In the fifth and final instalment of our series exploring Japanese aesthetics, The Diplomat looks at what the future might hold for Japan’s urban landscape.
A country’s architecture is often hugely influenced by its economy, a fact that is as true of Japan as any country. According to Tokyo-based architect Julian Worrall, the so-called financial ‘miracle’ it experienced for three decades until the start of the 1990s can still be seen in its capital city in the form of: ‘artificial islands, building-sized video screens, machines that talk to you, trains for setting clocks by, plastic and neon and flawless off-form concrete.’ (Taken from his book 21st Century Tokyo: A Guide to Contemporary Architecture).
And even in the almost 20 years since the economic bubble burst, there’s still a sense of confidence that’s been incorporated into super-urban Japanese settings—best-exemplified by ambitious developments in Tokyo such as ‘Artelligent City’ Roppongi Hills, the trendy new buildings that comprise the Marunouchi district by Tokyo Station and the modern facilities of Tokyo Midtown, which debuted with much fanfare in 2007. All have emerged over the past 10 years, each time stirring the imagination of locals and visitors alike and changing the neighbourhoods they dominate dramatically.
But Worrall asserts that while these sorts of developments are created with good intentions—for example the Tokyo Midtown complex as ‘an environment of high-end, good-taste design, luxuriously appointed and fastidiously executed’—in the end they can become something that’s ‘devoid of the urban diversity’ that is boasted as being their guiding principle.
When I spoke to him more about this, he told me that in his opinion, initiatives like Midtown are no longer ‘a necessarily good thing’ for the future of Japan’s urban centres. He went on to explain, citing the example of another increasingly ubiquitous type of development taking over urban areas of Japan right now—high-rise apartment towers. With people increasingly moving closer to city cores (which Worrall thinks is a positive movement), such dwellings are convenient. But that’s not enough to make them healthy living spaces.
Worrall argues: ‘If you go into any of these buildings, they’re typically designed to keep you out. In the US you have these too—gated communities. Suburban urban developments that have a wall around them, and a gate, and you can’t get in unless you’ve got an invitation or live there.’
According to him, the Japanese versions of these ‘communities’ have ‘maybe 600 apartments housing 1000 people’ and require all residents to go through a lobby and securitized access points when they enter and leave the building. The problem, suggests Worrall, is that this leads to a limitation of ‘potential interaction with the city’ for the people. Ironically, it seems that when Japanese people move to be closer to the city, they are at the same time, through their chosen living spaces, isolating themselves from the city and the street—which then inevitably limits any sense of community from developing in these areas.
Worrall went on to suggest that such structures in Japan are either catering to phobic behaviours that people have, or are a reflection of them. And he thinks that with globalization and the current state of the real estate industry, there’ll inevitably be more of these sorts of structures being built, which to him is ‘a depressing thought.’
However, he did mention another, brighter side to globalization in architecture and design, which is a ‘globalization of good ideas’ whereby increased communication through technology and greater international mobility will lead to good ideas from abroad being learned and implemented more quickly, and with that also a general increase in demand by Japanese consumers for ‘higher-quality places and experiences’ which he hopes will ‘generate positive forces, demands for better places in the city.’
Another key trend that Worrall noted that’s worth watching out for is one he says isn’t just applicable to architecture, but is a general movement towards ‘engaging the countryside.’ He calls this ‘ecological consciousness,’ and it’s an increasing concept amongst Japanese people now ‘to connect back to rural ideas about what makes life worth living.’ Examples can be seen in things like the heightened interest shown by consumers and businesses alike in promoting locally-sourced food or materials for building. According to Worrall, some particularly notable examples he’s personally seen lately are rice paddies being placed both in a skyscraper in the new Marunouchi area and an empty lot in the exclusive Ginza district of Tokyo last year. He also reminded me of the green roofs all over the cities in Japan now, thanks to a government incentive that encourages residents to plant on their roofs.
Yoichi Kubota, the chairman of the design committee responsible for a new major bridge being built in Tokyo Bay and a professor of engineering at Saitama University, shared some similar ideas on the future of Japan’s landscape when I spoke to him on the topic. He told me that Japan should think of itself as ‘in the middle of the age of a huge paradigmatic shift’ in which the ‘visual camouflage’ of urban problems will no longer be a substantial solution and that for the first time since the industrial revolution, the country’s builders will have to ‘incorporate environmental design’ into the landscape. Kubota sees this as likely to become most successful through new collaborative methods of development and cites projects like Koga Park, designed by Yoshio Nakamura, or the Kinoppu Coast Project as good examples of ways in which the approach is recently starting to experiment with the contemporary landscape of the country.
Kubota recalls that when he was a young boy, his grandfather, a noted Japanese playwright and scholar on aesthetics, would show him many photos and books on the country’s traditional gardens and architecture. He remembers that throughout his childhood, he also saw Japan’s landscape change significantly, ‘unfortunately accompanied by destruction of the natural and traditional beauty of the environment that I enjoyed playing in.’
And this is one reason that he continues today to take part in various initiatives to promote environmental awareness and sustainability in design and engineering to help ensure the future viability of the country.
Kubota pointed out that it’s not only Japan, but most modern nations, that now face this problem: ‘The integrity of landscape is lost everywhere in the world, especially places developed in the twentieth century.’ And while he acknowledged that in some ways, change is inevitable as ‘landscape changes and evolves and decays according to contemporary situations,’ he still hopes that ‘environmentally conscious design and art can redirect the orientation of landscapes toward the next era.’
He added: ‘Maybe I am still optimistic, but I think we can be responsible in that way.’
Despite the fact that there’s something undoubtedly and distinctively ‘Japanese’ about the way the country looks, a general aesthetic that can capture the country’s essence is simply not easy to define. That said, a few things are clear: the past still has a heavy influence on Japan’s contemporary landscape. This mixture of the traditional and modern also contributes in a big way to the eccentricity and eclecticism found in urban cores, which makes Japan’s cities seem somehow open and free, and therefore in some ways still an architect’s paradise. Meanwhile, the diversity that can be seen in its contemporary landscapes seems for Japan to be a strength and not a weakness, and in turn gives the country its unique visual flair. For example, the country’s typical streets and traditional gardens, strangely enough, can often evoke powerful feelings in those that see them, especially after some time spent away from the country.
As for the future of Japan’s landscape, it seems that while it’ll continue to characteristically hold on to some elements of its treasured past, it is also moving quickly forward into a more green and sustainable future—one that hopefully will place more value in creating healthier and more enriching community spaces for its growing number of urban residents.
Images: by Tim Schapker (top), by Damien McMahon (middle), mxmstryo / Flickr (bottom).