Visual Solution for Pollution
Christopher Stephens appreciates the art of disposal on Maishima

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First-time visitors to Universal Studios Japan might be forgiven for taking a wrong turn and ending up at the Maishima Incineration Plant. The two sites, on opposite sides of the same expressway exit, are both local landmarks, but with its undulating wave-like structure, yellow-striped walls dotted with windows, and gold balls topping the perimeter of its roof, the plant looks considerably more fantastic than anything made in Hollywood.


007.jpg Erected in the late '90s on a reclaimed island that was part of Osaka's failed bid to host the 2008 Olympics, the Maishima Plant processes some 900 tons of waste per day, operating around the clock throughout the year. Its similarly-styled counterpart, the Maishima Sludge Center, located just down the road, is used to treat and transform raw sewage into building materials such as concrete aggregate. With a combined cost of over ¥140 billion, the facilities are the newest and most technologically advanced of the city's disposal centers, which together handle an annual output of over 1.7 million tons of garbage.


003.jpgBoth buildings were designed by the noted Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Born Friedrich Stowasser in 1928, Hundertwasser changed his name as a young man to reflect his rapidly evolving world-view as a revolutionary environmentalist who championed the wilder aspects of nature. (His adopted moniker translates roughly to "peace-kingdom hundred-wasser.") Influenced stylistically by the brilliant colors and shapes of earlier Viennese artists like Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and structurally by the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, Hundertwasser's paintings and countless buildings are immediately recognizable and wholly original.


008.jpgHundertwasser's relationship with Japan began in 1960 with a trip to Tokyo to accept an art prize, and extended to his personal life for the next several years during a brief marriage to a Japanese woman. Inspired by the ukiyo-e of Hokusai and Hiroshige, Hundertwasser created several sets of prints in the '60s and '70 that dealt with the importance of water and other ecological concerns. But in a first for a European artist, after arriving at a basic design, he would commission traditional Japan printmakers to complete the process. In 1992, he created the 21st Century Clock Monument in a small park next to the Tokyo Broadcasting System headquarters in Akasaka. The permanent installation includes a digital display that counted down the time left until 2001 (no longer in operation) and an analogue clock with Roman numerals on one side and kanji on the other. Just prior to his work on Maishima, in 1996, Hundertwasser was enlisted to add some flair to Kids Plaza Osaka, a hands-on museum with a spiral tower poking through the fourth-floor ceiling and a highly adventurous interior.



In the late '60s, Hundertwasser delivered a number of nude speeches in which he denounced rationalist architecture and pledged to free people from the "godless" straight line that had become pervasive with the rise of modernization and industrialization. In an essay titled "There are No Evils in Nature. There are Only Evils in Men," he called for a return to a more organic lifestyle, "When man thinks he has to correct nature, it is an irreparable mistake every time. A community should not consider it an honor how much spontaneous vegetation it destroys; it should rather be an honor for every community to protect as much of its natural landscape as possible." When creating a building, Hundertwasser was also careful to offset the destructive aspects of construction with regenerative environmental measures.


001.jpg At the Maishima Plant, this is exemplified by the vegetation that sprouts from the window frames as a means of attracting birds and other animals, and a small pond for fish. Unfortunately, Hundertwasser's original plan to cover the facility with large fruit-bearing trees was rejected by city officials, who feared they might prove to be a hazard in strong winds.


Outside, the wavy dividing lines and tufts of grass poking through the asphalt in the front parking lot are reassuring signs that at least some of Hundertwasser's intentions have been honored. It is disappointing, however, to find upon entering the building that almost every corridor and office space is straight, and to learn that the artist's idea for a restaurant at the top of the plant's most prominent feature, a 120-meter blue (smokeless) chimney covered with red veins, was also vetoed as something that would never catch on with the locals. Despite this, a visit to the site is certainly worthwhile and both the incineration plant and the sludge center offer free tours throughout the week (reservations needed; for more information, see



Hundertwasser died en route to Europe on board the QEII in 2000 shortly before the opening of the Maishima Plant. He is buried under a tulip tree in the Garden of Happy Deads in his adopted homeland of New Zealand. But his dream of ridding the world of visual pollution, which he saw as the most dangerous kind, lives on at the Osaka facility and in a message on the brick wall outside that reads, "We must give back to nature territories which we humans have illegally occupied and we must give back the dreams to eternity. Without longing for a better, more beautiful world, we cannot survive."


(Japanese translation ⇒