Miki, Japan

Shuhei Endo Architect Institute

Over the past 20 years, Osaka architect Shuhei Endo has built a successful practice by blurring boundaries. Using his favored material, steel, the 48-year-old designer has created walls that spiral into roofs [record, December 2001, page 60], interior spaces that ingeniously convert to exterior ones, and most recently, the Miki Disaster Management Park Beans Dome, a convex building that seems to emerge from its parklike surroundings. Encased in a stainless-steel shell mostly covered with grass, this combined tennis dome/emergency center in Hyogo Prefecture ranks among Endo’s boldest works to date.

The building was a delayed response to the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which leveled entire Kobe neighborhoods. Realizing that citizens and public agencies were ill prepared for disasters of this magnitude, the prefecture decided to build a large, regional relief center. Because displaced persons, supply trucks, and helicopters require a lot of room to maneuver, the government acquired a 742-acre parcel of land on the outskirts of Miki, a town of 84,000, about 20 miles west of Kobe.

Today the site is dotted with 10 structures, including a fire-department training center, an indoor earthquake simulator, and a variety of sports facilities. Most of the new buildings are uninspired boxes that stand out against the verdant, rolling hills. “Square buildings are too strong,” explains Endo. “Rounded, curved forms are more continuous and blend in better with nature.” With that in mind, the architect derived his building’s organic form from the project’s programmatic and site conditions. Because there are no structures immediately nearby (aside from three picnic shelters designed by Asymptote, Mecanoo Architects, and Peter Ebner + Franziska Ullmann), Endo was free to create an objectlike building of his own. Yet the site was not without its constraints. In addition to circumventing the inherently less stable infill land that took a big bite out of his 398,000-square-foot lot, Endo had to squeeze his building in the center of the lot to accommodate parking in front and truck access on both the east and west sides.

In the event of an earthquake or typhoon, supply trucks can drive directly into the 174,000-square-foot building, thanks to movable glass panels at four locations around the perimeter. But on normal days, athletes enter primarily through a domed foyer on the building’s east side. Shaped like a giant tennis ball embedded in the earth and clad with eye-popping yellow tiles, the way in is impossible to miss. It leads to a single, cavernous space that holds nine tennis courts: four on either side of the sunken center court that is surrounded by 1,500 Endo-designed spectator seats made of wood whimsically stained grass green. The only enclosed spaces are the café and administrative offices on either side of the entrance and locker rooms for men and women at the rear. A 10-inch-thick layer of tile-clad reinforced concrete surges up from the arena’s floor plane and drapes each single-story block of covered rooms, becoming its back wall and then ceiling.