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News: Theory meets enigma in 'city of wood' Triennale

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Originally the World Architecture Exposition in Nara was planned to take place this year, but the cold winds of recession have been blowing through the ancient city. It has now been put off until 2010, but a number of buildings for the Expo, are, or will shortly be, open. They include Arata Isozaki's conference hall, a rather unimpressive hotel by the late Aldo Rossi, and Kurokawa's apartments.

The triennial conferences that began in 1992 will continue up to and including 2010. This year's event - itself postponed from the spring - took place last month. Much smaller than previously, it was again organised by the city in conjunction with Kisho Kurokawa. This year's theme, concerned with urban design and historic buildings, contrasted Nara, the city of wood, with London, a city of stone.

A succession of Japanese architects, working with traditional methods or in a traditional manner, set the scene for a broad-based discussion that provided Leon Krier - now advertising himself as an antiquarian furniture salesman from France - with a wonderful opportunity to open a swingeing attack on all aspects of recent architecture, thereby promoting his own views on 'traditional' values. In a zestful mood - that brought to my mind memories of the fundamentalist lectures of Professor Sir Albert Richardson - Krier captivated his audience.

The following day a major British contribution came from Alex Lifschutz of Lifschutz Davidson, who showed a number of schemes produced for London's South Bank. Lifschutz underlined the point that the economics of a city depend on it constantly re-inventing itself. What a contrast to Krier's view that 'historic centres remain the only true centres of urban, civilised society'.

Roger Stephenson of Stephenson Bell then presented a convincing number of imaginative schemes for the rehabilitation of buildings in Central Manchester which astonished the audience with their commitment to architectural detail and quality finishes.

The British obsession with concept design and its theoretical justifications and explanations proved a sharp contrast to the enigmatic Japanese. For the most part they spoke of 'silence' as the main quality pursued in their work. Indeed, this was supported by an almost total lack of interventions from the audience. However, with the encouragement of a local journalist on the second day, some issues were aired. They included the ancient city's need to come to terms with its vastly expanding new areas, the threat of pollution, traffic strangulation and the ten million tourists who visit the city each year.

The modern city of Nara has grown rapidly with that same kind of unhappy, jagged skyline that is to be found throughout Japan. it marks a real contrast to the elegant parks, shrines and monuments of the well-defined old Nara. The old structures have defied time, earthquakes and the invasion of visitors as well as ever-changing suggestions for change by modern experts and conservationists.

A visit to one of the oldest wooden structures in the world, the Shosoin Imperial Storehouse, underscored that point. A few years ago, a new building with a fully controlled environment was created for the Imperial treasures, although they had lasted for over a thousand years inside the old timber structure, and it is no longer possible for the public to see the treasures in situ.

The next Triennale will be in 2002 when it is expected that an announcement will be made of the winners of the new Museum of Architecture, to be built near the jr station.

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