KSA Japan Day 2-3: Tokyo
The tour continues. For the past 3 days, we've been exploring the city by subway, and on foot, stopping briefly in front of each building on the itinerary, to chat a bit about the design, the architects, and the historical context. In our curbside discussions, a theme has emerged: what does it mean to be "modern" and what is the role of tradition in contemporary society? While Tokyo is (rightly) seen as a technological wonderland with its sights aimed firmly at the future, the past has been surprisingly present in our explorations.
Yesterday, we started at Asakusa, visiting the Senjo-ji temple. A buddhist temple, we compared the ornamental program and decorative painting to the relatively austere Meiji Shrine we visited on the previous day. Though the architectural traditions of the Buddhist Temple and the Shinto Shrine are not aways clearly distinct, we were able to, for now, note the relative minimalism of the Shinto shrine versus the elaboraion of the Buddhist Temple. Urbanistically, Senso-ji serves as a community center and tourist attraction, forming the cultural center of the Asakusa district.
Crossing the street, we visited Kengo Kuma's Asakusa Tourist Information Center, a nicely-detailed tower whose facade and interior organization make reference to tradtional architecture, both in material selection and in the formal reference to the rake of a vernacular roof.If postmodernism is back, at least this time around the style is subtle and refined (We'll see Kuma's M2 tomorrow)
In Ueno park, we encountered several buildings that allowed us to continue the discussion on modernity and tradition. The National Museum of Japan's main building is Beux-arts classical, capped with an "oriental" roof. While this 1930s construction is perhaps more appropriate, with regard to local building traditions, than the strictly neo-classical style of earlier Meiji-era public buildings, the stripped-down classicism seems to parallel similar stylistic trends in Italy and Germany, which served to reinforce state power through an appeal to the great (european) civilizations of the ancient world - as a justification for violent imperial expansion.
Across the plaza from the main building, Yoshiro Taniguchi's Gallery of Eastern Antiquities (1968) is by far the architectural gem of the National Museum collection. Referencing traditional architecture in its overhanging roof and the detailing of its structural connections, any appeal to the past breaks down on the interior, where a series of stacked platforms spiral around a central atrium, the darkened spaces providing an atmospheric backdrop for artifacts from across asia, as far as Iran.
We did stop briefly at Le Corbusier's Gallery of Western Art, and at Kunio Maekawa''s Metropolitan Festival Hall, both of which we positioned in the context of Corbusier's work of the 1950s and 60s, and pondered the influence of Le Corbusier on the development of a particularly Japanese modernism.
Our official tour ended in Ueno park, but some students and I went to Shinjuku after hours, to seek out the Number 3 Sky building (interesting take on the metabolist capsule tower), and the super-graphic Ichiban building, before continuing to Golden Gai (a fragment of pre-war fabric packed with bars) for a nightcap.
Day 3, we headed first thing to Tsukiji Fish Market, perhaps the largest in the world. the market is almost a city unto itself, service and delivery zones alternating with wholesale storefronts, cut across by larger access lanes traversed every few seconds by zippy delivery vehicles. The publicly accessible inner market is flanked by the provate auction zone and the public outer market, essentially a few blocks of retail focused on the food service industry - everything from knives to plastic food for window displays.
We stopped as well at the Tsukiji Honganji Temple, 1935, in which any reference to traditional Japanese temple architecture was banished, and the building resembles an art-deco update of Ankor Watt, or any number of precedents from Southeast Asia. Like the main hll of the National Museum, this was constructed in an era when Japan was rapidly expanding her imperial empire, and there was a desireto bring all asian cultures under the umbrella of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. While representation for the conquered cultures is certainly better than assimilation, the deployment of southeast asian style here does seem a bit odd until one remembers the roots of Buddhism in India - why not construct Buddhist temples of masonry, with lotus-flower motifs? (Seismic instability of masonry aside). Imperialist connotations aside, the building is a fascinating artifact from the era immediately before the Sino-Japanese war merged with WII, essentially putting architectural development to a halt for a decade.
From Tsukiji, we walked to the Nakagin Capsule Tower (thankfully not yet demolished) and the Shizuoka Press Tower, both key metabolist projects that represent, again, japanese architects grappling with the question of modernity. Following the war, the classicist tendencies of the Meiji era were largely discredited, and with Corbusier and his associates finding large comissions in Japan, the trendsin modern architecture were surely well-known and well publicized. Modernism, and by extension Brutalism, with all its social promises, must have been appealing for the generation of Japanese architects tasked with reconstruction and postwar development, as the economy receoverd under american occupation, and afterwards as Japan sought to establish a national identity dissociated from the nationalistic impulses of the immediate past. Metabolism, whatever its roots, represented something truly new, with little historical baggage. (more on this, later).
We finished the day with a tour of the fashion boutiques of Ginza, mostly facade-skinning projects of little spatial interest. The relationship between fashion and architecture is nowhere more explicit than in Ginza, where brand-name architects are called in to deliver interesting patterns that could be changed as easily as an outfit.
While we let the group free for the afternoon (after a stop at Vinoly's Tokyo Forum) I continued on to Odaiba, the artificial islands in Tokyo bay, now linked to the mainland by a light rail line. Notable for the view back to the city skyline, and the entertaining ride across rainbow Bridge, the Odaiba district is also home to Kenzo Tange's Fuji TV Headquarters, perhaps the last major project by the architect, before his practice turned to more commercial work like the Metropolitan Government HQ. It's a fascinating project, connected to a network of pedestrian and transit infrastructure that stretches across the district. The gridded, porous structure does seem to fulfill some promise of Tange's metabolism project for Tokyo bay, occupying a transit node in a multi-layered, thickened ground plane, existing on an artificial island in Tokyo bay.
Tomorrow, we'll meet our bus driver and pick up a few remaining sites in greater Tokyo. Stay tuned.
Thoughts on the M.Arch I program at the Ohio State University, 2005-2009, plus additional work with OSU as a critic and lecturer.