active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Chasing the future: architecture in Tokyo

Come the next big one, entire islands of landfill will slip majestically into the churning waters of Tokyo Bay. Goodbye, you might say, to all that junk. But junk is the very essence of Japan.


As a city that has been destroyed several times over, by earthquake if not by napalm, and will be destroyed many times more, by North Korean missile if not by Godzilla, Tokyo has an invigorating sense of its own transience.

I like the idea that nothing I see here is built to last, and that nothing will. I like the airy, floating feeling of being part of something that will be swept away by following generations.

I like the constant reinvention of the city-sized Tokyo building site, with not even a palimpsest of history to care about. In London, say, you’re surrounded by the edifices of a long and distinguished past. They bear down on you, so heavy the stones themselves seem to shout about themselves.

In Tokyo there’s no past at all, at least none worth remembering.

At the same time as it makes me feel as if I’m teetering buoyantly on the verge of an eternal tomorrow, I must admit that Tokyo is a phenomenally ugly city. There’s nothing here that visitors rush half way around the world to see. There’s nothing to inspire awe and wonder. It’s just sprawl: gray, lumpy sprawl.

If you judge a society by its public spaces, then Tokyo is the symbol of a suspicious and paranoid dictatorship. There are no large open squares where people can gather. True, this means there are no displays of goose-stepping soldiers and ICBMs on trucks, but neither does Tokyo encourage a community of any size.

People do gather, for example to bask in the spring cherry blossom, but Tokyo lacks a Times Square, let alone a Central Park. It does have a perfect venue for such a celebration, the so-called Times Square in Shinjuku, but first you’d have to pave over the railway station that sits in a trench in the middle of it. That can’t be a bad plan.

Tokyo’s one officially sanctioned mass gathering is the Emperor’s birthday on 23 December, when wellwishers flock to the Imperial Palace, that vast, otherwise forbidden oasis of green in the heart of the city, to wave their flags and hope to catch a glimpse of the great man on his balcony.

Everything else is hidden away. One Friday evening a couple of years back I decided to walk the four miles home from my office rather than cram myself on the subway train among all the other sweaty grunts.

I didn’t get far. I’d only just strolled past Nagatacho station, the scene of my post Seeing mountains in the sky, when a policeman blocked my path.

“Demo,” he said, the Japanese word for ‘but.’

“But what?” I replied in Japanese. “I want to walk this way, but—?”

“Hai,” he said. “Demo.”

“Yes, but—?”

This went on for some time before I realized that he was using the English word ‘demo,’ one he had been taught presumably for just this eventuality. Ahead was the Japanese parliament building, and Friday evening was the time when anti-nuclear protestors gathered there. I was being told, firmly and without politeness, that I would not be permitted to view their demonstration.

Defeated, I made my way back and down into the station to wait for a train, just another sweaty grunt who didn’t care. Public spaces, I guess, mean nothing if you’re not allowed to use them. But still, it would be nice to think they exist.

As I mentioned in my post Disposable flotsam, because of its intrinsic lack of value Tokyo is “a playground for apprentice architects.” I swear they come here to get the pet projects of their youth out of their systems, so they can all go off elsewhere to build mature edifices that people actually want to live and work and worship in.

Surely that must be it, rather than believing against all evidence that there is some aspect of Japan that is not trapped forever in a cartoon childhood, and that our architects actually believe their juvenilia is worth something.

There are a handful of Tokyo buildings that I admire. I’m a fan of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, which looks exactly like a science fiction building ought to look, like one of Iain Banks’s spaceships perched on its butt in the center of town.

I admire the daft genius of the Fuji Television building on Odaiba, which looks like a pachinko machine. I bet it’s hell to work in. And I salute the minimalist stupidity of Philippe Starck’s Asahi Beer Hall, complete with frivolous and useless golden turd on the top.

But for the most part, you can sum up Tokyo’s architecture by a solitary glance at the landmark Tokyo Tower, an incompetent rip-off of the Eiffel Tower. It’s taller than the original but about as gauche as a crippled can-can dancer. It’s also draped in the red and white warning stripes that were, somehow, not considered obligatory to the showy but dreary Tokyo Skytree, the second tallest building in the world.

When I first came to live in Tokyo, my wife and I stayed in an apartment near Bunkyo Civic Center, which I rate as the silliest building in the city. It looks like a cruise ship undergoing a slow-motion collision with a church a hundred meters off the ground.

I’m pretty sure that Bunkyo Civic Center is what happens when a trainee architect in Japan got bored designing a standard office block and perched every daft idea he could think of on the top. And somehow Bunkyo decided to build it.

My wife and I used to go there all the time, since there’s an excellent government-subsidized restaurant at the summit, with great views over Tokyo Dome City. The whole place, in the typical wasteful extravagances of Japanese corporate building projects, seems to be empty on the inside.

When I was a kid, growing up in the English countryside, I was a voracious reader of three things: science fiction, paleontology, and books on modern architecture. To me, science fiction meant primarily a place of stunning architecture. I longed to live in a futuristic city.

I was determined to be an architect myself, a dream I ditched when I realized I would risk spending my whole life in a dingy office scratching at blueprints for domestic buildings, finding places to squeeze in toilet cubicles. I could do less demanding things in dingy offices.

As a child, I was particularly impressed by Japanese Metabolism, especially the Nakagin Capsule Tower in the center of Tokyo. That was my ideal symbol of futurism: great visions of tomorrow being built on the other side of the world.

Of course, I now live here, and I’ve often passed the Nakagin building. The last time I saw it, the place was a mean little slum, barely staving off demolition. Perhaps it’s been knocked down by now.

By the time I’d caught up with it, the future had moved elsewhere. Oh well. But maybe that’s the nature of the future, and Tokyo is still the place to be if you want to peer hopefully toward it.


Robert Maas’s novel Hemisphere is available to buy in six installments at Amazon. For details and links, see the Hemisphere page.


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