Letter from Tokyo

The most advanced city on Earth isn’t just shaped by earthquakes and economics – animes and architects play out dreams there too. Herbert Wright seeks the big picture from above, and the future beyond the futuristic

Two things not to do with a Tokyo taxi driver: tip, because that’s an insult, and close the door, because that could bugger the self-closing mechanism. Japan leads in automation across many sectors, and now it’s getting a handle in cabs — a door handle. Just remember, don’t touch.

Tokyo has long been a city of the future. I imagine it already felt like the 21st century in 1990, while London hadn’t pulled out of the 80s and it was still 1970 in Manchester and 1955 in Moscow. It’s not just the gizmos and sushi, it’s the scale and dazzle. Chinese megacities may look like the Neo Tokyo of manga comics, towering and superluminous, but their recent turbo-charged urbanisation is just version two of Tokyo’s v1.0. It took 20 years to 1965 for Tokyo’s population to triple to 10 million, by when the neon of Ginza, the city’s most upmarket shopping district, glowed like Vegas. Now Ginza’s shop buildings themselves glow — light shines out from Renzo Piano’s glass bricks at Hermés, or Jun Aoki’s perforated aluminium at Louis Vuitton.

Tokyo is Maximum City, a vast hyperconnected, hyperproductive urban field, now with 13 million people. You can only appreciate its sheer scale 451m up the cool, metallic 634m-high Skytree, designed by mega-practice Nikken Sekkei and curiously not painted red and white like masts always are here. At Tokyo Station, whose 1914 European-style design by Tatsuno Kingo still stands among the blocky high-rises of the Marunouchi district, long high-speed Shinkansen trains snake sinuously away to the Japan beyond, with their 15m-long noses modelled by Eiji Nakatsu on kingfishers’ beaks to prevent sonic booms.

On the ground the best place to feel the hyper-urbanity is another station, Shinjuku. Crossing the street to it, you’re in a crowd as though you were heading to the big match. Some 3.6 million people use it every day, and if you thought King’s Cross or Châtelet-Les-Halles were big and confusing, try finding your Metro line here — I was twice trapped in a long gallery of shops selling exquisite but mysterious cakes.

Nearby is Kenzo Tange’s city hall (1991), aka the Tocho. This 243m-high, twin-headed beast is like a Notre-Dame solid enough to resist Godzilla. From the observation floors at 202m, looking out at bland, boxy skyscrapers, you realise what a classy job Tange did. His surfaces (even the lift door) repeat rectangular patterns, reflecting Japanese order and complexity, and his towers have thrust, like the Japanese economy had. Across town on Odaiba island’s Fuji TV HQ (1996), with Cartesian mastery, Tange suspended a shining 32m-diameter sphere in a vast 3D frame between 25-storey towers. That sphere is another place to see the skyline, plus meet the Assassination Classroom anime characters. Their disturbing smiley-head teacher Korosensei may trash the moon any moment, and here, he has a neo-Shinto shrine. Weird.

Buildings even have their own cartoon creature. The sleek, mixed-use, 52-storey Toranomon Hills designed by Nihon Sekkei (no relation to Nikkei) has Toranomon, a cat-robot mascot designed by manga artists Fujiko Pro. He’s from the future, and the tower seems to be too.

Who says the Japanese are unoriginal? Sure, they take Western ideas and make them better — witness Asahi beer, Wagyu beef, or all those jeans from Kojima — but their animes and designers keep imagining. Nobody was more utopian and radical than the Metabolists. They were dreaming big with their models of crazy structures that surely inspired Gerry Anderson’s budget TV sci-fi sets like Thunderbirds, and Tange’s 1960 Tokyo Bay plan made le Corbusier’s urban plans look dull (which they proved to be anyway).

But is there anything metabolist to actually see? I went to pay homage to Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972). It looks in a sorry state. The angular service towers are rusting, the washing machine-like pods are stained and under netting… but it’s still alive. Pods are available on Airbnb, and a rank of Tokyo’s ubiquitous, colourful vending machines stands outside. Demolition, for now, is at bay. The 13-storey tower was small for metabolism, but the charm of Tokyo is in even smaller, human-scaled spaces.

I chanced on a place just like a London square, called Nano Park (well, it wasn’t that small). Countless Tokyo backstreets reveal intimate eateries (a queue before opening time means it’s good) or wiring strung organically between poles. Occasional wooden houses have survived earthquake, fire and war, from a time before planning. Out in the dense but picturesque village-suburb of Jiyugaoka, I found someone to discuss houses. Locally based Dutch architect Martin van der Linden talked about the ‘anti-metabolist’ modernist Kazuo Shinohara, who taught the likes of Toyo Ito and Kazuyo Sejima. He crafted a sort of Japanese brutalism, different in each of his numerous house projects. He was more interested in the ‘machi’ (neighbourhood) than the city, and the ‘beauty in chaos’ of areas like Shibuya. That was the Sixties, and only now is small-scale urbanism in vogue. Perhaps the house typology, rooted in when carpenters built before there were any ‘architects’, is where Japanese architecture still finds its strongest inner voice.

Sadly, Japan’s inheritance tax has been killing Tokyo’s small plot size by forcing families to sell, letting developers agglomerate sites for the big stuff. But eventually the biggest hit Tokyo will take is demographic. Japan is getting old — there are country villages with the average age of 80-plus. Tokyo’s population is stable, but Japan’s is falling. One day humanity’s most intense city may empty. The last to go will not shut its door — that will be automatic.

March 2016 ©Herbert Wright

1602 Toko Lisa Anna Wilson Tokyo shots

Originally published in Blueprint magazine no.346, May 2016.

Montaged photos by Lisa Ann Wilson 2016 : 1 – Pods on Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower — Like washing machines that need washing. 2 – A glimpse of one of the Tocho’s towers by Kenzo Tange. 3 – Toranomon is a ‘cat-like business robot’ that looks after Toranomon Hills

See also my article A Brief History of Big Plans for Tokyo Bay in the Global Urbanist

About herbertwright

I am a London-based writer interested in art, architecture, the future and more. I am the author of three non-fiction books. Published articles online appear on www.herbertwright.co.uk.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Design, Urbanism, World Cities. Bookmark the permalink.

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