High Drama No. 6: Mito’s spiral spire

Mito, the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture, is an old castle town that officially became a city in 1889. The castle is now gone, and Mito’s biggest architectural landmark today is a 100-meter tower that was built to mark the 100th anniversary of its city status in 1989.

It was designed by architect Arata Isozaki, whose other works include an arena for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the main building of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The tower’s shape is a triple helix with a 1.5-millimeter-thick titanium skin divided into 57 triangular panels. The panels measure 9.6 meters on each side.

It stands near one corner of a roughly square city block whose other two sides are occupied by a low L-shaped building housing an art museum, a theater and a concert hall, with a grassy plaza in the center of the block. The whole complex is called Art Tower Mito.

In his book “Beyond the Bubble: The New Japanese Architecture,” University of Illinois Prof. Botond Bognar described how “the strongly classicist volumes [of the arts facilities] that surround a small courtyard plaza are juxtaposed with the … futuristic, spiralling structure of the tower.” He found the contrasting elements “unmistakably schizophrenic,” but suggested the startling effect was deliberate.

The official pamphlet I picked up on my recent visit explained the contrast in more conventional terms: It “symbolizes the movement from the past to the future and from tradition to creation.”

There’s a glass elevator that takes visitors to the top of the tower for ¥200, but while most glass elevators offer panoramic views, this one lets you see only the inside of the tower itself. It consists of tilted metal plates studded with bolts, welded struts crisscrossing at crazy angles, and slanted ladders leading up to tiny ledges that are themselves slanted. It’s like a collaboration between Jules Verne and Pablo Picasso.

Once you reach the top, you can peer out at the city through porthole-style windows of various sizes. The view from each one is limited, cutting Mito into separate chunks.

But for me, the most impressive view was that day’s first glimpse of the tower from many kilometers away, while I was in a car on the Kita Kanto Expressway south of town. The Art Tower doesn’t just dominate the Mito skyline; it practically is the Mito skyline. And as it stood alone on the horizon, a panel at the top caught the full force of the sun with a blazing glare that greatly magnified its size. It was an optical illusion, but the whole tower turned into a gigantic torch topped by a shimmering triangular flame.

If Isozaki was aiming for a startling effect, then he succeeded in that moment.

— Tom Baker

Japan News Staff Writer