The most modern city in the world

Sumida

Tokyo has inspired film makers but now life may imitate art with a break from the city's claustrophobia and a more fluid manga-inspired look Michael Fitzpatrick reports Daily Telegraph Connected Magazine Architecture 15.01 1998

Crowd poised like a black-crested tsunani is waiting obediently for the green signal. When it comes, the homogeneous throng moves quickly, across the street under the televised gaze of a 60ft woman. It could only be Tokyo. Or. equally plausible, a scene from the film Blade Runner. The two are so alike because Ridley Scott eagerly turned to Japan for inspiration when dreaming up his vision for the city of the future. But could the world's cities really come to resemble the breathtaking urban intensity of Tokyo? The answer has to be no, as that look has more to do with Japan's cultural heritage than anything else. Where Westerners demand green "breathing" spaces in our cities, the Japanese are seemingly content with smaller, technology- based recreation areas: karaoke bars, Pachinko parlours, amusement arcades, and so on. "Tokyo is the most modern city in the world," says Graham Cooper, chairman of the Arts and Architecture Society and an expert on Japanese architecture. "The Japanese have no concept of public space as we see it. Our cities might come to look like Tokyo only if we were to compact our cities again as we did in medieval times. It's all about layering. A city like Tokyo has a subterranean layer which is very complex, a street layer, and higher and even higher levels like roof gardens." Just as the Japanese became adept at squeezing more and more on to circuit boards to make tinier electronic gadgets, so they have had to apply a similar practice to their cities. The result is an extraordinary utilization of space. "The emphasis is linear in the West," explains Cooper. "That's why Japanese cities always seem so chaotic there is an appreciation of the asymmetrical." Even the original site for 16th-century Tokyo was chosen for a most illogical reason. The "most modern city in the world", it turns out, came about through superstition. Just over 400 years ago the Shogun was looking to move the capital from Kyoto. He asked a Fusui-gaku, a type necromancer master, locate a site that offers good ki. or invisible power energy. The master picked on Edo fishing village on the eastern coast. That same visibly unremarkable village became the new capital and was later renamed Tokyo.

Tokyo's streets are all impossibly narrow and winding for the most part and generally nameless just as the Shogun liked it. Should enemy find his way into the citv's maze-like streets, the theory went, he would find it impossible to locate the centre and the seat of power Tokyo castle. And if part of Tokyo tend to resemble ferro-concrete shanty town,that is because for years people have had to contend with frequent earthquakes. From this comes the Japanese view that a buildings are an ephemeral thing and city an organism in constant flux.

From the Shogun's Japan's architectural language has been one of power and control. The same condtions that controlled Japan the past do so today, and now they are co-ordinated into non-military corporate divisions known as the zaibatsu. The powerful design-and-build arms of the cabals are responsible for much of the giant white refrigerator-with-neon signs that dominates Japan's skylines. "Ninety-five per cent the cities you see when you walk around Japan are by the big construction companics such as- Kajima, Takanaka and Mitsubishi design. They are all part of the zoibatsu system and they own most of the land.

" Dramatic changes are under way, however, in the construction industry facing chronic labour shortage. New technology is replacing the missing manpower and is revolutionising the way these corporates put up their new projects. Fully automated buitding construction methods and robots cut labour requirements by 50 per cent according to top construction company Kajima. and a hi-tech engineering technique involving constructing the top floor of a building first and then raising it so the next floor can be started beneath it.

Kajima is calling the method AMURAD (Automatic up-rising construction by advanced technique) and has used it to build the recently completed Yokogawa Construction New Headquarters Project. Also known as the T-UP system, it permits all-weather operations and can shorten the substructure assembly period by 30 per cent. But again it's unlikely to change the way we build cities in the West as we don't suffer from a building site labour shortage-yet.

Western architects are making their impact on some of the big cities, continuing a process of Westernisation of Japanese architecture that started more than 100 years ago. As Japanese architects, in their turn, receive adulation from the West, the attention they receive is encouraging.the zaibatsu to break away from traditional styles. Out goes the hideously conservative breeze block style and 'in" are the more daring Architects who follow the so-called atelier artistic mode. this small band of men and women are responsible for giving contemporary Japanese architecture its "hi- tech" reputation.

"Atelier architects are well-known designers who get noticed for doing more creative buildings which include a new generation creating lightweight hi-tech buildings; others are more sculptural and some more geometrical based," says Cooper. Typical of the brave new wave of super modern buildings is the $207 million Tele-com Centre on Tokyo's bay front. Designed as a metaphor for the information age, by a team from two leading architects' offices, Nissoken and HOK, it was completed in 1995 and boasts the latest in advanced information and broadcasting systems.

As an "advanced intelligent office building" the Telecom Centre Provides its tenants with the latest services through advanced technologies, such as its Optical LAN system, which allows IC Card access control.

It's really a showroom for Japan's ultimate aspirations; the true state of the country's sluggish response to the information age is better described by the mournful, cluttered office blocks close by. However, if cutting edge architects such as Toyo Ito - a master of his generation - get their way this will be just the start of Tokyo's progression from doughty concrete leviathan to a lighter, more fluid city.

As one of the more famous atelier architects, Ito says he is consumed by the possibilities new technology and architecture offer and wants to see more buildings respond to the changes brought by the new technology. He wants his buildings to "be able to change with time instead of being bound by any definite archetype.

"As our physical body is born in water and is eventually reduced to water, architecture that emerges from the flow of electrons Will probably he fused in a sea of information' " His language is almost that of manga and can quite conceivably be the style of Japan's architecture future - where the vision for a city is ve--- in appearance to thes---ating landscapes, Manga art is highly influential in Japan and it envitable that its graph---the nation's architecture should feed of one ----. Having consumed mo--- green space, a cit---- Tokyo has nothing ----to adopting sci-fi manner

There's a lot we can learn from Tokyo, says Cooper if our cities populations do grow and we have to compact our Cities again there's a lot to be said for that. We will have to look at Tokyo as a good example of how to design a city."

 

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