20 February 2010

Right about Japan

I am convinced that a scholar of art and architecture may draw invaluable benefits from a visit to Japan, where mature, sublime solutions to the complex spatial and human scale problems may be found: the true means through which the art of architectural creation is expressed.

After a first visit to Tokyo and Kyoto I report here the main impressions and thoughts: I have first of all to thank my girlfriend, with whom I had a much deeper experience that the one of a tourist.


I think that the best way to start talking meaningfully about Tokyo and its image (as Kevin Lynch would say) is to show briefly some of the main projects and plans for the city developed in the last forty years, in order to show the key point of the architectural discourse of Japan’s Capital; I will show some possible routes through different city-quarters, where key-buildings are located or where it is more likely to get a glimpse of Tokyo’s atmosphere.

Shinjuku's panorama

Metabolists reloaded, an introduction

Quoting Livio Sacchi in Tokyo. City and architecture, page 60 onwards:

... in 1960, Tokyo’s population reached 9,676,000, with the entire metropolitan area, this figure rose to 12 million. Life within the city was getting hard, as well as expansive. For the first time, in the mid 1960s the population flown away from Tokyo was higher than the migration into the city. [...] ... the suburbanization took place for entirely residential purpose, leading to a great increase in daily commuting. [...] Planners needed to make optimum use of the permitted volumes by unraveling a tangle of regulations, so they were often compelled to design irregular frameworks, following the equally irregular shape of the lots.

Since Tokyo never had a regular grid to shape streets and because of the need to fully use the permitted density of plots the city still retains a certain degree of visual and spacial disorder that might even-though disorient more than annoy.

K. Tange, Tokyo Plan for 15 million inhabitants, 1960-61, with A. Isozaki, K. Kamiya, N. Kurokawa, S. Watanabe, H. Koh, image via cat2.mid.edu

In the 1960s Japanese modern architecture starts constantly appearing in western publications, impressed for instance by the work of the most renown architect of the period, Kenzo Tange. His Tokyo Plan for 15 million inhabitants dating 1960-61 proposed an utopian development of the city over the bay. Quoting Florian Urban in Megastructure reloaded, page 94 onwards:

... enormous platforms with houses, streets, parks, and shopping centers perched on stilts fifty meters above the bay of Tokyo. The construction begins in the old city center on the north-west shore, pushes straight out into the sea along two axes, and ends on the southeast shore. The traffic system is like a massive assembly line. Over 200,000 cars per hour can traverse the two freeway bridges heading into the city above sea level and back out. A magnetic suspension railway runs parallel to the bridges. From the central traffic axes, bridges fork off at right angles into the residential quarters. Also hovering high above the water, the living areas are punctuated with parking lots and public gardens and equipped with sub-centers containing shops, office buildings, and recreational facilities. Tange’s plan specifies exactly where it can be connected to existing streets and subway lines, and maps out the building phases in a series of five-year plans. Even the expenses to the nations budget are calculated precisely, down to the last yen.
K. Tange, Tokyo Plan for 15 million inhabitants, 1960-61, with A. Isozaki, K. Kamiya, N. Kurokawa, S. Watanabe, H. Koh,
Proposal for rebuilding the central zone

Another contemporary inspiring city plan is the the Agricultural city by Kisho Kurokawa, in which megastructures in clusters hover on agricultural land, conceiving the idea of technology mixed with nature, in a subtle Japanese way: in fact Kurokawa, Fumihiko Maki, Kiyonori Kukutake, Masato Otaka and Arata Isozaki, lead by Tange himself became known as the Metabolists, promoting scientific progress and biological principles.

K. Kurokawa, Agricultural city plan, 1960

Kurokawa designed a new Tokyo city plan for 2025 in 1987, during the so-called Heisei-boom, or bubble-boom, in which prices of land in the city skyrocketed and average square-meters for each individual shrank. After the bubble exploded in the 1990s Japan had to face new problems with its Capital: since the population is getting older rapidly Tokyo will face more likely than not a considerable shrinking: recently Hidetoshi Ohno proposed Fiber City, Tokyo 2050, studying strategies to face this phenomenon.

K. Kurokawa, Plan for the exoansion of the metropolitan are 2025, 1987

One for all Tange began from the last 1950s to build in Tokyo massive public complexes, some resembling gigantic machines for space trips, some organic and fluid, some extremely monumental and postmodern: in 1955 the most renowned St. Mary Cathedral in Bunkyo was built: the church with a central plan delicately grows from the ground with two “wings” mould in concrete that meet at the top forming the arms of a Latin cross, at whose ends are the windows. Despite its age the church, covered outside with aluminum sheets, holds an incredible beauty and modernity; the Yoyogi National Stadium in Shibuya, built for the 1964 Olympic Games, with its fluid volumes still is a very attractive piece of architecture. 1991 dates the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Tocho) in Nishi-Shinjuku, a sheer complex of administrative function with magnificent observation point open to the public at the two top floors, which volumes recall Manhattan’s “stepped” skyscrapers with a Gotham City touch; one year later we find in Shibuya Jingumae the United Nations University Headquarters, with a facade mimicking with postmodern feeling the Dome of Milan. In 1994, close to the Tocho was completed the Shinjuku Park Tower, (that, together with NTT Docomo Building by Kajima Design, is one of downtown’s prominent landmarks) hosting stores, offices and the hotel that featured in the movie Lost In Translation. On the artificial island of Odaiba (go there with the monorail, passing the Rainbow Bridge and its magnificent might-view on the bay) Tange designed in 1996 the Fuji Television Building, with Fuji headquarters and many parts open to the public: the place is what it looks like, an impressive monumental and gigantic expression of media’s power that accepts to offer also some amenities to Anime fans and curious. Compared to this predecessor Koolhaas’ CCTV in Beijing seems even naïve...

Route 1: Omote-sando or fashion Ave.

Heading south-east from the Yoyogi Park (that acts like a green shield in the crowded and hyperactive area, with the beautiful Meiji-shrine in the middle) you find one of the most popular streets in the city, between Shibuya and Minato (Aoyama): along Omote-sando recently flourished a number of boutiques, representative retail stores of many fashion companies, seeking to promote with a well designed shop located on a high-profile street their image and brand. From west to east: Tadao Ando designed Omote-sando Hills, huge building of stores and high-class apartments; turning right following the Kyu Shibuyagawa Promenade you will find the interesting example of Quico, small shop and apartment on top located in one of the narrow parcels of the area (now become a fashion/artistic district) by Kazunari Sakamoto, with a refined use of space and an appropriate in-fill operation.

K. Sakamoto, Quico

Returning back the the main street: Dior by SANAA is a transparent and clear-cut insertion, resolving the angle-plot on which it stands; Louis Vuitton by Jun Aoki plays in the facade with a metallic rusty-color fabric, reminiscent of traditional Japanese wooden ones. Toyo Ito follows with Tod’s, a prismatic piece in which void and mass are shaped in a tree-like structure. On the other side of the road, 100 meters ahead you can see Omote-sando 111 by Kengo Kuma, notable for its sun-breakers, a contemporary correspondence to traditional Japanese wooden architecture. Here you come to a cross with Aoyama-dori, go ahead 200 meters and on the right you will see a glass prism, the Prada Store by Herzog & de Meuron: with its diamond-shaped mesh and flat, convex and concave glass, the building, with the risk of exaggerating, could recall the Glashaus by Bruno Taut (himself the modern architect together with F. L. Wright and Le Corbusier, who most contributed to the western discovery of Japanese architecture. See the again L. Sacchi’s book, page 130 onwards). The building also leaves a generous free space in front, a small square with benches, a unique decision in the area. Stepping back to Aoyama-dori, heading south you find the Spiral Building by the Metabolist Fumihiko Maki (other works by him in Tokyo are Hillside Terrace and the Church of Christ in Shibuya) and the above-mentioned United Nations University Headquarters by Tange. Heading north and turning right at Killer-dori you can see Mario Botta’s art gallery Watari-um. It is worth to note that Omote-sando could resemble a lively “typical” western street (even-though many of the shops are a bit frightening in their refined appearance and high-prices, so the remain actually nearly empty), far from the futuristic and metabolist idea of the metropolis.

Route 2: Ginza and Shimbashi

Just outside Ginza subway station you face Yoshinobu Ashihara’s Sony Building and Renzo Piano’s Hermes, with the famous glass brick facade: walking towards Higashi-Shimbashi two buildings fully clarify the Metabolist ideas. The Shizuoka, 1987, again by Tange, is a press center, and the Nakagin Capsule Building is a hotel designed in 1972 by Kisho Kurokawa; they both stem from the same constructional principle, a central core with vertical connections and some services and single units or capsules anchored to it: the capsules are identical and resemble the Existenz Minumum standards in their sophisticated and precise conception, without extra-room, and they respond aesthetically to the futuristic spaceship era of the late 1960s and 1970s. The idea is that new buildings were to be dynamic and that it was possible for them to “grow” with new units.

[K. Kurokawa, Nakagin Capsule Tower, 1972]

In Kurokawa’s vision this structures were flowers, and helicopters buzzed from one to the other, in a techno-zen mixture, different from the proposals of other western groups concerned with megastructures like Archigram, Archizoom or Archistudio. Kurokawa stood in the middle between virgilian bucholism, Star-Wars mood, and a wash-machine aesthetics. Needless to say that, just like the moon is still the only foreign “planet” on which man landed, also here not a single capsule was ever added until now. In Higashi-Shimbashi many interesting towers can be seen: Shiodome City Center by Kevin Roche, the elegant Dentsu Building by Jean Nouvel, the Nippon TV by Richard Rogers, Shiodome Tower by Kojima Design. Not far is Tokyo’s fish market, the Tsukiji-Shijo: if you want to wake up early you can see it crowded with people handling, or you can just go there to eat sushi and experience the atmosphere. Two very special buildings are not far, both by Philippe Starck: the Nani-nani Building and the Asahi Building, a black box with a chili-shaped drop of beer on the top.

Route 3: from Roppongi to Akihabara

Roppongi Hills is a massive high-rise complex, filled with offices, retail and amenities, on always changing ground levels, inside/outside, covered/uncovered passages: the TV Asahi is one of the main buildings, and if you’d like to meet Doraemon do not miss it. If you reach the JR Yamanote Line (which runs circularly, completing a whole circle in one hour, just like the Ring in Berlin), it is possible to easily visit in a row the International Forum beside Tokyo Station, the Ueno Park and the “electric” quarter of Akihabara. In 1996 Rafael Viñoly completed the Tokyo International Forum, an enormous complex in the very central area of Marunouchi: even if the dimensions and the location were not easy to handle, the design results sober and elegant, nicely linking the railway with its surroundings. In Ueno Park many museums can be seen, but most notably are Yoshio Taniguchi’s Horyuji Gallery (1999), Tadao Ando’s addition to the International Children’s Library (2002) and Le Corbusier’s National Museum of Western Art (1959). Akihabara is the electric city: tourists and Japanese go there to find the cheap or the newest electronic device; finding your way through visual and acoustic stimuli, advertisement on the walls, ground and ceiling, led and neon lights in a continuous day, girls dressed like Manga who want to appear always younger than they are, can be a tiring experience!

Bird’s-eye view

On one hand contemporary Tokyo seems a confirmation of Georg Simmel’s theories in The metropolis and mental life, 1903, in which an individual who has to bear an enormous quantity of stimuli, from visual to acoustic to physical (people in Shinjuku crossing the street at a green traffic light resemble a combat scene in a Mel Gibson’s film), must develop certain abilities to protect himself and his “spirit”, not to be torn by such inputs. For a foreigner it might be easier because at least he can’t read the meaning of all the advertising! In such an atmosphere idiosyncrasies start appearing, from Pachinko players to Otaku, as reactions understandable only in a specific metropolitan situation. Also is interesting to realize that a foreigner might not be so surprised and overcome by visual inputs (already known via TV or internet), rather by acoustic ones: advertisement through mega screens or bird-song traffic lights form incredible interference zones) . On the other hand contemporary Tokyo, rather than representing the future (it might still be for a certain western mythological vision), gives an idea of what the image of the future in the 1960s and 70s was, how NASA, pop-culture, Meiji spirit, Superman and faith in technology could forge in Japan a precise Weltanschauung.

Shinjuku's night view


We headed then to Kyoto, capital of the imperial court after Nara (and shortly Nagaoka) in 794, before passing the title to Edo, future Toyko: experiencing the city is necessary to establish a relationship and a counterpart to Tokyo, since the atmosphere, the city fabric, places to visit are profoundly different. First of all if the general appearance of Japan’s capital is one of moderated chaos and crowded vitality, in Kyoto, due to its definitively smaller size and a regular grid defining the main part of the city (originally the Imperial Palace and the Rajomon -made famous by A. Kurosawa- constituted the north-south axis), a western foreigner faces a more familiar situation; with its aura of tradition Kyoto holds “slower” mood, and has been often regarded as the place where “japanness” manifests itself at its higher degree, even in architectural terms. After visiting common tourist attractions belonging to the World Heritage, like Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji (golden pavilion) and Ginkaku-ji (silver pavilion), walking by the lovely Tetsugaku no michi (philosopher’s walk), we had our extraordinary experience in the Saiho-ji or Koke-dera: situated at the outskirts of Kyoto and receiving just by appointment, the Zen Buddhist temple holds probably the most beautiful moss garden you could ever find; in a group of 20/30 people you are invited to half an hour of meditation, in which a monk and two assistants repeat singing a prayer, accompanied by rhythmic beats of bells, both in wood and in metal. After that you are allowed to visit the moss garden, which is just sheer beauty, quietly moving: we had the luck of having sun rays popping out of the trees and lightning the ever-changing nuances of green on the ground. Here David Bowie got the inspiration for its piece Moss Garden (from “Heroes”, 1977, in which he plays koto).


Unfortunately we couldn’t visit the Katsura Imperial Villa, considered by many masters like K. Tange, A. Isozaki, W. Gropius, B. Taut, F. L. Wright like one of the finest examples of traditional japanese architecture (see for instance this book).

B. Taut wrote a book titled Ich liebe die japanische Kultur, an expression of the overall influence and fascination it has on the West, which has even-though to care about not being naïve.

Here you can see images of the whole Flickr set.


Paolo said...

Ciao Marco, complimenti per il blog!!!

A presto!!!


MXC said...

Grazie Paolo

a presto