in search of urban intensities


This gallery contains 3 photos.

Tokyo Dérive: In Search of Urban Intensities 「東京漂流ー都市の強度を探して」 My research on Yanagihara published in the Mn’M Workbook 2, following the Situationist-style dérive fieldwork at the ‘Measuring the Non-Measurable’ Symposium, held in November 2012 at the International Keio Institute for Architecture … Continue reading

tokyo’s hinterland


Panoramic view of the mixed deciduous forests from the summit of Tennosan Mountain, Okutama

The metropolis of Tokyo is better known for its dense urban center surrounded by the Yamanote line, but so-called Tokyo-to includes 23 wards that stretch to the western edge of the Kanto Plain. Bordering Kangawa and Saitama Prefectures, the mountainous extremity of Tokyo is the source of the Tamagawa River and has several natural and rare habitats of alpine fauna and flora. At around the 1700m altitude in Okutama, near the summit of Tennosan Mountain, the cedar forests that blanket the hills below recede, giving way to a mixed deciduous forest. Autumn arrives in Okutama’s hills earlier than Tokyo, with temperatures plummeting from the mid-20s in the daytime to just above freezing in the evening. With the dramatic temperature swings in October, the deciduous forest is alight with the crimson reds of Sumac in the understory, the auburn palmate leaves of Sycamore, and the delicate ochre of Japanese Maples in the upperstory, and the bright yellow and orange Larches in the upper alpine reaches of the mountains. The cedars at lower elevations retain their evergreen boughs, the coniferous forest itself mute with an army of perfectly vertical trunks and a forest floor where nothing grows under the darkness of the dense shade.

The remaining mixed deciduous forest near the summits of Okutama is what Tokyo probably used to look like before its first growth forests were cut down to build Edo when the capital was relocated by the Shogun Tokugawa. Forests that could be felled easily in the lower slopes were carted off to the east to be turned into shrines, temples, Edo castle itself and to satisfy the housing for the masses that settled in the Kanto Plain. Cedars were planted in the aftermath of the indiscriminate logging, creating a massive monoculture that exists to the present-day. Cedars being revered for their capacity to resist water damage and insect (especially termite) infestation, were the logical choice for re-planting. Deciduous hardwoods, although prized for their strength and beauty, needed much more tending and maintenance as they were susceptible to various types of damage, reducing the yield as compared to the favored evergreens.

The consequences of this monoculture on such a large scale have affected not only the natural ecology of the mountains in western Tokyo, but also the habitat of fauna and on the air quality all the way in the metropolis. Fauna like the Japanese Macacque (Macaca fusata) have retreated to higher elevations where the supply of food is plentiful and the environment conducive to their natural habitat. The mixed deciduous forest includes fruit and nut-bearing varieties like the Japanese Chestnut (Castanea crenata) which litter the forest floor with edible nuts that the monkeys gather. At lower elevations, with only Cedar pinecones and pine needles on the forest floor, the food-barren environment stands in shadowy silence.


A Japanese Macacque with its baby on a branch in a Chestnut grove

When Spring arrives, Cedars release massive amounts of pollen which is sent eastwards when air borne, mixing with pollution in the city and becoming a noxious mixture that is attributed to the high incidence of hay fever. With few permeable surfaces in the city, the allergy-causing concoction swirls around, reducing the air-quality significantly enough that many urbanites don masks and take prescription medication over weeks of eye-watering suffering.

On the descent from Toridaniyama Mountain, one of the tallest peaks in the area, its possible to see all the way to Tokyo’s skyscrapers. A three hour train ride from Tokyo Station, a 20 minute bus ride to the foot of the mountain and a two day hike to an elevation of nearly 2000 meters and Tokyo is still clearly visible on a crisp fall day. Roppongi Hills, the Tokyo Tower, and the Shinjuku Towers can easily be perceived on the horizon within the vastness of the Kanto Plain.  Despite the great distances, Tokyo’s influence has collapsed space and what would seem to be a modern ecological problem actually started as the first trees were being felled 400 years or more ago. Ecological systems in the globalized world don’t obey man-made borders and certainly today, the demands of a city like Tokyo can mean overfishing in places as far-flung as Canada or clear-cutting in the depts of Amazonian Brazil. Okutama is a microcosm of this phenomenon, demonstrating that the frame of the city as ecosystem needs to be expanded to be comprehended in its entirety.


The view to the Kanto Plain and Tokyo’s skyscrapers from Okutama

shrinking japan: kyoto’s machiya districts signal the demographic decline and the way forward

Kawai Bijitsu Orimono

Mr. Kawai and the author outside Kawai Bijutsu-Orimono’s Machiya townhouse atelier in Kyoto’s historic Nishijin Textile district (photo courtesy of Michiko Kawano)

Like many other industrialized nations, Japan is facing a demographic situation that has no precedence in history, as populations diminish and birthrates plummet, cities are shrinking. While the simple fact of shrinkage may seem inconsequential or perhaps even positive given current urban overcrowding and the high cost associated with living in cities, this demographic implosion is having a significant impact on Japan’s ability to maintain its competitiveness on a global scale. Cities are the economic engines of this country, producing a disproportionate amount of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), innovation, talent and employment. Urban areas are the crucible for vitality which reflects directly on the entire country’s standing in the international community. Competition aside, cities also provide for higher standards of living for the average citizen, thus city regions like Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto and Tokyo-Yokohama are magnets for people seeking to improve their social, educational or career prospects. In the Post-War period, these urban regions seemed to be growing exponentially without any possibility of slowing down, let alone shrinking. The reality today is that even the great megalopolis of Tokyo will peak in terms of population at around 35 million next year (2013) and begin to shrink at a gradually accelerating rate.

The effect of the declining population, while not initially apparent, will have impacts on both the physical environment and more importantly on the viability of communities. Over centuries, cities have allowed social and economic networks to flourish due to the richness of life afforded by close proximity. What began with providing for the basic needs for daily life, like food, clothing and shelter, has evolved into forms of art and beauty that networks of people nurtured. Entire neighbourhoods in Japanese cities catered to and continue to provide for everything from exquisite silk textiles to unique raw food cuisine, many of which have been exported around the world and consumed by gourmets and connoisseurs who have never before stepped foot in Japan. The built environment itself, supporting these industries and providing the medium through which goods could be developed, produced, stored and sold, is as important as the products themselves. The fragile urban fabric in Kyoto, for example, is under threat, as vernacular shop-houses are left empty and neglected due to onerous fire regulations, demolished or carved up, sold off due to high inheritance taxes, or re-purposed without regard to their historical importance. Recently, some of these regulations and taxes have been eased, but the additional factor of a declining population and demand can only mean these buildings will be further threatened by neglect.

While it may seem that the physical environment of cities and global competitiveness are not necessarily directly linked, it’s apt to consider the fate of shrinking cities that have been left to wither away. In the United States, the city of Detroit has been shrinking for decades due to disinvestment in the face of global competition in the automotive industry. This literally one-industry city lost much of its manufacturing base in parallel with the built urban fabric as public buildings, housing and entire neighbourhoods were abandoned and fell into disrepair. Reliance on a once highly successful, but also highly centralized industry proved to be the death knell for Detroit because manufacturing became cheaper to carry out overseas. The city itself was organized around the automobile, with large factories eventually relocated away from the city centre to a more suburban context which could be accessed easily via freeways. Structurally, the city became segregated with the inner city left to the poorer population, and the rings of suburbs the domain of the affluent and middle-class. With the collapse of the automotive industry, the city’s population continued to drop precipitously as anyone with the means to escape fled to other cities. The lesson of Detroit should be viewed as a deterrent towards physical and economic centralization. The one certainty in cities is that change is inevitable, and cities should be able to adapt to new circumstances, whether economic or otherwise. Just as in nature, when disease runs rampant, a homogenous forest or crop tends to get devastated while diversity allows for the survival of the fittest.

Nearly 28,000 vernacular Machiya shop-houses still stand in Kyoto, within several contiguous districts. Certain neighbourhoods catered to a specific market, such as Nishijin which focused on the textile industry and silk production. While silk producers tended to be concentrated in an area to benefit from a collaborative yet competitive environment, the industry was decentralized and individual ateliers focused on different aspects of silk textile production (such as Noh kimonos, obis, Imperial regalia etc.). The physical proximity allowed ateliers to exchange information from each other as techniques for perfecting weaving were being imported from China and Europe, especially during the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912).

Nishijin Storehouse

A former storehouse at the back of Kyoyubadokoro Seiya in Nishihjin was ideal for storing silk but now stands empty

The level of craftsmanship in the products is reflected in the detailing of the buildings themselves, still apparent in Kyoto and some other cities such as Kanazawa and Ise-shi. Vernacular Machiya housing, known in Kyoto as Kyo-Machiya, or capital shop-houses, encapsulate the skill and attention to detail that the Japanese are renowned for the world over. Intricate wood joinery, lattice detailing, and layered spaces create interiors that respond to the particular climate of Kyoto with its hot, humid summers and frigid, dry winters. Flexible layouts with screens allow for a modulation of light and temperature, and a blurring of interior and exterior to take advantage of the shoulder seasons (fall and spring) when the moderate temperature can be enjoyed. These buildings are not just more sustainable in the long-term, but also flexible enough to accommodate multiple uses over the course of their functional life. Many surviving Machiya today have been re-purposed as restaurants or shops to take advantage of the shift from textile production, for example, to the service and tourism industry. Recently, repurposing these buildings as incubators for start-up companies in high-tech has been proposed and implemented successfully.

Kyoubadokoro Seiya

The urban face of Kyoyubadokoro Seiya, a 160 year-old Machiya turned tofu skin restaurant in Nishjin, Kyoto

Many feel that these older structures are inconvenient or difficult to live in because of the extreme temperatures of the city. The Japanese tend to favour newer buildings with modern amenities as city life has become busier; time-saving automation and better insulated contemporary housing offers comfort that Machiya are perceived as ill-equipped to provide. This is only partially true as older buildings can be retro-fitted with the trappings of convenience and used just as comfortably as modern buildings are. Certainly, the initial costs for renovation may be higher but in the long-term, these buildings would retain or appreciate in value while saving their occupants energy and expenses, especially in the shoulder seasons. As an energy crisis looms in Japan and in other parts of the world, it’s critical that buildings, which account for a significant portion of energy consumption, be considered more carefully. Also equally importantly, Machiya are the building-blocks of cohesive communities that encourage innovation, entrepreneurship and economic inter-dependency.

While on a trip to Kyoto in early September, I visited the historic Nishijin Textile District to see for myself the state of the shop-house district and speak to some of the residents there. I experienced first-hand the level of craftsmanship and care that I had only peripherally known from books and from seeing the occasionally kimono-clad lady. A few wrong turns left us at the edge of the neighbourhood in front of a beautiful Machiya with a large family crest emblazoned on the “noren” shop-front curtain. The establishment turned out to be the century-old atelier, Kawai Bijutsu-Orimono. None other than Mr. Kawai himself was at the front of the shop sitting on his tatami mats, inspecting a delivery of raw silk. The meeting was fortuitous as we were invited inside to see the exquisite array of Obi’s displayed further in, and later were explained the art of silk weaving which Mr. Kawai’s Uncle had passed down to him and his elder brother. The Kawai’s have maintained a successful Obi-making business and diversified their products to fill the niche demand for Noh costumes, Festival props, and Religious regalia. Customers have been loyal over the years but the demand for traditional garments has been on the decline for some time and the time is ripe of reinvention. Mr. Kawai mentioned the ascendence of Japanese companies like Uniqlo which have used local and foreign talent, along with the proximity of cheaper labor in China to develop affordable clothing for the masses. It seems that the tradition of craftsmanship has been overshadowed by the efficiency of large-scale production.

Kawai Showroom

The interiors of the Kawai Bijutsu Orimono Machiya showroom with the exquisite hand-loomed silk Obi’s displayed

After this sobering thought, Mr. Kawai offered to take us to his elder brother’s home just a few doors down and opposite from his atelier. A long wall of stained pine boards indicated the property, punctuated with a gateway on one side. The gateway opened onto a garden path with a small bench for waiting guests, across from which stood the entrance to a traditional tea room. The sequence of spaces was a well-orchestrated play of indoor and outdoor, one leading to another taking us deeper into the Oku, or heart of the Machiya. Each transition was marked with subtle vertical shifts, a shoe-removing stone outside the tea room, tatami mats in the tea room, a step down into the engawa corridor space, and changes in materiality to indicate the function of the space. Each detail had been considered, faithfully restored and embellished upon, creating a gesamutkunstwerke (a complete work of art) which resonated beautifully in this historic neighbourhood. This was the first time in my life that I had experienced a real ‘living’ Machiya with residents embracing a centuries-old way of life. Of course, I had walked through other Machiya neighbourhoods in Kyoto before, but they were no longer used the way this one was. Typically, in areas within the city centre, housing and ateliers had long been re-purposed as restaurants, bars and spaces to cater to the droves of tourists seeking a glimpse of historic Japan. The process of gentrification has left these, at one time living, districts as empty shells with just the facade as an indicator of their storied history.

Interior and exterior are blurred with layered screens and spaces at the Kawai home

Kyoto’s Machiya districts are the canary in the coal mine for Japan, an indicator of how urban neighbourhoods may become as populations continue to slump into the 21st Century. The demographic shift is a time for reflection and reassessment of values related to growth at any cost, corporate business, and the culture of the new in favour of the old. This is also a time to re-value Japanese craftsmanship and encourage this tradition to be a stimulus for innovation. The future vitality of urban Japan and the competitiveness of the country as a whole depends on these urban spaces and the people who form the networks of skilled trade within them. The advantage that Kyoto has over Detroit is that its urban fabric is still intact in many areas and due to the decentralization of various industries, studios and ateliers, there is hope that these spaces can be the locus for a renaissance of Japanese culture and economy.

Copyright © 2010 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.

tokyo in retrospect

Sakura in full bloom at Shinjuku Gyoen Imperial Park

As I write this, I have been in Tokyo, Japan for just under a year. I’ve been living in my research, so to speak, exploring the megalopolis of Tokyo on a daily basis and trying to understand how this city came to be in the form that it has taken. I actually began researching Japanese urbanism while pursuing a post-professional Master in Design Studies at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, looking specifically at Imperial City Planning in Heian-kyo (modern day Kyoto) and Edo-Tokyo. My research on grid systems led me to apply for the MEXT Scholarship so that I could continue a tangent of this exploration related to Tokyo specifically. I joined Professor Ito Takeshi’s laboratory at Tokyo University in April 2010, starting as a research student initially, and then six months later, entering the Doctoral program after the requisite entrance exams, interview, thesis presentation and intensive Japanese language course.

It’s been a challenge to shift gears out of a professional career in architecture, having worked in Toronto and New York for nearly six years, designing educational facilities and private residences. The shift has been a welcome change, however, as I was craving the intellectually stimulating environment that a University offers. Being immersed in a new cultural setting has made this change even more dramatic and rewarding (honestly it has been frustrating at times too, as my Japanese ability is slowly improving, but I’ve welcomed the opportunity to learn a new language). I’ve gained a wealth of experience and skills, understanding how both cities and architecture are made in Japan and specifically within the urban environment of Tokyo.

It’s hard to believe a year has already gone by, but it’s once again Spring in Tokyo and my walk to the train station is fragrant with the blossoms of Plum trees. One thing that I’ve taken note of here is the extent to which nature and the city are intertwined, both physically and within the collective unconscious of the Japanese. As each season passes, with amazing accuracy (within one or two days in fact) the weather predictably changes and the rites of the new season are well underway.

The Spring is heralded by the blossoming of trees, Plum followed by the spectacle of hanami (cherry-blossom viewing), the city parks crowded with revellers under canopies of white and pink. I was confronted by nature even in the densely built up area surrounding Hongo Campus in Bunkyo-ku (where I study in Central Tokyo). While large urban parks are a relatively new concept for Japanese cities post-Meji era, private postage stamp gardens and linear potted-plant gardens lining the roji (laneways) of Bunkyo-ku are more common. The Japanese notion of interior and exterior is blurred and fluid, with gardens spilling into cramped roji and interior spaces opening out onto the street to ventilate homes in the shoulder seasons (Spring and Fall). Despite the sheer density and lack of privacy, the city neighbourhoods open to reveal a soft and pliable inner space, which the Japanese call oku. This type of space is particular to Japanese cities and characteristic of the type of spaces one discovers deep within Tokyo’s neighbourhoods when the first signs of Spring arrive.

The Summer brings with it humid and often hot temperatures, the trees filled with the resonant sounds of early summer cicada (the late-summer cicada takes it’s place in August, singing a slightly different tune). Summer also enlivens the streets with matsuri (village festivals), each district celebrating its respective deity with the fanfare of parades, fireworks, music and shrine-decorating. At times one really feels transported back to the Edo-period, the crowds wearing yukatas (summer kimonos), and the chō (city district) transformed with lanterns, banners and road-side vendors. The cohesiveness and village-like atmosphere of Tokyo’s urban districts is apparent at this time of year, and it’s easy to see why the city functions so well. These chō are the basis of the city’s organization, built upon the intimate, closely-knit relationships of its residents, owners of local establishments and the regular visitors who frequent them. It’s been endlessly fascinating exploring these neighbourhoods, which exist in their village-like atmosphere, framed by a chaotic and crowded network of avenues. One quickly leaves behind the bustle and speed of the modern city as soon as one enters the enclosed world of the chō.

It was with a sense of relief and nostalgia that I welcomed the Fall and Winter, after a series of gusty and suddenly cold evenings. The city braced itself against the cold and steaming hot o-den (boiled vegetables and meat in a thin broth) became the meal of choice. A conflagration of colour filled the trees and Hongo campus became a tourist hot-spot for it’s spectacular, bright yellow Ginko foliage.

At the end of the fall I had the opportunity to intern at Ando Tadao’s office in Osaka through a recommendation from Ito sensei. I participated on an art gallery and hotel project, my contribution being an iterative series of model studies. My stay was for only a short period, after which I traveled to Kyoto to visit the temples and take in the breathtaking scenery of the city. The daily temperatures in the city swung quite dramatically with warm, comfortable days and frigid November evenings spent walking along the grand, linear avenues. The axial, gridded, imperial city Kyoto put into strong relief the differences between it and the more organic, radial city of Tokyo. Tokyo is a haptic, sensorial and experiential city which slowly reveals itrself to you. I reflected on this difference and began to appreciate the informal, complex and layered construction that is Tokyo.

As an architect and urbanist it has been a real privilege to be in Tokyo as a kind of observer and researcher. My sense of the city has been completely altered since my experience of living and studying this past year in Japan. It has shifted my perception and given me a new perspective on urbanism and architecture. It’s my hope that I will also contribute to a greater understanding between our two countries through intellectual and cultural exchange. Over the past six months I have been participating in a research group entitled, “Comparative Housing in the 60’s in Japan and the US / Canada” with two Assistant Professors and a Master’s student. I’ve offered my own perspective on Canadian and American cities and the types of issues we are facing in the Planning and Design fields. Our monthly meetings have also helped me move beyond a more superficial reading of the Japanese city and overcome some of the preconceptions I’ve had about urbanism here.

I’ve come to the realization that the Japanese city is an open-ended and continuous narrative that is constantly being edited, re-written and composed by both the powerful and those with whatever means they have to effect change. With this new sensibility, my approach to design and planning has been tempered by the knowledge that the city and nature are not necessarily polar opposites or in conflict with each other. The delicate interweaving I’ve found in Tokyo has helped me re-frame this seeming dichotomy as a continuous interface. I hope to continue to delve deeper into this great culture of city-building over the next two and a half-years of my scholarship, and formulate my own narrative about the intermingling of nature and artifice which comprises the hybrid Japanese city.

Copyright © 2010 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.