Heian Kento 1200: The New Kyoto Station and The Image of Kyoto

At the 1100 anniversary of Kyoto, Heian Shrine was constructed and now it is one of the most popular attractions. Similar large construction plan was also made for the 1200 anniversary in 1994, among which included the New Kyoto Station. This new project had received great attention, and an international design competition was held for it. Competitors included Andou Tadao, Peter Busmann, Yoshiro Ikehara, and finally, Hiroshi Hara, a famous Japanese architect, won the competition.


Hiroshi Hara’s futuristic-style design had triggered great controversies. The new design was 198-feet tall, breaking the commercial height limit of 149 feet, and was 1500-feet long, a gigantic glass-and-steel volume standing in between the historical downtown and new urban area (Jameson 1992), or the “Harmonized Downtown Revitalization Regions” and “New Urban Function Concentration Region” as in the land use proposal by the Council for Kyoto City Development on Land Use and Landscape Measures set up in 1991.


The modernized appearance of the new station was described as “an eyesore” in the words of the criticisms. The height of the new station even exceeds that of the five-tiered pagoda of Toji (Jameson 1992), and the material used was in sharp contrast with the traditional impression of Kyoto, which was normally composed of patchwork of wood and tiles. Ironically, the surrounding of the site was nothing traditional, full of commercial and office blocks. Nevertheless, as the first building most visitors to Kyoto would behold, it seemed the building of New Kyoto Station bore the expectation to be a representative of the image of Kyoto (Sterngold 1991).


On the other hand, supporters believed that Kyoto needed a new face for the upcoming new century. Compared to 1950, when the third Kyoto Station was built in a hurry, the population of Kyoto had increased from 800000 to 1.4 million, and the city was visited by more than 40 million tourists in a year (Jameson 1992). City officials said that priority must be given to the livelihood of the 1.5 million residents of Kyoto, and that “Kyoto must fulfill the functions of a modern economy but at the same time retain its tradition and culture.”(Sterngold 1991)


But Opponents criticized that the project was but a “matter of greed”, because only 10% of the New Kyoto Station served the function of transportation. The Station per se was a commercial center: 90% of the station were devoted to department store, hotel, theatre, and shopping mall. Such large program turned out to be a challenge for the architects competing for this project, because it was almost impossible to have a modest scale building to house all the required programs. All the entries were modern, probably because the Japanese traditional structure was unable to handle large programs. Despite of the criticisms Mr. Hara’s design had received, his entries was the lowest one among all the entries. Masatoshi Hisanaga, a local architect who had participated in the design competition, pointed out that “It is a reflection of the fact that people have this view in Japan that anything can be done if it’s for a commercial purpose.” (Sterngold 1991)


Since the beginning of 1990s, the government of Kyoto certainly had been making efforts to put emphasis on the natural and cultural heritage of Kyoto. In 1993, New Kyoto Fundamental Plan was released, before which the Committee for Kyoto Town Development on Land Use and Landscape Measures was set up and made two reports concerning land use and urban landscape of Kyoto. New ordinances and other measures were made, such as “Ordinance for the Conservation of Natural Landscape” (1995) and expansion of Landscape Restriction District (1996), to protect the natural and urban landscape of Kyoto (Kyoto City Official Website 2009). The New Kyoto Station was also expected to serve the function of presenting the tradition art of Kyoto and promoting new art to the visitors, an intention that, in the point of view of Alex Kerr, was sarcastic when the traditional machiya house of Kyoto was disappearing (Kerr 2001). The uproar controversies about the New Kyoto Station reflected a gap between the public and the officials concerning what Kyoto should look like.



Kerr, Alex. 2001. Dogs and demons: tales from the dark side of Japan. New York: Hill and Wang.

Kyoto City Official Website. 2009. Kyoto City Landscape Policy. Accessed December 12, 2017. http://www.city.kyoto.lg.jp/tokei/cmsfiles/contents/0000062/62129/HP-japanese.pdf.

James Sterngold. 1991. “The Battle for Kyoto’s Changing Skyline and Soul”. New York Times, October 22, 1991. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/22/arts/the-battle-for-kyoto-s-changing-skyline-and-soul.html?pagewanted=all.

Sam Jameson. 1992. “Kyoto Losing Past to Progress : Nearing its 1,200th anniversary, Japan’s ancient capital is rent by controversy. A pair of new buildings will dwarf its temples and shrines, and preservationists feel increasingly besieged.” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1992. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-05-16/news/mn-1977_1_ancient-capital.





1 Comment on “Heian Kento 1200: The New Kyoto Station and The Image of Kyoto

  1. I have very much enjoyed this constructive piece which has clearly explained the complex background and considerable controversies about the New Kyoto Station. I do agree with you that differences in expectations on the future city image of Kyoto have triggered off different thoughts from various stakeholders. Even though this project seems to receive more criticism than compliments for being too modern, too commercialized and totally out of context, I found one thing particularly interesting with lots of potential, which is about how the New Kyoto Station started to develop new functions and new programs, such as becoming an exhibition space to display both traditional art and modern art. This could be regarded as an innovative way to preserve the tradition instead of only preserving the physical form and to create the new vision of the city image out of the pre-existing buildings. Situated in such a crucial node of the urban fabrics, this building should be able to serve as a bridge connecting the historical district and the newly-developed area and a multi-functional city center including transportation, commercials and culture as well.

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