incineration plant could have blocked both the view and access to the water. However, Taniguchi continues the line of the avenue through the building to the coast by means of a raised walkway that forms a glazed cut right through the heart of the building. As the viewer moves through this glazed promenade towards a new waterside park the inner workings of the processing plant are revealed to left and right. In one move Taniguchi not only creates the open, educational facility that the mayor desired but also a new public recreational space.

***See previous post, DoCoMoMo Japan 04 : The Hiroshima Peace Centre, published November 21 2018, for more on The Hiroshima Peace Centre.

Common Strategies





Expressed Structure

Civic Scale


All images by John Barr unless otherwise noted

© John Barr 2019

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