Nendo’s CoFuFun Plaza in Japan’s Nara prefecture turns an ignored plot of land into a parkette of earthly delights.
Flying saucers have landed in Japan. It’s likely, though, that a worldly citizen of contemporary design would not need Amy Adams to interpret the language they are speaking; pared down yet playful, these new urban visitors are clearly fluent in Nendo. This is far from the first time the Tokyo design firm has appeared among us. Nendo has collaborated with so many of the biggest names in furniture, fashion and luxury goods it’s hard to keep track. Some 100 products are launched by the studio each year, and rarely is there a dud among them. Oki Sato, the fresh-faced creative director at the helm, does not shy from uncharted territory. So it perhaps comes as no surprise that he has brought out his architecture training and unveiled his first public space – a 6,000-square-metre plaza in Tenri in Japan’s Nara prefecture.
Three years in the making, Nendo’s CoFuFun Plaza is Sato’s attempt to transform a disused block next to Tenri’s train station into a vibrant hub – for tourists and residents alike – of events and leisure facilities. Located an hour south of Kyoto, Tenri is a small city characterized by ancient burial sites that are scattered throughout its landscape. Known as “cofun,” these tombs, which date as far back as the 3rd century, are megalithic earth mounds and are often keyhole-shaped or circular. CoFuFun Plaza – dotted with circular patches of grass and stepped, saucer-like pavilions – alludes to these tombs, but with a buoyant nod to the future. Similarly, the project’s name, a combination of “cofun” and “fufun” (a Japanese expression meaning “happy, unconscious humming”), twirls the dark and light of life into happy balance. Sato is, besides everything else, a master of quirky wordplay.
Made of precast concrete blocks and assembled like Lego, each pizza-pie structure juggles multiple functions. The forms can be used as playgrounds; spaces for concerts, public screenings and other events; or as massive pieces of furniture for lounging, meeting and reading. Their stepped exteriors serve as roofs, benches to sit on, and as stairs leading to either a communal round table or a sloped play area for climbing or sliding. One small amphitheatre is equipped with a bubble-like trampoline for endless bouncing. Inside, a café, an information kiosk, shops, a bike rental facility, and a flexible gathering space feature Nendo furniture that echoes the circular vocabulary of the exterior. Outdoor lighting has been integrated to give the park an otherworldly glow at night.
CoFuFun Plaza is a breath of fresh air in Tenri’s largely banal urban landscape. Its spiraling, uncluttered forms alone make it stand in Guggenheim-like opposition to the sea of rectilinearity in which it lives. Yet for all its strengths, it is not an unmitigated success. The friendliness that is so characteristic of Nendo designs seems conspicuously absent in the plantings, which, even given that they will fill in over time, seem miserly. The playground equipment and the furniture in the interior spaces appear somewhat forlorn in their scattering. Since the plaza’s unveiling in April, standing umbrellas have spread like weeds to provide additional shade, while browning grass has been replaced with artificial turf. One cannot help but wonder how long it will take for the pristinely white saucers to tarnish as well.
Despite all of that, Tenri has quickly and lovingly adopted its new extraterrestrial pet. The place is regularly filled with excited children, happy families, dogs, choral concerts, traditional drummers and food pavilions – all of which stand as testament to the fact that CoFuFun leaves many humming with happiness.