'21st Century Tokyo': Architecture as performance

'21st Century Tokyo': Architecture as performance

Julian Worrall and Erez Golani Solomon, authors of a new book about contemporary Japanese architecture, explain how Japanese architects are blurring traditional design boundaries
21st Century Tokyo
Kenzo Tange's Tokyo City Hall in Shinjuku stands tall and wide as a symbol of their power.

Compared to world capitals like London, Paris and Rome, Tokyo is home to few historical buildings or even early modern treasures from the first half of the 20th century. What it lacks in classic structures, however, it makes up for in the globe's most fanciful and impressive works of contemporary architecture.

The new book "21st Century Tokyo" is the ultimate guide to the best of Tokyo's buildings erected after 1990. Thanks to stunning, noirish photographs from Joshua Lieberman, Tokyo's glass, steel and concrete structures have never looked so good. Essays from practicing architect Julian Worrall and architectural scholar Erez Golani Solomon give the back story and significance of  each structure.

We talked with the book's authors Worrall and Golani to learn more about Tokyo's distinct architectural themes and the future of the city in a low-growth era.

CNNGo: The book only features buildings built after 1990. Why do you think that year is a good cut-off point?

Julian Worrall: I think this is a useful point for a number of reasons. It coincides with the end of the Bubble and the beginning of a new low-growth paradigm in the Japanese economy -- the so-called "post-bubble" era in Japan (something with a lot of relevance for other parts of the developed world these days).

Erez Golani Solomon: There has also been a lot of literature in recent years discussing the implications of the 'turn of the century.' So it was also building around that special moment of 10 years before the turn and 10 years after.

Worrall: And 1990 coincides with a general shift in architectural thinking away from postmodernism, towards a re-evaluation of and different exploration of modernist ideas. And finally the past 20 years have been about globalisation in terms of capital. And that has had a big impact on the city.

CNNGo: Funny you say "low-growth" because so many of the recent buildings like Roppongi Hills are giantic and seem to be built to represent great economic or political power. 

Worrall: That's connected with globalization. Economic growth is stagnant but the way money is bundled and turned into buildings has changed. And the relation between the state and the private sector has been transformed. So all these aspects can be traced in the past 20 years in the city and its architecture. It is true that there has been enormous development  in terms of the scale of redevelopments, not only Roppongi Hills but also Shiodome (Dentsu building), Marunouchi, Akihabara and Shinagawa, as the city has restructured in response to globalization.

CNNGo: Judging by the book, architects are not interested in anything remotely "classical" or traditional looking. Everything is in glass and concrete.

Worrall: Your observation is interesting to me since it is picking up strongly on the materiality of buildings. This translates into the perception that brick is 'classical' and that glass and concrete are 'new.' It's true that materials do encode certain historical associations for people, and I would say that in the case of Japan, the Meiji Period was built in brick, the Showa period in concrete, and the Heisei period in glass. Glass is certainly almost a default material for public and commercial buildings these days with its glossiness and transparency.

21st Century Tokyo Tokyo Big SightCNNGo: Is that an aesthetic thing or a functional thing?

Worrall: It is both an aesthetic and cultural phenomenon, in my view. Cultural in the sense that glass erodes the boundary between inside and outside. It reveals the interior, and this is a characteristic of contemporary culture in general. Just think of how Facebook has literally turned peoples lives 'inside-out.' For shops, obviously, glass also increases exposure to product and creates a glamourous effect (for example, the Prada store in Omotesando or Hermes store in Ginza). There have also been technical developments in the performance of glass that allow for this kind of construction. 

But going back to your earlier point about newness, my sense is that in fact there is a new revaluation of the past going on right now in Japan. There are lots of attempts at forms of historical preservation occurring. For example, the Marunouchi Ichigokan Museum that will open in April reconstructs a 19th century building that had been demolished nearly half a century ago. They even went to the extent of importing real bricks for the facades from China! 

CNNGo: A common criticism about Tokyo architecture is that this pursuit of 'future' in materials and design often leads to buildings looking old and outmoded very quickly. Do you think architects are conscious of this?

Worrall: Yes, the lifespan of buildings here is about a half what it is in the United States, and a third that of Europe, but I don't think that is due to architect's pursuit of the new. I think that architect's pursuit of new materials is more a symptom of this short lifespan than a cause. The short lifespan issue is a phenomenon that has been accounted for with a number of explanations, such as the inevitability of earthquakes, the impulse for renewal from generational change, taxation law, even cultural explanations such as the Buddhist notion of the impermanence of existence.

CNNGo: If this economic stagnation continues, however, can we expect a new Roppongi Hills every year? Can city and corporate planners really afford to replace buildings like they used to? 

Worrall: Well, it is a good point, and a timely one, since there is a wholesale re-evaluation of public and private expenditures going on ever since the new government came in. Construction was one of the key industries keeping the LDP in power with 'investment' in the form of building new bridges, dams, provincial cultural facilities, etc. Now, under the banner of sustainability there is a readiness to explore more long-term thinking in buildings and other things too. Renovation has become a new kind of buzzword -- re-using what exists rather than the former 'scrap and build' mentality.

Golani: This is also a good point in relation to the residential sector where Japanese cannot afford to keep up with the fast changes. But in that case, it's the inheritance laws that act as a financial burden that forces people to change. They simply cannot keep a house, but have to rebuild it -- with the land divided in half. 

CNNGo: So does that mean your book is an exploration of a grand style of Tokyo architecture that is basically ending?

Worrall: Partly, perhaps, but also there are also buildings in there that reveal tendencies that are gathering in strength. Unfortunately a lot of the younger architects that are developing newer ideas are not as fully represented in the book as they should be because their work is currently concentrated in the area of private houses, which we generally couldn't include because of sensitivities by the owners.

CNNGo: Do you think there is a specific style that is common to all Japanese contemporary architects? Are they influencing each other?

Worrall: Absolutely not. But there is definitely a common discourse. There are a series of themes that people are exploring. From an outsider's perspective, there is probably some sense of 'Japaneseness' about a lot of the stuff that appears in the architectural magazines: especially the work that looks minimal, white and purified. But if you look closer there is a tremendous diversity of approaches going on.

21st Century Tokyo The National Art Center in RoppongiIn terms of influence, I think that actually the export of Japanese architectural ideas is one of Japan's hidden cultural success stories. I see the flow of influence more outward than inward. For example, the director the Venice Biennale of Architecture this year is Kazuyo Sejima (of SANAA). This is the single most influential event in the global architectural culture, and it is the first time a Japanese has directed it (and also a first for a woman).

Golani: I think that Japan -- through its architecture -- has been able to maintain its position and visibility next to countries that at the moment are considered vibrant like China and India.


CNNGo: With the examples in the book, did you notice a difference between mid-1990s buildings and mid-2000s buildings?

Worrall: Yes, certainly. I think that surfaces became much more important. The Omotesando strip is a good example. Most of the buildings there were built in the 2000s. And they are basically gorgeous wrappers. 

CNNGo: Which building in the book do you think is the best integrated into its environment?

Worrall: The Maki effort at Daikanyama with Hillside Terrace is a notable example of modern architecture sensitively responding to context. One of my personal favorites is the Yokohama International Ferry Terminal, which creates this wonderful public space on its roof. It's a real gift to the city.

Golani: We also made an effort to direct readers' attention towards Tokyo's generic buildings, such as the convenience stores, the hi-rise residential towers and so on. These are very integrated into their environment in the sense that they make up the built environment itself, the backdrop of urban life.

CNNGo: Which building do you think must be seen in real life to be really understood?

Golani: Roppongi Hills.

Worrall: Yokohama Ferry Terminal. It's impossible to do that building justice in photographs.

CNNGo: What do you consider to be the craziest building in Tokyo?

Worrall: There are several ways to respond here. Of course, the Reversible Destiny Lofts seem crazy but they are motivated by a deeply-felt response to the human condition. On the other hand, the $240 million that was spent on the Chanel Ginza building is truly a crazy allocation of resources, even though the building seems well behaved architecturally. The Fuji Kindergarten is wonderful but very unusual. It makes regular kindergartens look crazy in comparison. 

CNNGo: What can people/architects outside of Tokyo learn from contemporary Japanese architecture?

Golani: The relation between architecture and the city in Tokyo is not actually non-existent, as is often believed, but it is a very particular one. If the book can help people to grasp that, we would be happy.

Worrall: I think that in the West we regard architecture as a permanent thing. Architecture is imagined to be eternal (like death and taxes.) Japan encourages a view of architecture as performance which makes it more like a flexible, dynamic thing, more immediately responsive to cultural shifts. This lightens the historical pressure on architects' shoulders, and enables more experimentation to occur. That's a good general lesson from the Japanese situation. 

But in my view the really interesting work in contemporary architecture today in Japan is a subtle and sensitive exploration of boundaries. Boundaries between inside and outside, between public and private, between the self and the world. Progressive architects here are expanding the range of possibilities of how these fundamental realms are connected and separated in physical space. If Tokyo was destroyed by an earthquake tomorrow and rebuilt with a full implementation of this intelligence to match its current material and technological sophistication, then it would be truly be a model of what a 21st century city could be.

W. David Marx was CNNGo's initial Tokyo City Editor. His writing has also appeared in magazines such as GQ, Brutus, Weekly Diamond, and Nylon, as well as his web joural Néojaponisme.

Read more about W. David Marx