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!