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Japanese Architecture: Past, Present & Future

Commenting on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s urban redevelopment plan, architectural historian Hiroyuki Suzuki said that he had interpreted it originally as a modern-day version of the “rescue construction works” implemented by village heads and nobles in the Edo period (1600–1868) to combat unemployment in lean times. But Dr. Suzuki now believes the motivation goes beyond economic stimulus, to make Japanese cities more competitive internationally and to exploit city culture more effectively.

This will not be the first time Tokyo has remade itself, according to Dr. Suzuki. The old Edo capital was reborn as Tokyo, the capital of modern Japan, following the abolition of the shogunate (an authoritarian, feudalist ruling system) and the system of domains headed by daimyo (feudal lords). Three other redevelopment initiatives occurred in response to disasters following the great fire of 1880; the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923; and World War II. “If redevelopment produces lasting results in improving the stock of urban assets, it will be a first for Japan,” Dr. Suzuki commented wryly.

Land was reclaimed for new projects from the old Edo inheritances and military sites by redeveloping mature business districts or by amalgamating substantial pieces of property with adjoining plots of land. Dr. Suzuki said these efforts have mainly contributed to Tokyo’s overcrowded condition, but some recent projects are successfully creating cultural and other public assets. The new Mitsui headquarters in Nihonbashi, for example, leaves the historic brick and iron Mitsui building intact. In describing the impact of urban redevelopment in Tokyo, Dr. Suzuki focused on four districts: Nihonbashi, Hongo, Marunouchi and Omotesando.

Nihonbashi, original home of the Mitsui Group (a conglomerate comprising banks and various industries) is a district famous for moats and canals, the Nihonbashi Bridge and the first Western-style architecture. It was commercial as early as the Edo period and today is a bustling business center. The current main project in Nihonbashi is the fourth rebuilding of Mitsui’s headquarters, which will be a tall and narrow high-rise.

Hongo once belonged to the Maeda family (daimyo during the Edo period), which granted land to the University of Tokyo. Dr. Suzuki said the image of the feudal city can still be seen in the Old Gate from the Maeda residence and the main lecture hall of the campus, for example. Some new designs have also been introduced, such as the asymmetrical building behind the main hall, and these have provoked complaints, he said. Other structures were modified after earthquakes, making them sturdy but ugly, said Dr. Suzuki. There is also a building designed by Fumihiko Maki. Dr. Suzuki reflected, “In his lecture, Prof. Maki stressed the importance of lightness in his buildings. I think his stress on lightness is a kind of critique of the ugly additions to the campus. So, lightness in Japanese architecture is itself a manifesto towards design.”

In Marunouchi, home to the Mitsubishi Group (a loose consortium of independent Japanese companies also including Mitsubishi Motors), Dr. Suzuki finds good examples of redevelopment: Tokyo Station; historic buildings like Meiji Seimei (life insurance); Nihon Kogyo Club (Japan Industry Club); and the Tokyo Banker’s Club. The Marunouchi Building, originally built by an American construction company, has recently been rebuilt in the image of the original building. The use of new construction techniques led to the discovery of ancient Buddhist statues. According to Dr. Suzuki, new technology is also protecting the original aspects of other historic buildings in the district, and making it possible to renovate part of Tokyo Station destroyed in World War II.

Dr. Suzuki concluded his presentation by describing Omotesando, a Tokyo street that is home to fashionable shops and dwellings for the wealthy: “Each building stands alone on the street, causing us to realize the character of Tokyo, again, as a kind of cyber-city.” Many architects and designers, like Kisho Kurokawa, Kenzo Tange, Kengo Kuma, Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa, Jun Aoki, Rei Kawakubo and Herzog & de Meuron, have left their mark on Omotesando, he said.

Question & Answer Period

Why weren’t the Dojunkai Aoyama apartments preserved?

Dr. Suzuki said he wanted to preserve the Dojunkai Aoyama apartments (Japan’s first multi-family, concrete apartment complex, built after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923), but the finish of the building was badly weathered, and the living spaces were so cramped by contemporary standards that no one wanted to live there. “It wasn’t possible to recycle the old structure. They decided to get rid of all but one block, to preserve the original sense of space,” Dr. Suzuki said. “At least I had documented the original design,” he noted, “even though the structures couldn’t be saved.” (Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando has been commissioned to rebuild on the Dojunkai Aoyama site.)


What are the procedures to designate a building as important architectural property? How sophisticated is the debate and how can we best advance the recognition of historical structures?

At first the procedures were not clear, and the designation of a building as historically or intellectually significant meant getting the owner’s consent. Now a listing system exists whose regulations are not onerous, Dr. Suzuki said. The responsibility for meeting the guidelines lies with both private individuals and the city government, he explained.


Has there been any attempt to look at spatial allocation and urban density in redevelopment?

Dr. Suzuki said this was a core question—important, but very difficult. He said Tokyo is growing denser, and the Koizumi administration is giving economic incentives for redevelopment, so it is hard to control growth. “In such conditions, we have to keep historic buildings, but it’s very tough work, actually. So please help us,” was Dr. Suzuki’s plea.

Presented as part of the symposium, "Technology & Tradition in Contemporary Japanese Architecture"
on February 26, 2004.
Topics:  Design

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