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Tokushima: Naruto’s Modernist Buildings Seen in New Light

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Naruto Bunka Kaikan in Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture

NARUTO, Tokushima — A group of buildings by leading modernist architect Tomoya Masuda (1914-81) still exists in an area of Japan known for large whirlpools at sea.

Nineteen of his buildings can be found in Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture. Built over about 20 years from 1961, his works have been undergoing reevaluation lately. Mainly due to their age, however, demolition is also planned for some.

The city’s cultural hall — called Naruto Bunka Kaikan and completed in 1982 — majestically stands on the banks of the Muya River, which runs through the center of Naruto. The massive concrete building is said to be Masuda’s last work, and it has been a popular center for the artistic endeavors of local residents.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Stained-glass panels bring vivid color into the hall at Naruto Bunka Kaikan.

With its high ceiling, spacious lobby and stained-glass panels inlaid into the walls of the entrance and other areas, an array of light is brought into the building.

When I visited Naruto in October last year, six of Masuda’s works were in the same area that includes the culture hall.

Naruto City Hall stood with its blue walls reminiscent of the surrounding sea; the entrance had eye-catching V-shaped eaves like that of a sculpture. It connected to the glass-walled Naruto Civic Center via aerial walkway.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
V-shaped eaves are seen at the entrance of the Naruto City Hall.

Another 13 buildings are scattered along the coastal area and include educational facilities such as elementary and junior high schools. Some of the schools have already been closed, but the buildings have become a symbol for the community.

The modernist buildings are a specialty of Masuda. His style emphasized the functional and spatial beauty of materials such as concrete and glass without needless decoration, which was still rare at the time of their construction.

The municipality commissioned Masuda to design buildings for Naruto in the 1960s. The area had a history of salt production, but since the 1950s, the salt fields had fallen into disuse, making the land vacant, according to the city government. The commissions came during a period of rapid growth in Japan, and the city’s finances were stable thanks to a boat racing business.

Masuda is credited with about 60 public buildings, mainly in western Japan, and has been compared with Kenzo Tange, who designed the Yoyogi National Stadium.

Since 2014, which would have been Masuda’s 100th birthday, there has been growing momentum to reevaluate his works. More and more students majoring in architecture have also been visiting Naruto.

Such moves have also helped revitalize the city, with local groups organizing bicycle tours of the buildings.

The buildings are aging however. Moreover, the majority of them do not meet current seismic standards. Therefore, the city compiled a redevelopment plan for the buildings based on the opinions of experts.

It concluded the culture hall will close from April for major renovations, and that the civic center would be demolished. A new city hall will be built on the site, and the site of the current city hall will be turned into a parking lot.

An exhibition during a farewell event for the civic center held this fall attracted many nostalgic locals.

“I realized that everyone’s memories of the building are preserved in their minds,” said Yorito Fukuta, an architect and part-time lecturer at Tokushima University. He has been working to pass on the memory of the buildings to future generations, such as by posting virtual reality videos of the facility on the internet.

The group of concrete buildings seems to have been firmly ingrained into the hearts of the citizens, as well as the local landscape.

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The Yomiuri Shimbun
German Bridge

German Bridge (Doitsu-bashi)

A stone arch bridge built in 1919 on the grounds of the Oasahiko Shrine in Naruto. It was built by German prisoners of war who lived in the nearby Bando prisoner-of-war camp during World War I as an expression of gratitude for the humane treatment they received. Currently, to preserve it, no one can use the bridge, but it can be viewed from a distance. It is a 30-minute walk from JR Bando Station.