Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Zen and the art of contemporary urban design
Tom Heneghan, Sydney Uni’s architecture professor, stands out from the crowd. Silver haired and twice the average Japanese height, he’s a Brit who lived and worked in Tokyo for years. We are behind the monumental glass undulations of Kisho Kurokawa’s National Art Centre in Roppongi. Minutes away, hordes of bright-feathered teen goths and miniskirted bo-peeps throng the Harajuku footpaths but here distinguished Japanese elders peer reverentially over their pince-nez at writing on the wall. It’s the latest blockbuster, featuring the flourishes and banners of contemporary Japanese calligraphy. We are alive to its extraordinary beauty but blind, sadly, to its content.
The Education Ministry, Heneghan explains ruefully, requires high-school entrants to know 1006 of the 1945 kanji, or characters, in common use. This is not easy. “After two years of study I knew just over 200, including numbers. As I learned new ones, the old ones I knew slipped out the back of my brain.” It’s tempting to align this reverence for text with the Judaeo-Christian logos, the Word. But in truth, it makes no more sense to distinguish form from content in Japan than to distinguish past from present.
In most cities we take the coexistence of deep tradition and wild frivolity as evidence, simply, of difference. But in Tokyo, where demographic homogeneity removes the ethnic factor, the yawning chasm between reverence for tradition and dalliance with novelty seems to need explanation.
This of course is my need, not theirs; my thirst for the diagram. Locals shrug, seeing my “why?” as a non-question. “There is no why, here. There’s just is. It’s just fun,” they say. “Young people just want to have fun.”
But nothing is just fun, especially in Japan, where hidden depths are a given and the frank expression of emotion, especially negative emotion, is still bad manners. Japanese faces, says Oxford psychologist Michael Argyle, are still inscrutable, less legible – even to the Japanese – than English or Italian faces.
It has long been our habit – perhaps since the humiliation of World War II – to see Japanese cities as bad copies of Western ones. Pierre Vago, former editor of the French mag Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, lamented Japan’s “brutal rupture with tradition”.
We typecast trad-Japanese as serene and translucent, maybe a little rustic; contemporary Japanese as slickly Westernised. Contemporary Japan is robots and bullet trains, Sony and Toyota, Issey Miyake and Comme des Garcons, neon streets, haute-shopping and jaw-droppingly expensive apartments. Presuming that to modernise is to Westernise, we understand “contemporary Japanese” as a kind of uber-Westernisation. But is Vago right? Is the rupture so brutal? Or does continuity flow beneath?
Architecture students the world over are hand-reared on colour glossy images of late-model Japanese buildings; the matte monochrome of Tadao Ando, the billowing puns of Shigeru Ban, the fragrant minimalism of Junya Ishigamia, the grand statements of Itsuko Hasegawa, the playful cartoonery of Toyo Ito, the ricepaper luminosity of Kazuyo Sejima.
What such images really demonstrate, however, is how woeful an anteroom architectural publishing really offers to the actuality of place. Because what really strikes you, on a first, fleeting Tokyo visit, is just how Japanese it still is. Not just the bits of preserved tradition, the temples and pagodas mothballed within the modern melee as we mothball our cathedrals and federation houses.
Japaneseness infuses everything, from the way the buildings collude in their space-making to the extraordinary quietness of the streets, where the dominant sound is the soft, insistent rain of a trillion footsteps.
As even the train trip from Narita airport shows you something quite different is happening here. Tokyo’s wan industrial suburbs are themselves oddly picturesque. Almost nothing is brick or concrete. All is light and timbery, textual and textural, settling to the ground in a loose, ordered chaos that makes a place of every street and a joke of the entire Western edifice of urban design.
As luck would have it, Sydney Uni’s Urban Design chief is Barrie Shelton, another long-time Japan-ophile who has written widely on the Japanese city. Shelton sees the difference as threefold. First, he says, the Japanese conception of space is more areal than lineal; a tatami-based system. (This may help explain the otherwise bewildering way the block-address replaces street-numbers, as well, perhaps, as the casual, mat-like throwing-down of buildings.) Second is the reverence for sign and text (Tokyo’s famous neons, for example, Shelton sees as a simple update on the ubiquitous paper signs and cloth banners). And third is a very postmodern emphasis on fracture and transformation.
All these are evident to the naked eye. As well, though, in the muted exuberance of the streets, the delicate screenery of our ryokan, or inn, even the young mother taking three smartly uniformed under-fives to the temple school by bike, there is a palpable thoughtfulness. Not just politeness, which suggests a kind of fraud. More a zennish mindfulness, a concentrated energy beneath the calm.
It derives, perhaps, from that early learning of a thousand intricate kanji; is manifest as much in Sony and Toyota as Noh and kabuki; and proves you needn’t understand a thing to find it deeply, entrancingly beautiful.