TOKYO: The High-Tech Slum

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2002

Stephen Mansfield takes us on a stroll through Tokyo's contrasting architectures where the new and the old rub each other up the right way.

by Stephen Mansfield

SINGLE LOOK AT THE architecture, the transfiguring surfaces of Tokyo, and one is immediately struck by the way, strata-like, it has evolved as a high-tech base and sounding board, while never quite managing to dispel its shambolic image. There can hardly be another city in the world that is pasted together in quite the same way.

Tokyo may share the distinctly dysfunctional appearance that characterizes slums the world over, but it falls considerably short of actually being one. Part of this, of course, is based on recognition and perception. What differentiates, for example, two wooden structures, one deemed a slum, the other a building of grace and charm? Perhaps part of the answer is that the latter improves with age while the former succumbs to it. But there is also the question of aesthetics. To the untrained eye, a traditional Japanese teahouse, with its clay walls, paper windows and thatched or tiled roof -- a costly luxury in today's city -- is easily dismissed as a humble potting shed. As David Buck has pointed out in his book Responding to Chaos, "Teahouses were originally built from broken branches, ash-covered walls and salvaged boards." Basho's lodge, or Kamo-no-Chomei's 'ten-foot-square' hut, where understated qualities and patinas of weathered clay and glowing wood represent a virtuous simplicity, can also be easily overlooked.

Housing remains cramped compared to Western cities -- sub-standard prefabricated materials are allowed to languish beyond their natural life span, public bath houses serve as many as 400,000 residents who are still without bathrooms, sewage is pumped into trucks from manholes in private strips of garden and propane cylinders strapped to the outside of homes are still a common sight. But Tokyo is not in the strictest sense a slum. Great wealth continues to circulate through the arteries of the city, and public services and amenities improve incrementally. There is little sense of malaise, the laconic mood that hangs over real slums like those found in Manila or Bangkok.

Although first impressions -- stagnant canals, serrated rows of under-maintained public housing apartments stamped with giant letters of the alphabet, their balconies bedecked with laundry and drying futons, ubiquitous cinder-block walls -- are unlikely to be favorable, there is a dynamism, perhaps even a hidden order, to Tokyo's shambolic macramEof high-tech, high-cost modernity, and its wooden buildings, corrugated walls, roof boxes, petro-incinerated concrete, rising damp stains and rusting water drums. Writer Peter Popham promptly sensed this when confronted for the first time with "a mess of highly assertive and wildly incongruous elements, all abutting each other without a hint of compromise or deference and without a trace of organization." The solution to what in the West would amount to a problem of overwhelming proportions, namely how to fit super-expressive new buildings into an existing, older urban landscape, is resolved by simply ignoring altogether the aesthetics of coordination, by inserting improved structures into the body of the city in the same manner as you would replacement implants or dental plates. Hardly a city in the Western sense, rather a metamorphic environment perpetually responding and adapting to change and the expediency of the moment, Tokyo is akin to an immense whiteboard -- one whose surface can be erased and replaced at any moment with an entirely new set of features that best suit the dictates of the prevailing aesthetics or market needs.

The perception of what makes a city worth living in, a building worth the attention, is fundamentally different from the West. Interest is aroused and attachments made to specific buildings or segments of the city, taken one by one, and assessed for their style, form and charm. The city in fact, begins to make a lot more sense when it is seen as a series of panels, only one or two of which can be taken in at any one time. This piecemeal vision of the city is confirmed by architect Fumihiko Maki, who has noted that very few people "have a distinct image of today's megalopolis in its entirety. The image that most residents have of the city is only a diagram...on which is plotted the knowledge of the very few parts of the city with which they are familiar." In this kind of city, each building is enjoyed in its own right; integration is not sought. Nor is conventional longevity. "I'd like to keep this area flawed and temporary-looking," Kobo Kimura, the designer of Shibuya Square, has been quoted as saying: "That way it's always capable of changing."

Beyond their obvious functional purposes, Tokyo's more experimental buildings, rising among contiguous structures long past their prime, are design catalysts that can also be read as discourses on aesthetics and the role of modern architecture. The Aoyama Technical College in Shibuya, for example, is a bizarre construction whose creator, Makoto Watanabe, has set himself the task of "analyzing the self-organization of Tokyo's urban systems" through a sci-fi montage of poles, lightning rods, water tanks and posts that creep almost organically over the building's surfaces.

Itsuko Hasegawa's Sumida Culture Factory in Higashi Mukojima is a project that also represents an inquiry in the most contemporary sense into the problems of community access and the interrelation between traditional and mass media culture and technology. In its role as a mass media center, the building has been described as a "microcosm of the greater media city." Rising above the two-story houses and suppurating clutter of its downtown site, the center's triangular roofs, perforated screens and main dome stand in striking contrast to the visual chaos that characterizes the street level. An apparition of questionable beauty, its very incongruity demands attention. Locals have said the structure, floating like a circus tent above the mortar walls and tiled roofs of the neighborhood, is an anomaly, but it is an addition to existing incongruities made familiar by habituation. Nonetheless, the "appearance of a vast, translucent, glowing mass of volumes," as architect Noriyuki Tajima has written, "in a drab neighborhood of narrow twisting lanes and shabby two-story buildings is astonishing." In a classic example of techno-think, Hasegawa visualized the complex in two parts, or complimentary 'hardware' and 'software' components -- the hardware being the building itself, the software its function and usage.

The mildewed brick and cement surfaces beneath the tracks of the Yamanote Line at Yurakucho, hollowed out with cubby-hole street-level restaurants, smoky catacombs where charcoal braziers sizzle with husks of grilled corn, skewered squid and barbecued offal, stand in similarly bewildering contrast to the majestic Tokyo International Forum, a premier culture convention center at the heart of the technopolis. Four graduated cubes, encased in granite, abut a high, tapering trajectory of glass and steel, aptly named the Glass Hall. The center's theaters and viewing zones are capable of simultaneous translation in eight languages through a 400in, HDTV-enabled video projector and integrated AV-networking that links up real-time broadcasting to outside events. The building exemplifies designer Shoei Yoh's comment that "technology is changing so quickly that the question of flexible use is vital for architects to answer in their buildings."

Squat and low-rise by comparison with the likes of Hong Kong or Shanghai, Tokyo is a city willing itself to new heights that are transcending the slum-like sprawl at ground level. The 36-story Kasumigaseki Building, completed in 1968, was the first structure in Tokyo that came close to qualifying as a skyscraper. Since then more ambitious projects have sprung from the drawing boards of Japanese architects and, using techniques that are supposed to replicate the swaying motion produced by earthquakes, buildings have inched up to 60 or 70 stories. Interestingly, older high-rise projects like the Sunshine 60 complex in Ikebukuro, are situated at the epicenter of a locus of flyovers, shops and a residential warren consisting of many wood, tile and mortar houses vulnerable to the damp and decay that characterizes Tokyo's heat-island summers.

If the planners get their way, we will see more buildings reaching, with the aid of new tecnology, for the cumulus. Verticality at its most ambitious is seen in a plan by Obayashi Corp. to erect a 500-story skyscraper, almost four times taller than either the Sears Tower in Chicago or Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Twin Towers, the two highest buildings in the world. Because of the altitude, this would involve pumping in oxygen to the upper levels. Conventional elevators would be replaced with vertical shuttle trains that would zigzag their way up the building. The main problem with building over 100 stories though, seems to be that occupants are prone to suffer continuous motion sickness, not only from earthquakes, but wind and typhoons as well. As if to prove the point that, to the Japanese way of thinking, problems exist to be solved, the designers of Kajima Corp.'s 220-story Dynamic Intelligence Building (DIB-200), propose to install seismic sensors to detect movement and vibration. The transmitted data would then be analyzed by computers operating a system designed to adjust the building's center of gravity, thereby maintaining its equilibrium. There are other plans afoot to create newer structures that incorporate high-tech ventilating systems to heat and reuse air, install roof-mounted solar collectors, wind walls to direct breeze flows to aerial courtyards and internal spaces, to use photo-voltaic glass to effectively turn buildings into power stations and so on. In one sci-fi account, the skyscrapers of West Shinjuku are hatched from an organic building substance that seems, in the eyes of the story's main character, to move "like osmosis or the sequential contraction of some sea creature's pulps." Tokyo, with its natural propensity to shed old skins, would no doubt be the ideal place to test a material like that.

Contrasting with Tokyo's techno-aided verticality is a counter tendency to burrow deeper into the earth's surface. Tokyo has a considerable underground life already. In addition to the world's largest subway system, which is still vigorously expanding, miles of subterranean corridors connect lines and concourses with countless underground shopping malls. Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, has operated a power station under a Buddhist temple for over a decade now and an Asahi television studio, built 20 meters below ground in Roppongi, operates a simulated downpour behind the announcers when it rains above ground.

With cities built on artificial islands or on concrete stilts, it was inevitable that someone would suggest burrowing into the earth as a source of much needed space. Taisei Corp.'s Alice City, a complex built on concrete modules sunk 150 meters below ground, and another project called Urban Geo Grid from a team of young designers at Shimizu Corp., envisages a subterranean city constructed of cylindrical pods receiving sunlight from pyramidal glass atriums above ground. Each "grid point" would be linked by a series of subterranean tubes. This is one among a number of large scale projects that have yet to gain official approval but which have at least reached the stage of feasibility studies by ministerial task forces.

Like the structures in Italo Calvino's novel, Invisible Cities, with a spider web of "ropes and chains and catwalks" suspended in the air, Tokyo knows that its edifices are not built to last. A highly corporeal, perpetually embryonic city, it is ideally suited to a transition in which, from its monuments to its lean-to shacks, the mortality of its structures are keenly sensed. @

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