Beauty in Architecture for Public Places


By 1964, as Tokyo prepared for that summer’s Olympic Games, I had been in Japan for five years. Our family lived not far from the stunning Olympic Pool building designed and being built by the Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange. I remember seeing it on our Sunday train journeys to church. Some 60 years after construction on it began, the lyrical design of this timelessly modern building continues to awe visitors. No longer housing swimming and diving pools, the building has been designated for use as a gymnasium during the (now postponed) 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Tange’s Olympic Pool has long been one of my favorite works of architecture. Walking or driving around its perimeter provides an experience akin to walking around a large Alexander Calder stabile or one of Henry Moore’s more abstract sculptures. I think it is due to the building’s long arcing lines, made possible by structural cables employing catenary curves. These elements continue to give the 1964 Olympic Pool building a very contemporary appearance. More subtle are the distinctively Japanese features of the building, which are less obvious to western observers. The protruding portion of the two principal vertical columns, the horizontal panels between them mimicking a formal roof cap, as well as the upward curve of the outward edge of the roofline, bear an affinity with aspects of the nearby Meiji Shrine. Note the small but significant wing-like flares adjacent to the twin upward columns in Tange’s design.

I reflect on this building when I think of what might best be called public architecture. By this, I mean public buildings such as airport concourses, courthouses and even hospitals. The debate on federal architecture generated by the recently-leaked draft executive order has had at least one benefit. The evolving discussion has raised the profile of our consideration of beauty in relation to buildings intended to serve, and perhaps also to enhance, our common life as fellow citizens. Whatever one may think of that draft executive order’s commendation of classicism as a design criteria for high costing federal buildings (those over $50 million), we can surely agree that striving for beauty is of significant value within our communities, however that quality may be defined.

Think of the last time that you felt your soul uplifted and your view of the world enlarged by your engagement with a building’s facade, and your movement through its interior space. By this, I am referring to an experience that transcends one of marveling at the scale and complexity of some architectural achievement, and the intellectual pleasure such an encounter might provide. Instead, I am pointing to the way that works of architecture can enhance our sense of community, as well as our regard for the pursuit of beauty, goodness, truth, and other recognized virtues. We might expect these qualities to be evident in buildings designed for public worship. But do we also expect them to be features of our encounter with a government or publicly-funded new courthouse, airport terminal or sports arena? I think it is right that we should.


The photos featured here are creative commons licensed photos of Kenzo Tange’s beautiful building designed and built for the swimming and diving pool events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.

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