Friday, November 20, 2009

Tokyo's Postmodern Purge

One of my preferred sci-fi flicks from the early ‘50s is The Thing from Another World, with James Arness menacing a crew of American military trapped on an
Arctic base. The direction, while credited to Christian Nyby, smacked more of Howard Hawks’ style — and while Hawks is listed in the credits just as a producer, people do have their doubts.

Anyway, my lasting memory of the movie is the final paranoid riposte, “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”, and the truth is that in Tokyo, you really do always have to look heavenward.

It’s a lesson I thought I’d learned after I first arrived in this city and cottoned on that some of the coolest cafes and record shops are tucked away on the sixth or seventh floors of inconsequential skyscrapers.

But I think a recurrent crick in the neck negated Ned Scott’s warning in recent years, and my gaze had fallen back to ground-floor level—that is, until I stumbled across an article, in the oft indispensable, Tokyo-based English language lifestyle magazine, Metropolis, that reported on buildings slated to be condemned in this self-reinventing city of flux.

As it was, I already knew about Minoru Takeyama.

He’s one of Japan’s more famous architects, a Waseda and Harvard graduate, as well as a professor, author, and innovatory thinker; the man even worked at one stage in the early ‘60s with Arne Jacobsen, deviser of the seriously pricey Series 7 chair.

Takeyama is best known here for the landmark Ichi-maru-kyu (109) building in Shibuya, erected in the late ‘70s — but a decade before, in his mid 30s, he’d conjured up a couple of far more iconic towers in Kabukicho, a few minutes’ walk from Shinjuku Station, and thereby created some of the earliest examples of Japanese architectural postmodernism.

It’s these, rather than the 109, that give Takeyama kudos in architectural circles in the West, and what I didn’t know was that I’d passed these buildings by on several occasions, without ever noticing. It wasn’t until the Metropolis piece that I got the heads-up, realized my error, and started watching the skies again.

Once you do raise your eyes from the garish thrall of the surrounding men’s host clubs, you get to see the pop art colors of Nibankan (Number Two Building, 1970, above), which looks like Roy Lichtenstein had a hand in the palette, and the monochrome, superbly Gigantor-styled Ichibankan (Number One Building, 1969, pictured at the end of this article).

Both buildings have, however, seen far better days.

They’re now bereft of tenants (Ichibankan completely so) and in disrepair, while the owners — apparently love hotel and business accommodation operators, Sankei Hotel — act suitably indifferent.

“The buildings are in a terrible state,” Takeyama told me for this article, which was recently published in Geek Monthly over in the US. “My understanding is that the my client sold the ownership to an entertaining company rather recently. I have no contact with the new owner, and just wish that they preserve the buildings.”

One senses Sankei are biding their time, and the buidings themselves are just waiting to be demolished — as is the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza (below), right near Shinbashi.

A mesmerizing structure that deigns to juggle some 140 boxes (modified containers that vary in size, depending on the source material you check, but around 4 x 2.5 meters), stacked at angles on 14 tottering floors, this was the first ‘capsule hotel’ per se — designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa, and constructed between 1970-72.

Kurokawa had previously helped to found the Japanese Metabolism Movement in 1959, an architectural group equally philosophical in tone, with an eye on technological advances; they envisaged a futurist city whose principle structures would be flexible and encourage an organic growth potential.

Ten years later, Kurokawa apparently conceived of the Nakagin Capsule Tower while abiding by the maxim of “metabolism, exchangeability, and recyclability”.

Truth is, though, that I’m not quite sure what two of these ideas entail, nor how they relate to this rather cool building that’s slowly crumbling away due to overt lack of maintenance.

Apparently the designer was into the idea of replacing the capsules where necessary (hence the ‘exchangeability’, which is the bit I’m blessedly able to nut out), but nobody’s ever bothered to follow through, and the structure is now quite visibly on its last legs.

Ironically, while the Nakagin Capsule Tower was originally under construction, Minoru Takeyama was busy setting up the group ArchiteXt (long before the founders of Excite started using the same moniker—sans the big ‘X’ — for their new-fangled Internet portal in 1994) — to counter the Metabolist ideals that Kurokawa espoused; they instead they cited equally dizzying concepts like contradiction, discontinuity, individualism, and pluralism.

The fate of both divergent schools of thought seems to have been pretty much the same.

Like Ichibankan and Nibankan, the Nakagin Capsule Tower is overdue for demolition, in this case due to reported fears of use of asbestos in the construction, as well as concerns that it’s not an earthquake-proof building.

Coupled with the costs of making structures seismically-sound and attractive to an aging clientele forever interested in things new, developers in Tokyo place precedence on the wrecking ball rather than on landmark properties that’re getting a wee bit long in the tooth.

You get the impression that all three buildings are blocking the path of funkier, newfangled residential crystal palaces — while the government certainly hasn’t wasted a lot of time considering notions like artistic architectural heritage and its preservation for future generations.

It’s an impression that Takeyama agrees with 100%, and he also stresses local ignorance. “Both of my buildings are recognized among foreign architects, but not known domestically in Japan,” he says.

So, when this combination mindset takes its natural course, I might as well ditch the sage advice from The Thing from Another World, and stop watching those skies after all.

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