lost in tokyo every autumn
written and photograghed by architect arad sharon
The annual trip of Israeli architects to Japan caught me too this year. Fifty thousand shekels in six installments and I could rub shoulders with world architecture, experiencing an extremely polite and clean culture. Clean around, clean above and also clean beneath - in the underground city encompassing well-kept shopping centers, cafes, restaurants, and flower shops where people buy flowers on their way to the trains, which get to all corners of the city and the country at unbearable efficiency.
These three components - cleanliness, efficiency and seriousness of the profession - are the building bricks of Japanese culture, and undoubtedly the secret of its environmental uniqueness.
In the streets of the city, people do not toss papers nor do they empty ashtrays - even when no one is watching. They have public toilets as clean as a pharmacy. The gardens are awe-inspiring, and even if you urgently feel like writing on the wall 'Will you marry me, Shosh?' - no graffiti is allowed.
Wondrous Tokyo's streets, roads, gardens, urban noises, scents and infinite narratives create an unprecedented experience. The architecture... is a different story. Two weeks of strange explanations about no less strange buildings could not obscure the beauty of the city and its cultural strength.
Eldar, the son of Aryeh, and also my father, taught me that if you use too many superlatives people stop believing you. In this cultural context - the brand flagship architects, adored by architects and students, detract from the seriousness of the profession. It takes 18 years to learn in Japan to cut sashimi, while my grandfather needed only three years in the Bauhaus before he was assigned to plan all the hospitals in the country, the kibbutzim, development towns, and the rest of the country between.
The unbridled ego of archi-stars has created quite a few alienated landmarks in the space, prominent among them the pompous row of buildings on Omotesando Ave.: Prada by Herzog & de Meuron; Cartier by Cesar Pelli; Tod's by Toyo Ito; Chanel by MVRDV; and Dior by Kazuyo Sejima from SANAA.
Each brand shop is allotted a brand architect - and the phantasmagorical buildings create a layer morphology totally contradicting the minimalist character of the traditional building that controls the landscape with respectable modesty.
The Prada building with its glass exterior and fashionable reflections could just as well sit in Manhattan. So too the Dior building with its envelope that shines at night like an elegant perfume bottle, evoking dissonance with the bright Post-Modern interior; and Tod's flagship by Ito with its typical optimism of a tree, contrasting with the dark pessimistic Chanel building by the Dutch MVRDV.
Buildings - it's been said - are photographed well at night, and marketing the city through them is legitimate, just like the marketing of expensive perfumes, shoes or watches. It perfectly suits the quick catharsis needed to absorb the myriad around, and reach satisfaction rapidly. However, while watches may be replaced every two days, buildings are meant to survive fifty, sixty, two hundred years, and so should not be subject to fashion addiction.
A city with a population of 43 million has the advantage of being able to swallow everything, and still remain in Japan, or actually not. While the lone building may lose its charm, wandering around the city is pure pleasure even for cynical tourists. A cocktail of functions ensures that the city vibrantly operates non-stop. Contrary to the zoning characteristic of Western cities, the Eastern mix of uses turns Tokyo into an active city at all hours of the day and year.
The city has adopted Le Corbusier's movement in levels (Ville Radieze) and it works successfully. One building may contain restaurants on its four lower levels, a hotel on floors five to fifteen, and residential units up to the fortieth. The growth upward doesn't impinge upon life at the street level, and the cars flying fast above only add to the urban dynamicity characteristic of other Eastern cities as well, such as Singapore or Bangkok.
Disappointed by the perfumed brand buildings, we went to search for the 'philosopher's stone' in Yokahama. We started the tour with the famous Port Terminal planned by FOA - Alejandro Zaera-Polo and his Iranian wife Farshid Moussavi. Built in the style of origami, the building expresses the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (The Fold) with one sheet organizing the overall structure into one coherent system. The most prominent component of this structure is its roof, covered with entire forests of Ipe wood - its imitation found at Tel Aviv Port.
Although the garden above consists merely of a few patches of yellowing grass, the erotic roof enables penetration of light that sheds some grace upon the claustrophobic interiors comprising some (yet not enough) architectural qualities. On the vast roof there are no seats, no shade, nor meeting places. In spite of the revolutionary building technology which borders on genius, the architectural details are certainly undeveloped.
Planned ironically by Foreign Office Architects, this 'aircraft carrier' symbolizes the trendy 'green' architecture in an artificial landscape that does not contribute to reality.
The massive planks produce low ceilings - a space containing nothing besides a few counters, a sorry café and several sad tourist shops. This is what Shakespeare probably meant when writing 'Much Ado about Nothing'.
And a final optimistic word: Kyoto - the city of temples and capital of tranquility and serenity, turns into the bride of the Far East every autumn. There we saw impressive traditional architecture, around which people renew their 'annual contract' with the surroundings every autumn. The wonderful sights of the public Zen Gardens provide great enjoyment to the multitudes that arrive from all over to see the hues in green, orange, red, yellow, purple, pink - snapping shots galore of the ancient temples - a collective memory that binds the Japanese people, proud of their heritage.
And yes - we also brutalistically brushed against the bare concrete of the giant Japanese architects of the '80s - Kisho Noriaki Kurokawa, Kenzo Tange, and Tadao Ando - whose stoically quiet buildings overshadow the transient colorful fireworks.