cultural and religious philosophy and its impact on city form

Shinjuku-ku Skyscraper District, Tokyo

Abstract

The Floating World of Tokyo is seemingly impenetrable and labyrinthine to the outsider, but the schema of the city can be read through its historical development around nodes, its integral relationship to a topographic landscape, its highly composed scenographic views, and through analogous relationships with the traditional strolling garden. The image and structure of the city transcends utility and functionality by cultivating the scenography of the city. For the denizens of Tokyo, the city is understood as integral with a topographical landscape and the scenery of the distant mountains and ocean, which hold symbolic meaning. The mental map of Tokyo is built of these separate but inter-dependent views that are held together by memory rather than by ever-present imposing landmarks. The city unfolds and reveals itself as one moves through it, similar to the experience of moving through a Japanese garden.

Essay

There are two distinct philosophical frameworks that operate in Japan, defining the social, cultural and spatial realms: the first underlying framework consists of traditional urban thought informed by the Shinto religion and Zen Buddhist philosophy and aesthetics; the second consists of the highly intellectual structure of thought developed under the Tokugawa political system, influenced by Confucian thought.

According to animist Shinto beliefs, spirits reside in every part of the world (including physical objects, mountains, forests and rivers, for example), which is why there is such a reverence for places of natural beauty. “In architectural terms, animism translates into great attention towards the cyclical aspect of nature, but also its indirect lesson on the layout of buildings, within a meaningful whole and the routes linking them” (Sacchi, p. 108). Since everything has the potential to posses an integral spirit, Japanese cities are built with a keen consideration for pre-existing patterns and preserving as much of the natural character as possible.

In the formative years of Edo’s development, when city planners began to divide the city into districts, there was not an explicit sectioning based on the jobo system which was instituted in Kyoto and Nara (Hidenobu, p. 120). The principles of this system oriented the north-south and east-west axes and aligned these with the four protective gods (Black Turtle to the north, Blue Dragon to the east, Crimson Phoenix to the south, and White Tiger to the west) – this alignment was derived from Japanese geomancy which has its origins in the cosmology of the Han-dynasty (A.D. 206 – 220) of China. Harmonizing the opposing forces of Yin and Yang (on and yo in Japanese) by balancing voids and fluids with masses and solids was applied at the scale of gardens and cities, especially during the Heian-period. Edo-Tokyo was planned quite differently because the topography was appreciably more complex as compared to the rather flat and expansive plain upon which Kyoto was built. A large number of streams and rivers emptied into the port of Edo which necessitated further negotiation and adjustment, resulting in a number of oriented grids. In the High City, the grid was especially warped because of the undulating hills and valleys, while in the Low City, the extensive canals and island formations required corresponding alignments.

Despite the organic nature of planning required by the shifting topography, land allotments and major thoroughfares were aligned to the symbolic reference of Mount Fuji. This is especially true in the Low City where more regular contours of the landscape allowed for a decisive implementation of the gird with framed views to the mountainous context. Buddhist symbolism was incorporated into city design by referring to the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, in which the central mountain of Shumisen figured prominently. The towering mountain surrounded by eight rings of lower mountains was alternately ringed and enclosed by eight seas; the realm of man is believed to be in the furthest ring next to the eighth sea. This vivid image of the world of man in relation to the divine, metaphysical realm is a cosmic relationship that was reproduced through the siting of the city between Tokyo Bay and Mount Fuji.

The influence of Zen on the city of Edo can be seen in its spatial dialectic which oscillates between full and empty. The centre of Tokyo is characterized by the notion of empty with the void of the Imperial Palace grounds lodged in the middle of the teeming, swirling city. The dense city provides a foil of intensity for the serene centre, acting as the Yang in this dichotomy which seems to be in constant flux. “Zen, in its completeness, engages in battles against every abuse of power of the senses. It is known that Buddhism eludes the inevitable route of every assertion (or negation)” (Sacchi, p. 109). The battle being waged in the city permeates the city form which resonates and vibrates until building and garden, nature and artifice become a continuous, seamless entity.

The materiality of Edo is also a representation of this philosophy with the city being almost entirely built of vegetable-based materials (roof tiles being the major exception). The city itself was subject to decay and deterioration brought on by seasonal cycles as well as the catastrophic fires which destroyed entire districts. The cyclical processes of death and rebirth as well as notions of negation in Buddhist thought became an intrinsic part of the city and the way it was constructed. Edo was viewed as a physical manifestation of the impermanence and fragility of life. These concepts suffused the arts and artistic production in Japan, beautifully captured in this classical thirteenth century Hojoki (#18) in which both the houses of the capital and those who reside in them are like “the bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, not of long duration” (Smith, p. 44).

The Floating World of Tokyo is seemingly impenetrable and labyrinthine to the outsider, but the schema of the city can be read through its historical development around nodes, its integral relationship to a topographic landscape, its highly composed scenographic views, and through analogous relationships with the traditional strolling garden.

The notion of an empty centre is antithetical to the Western sensibility which seeks the gravity and visual marking of monuments within the city for navigation and symbolic place-making. The void of the Imperial Palace grounds at the centre of Tokyo displaces the conventional reading of the city and necessitates a complex and layered set of readings stretching as far back as Edo. Early settlements on the seven hills surrounding Edo led by daimyo residences and temples, acted as nodes for future development which Jinnai Hidenobu calls “soft centres”. Unlike European walled cities which expanded in a mono-centric fashion, Tokyo grew around these multiple nodes which had a certain degree of individuality and autonomy. A city of villages amalgamated into a teeming metropolis, the back lanes of which still have the quality and serenity of rural villages within inward-looking neighbourhoods.

The particular siting of residences of the ruling class cradled by the Musashino uplands, became both effective landmarks for the city and composed views south over the Yamanote plain. The careful intermingling of nature and urbanity into a holistic rather than opposing relationship had a lasting effect on modern Tokyo, which despite its re-making into a city of modern towers and complexes, rests directly on the structure of Edo. Neither catastrophic fires, nor earthquakes, nor the bombing of Tokyo could erase the underlying palimpsest of meaning. Bound as it is by its close relationship to nature, both within the microcosm of the garden and out into its surroundings, Tokyo aligned itself with memory and continuity.

The image and structure of the city transcends utility and functionality by cultivating the scenography of the city. For the denizens of Tokyo, the city is understood as integral with a topographical landscape and the scenery of the distant mountains and ocean, which hold symbolic meaning. The mental map of Tokyo is built of these separate but inter-dependent views that are held together by memory rather than by ever-present imposing landmarks. The city unfolds and reveals itself as one moves through it, similar to the experience of moving through a Japanese garden.

References

Ashihara, Yoshinobu, The Hidden Order: Tokyo through the Twentieth Century, Tokyo-New York: Kodansha International, 1989

Barthes, Roland, L’Empire des Signes, Geneva: Skira, 1970

Bestor, Theodore C., Neighbourhood Tokyo, Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1989

Hidenobu, Jinnai, Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1995

Sacchi, Livio, Tokyo: City and Architecture, Milano: Skira, 2004

Seidensticker, Edward, Low City, High City, New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1983

Shelton, Barrie, Learning from the Japanese City, London: E & FN Spon. 1999

Smith, Henry D., Tokyo as an Idea: An Exploration of Japanese Urban Thought until 1945, Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Winter, 1978): 45-80

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.

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