Experimental Architecture: Testing New Ideas in Living Laboratories

[ By SA Rogers in Architecture & Public & Institutional. ]


Why should architecture continue to look, feel and function almost exactly as it always has, in spite of a dramatically changing world? Sticking to established conventions is often the easy and inexpensive way to do things, and it’s backed up by decades or centuries of practice. But as we move into a future of climate crisis and other challenges, perhaps it’s time to be bold.

Experimental architecture explores new paths and imagines new ways to meet the needs and challenges of humans in relation to the natural world. It’s not easy to break out of our assumptions about what we think architecture should be; radical new paths often don’t seem possible until we see them in action. Visionary architects and designers make the abstract into reality when they not only conceptualize extraordinary new ways of sheltering ourselves, but test them out in the real world, even on a small scale.

Breaking out of conventions might mean changing how we use our built environments, how they’re oriented, what they’re made of, their shapes or how they’re put together. After a while, if it’s successful, the experimental can become conventional, asking to be questioned and bucked and broken again in favor of something tailored to emerging circumstances. It never stops evolving.

Experimental Shapes & Materials

Reducing waste and pollution should be a major objective of architecture from this point forward, and that might mean shifting away from current construction norms altogether. What if all new buildings were made out of things like super-strong renewable wood, fungus-based self-healing concrete, nano cellulose made of waste materials and 3D-printed sandstone? Bendable concrete, water-saving bricks, cement that absorbs CO2 out of the atmosphere: all of this is possible and more. The ‘Concrete Vessel’ home pictured above, by Atelier FCJZ, features translucent glass fiber reinforced concrete made from recycled construction debris.

Some of the most impressive examples of experimental shapes and materials in architecture result from biomimicry, examining how nature’s forms and processes can help us develop more effective, efficient (and often more beautiful) structures. We see this in Singapore’s spectacular solar-powered Supertrees, a mechanical forest of vertical gardens, rainwater collection systems and conservatories that could theoretically also contain shops, restaurants or housing.

The University of Stuttgart’s carbon fiber pavilions are another striking example, inspired by the lightweight shell encasing the wings and abdomen of a beetle. Woven by robots, the pavilions are able to achieve highly unusual proportions, and they’re unusually strong. Imagine if we built custom structures like this and covered the surfaces with protective membranes to make them into walls and ceilings.

Experimental Construction Methods

Robots will continue to transform the construction industry in the near future, whether they’re building prefabricated load-bearing timber modules, undulating brick walls or 3D-printed fiber composites based on the behavior of spiders and silkworms. Robots can set building materials into place with unprecedented precision, achieve complex geometries and eliminate the need for waste-producing concrete molds.

Another bold move toward truly sustainable architecture is the Design for Disassembly (DfD, or Design for Deconstruction) movement, which considers and plans for the entire life cycle of a structure before it’s built in the name of adaptability and waste reduction. Ways to reuse or recycle every component of a structure using existing recycling streams are built into the designs, which are typically pre-fabricated, pre-assembled and/or modular. Closed-loop construction systems encourage innovation and produce unique aesthetics, as seen in Kieran Timberlake’s Cellophane House and Kengo Kuma’s Cafe Kureon.

Experimental Usage

Conventional architecture is nearly always distressingly ableist. Designed around the needs of a hypothetically “normal” person, it fails to address the reality of diverse bodies and abilities. Accessible architecture and interior design shouldn’t be “experimental,” it should already be a core element of every design, but alas, here we are. Architects can help the world catch up by adhering to the principles of Universal Design, serving as many people as possible without segregating those with different needs and working directly with people who are most impacted by inaccessible structures. The Universal Design Living Laboratory, the top-rated universal design home in North America, offers one example of what this can look like.

Other forms of user-centered design might center upon a social element, like Soar Design Studio’s residence converted to a communal space for local students, or the so-called “dementia villages” granting patients a degree of freedom and community they don’t experience in a typical nursing home setting. Experimental structures might also be placed in unexpected settings to expand access to housing in overcrowded cities, like Matthew Chamberlain’s “street tree pods.”

Top image: robot-built metallic structures by Prix

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Banksy Crashes the Venice Biennale with a Critical Street Stall

[ By SA Rogers in Art & Street Art & Graffiti. ]

Why, Banksy wonders, has he never been invited to the Venice Biennale? Perhaps because they knew he’d do something just like this, invited or not. The elusive British street artist set up an unauthorized stall in what appears to be the city’s famous Piazza San Marco, displaying a nine-panel oil painting of a cruise ship. The piece references the chronic problem of overcrowding in Venice due to tourist activity, leading many residents to call for a ban on cruise ships.

Posting a video of the kiosk on Instagram (which is essentially the artist’s way of verifying that a work is his), Banksy reveals that he was ultimately told to leave due to lack of a permit.

The artist also claimed responsibility for a new mural that popped up on the wall of a private home along the canal, showing a migrant child holding a pink flare. That piece is likely a response to Italy’s recent actions against migrants, which have led to the closure of ports. Italian forces are said to have ignored ships full of refugees, allowing them to capsize with hundreds of people on board. At least 250 drowned.

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Groovy & Grimy: Abandoned ’70s Home In Bon Air

[ By Steve in Abandoned Places & Architecture. ]

An abandoned Me Decade-themed home in the Richmond, VA suburb of Bon Air looks as if a low-budget zombie flick was filmed at The Brady Bunch house.

Sure, Zombie Jan

Time was, beautiful Bon Air was The Place To Be for weary Richmonders eager to escape the Virginia capitol’s summer heat, humidity and air pollution. Better Bon Air than bad air, one might say. In fact, the charming resort town situated just a few miles west in the lush hills of Chesterfield County chose its french-ified name to be its enduring claim to fame.

Rooms & Boards

Serviced via three stops on the old Southern Railway, Bon Air blossomed in the pre-automobile era. The town continued to thrive through the 1950s, when suburbanization enhanced the burg’s appeal as a bedroom community for white-collar Richmonders.

Stepping Down

Every boom eventually busts and Bon Air was no different. Bon Air’s population rose by about 50 percent between 1970 and 1980 but then stagnation set in: over the last four decades the number of people calling Bon Air home has barely changed. Other things in Bon Air stagnated as well… some, not so well.

Pink Houses

Take this abandoned home in the decaying heart of Bon Air – seems like no one else will. Photographer and urbex explorer Joel Handwerk of Lithium Photo stopped by recently and snapped some shots of the once-respectable wood framed family house that’s deteriorating with a vengeance, both inside and out.

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Former Factories Transformed: Creative Reuse of Industrial Structures

[ By SA Rogers in Architecture & Cities & Urbanism. ]

How much potential lies within the bones of an old, run-down factory building, perhaps even one that’s been abandoned for decades on end? On the surface, sometimes it can seem like there’s no market to resell an industrial complex with such a specific purpose, especially if the rest of the neighborhood has long since moved on, transitioning into commercial and residential districts. But creative re-use can make the most of these large, open spaces full of steel and concrete.

Instead of just knocking them down and starting over, these factory renovation projects reduce waste and help preserve the history and character of industrial neighborhoods while shape-shifting into spectacular residences, offices, schools, museums and cultural centers.

Private Residences

When renovating an old industrial structure, perhaps the most dramatic shift comes in a transformation to a residence. Taking spaces that can feel cold, hard and out of scale and making them feel like a cozy home where people spend intimate time with their loved ones is no easy feat, but it all comes down to embracing the building’s existing qualities.

When New York studio Fogarty Finger converted a defunct New Jersey factory that once housed a workshop for Alexander Thomson & Sons Pattern Makers, they identified the features that made the structure feel unique, like the weathered timbers. The company made wooden forms that were then cast in metal for propellers, and the antique industrial details contrasting with softer materials gives us a sense of what the space felt like in its prime.

Reclaimed factories make ideal live/work spaces for creatives and small business owners. In Beijing, Office Project transformed a striking factory building into a home, studio and gallery for a calligraphy artist. The tall one-story structure gave them plenty of bright white space for the exhibition areas, and a new steel roof rises up on one end to accommodate new clerestory windows for lots of natural light.

Inserting new volumes within the larger factory building can be a cool way to subdivide the space, as seen at 5Lmeet no.88, a mixed-use space in Beijing containing restaurants, a bookstore, offices and apartments within a former abandoned soy sauce factory. DAGA Architects subverted the traditional Chinese courtyard with a “floating island” meeting space in the center of the largest room, which hovers over small, partially enclosed workspaces. The apartments are ultra-compact and feature a lot of transforming furniture to save space. 

Perhaps the best-known example of converting a factory into a residence is Ricardo Bofill’s private home in Spain. The architect found a disused cement factory in 1973 consisting of over 30 silos, massive machine rooms and subterranean galleries, and spent decades converting the ruins into a surrealist palace surrounded by lush greenery, leaving many of the original industrial elements in place for context.

Offices & Schools

Offices and schools are a natural fit with the proportions of these old buildings. In Denmark, MVRDV and COBE collaborated to turn a former concrete factory into the Roskilde Festival Folk High School campus, located near the site of the popular annual festival and representing the first new folk school in Denmark in 50 years.

“We saw an immense potential in creating a creative school with an instant ‘street creditability’ because the school would be placed within an existing building, an abandoned factory,” COBE founder Dan Stubbergaard told Dezeen. “This meant that the school would not become institutional as a new building might be experienced as.”

A 120-year-old steam plant and Brutalist office building has become the headquarters for medical company ProMedica in Ohio. Architecture firm HKS spearheaded the project as part of an effort to revitalize Toledo’s downtown area. Originally designed by architect Daniel Burnham, who’s also known for his role as chief architect of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the structure offered a dramatic, spacious, history-infused waterfront setting for the new ProMedica Headquarters campus. The steam plant was vacant for three decades before it was purchased by the company, and its interior now contains four stories of offices, communal spaces and an atrium.

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Holographic Reality: Making Large-Scale Illusions a Collective Experience

[ By SA Rogers in Conceptual & Futuristic & Technology. ]

Instead of just imagining near-future applications of holographic virtual and augmented reality that we interact with individually on a small scale, what if we expanded them to colossal proportions? “Holographic Reality” by Behruz Hairullaev, Brandon Muir and Nicholas Licausi envisions holograms as collective experiences that can provide entertainment, education, information, news and more in public places.

Sci-fi films have already envisioned huge holographic billboards, but “Holographic Reality” takes the concept a bit further with huge sports games, sculptures, light shows and more projected into the sky via modular, skyscraper-like structures, allowing cities to become massive canvases.

The designers note that virtual and augmented reality innovations tend to focus on personal applications like games that people interact with individually more often than in groups. Users are isolated by putting on headsets and absorbing the content alone, disconnecting from other people and the immediate physical world around them.

“Holographic Reality,” on the other hand, brings people together to share experiences like simultaneously broadcasted live events by making holograms part of the urban fabric. It’s not clear exactly how it would work, and some aspects of the project raise immediate concerns, like the prospect of worsening light pollution and making cities feel more cluttered than they already do. But for special events and select locations, this kind of technology could be pretty cool, and it’s probably inevitable at this point anyway.

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Poison Ivy League: Abandoned Letchworth Village Asylum

[ By Steve in Abandoned Places & Architecture. ]

Letchworth Village was hailed as an advanced institution at its 1911 opening but chronic overcrowding and underfunding took an alarming toll on the asylum and its inmates.

Gotham’s Asylum

The deteriorating remains of this residential institution, overgrown with mold within and poison ivy wiithout, lie a scant few miles northwest of New York City in Rockland County. The complex encompassed over 130 buildings at one point – a striking departure from the usual practice of building high-rise institutional asylums criticized by reformers as being detrimental to patients’ care and well-being.

Unfunny Farm

Letchworth Village was all about reform: it was named for William Pryor Letchworth (1823-1910), a noted author, philanthropist and researcher renowned for his advocacy of modern treatment regimes for the institutionalized. Situated in the hamlet of Thiells, the “state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded” initially occupied 2,362 acres of pastoral land. Stately one- and two-story buildings were modeled after Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home and estate in Virginia.

Fork Gone Conclusion

In accordance with William Letchworth’s theories, Letchworth Village limited accommodations to 70 residents per building and instituted separate living arrangements for children, disabled adults, and able-bodied adults. The latter were put to work on communal farms raising crops and livestock, enabling the institution to be entirely self-sufficient in food production through the late 1950s and early 1960s. Other inmates occupied their time making toys which were sold commercially over the holiday season.

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Mirrored Chinese Bookstore Offers Readers a Maze of Discovery

[ By SA Rogers in Architecture & Offices & Commercial. ]

The newest of China’s surreal mirrored bookstores is now open in Chongqing, offering a disorienting, Escher-like experience to all who enter. Designed by X+Living, the Chongqing Zhongshuge Bookstore leads visitors through an unassuming glass facade on the third floor of Zodi Plaza and into a reflective maze full of reading materials waiting to be discovered.

Within the lobby is an arrangement of lampshade-shaped bookshelves that curve around illuminated reading spaces, their mirror images on the ceiling making them look much taller than they really are. “The bookshelves reflect on the ground and form a tunnel of books that beckons visitors to follow it deeper into space and knowledge,” says X+Living.

Further down the hallway, a “ladder hall” offers three levels of bookshelves accessed by branching staircases. The mirrors make it difficult to tell where the real shelves end and the reflections begin, but the space would be marvelous even without them. An adjacent children’s room is brighter in color, but similarly disorienting.

“Up to the 4th floor from the ‘ladder hall”’is a leisure area, where visitors can enjoy the aroma of coffee or a taste of good tea and immerse themselves into a tranquil world of different stories by reading. The ‘lampshade-shaped bookshelves’ around create scattered booths at this area, in which visitors may gather with friends to have fun reading and enjoy their leisure time. Connected to the leisure area is the extensive reading hall, where works of great minds are listed and visitors are able to broaden their eyes and enrich their spiritual world.”

Previously, the same studio designed floor-to-ceiling curved and mirrored bookshelves at the Yangzhou Zhongshuge bookshop, creating the effect of a tunnel of books. Check it out here.

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Future Visions of Vertical Architecture: eVolo Competition Winners

[ By SA Rogers in Conceptual & Futuristic & Technology. ]

Each year, eVolo Magazine solicits visionary proposals for futuristic skyscrapers from architects around the world. Focusing on sustainability, innovation and technological advancements, the annual competition produces ideas that may not be ready to build in the immediate future, but can inspire us all to think bigger when we imagine possible solutions to common problems like overpopulation, pollution and wildlife habitat loss. The 2019 eVolo Skyscraper Competition winners and honorable mentions include everything from hyperloop transit networks in the sky to urban structures that efficiently dispose of our trash.

Methanescraper (First Place)

Taking first place is Methanescraper by Serbian designer Marko Dragicevic, a skyscraper envisioned for Belgrade that responds to problems of overpopulation, mass urbanization and pollution. Noting that our current means of “disposing” of waste is untenable and that the problem will continue to compound in the future, the proposal “changes the model of a typical landfill into a raw vertical infrastructure.”

“The towers are module-based, and every tower is consisted of waste capsules that are attached to the concrete core. Firstly, city waste is being delivered to sorting facility, where it is categorized by type (glass, plastic, organic matter, paper, wood, metal), after which it is sent to temporary landfill. The recyclable waste is taken to recycling facility, and organic matter, parts of wood and paper materials are gathered and disposed into modular waste capsules. These capsules are attached to the tower core by cranes. Every capsule is equipped with inhaler and pipeline that connects to the methane tank, and when organic matter rots, methane produced by the process is drawn from each capsule and later transformed into energy. When the matter in a capsule decomposes completely, the capsule can be taken out, cleaned and refilled.”

Airscraper (Second Place)

How can we reduce deadly levels of air pollution in increasingly congested cities? “Airscraper” by Polish designers Klaudia Golaszewska and Marek Grodzicki envision a skyscraper that wraps around a chimney structure like a sleeve. The interior tube sucks polluted air from the surrounding area and sends it through a complex filtration system consisting of an air intake module, solar gain module and green garden module to move and clean the air before sending it back out to the city.

“Many megacities have emerged across China in the recent decades. Beijing’s population will increase by 30% in the next 15 years. This means that some of Beijing’s densest districts such as Chaoyang will reach a population of 2250 inhabitants per km2. In order to create compact cities, reduce car emissions and improve health conditions, Mega cities will have to build higher towers. Our idea is to facilitate this forecasted trend by introducing a new super structure that fits the needs of a megacity by providing healthy living quarters, while helping to alleviate the air pollution. The Airscraper can house 7500 people, which is equivalent to 3 km2 of residential urban Sprawl. It also includes recreational, educational, commercial, and cultural facilities. The tower stands as a healthy vertical city.”

Creature Ark: Biosphere Skyscraper (Third Place)

Decrying the current sense of apathy over the state of our planet, U.K.-based designers Zijian Wan, Xioazhi Qi and Yueya Liu say we have to reevaluate how human activity contributes to habitat degradation and do something about it. “Creature Ark: Biosphere Skyscraper” is a vertical nature reserve and research station internally divided into five levels representing climates on Earth, each populated with endangered animals.

“The proposed skyscraper is willing to recall the close relationship between human beings and their mother nature by the form of architecture. Every component in the ecosystem could hardly behave or survive as an individual literally, hence all living creature should appropriate the gifts from nature and they should be treated and valued equally. In modern society, the form of a skyscraper, carrying multiple functions, is expected to be one of the carries that making a better future.”

Vertical Sustainable City (Honorable Mention)

Urban environments present certain constraints, most crucially in terms of available space, that must be overcome by architects as cities continue to evolve. In the near future, we may no longer have a choice but to radically transform our ideas about what urban architecture should look like in the face of climate crisis. The U.S.-based BKV Group presents “Vertical Sustainable City,” a supertall tower with a small footprint, as an example of what could be to come as we prioritize limiting urban sprawl and preserving natural environments for forests and wildlife. It contains commercial areas on the ground floor “framed within a vertical mall concept,” as well as a food production area, a vertical farm and housing.

“Having access to the vertical farm are residences in the upper half of the tower that also feature access to drone landing pads. There, electric and solar-powered drones can dock at or near the elevated housing units – taking traffic off the congested street-level, and into the air. Rising to the very top of the tower is the Office Area, arranged around wind turbines generating energy, reducing the tower’s carbon footprint, and creating water collection systems for the farming, living, and working programs. En masse, the Vertical Sustainable City creates a holistic live/work/play environment for urbanites, effectively responding to the context and elements impacting modern-day cities.”

Horizontal City of No Nation (Honorable Mention)

The world is witnessing the highest level of displacement on record. As war and climate change drives millions of people from their home nations, the urgent need to house refugees in settlements that maintain normal societal functions has never been greater. Zichen Gong, Yong Chen, Tianrong Wu, Yingzhi He and Congying He of China offer “Horizontal City of No Nation” as a means of providing refugees with shelter, security and development opportunities along international borders.

“The core part of this proposal is how to conserve their original environment and provide adequate space. Based on the narrow buffer zone, the skyscraper introduced here should not be simple stack of broken layers, but a transformation from a horizontal lifestyle to a vertical one. In this skyscraper, people can follow their previous habitats in stable societies and get adequate education, training and jobs. On the other hand, neighbouring countries will not bear too much of population influx when they provide.”

“By presenting the unusual lifestyle, we try to seek a new direction in dilemmas. Living in a world where we can not choose where we are born, we would still have a place to go. We don’t have to consider which side we’re going to be on, we can have a new one, retaining rights, identities and languages. We envision that some people will choose to return to their homeland, and they will be able to use the relevant skills learned during this period to rebuild their homes. Moreover, where will this skyscraper go after the war? Because of its normal development during the war, it may become a new and complete society.”

Connection One: Skyscrapers Network (Honorable Mention)

What if we could free up an enormous amount of space on the ground by moving transportation up into the sky in a controlled way? “Connection One: Skyscrapers Network” by Thomas Gössler of Austria addresses both congestion and pollution with a reimagining of modern transportation systems using new technologies like hyperloop. Noting that transportation could take place either below or above street level, the designer proposes towers that act as central transportation hubs while also offering space for apartments, shopping centers, offices, schools and recreational facilities.

“The top floor is part of the hyperloop infrastructure. How does hyperloop work? The pods in the pipes move forwards, accelerating until they reach a speed where they lift up, and are guided by magnets. Hyperloop One says its 670mph system will be “automated by the most advanced systems in the world, allowing a safe and efficient journey that is never delayed or overbooked.” Hyperloop or conventional trains are usually bound to the ground. However, this presents big challenges, especially in mountainous countries and densely populated areas. Therefore, the network is floating in the sky by gas-filled pillows referencing an airship. This can be achieved sustainably by using the methane produced by farm cows or even pump greenhouse gases from the atmosphere into the loop. Approximately 1000m³ of gas are needed in order to lift a metric-ton, so the construction has to be very lightweight.”

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House Inside a Rock Takes Inspiration from Ancient Sandstone Tombs

[ By SA Rogers in Art & Drawing & Digital. ]

Humans have been carving architecture into rock for nearly our entire history on this planet, so it’s a little surprising we don’t see more modern marvels mimicking spectacular ancient wonders like the city of Petra in Jordan. Relatively easy to carve, sandstone offers an ideal medium for sculptural architecture that adapts existing rock formations into habitable spaces.

A new series of concept images by Shanghai-based architect Amey Kandalgaonkar makes that leap. “House Inside a Rock” combines colossal sandstone formations with minimalist concrete and glass, carving out spaces within the rock formations and adding new horizontal planes for outdoor living spaces. Taking inspiration from the rock-cut tombs of saudis Arabia’s Madain Saleh, the 3D renderings envision a new way to fuse human-created structures with nature.

“Considering the visual complexity the rocks at Madain Saleh, it was imperative to use simple planes and cubes in order to achieve a visual balance,” Kandalgaonkar tells Designboom. “I started out creating the rock in 3D software which in itself was a sculpting process. Later when inserting the house into this rock, I tried to keep its visual impact from eye level as minimum as possible and only when observed from a bird eye, the real extent of the intervention is revealed.”

There’s something a little villainous about the result, and if such an idea were ever to take off in real life, it may stir concerns about the degree to which we’re altering and developing our natural surroundings. But as a concept, it’s pretty cool. You can see more of Kandalgaonkar’s fantastical work on Instagram @ameyzing_architect.

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Haunted Hotel: Unfinished Abandoned Okinawa Resort Inn

[ By Steve in Abandoned Places & Architecture. ]

The reputedly haunted Nakagusuku Hotel in Okinawa, Japan freaked-out construction workers so much, they walked off the job before the hotel was even finished.

Guest Lost

The ruins of the Nakagusuku Hotel in Kitanakagusuku, Okinawa are a rare example of a structure seemingly cursed by fate and doomed to failure BEFORE it could even open for business. Remember the creepy “sacrilegious” housing development in the movie Poltergeist? It’s sorta like that, but in real life.

Naming Names

There are many mysteries swirling around the Nakagusuku Hotel – even its name is open to question. Depending on who you ask, it’s been referred to variously as the Royal Hotel, the Takahara Hotel, and the Kogen Hotel. The “Royal Hotel” probably was the intended commercial name: the word “ROYAL” was painted above the entrance and although now quite faded, it can still be discerned in good lighting. The evocative photos accompanying this article, by the way, were posted to Flickr by member keiyac in March of 2019.

Forlorn Fortress

The aborted hotel’s location invites speculation as well, being situated a mere 50 meters (roughly 165 feet) from the ruins of Nakagusuku Castle. The latter is a 15th-century stone fortress that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 2000… almost a quarter-century after construction started (and stopped) at the hotel site.

All’s Fair

But we digress… back to the oranges, er, origins of the story. In 1975 the island hosted the Okinawa Ocean Exposition, aka “Expo ’75”. This little-known event was a World’s Fair conceived as a way to celebrate the return of the Ryukyu Island chain to Japan from the United States a mere THREE YEARS earlier. Kinda quick as anniversaries go but hey, World’s Fair folks!

Aha, Naha

A wealthy businessman from Naha (the capitol city of Okinawa) saw Expo ’75 as a unique business opportunity, and quickly secured a prime stretch of property on a hilltop just south of the castle ruins. The location was perfect, offering breathtaking views of the East China Sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The complex was to include a hotel, a vacation resort and a water park. What could possibly go wrong?

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