Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tokyo 3 - Mutable Museum


Nihonbashi bridge is shrinking as the relative scale of the context around it grows. Construction technology and zoning have allowed larger buildings and owners continue to take advantage of greater returns in the heated real estate of Tokyo. As in all cities, the dominant height of the building stock has gone from two or three stories in the 19th century, to a ten story standard with numerous towers that range from twenty to forty stories today. Extra vehicle traffic has been accommodated by additional bridges and the expressway above. The famous images of the bridge in harmonious scale with its neighbors are found only in museums, and what once was the central confluence of traffic, commerce and development is today an increasingly hidden mode of infrastructure. It still connects the two sides of the river and is fairly heavily used, but not more so than any of the other many bridges in the area.

On the other hand, its heritage value of the bridge has grown as evidenced by how it guided the multi-million dollar plans for the redevelopment of the area. It is like a pebble parting a river. That a bridge with relatively little use-value would engender such invasive change is testament to its powerful symbolic position. The challenge is to reconcile its emblematic role with its physical and programmatic attenuation.


The role a museum plays in determining art has long been satirized by avant-garde artists, with Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) perhaps the most salient example. By simply placing an everyday object in the realm of an exhibition, the object gains a level of preciousness that it is denied in normal existence. This is especially compelling when an object with utility (say, a urinal) is transformed into something appreciated visually, an object of respect instead of use.

Along these lines, there is much recent debate about the tendency to turn cities into museums. Wolfgang Zacharias and others used the term “musealization” to label the parts of a city that take on the quality of exhibits. They note that similar to when an object is placed in a museum, buildings and urban elements become objects of admiration instead of use. Often this preserved or re-created version of a place is intended for visitor consumption rather than local patronage. This aspiration is especially strong when the environment is perceived as threatened by newer, less desired influences. At its best, it places value on preserving aspects of the built environment that might otherwise be torn down. At its worst, it can lead to pastiche that uproots local economies for the sake of appearances. Either way, there is a fundamental shift in the relationship of users to a city when it takes on the preciousness associated with a museum.


The famous bright advertising of Tokyo could be considered a logical progression of traditional Edo-era Japanese theater design. Theaters in Japan have long played the role of mediator in society, putting an acceptable but still exuberant face on what might be considered licentious and titillating activity. And by isolating and hinting at what lay inside, they seduce outsiders to see what lay behind closed doors. The activity might be considered immoral or low, but the facade makes it irresistible.

The dominant established forms of theater in Japan, No and later Kabuki, have roots in an itinerant tradition of travelling short term productions. They were more like minstrels, performing as many shows as a population could support before moving on to the next venue. Each season would bring a new production and the process would be repeated. Thus it was more important to be eye-catching than contextual. The structures were spectacles in themselves, acknowledging the limited the run of a performance, a “get it while it’s hot” message of building. The return of the buildings every year would signal the cycle repeating itself again. The leisure city of Edo ultimately provided the right mix of economics and society to engender more stable and permanent theaters, and the temporary structures were replaced with temporary signage. The ever changing advertising which is so emblematic of Shinjuku is based on a similar logic: the short public attention span needs to be piqued on a regular basis.


Much of the language behind the relocation of the expressway has revolved around the historic value of Nihonbashi. However, the winning proposals indicate that the more central issue is selling quality of life in a contemporary downtown environment. Rather than actually returning to any facsimile of the fabric that was in place when the Meiji–era bridge was erected, the proposals seek to compete with similar water-centric projects in cities around the world by removing buildings along the banks (that have no direct need for waterfront locations) and providing pedestrian friendly parks and street furniture. This is admirable, but still leaves room for more than dusting off the old and overlooked Nihonbashi; the bridge deserves more than a bronze plaque in the new vision.

I propose a mutable museum, a structure that simultaneously isolates and publicizes the bridge. It will effectively veil Nihonbashi, shrouding it from the environment while allowing it to inhabit the precious realm of a display. Thus it would artlessly musealize the bridge, transforming it into an obvious exhibit in the city. It is intended to delineate between appreciating a unique piece of the urban fabric and the tendency to romanticize revisionist history. While the bridge would still be functional, the mutable museum establishes a threshold between sacred and profane that tens of thousands of people would pass through every day. It would additionally mediate between the scale of the growing surroundings and the preserved Nihonbashi. In a sense, it would be the third iteration of the bridge, linking its new role as cultural artifact with contemporary leisure desires. The museum will be tall enough to span the current expressway and generate interest before the new riverfront development (which might take decades).

The building would be powerful in its scale, but the detailing would exhibit a delicacy in order to harmonize with the intimacy of the bridge; katsura and cedar wood cladding would provide a subtle link to the Edo Nihonbashi. Giant screens would partially hide the bridge, but would be raised on special occasions to reveal it fully. The structure would house a local history museum and observation deck, from which the primary exhibit of the bridge could be viewed. Alternate contexts like Edo or future plans for Tokyo could be projected on the interior of the screens to situate the bridge. The screens themselves would be replaced annually, perhaps with a contest for their new design. Thus a seasonal, cyclical freshness could be brought to Nihonbashi. A new floating cedar deck would take advantage of the river and allow people to get close to the bridge, while the underside of the arched spans would be converted into a waterfront café and restaurant. Have a latte while reflecting on who has crossed above!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tokyo 2 - Nihonbashi


Nihonbashi has acted as an avatar of various epochs in Tokyo: the wooden Edo bridge (1603), the Euro-stone Meiji bridge (1911), the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway overpass of Olympic era Tokyo (1964), the re-created Edo era bridge in the Edo-Tokyo Museum (1993), and most recently in the recommendation to “re-heritage” the bridge by routing the current overpass underground (2005). Its name literally means “Japan-Bridge” (Nihon-Bashi), and will thus be referred to simply as Nihonbashi. It was the crossroads of the five national highways (today it is seven), and the beginning of the famed 303 mile Tokaido Road which connected Tokyo with Kyoto. All roads literally led to Nihonbashi. Since the maintenance of safety on roads was an important aspect of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s image, bridges, and in particular Nihonbashi, became a vital form of propaganda. They symbolized an unprecedented access and unity across the nation, which until the Edo era had been fractured and warring.

The most famous representation of this era of connectivity is Ando Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road (1831), a pictorial guidebook to the journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. Each Hiroshige woodblock print is a distilled vision of a moment along the road, an 18th century hyper-reality of the cultural uniqueness of each place. Nearly every station includes a prominent view of a bridge, often as the signal of threshold to a town. In fact, the stylized views of each bridge seem to indicate less specificity of place than universality of form and symbol; after viewing several dozen of these prints it becomes difficult to tell them apart, aside from natural features like Fuji. A trip that once might stop at each station is today completed in two and a half hours on the Shinkansen, the fastest train in the world.

What is apparent from the Nihonbashi views is the relative intensity of economic activity and liveliness of the place. It was the crossroads of the empire, and the merchant class grew the area into a vibrant trading zone. Many of the powerful zaibatsu (which became keiretsu) that were later to form so much of the urban shape of Tokyo originated here: Mitsui, Tokyu, Fuyo, et al. The area today is still home to great political intrigue between the few powerful players in the Japanese economy. This fierce competition was linked physically and mentally with the Nihonbashi.

Postcard commemorating Nihonbashi's central location

As a singular piece of architecture, however, it wasn’t particularly remarkable. There were many bridges that were longer, wider, and more picturesque. Its wood detailing was simply a refinement of bridges built everywhere by the Tokugawa Shogunate, albeit finely wrought. Durable katsura wood comprised the structure of repetitive cross-braced legs, gently arching to drain water from the cedar planks. Metal strapping reinforced wooden joints and provided waterproof caps at posts. As a whole, it was austere and sturdy for the times, a bushido evolution of earlier Sino-Japanese bridges. But as a symbol of the ascendancy of Edo, nothing could compare.

In the Meiji restoration, the preferred projection of Japan’s power shifted to a blend between imperial aspiration and Westernization; Japan fitfully adjusted to the forced exposure to progress by colonial powers. The old wooden bridge, constructed of what then appeared to be outdated materials and form was replaced with a fin-de-siecle style hybrid incorporating some martial Japanese ornamentation. In the West it is an immediately recognizable style of permanence and authority, but given a local make-over. The stone bridge remains there today, designated as a historical landmark after having survived the Kanto earthquake and Allied bombing. However, as economic activity was less reliant on the physical crossroads, merchant activity spread out, leaving the bridge to play a lessor role for the new Japan.

After the physical and psychological havoc of World War Two, Tokyo became a showcase of Allied influenced rebuilding. In response to the new internationally accepted Japan, Tokyo aspired to (and was granted) the 1964 Olympics. The rapid retrofitting of the city to accommodate the urban needs prescribed by the games necessitated a massive infrastructural overhaul. It is today one of the dominant images of the city. Automobile freeways were quickly erected along land that had the fewest stakeholders: parks, rivers and canals. It was an impressive undertaking in terms of scale and vision, but left much of the open space in Tokyo in the shade of the structures. The Shuto Expressway Loop Line was run along the Nihonbashi River, over Nihonbashi and numerous other low bridges. Today 100,000 vehicles pass overhead.

Several miles away, inside an arena-sized building in Ryogoku, Nihonbashi has been resurrected. The Edo-Tokyo museum was opened in 1993 and acts as the authorized version of the events that led to present day Tokyo. As Jordan Sand states, it is “the crowning achievement of the populist historiography of Edo-Tokyo.” The initial view upon entering is the most striking and memorable moment: you look down on the enormous hall from a life-sized Nihonbashi painstakingly re-created above the exhibits. The journey begins on the bridge, and below you cross under it to move from the Edo-era exhibits to the Tokyo-era exhibits. Thus it acts as the symbolic threshold between the historic traditions of Edo and rapid modernization of Tokyo. It is the most striking element of the museum, guiding traffic and acting as the primary orientation device for circulation. As the museum states in their literature:

“Nihonbashi Bridge was the doorway from Edo (current day Tokyo) to such places as Kyoto (to the west) and Nikko (to the north). The replica at the Edo-Tokyo Museum is of the same width as the original but of half the length. Upon crossing this bridge at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, one can often smell the wood of the bridge.”

It is perhaps no accident that the bridge takes on such an important role in the museum. Of course, the museum is located several miles away in Ryogoku, but within the hermetic environment of the museum, it catalyzes the transformation to historic-era Japan. And its re-creation has presaged a more ambitious project that had been building momentum for years at the original site.

In 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi instructed the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport to find ways of re-routing a two kilometer portion of the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway that runs through Nihonbashi neighborhood. His proclamation was the culmination of years of lobbying by various local groups to beautify, preserve, and revitalize Nihonbashi. Many of these associations like the “Committee for the 100 Year Renaissance Plan of Nihonbashi and Environs” are comprised of the same powerful keiretsu that grew out of the Edo marketplace. Very few people have called for retaining the present overpass condition. Resulting competitions have engendered predictable, if commendable, solutions along the lines of the City-Beautiful and New-Urbanism models. It has been estimated to cost around $4.5 billion, though conventional wisdom puts the number at double that. The fact that the Prime Minister is personally addressing a project of such expense indicates the important role this little bridge occupies in the collective psyche.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Japan 1 - Introduction


Tokyo is arguably the apotheosis of the global city. It certainly performs on a world class level in all the expected criteria of the new order: an ethos of overworked white collar workers (salaryman); easy access to culture and leisure; and an almost invisible service sector keeping everything running smoothly. And the numbers are impressive: the most populous city in the world, the three busiest train stations in the world (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro), the most trafficked airspace in the world. Tokyo seemingly leads the world in urban statistics. It’s a collection of figures that don’t seem possible, numbers that begin to blur together in strings of zeros and commas. There are 34,000,000 people living in the Tokyo-Yokohama urban area, an unfathomable amount. From a perusal of the figures, Tokyo seems like an impossible city.

But for all their grandiosity, the numbers belie the order on the street. It might be crowded, but the crowds perform with practiced choreography. Some 3.5 million people move through Shinjuku Station every day (3,000 per minute!), and yet any one of many cheerful station attendants will retrieve a missing ticket from the busiest turnstiles on the planet. The throng simply adjusts to the slight change in environment and flows around to the next most efficient outcome. It is as mesmerizing as watching schools of fish dart in group synchronization. Thus, it is rarely overwhelming in the prototypical modern metropolis sense. The advertising might seem outlandish and bold, especially in the iconic photographs of Shibuya, but the overall effect is of fun and harmless bricolage. Further, a five minute walk on pristine streets will take you away from colorful signage into quiet alleys of precious, cared-for homes. As far back as the 17th century, foreign observers were remarking on the cleanliness of Edo-Tokyo. Today some of the most notable formal aspects are the careful responses to zoning management: strange roof angles, fire stair facades, and little red triangles (escape windows) on otherwise spotless facades. Tokyo might be the most successfully managed city in the world; it hums like a machine.

A pass thought the city reveals the slim and bloated: tiny little parcels that maximize their holdings with inventive and often acrobatic use of space, and oversized keiretsu-built urban-scale development that feeds on commuter traffic. In between, the typologies form a fluid space of public, private, station, mall, plaza, sidewalk, store, campus, and park. Tokyo is of course famous for its petite jewel houses that make use of quirky and impossibly small parcels. Numerous magazines and books are devoted to the resourceful and whimsical solutions to the problems of building in the tightest urban conditions. The trophy houses might be few and far between, but the pressures of high real estate costs and precious free space leads to unexpected combinations of program and form, as Atelier Bow-Wow’s book Made In Tokyo attests to. The book seeks out the results of “a certain obstinacy of character that refuses to let any space, no matter how insignificant, go to waste.” This obstinacy might crudely be linked to the chado (the way of tea) ethos of celebrating rustic simplicity. Often, the highest form of an object was the imperfection, as illustrated in a broken bowl lovingly reassembled with gold (kintsugi) to highlight the jagged cracks. In this sense, chado resembles the Yankee spirit.

On the other end of the scale, much of what might pass for urban planning was done by the numerous private railways owned by keiretsu that coincidently own the real estate around the stations. Keiretsu are the outgrowth of the zaibatsu, a collection of powerful banking conglomerates that essentially formed a competitive oligarchy until they were dismantled after World War Two. These complex financial structures are increasingly challenged by international finance pressures, but still comprise most of the mega-sized landscape around the stations. Navigation around the labyrinthine tunnels (Shinjuku has 200 exits) is inevitably done by shopping malls (“take a left at Tokyu Hands and then a right at Sunshine City. It’s above the Pizza Hut.”) At a certain point, the opposition of public versus private space seems superfluous when hundreds of thousands of square feet of railway circulation is owned by a department store. Meanwhile the city reaches out into the bay with speculative monumental urban tentacles, a public-private-ecological cyborg.

Tokyo’s phenomenal scale is in many ways surprising. While it has usually been the largest city in the world since the 17th century, it really doesn’t have a convenient reason for its founding. Even more than St. Petersburg, Edo was a city that was willed into existence. It wasn’t a particularly good port, didn’t lie on a strategic piece of land, and wasn’t at a natural crossroads. In fact, it was likely chosen because of, not in spite of, its lack of obvious blessings. In 1590, when Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa shogun, sought a location that was removed from the historically loaded city of Kyoto (and home to the emperor), instead of naming any of the obvious secondary towns he chose a new location. It was a fresh start for the recently united Japan, founded on the power of the shogunate.

Daimyo (regional feudal-generals) were required by the shogunate to spend every other year in Edo in and their families were held virtual prisoners while they were away. This requirement (sankin kotai) quickly gave shape and life to the inchoate city. The daimyo kept spacious compounds in the hills surrounding the shogun’s castle. This half of the population, the military class, took up 85% of the land in grand style, while commoners filled in the leftover lowlands. As the old city transitioned to a bureaucracy after the Meiji Restoration, these daimyo compounds provided a convenient setting for the campuses of modern democracy such as parks, libraries, museums and universities. At the physical center of the city was the shogun’s castle, a place of secrecy and reticence. It still isn’t possible for most people to visit. Thus Edo-Tokyo has been called a “doughnut” or a “cyclone,” with a density of activity growing outward from a central void. Today the most common orienting device is the Yamanote Line railway, roughly traversing the hills around old Edo where the daimyo once lived. The machi system, on the other hand, was a dense and efficient block structure for the common class, the other half of the population. It was an easily duplicable layout that could be placed anywhere in the territories. A dense perimeter of narrow shop-houses (due to taxation on frontage) opened up to a shared common area in the middle of the block. Each machi had a rigid system of interdependence and a representative that reported directly to the Shogunate; it was an arrangement that traded privacy and freedom for security and stability.

The military class, and their newfound wealth brought on by peace-time growth drew a massive retinue. Very quickly, Edo grew to be the most populous city in the world, almost double that of London. At the same time the Tokugawa regime essentially cut ties with the outside world, turning inward for 250 years. In general, the military nobility encouraged an ethos of bushido, or military asceticism. It was a period of extreme refinement, when most of the famous Japanese traditions were codified as we know them today: the tea ceremony (chado), swordplay (kendo), and wrestling (sumo).

Perhaps inevitably, counter to this rarefied culture, a flowering of debauchery arose: ukiyo (the floating world). It is likely the most widely-known cultural production from that era (ironically now seen as a high form of Japanese culture), made famous in evocative wood prints (ukiyo-e) that remain popular today. The floating world was the term for the life pleasure and leisure that became the hallmark of Edo. Geishas, drinking, and kabuki theater were all part of the good life. Ukiyo was one of the most important economies, and remains one of the defining aesthetics of Japan. The block prints were responsible for the transmission of geisha and kabuki images to the wider populace. There was a messy evolution of style as entertainers, nobility, and townsfolk negotiated between novel and traditional aesthetics. The entertainers aped and transformed the tastes of the aristocracy, who in turn borrowed from the street culture of ukiyo.

Tokyo was twice leveled in the 20th century, first by the Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and the Allied fire bombing in 1945. These tabula rasa were in turn re-shaped into the form of a modern, global metropolis. This period saw the arrival of the salaryman, who embodies the capitalist duality of bushido and ukiyo in his grinding hours and drunken walks home. It is no surprise that the salaryman is often a central character in manga, and a metaphor for post-war urban Tokyo. He is close to both high and low culture, all of which is readily available. Today, Harajuku is arguably the primary zone of transmission between high and low. On Takeshita Avenue the street fashion scene explodes with inventive and innovative cosu-purei (play costumes), as captured by Shoichi Aoki in his book Fruits and popularized by pop star Gwen Stefani. Nearby on Omotesanto Avenue, luxury fashion houses like Tod’s and Prada trot out the most inventive and innovative architects (Toyo Ito and Herzog and DeMeuron, respectively) to design their built costumes. Strolling down either is voyeurism encouraged by a promenade of sidewalk exhibitionists.

This report will focus on Nihonbashi, the famous Japan Bridge that was literally the center of Edo-era Japan. It is today the site of a massive re-historicization project that could cost well over $5 billion. As Japan moves into the 21st century, it seeks to re-establish its cultural roots in the pre-Meiji era. It is an elision of post-Meiji Westernization, one that freezes the evolution of culture in the mid 19th century. The pace of change was slow due to lack of outside influence, but it was an evolution nonetheless. Such truly Japanese elements as tatami, yukimishoji (snow viewing screens) and tokonoma (decorative recess) were innovations that built on inherited Chinese form. This measured progress was challenged by the forced entry of the Americans in 1853, and discarded altogether in the post-war rebuilding and modernization. This move toward valorizing old Tokyo-Edo is echoed in global cities everywhere, a “musealization” of historic assets that has clear economic and branding value. The Tokyo Bureau of City Planning calls it “creating the face” of Tokyo. Unequal parts tourism, quality of life, and civic boosterism, it is an aspect of the competition among cities for an idealized urban growth. It is an attempt to capitalize on a particular vision of the past, defined and negotiated by the national government, corporate interests, and grassroots movements. In the face of perceived loss of unique and traditional culture, there is a scramble to re-animate places that suffered the genericisizing effects of heavy handed progress.