Gateway to the Perilous Future: Hiroshima Peace Park
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Can an architect or urban planner dictate the type of experience the public will have with a particular square? We are often led to believe that public squares are open to all and that their design encourages various ways of interaction and engagement. Yet what happens if an architect or urban planner tries to prescribe how people experience a public square? What if, as a result, the public square loses its convivial atmosphere and becomes empty and desolate, even dangerous, such that security guards are called in to protect it? Can it still truly be deemed “public?” A public space cannot afford to lose touch with its people or its sense of locality. By definition, a public square must remain porous.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was the first public square of its kind in the history of Japan. As the park’s architect, Kenzo Tange, would later stress in numerous interviews and articles, the park was built to be central, visible, and most importantly, open to all people.

In the wake of the atomic bombing by the United States in 1945 near the end of World War II, the city of Hiroshima, mostly built in timber, was razed to the ground. Only a few clear traces of the bombing remained, including the ruined Prefectural Industrial Hall, now referred to as the “A-Bomb Dome.”

After the war and the bombing, the fate of A-Bomb Dome was uncertain. In his submission to the Memorial Park Design Competition in 1949, Tange daringly proposed that the A-Bomb Dome be assigned centrality and prominence in the new park. He did so despite the competition allowing all entrants to work from a completely clean slate. In Tange’s vision, the structure would become the okumiya (inner shrine) of the park, of the city, and of the world.

In Nurturing Dreams: Collected Essays on Architecture and the City (2012), Fumihiko Maki, the Japanese architect who studied under Tange, writes that the okumiya of towns and villages were placed outside populated areas. Traditionally, the most sacred sites lay hidden in the recesses of mountains, places considered off-limits to mortals.

Mountains were where kami (the spirits) roamed or where social outcasts scraped for a living. Houses were not built up in the mountains; instead, villages and towns developed along the narrow plains between mountains and sea. To reach okumiya, people had to prepare for a long and arduous journey. Only those who were healthy and able had access to these sites.

Unlike the villages and towns visibly marked by the verticality of church spires in the West or the centrality of the open plazas next to mosques in North Africa and the Middle East, traditional Japanese villages and towns are characterized by an absence of centrality and verticality, according to Maki.

Thus, Tange boldly abandoned the traditional meandering path to okumiya and made the A-Bomb Dome the sacred heart of Hiroshima. It was the pillar of his Memorial Park design.

The Memorial Park, situated in the once thriving central commercial district of Nakajima-cho, sprawls across 120,000 square meters. It has three main components: the Peace Memorial Museum, a cenotaph for the bomb victims, and the A-Bomb Dome. All of these have been ingeniously aligned in a straight line by Tange.

Like his hero Le Corbusier, who lifted his buildings on pilotis (large concrete pillars), Tange raised his museum on pilotis so that it functioned as a giant gate into the park as he told Japanese architectural historian Terunobu Fujimori in his monograph KenzoTange (2002). As visitors enter the park, they immediately see the A-Bomb Dome, perfectly framed by the arch of the cenotaph. For the architect, the linearity connected the park with the city and the wider world beyond it. He did not want the park to merely commemorate the victims of the atomic bomb attack (in which over 150,000 people were killed). Instead, as Fujimori points out in the same monograph, Tange wanted it to be a “factory of peace,” a celebratory place for a future blessed with world peace.

The park’s shortcomings, however, can be spotted in the proposal drawing Tange submitted to the competition. It shows an abridged perspective: the park, for Tange, was a shortcut to a brighter future, represented by the distant sea, calm with no rippling waves. It was arguably too optimistic.

Tange’s idealized vision of the future, as reflected in the park’s layout, was a perilous one, for the park was not truly open to everyone. Stored inside a stone coffin underneath the cenotaph arch, the official list of the atomic bomb victims did not include the names of the Korean victims or the Chinese and other Asian victims who perished alongside thousands of others in the summer of 1945.

This exclusion prompted the local Korean community to build their own memorial honoring the dead in 1970, but the monument was not given its rightful place within the park. It stood outside the confines of the park for decades until it was finally moved inside in July 1999, exactly fifty years after Tange submitted his proposal and won the competition.

Roughly 50,000 Koreans were living in the city of Hiroshima in the mid-twentieth century. They were forced to come and work in various parts of Japan as unpaid workers after Korea succumbed to colonization by Japan in the early twentieth century.

Constructed with virtuous intentions, the pilotis of Tange’s museum did not, after all, render the building a gate open to all. Tange seems to have also misjudged the scale of the structure. The museum today, flanked by an assembly hall and a community center, soars in defiance. The ceilings inside the exhibition space reach over six meters high, and the floor area comprises over 1,000 square meters.

Curators of the museum, unsure of how to fill such an enormous space effectively, have created theatrical sets with wax dolls depicting various scenes that illustrate the horror of the atomic bomb. The phoniness of these displays is derisory. Moreover, the museum elides Japan’s colonial history and the atrocities perpetrated by the nation in neighbouring countries.

In 1956, only a year after the museum opened to the public, items from the collection were removed to make space for the “Atoms for Peace” exhibition, which promoted the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The idea was touted as “life-giving” in opposition to the destructive, deadly force of nuclear weapons.

The fact that this exhibition ever took place within Tange’s museum is now obscured and long forgotten. It was, however, a great success, even garnering the support of hibakusha (victims of the bomb).

In an ironic twist of fate, Tange’s museum, whose facades were designed to let in as much natural light as possible, was perhaps better suited to show exhibitions that took people’s minds off the painful, dark past and turned them toward the brighter future. In hindsight though, hosting "Atoms for Peace" in the museum may be considered as the ultimate betrayal and humiliation for hibakusha.

For the Japanese today, the A-Bomb Dome no longer serves as a catalyst to examine a past that led to tragedy but merely as a symbol of their own victimhood. The discussion about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings has changed little in Japan: the park has produced and maintained a one-dimensional narrative surrounding the wartime disasters.

The A-Bomb Dome is no longer a ruin but a carefully preserved container of a myth, closely guarded by a nation intent on safeguarding secrets from its own people. Perhaps, had it been left to be reclaimed by nature, the dome would have better served its purpose.

In 2011, nearly seventy years after the atomic bombings, Japan suffered the same pain and the same irreversible damage, when an earthquake and tsunami resulted in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. To this day, the extent of the disaster and the failures of authorities to prevent such damage remain murky and shrouded in secrecy.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was designed to accommodate up to 50,000 people. However, the only time the park attracts such large numbers of people today is when it hosts the anniversary of the bomb attack in August, which begins with the ceremonial roll call of the dead and ends with the releasing of doves. There is no room for people to question the relevance of such an event in today’s world, where conflicts and wars still abound, for fear of affronting the dead victims and their relatives. The park deploys the story of Japanese victimhood as if it were its lifeline. In this sense, it has never been truly public. It functions, instead, to promote the interests of a select group of people. If it is to bring about a better future, it must allow different narratives to emerge.

Photograph of the original model of the Hiroshima Peace Center submitted by Kenzo Tange in the 1949 competition. Photograph by Chuji Hirayama. Courtesy of Tange Associates.
Doves fly over the Peace Memorial Park with a view of the gutted atomic-bomb dome at a ceremony in Hiroshima on August 6, 2012 to mark the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing on the city. Photograph by Kyodo Kyodo. Courtesy of Reuters.
Proposal drawing for Hiroshima Peace Center Competition by Kenzo Tange (1949). Image courtesy of Tange Associates. Image Source: Terunobu Fujimori and Kenzo Tange, Kenzo Tange (Tokyo: Shinkenchikusha, 2002).
Interior view of the Peace Memorial Museum soon after it was opened to the public. Photograph courtesy of The Chugoku Shimbun.
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