empty centre: symbolism and the urban structure of tokyo

View of Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo seen from the observation deck of the Mori Tower

“The entire city revolves around a place that is both forbidden and indifferent, an abode masked by vegetation, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor whom no one ever sees: literally, no one knows who does ever see him……Its centre is no more than an evaporated ideal whose existence is not meant to radiate any kind of power, but to offer its own empty centre to all urban movement as a form of support, by forcing perpetual traffic detours. Thus, it appears as an image that unfurls again and again in endless circles, around an empty core.”

Barthes, Roland, L’Empire des Signes


As one of the largest urban agglomerations in the world, the Tokyo-Yokohama region is vast both spatially  and in population but it inverts the conventional reading of the city. The amorphous mass is defined structurally by a void that has a centripetal effect on the growth of the city and movement through it. It is a city that provides an antipode to the development of European cities which typically have clearly defined systems and frameworks to prescribe their growth. The language of city building in the west has a certain set of symbolic arrangements and relationships to landmarks which provides the structure of meaning that its denizens can decipher. To the western sensibility, Tokyo can seem chaotic and incomprehensible because the structure of meaning is entirely different, employing a schema of symbolic references that stretch as far back as the Edo period.

The traditional city of Edo was conceived as a ‘single cosmos’ linked together by threads of meaning rather than an overtly visible expression through physical objects or formal structure. The Japanese city is broadly composed of elements informed by the geography, land use, and vegetation each with its own reference to history or mythology. In Tokyo, Mount Fuji figures strongly as a landmark, rendering an urban image that stands in contrast with its Western counterparts as a ‘borrowed’ feature incorporated into the symbolic network. The city is woven together as a kind of landscape composition that is experienced by walking through the warren of streets and alleys. Without a strongly defined centre, the city is an experiential space overlaid by a dynamic centrifugal force that defies the simple order and rational narrative of other cities.

“No city in Japan is like European cities. In Europe, cities reflect the contrast with nature; nature and the city are two opposite concepts. In Japan, cities are like villages that have  grown naturally from the ‘power of nature’. In Europe, cities have a particular structure, what we call an ‘urban’ structure. In Japan we don’t have such a structure” (Arata Isozaki quoted in Hidenobu, p. 78).

Landscape, whether natural or constructed, is the ordering device of Edo-era Tokyo, effectively producing the image of the city as a complex and layered construction. The dense urban fabric gave way to panoramic vistas, skilfully revealed and composed elements. Modern Tokyo still maintains this palimpsest of Edo with newer structures built on the symbolic framework; although the city has been destroyed by earthquakes and fires many times, it has rebuilt itself on the persisting form of the old.

Building on the notion of the urban structure of Tokyo as a city with an empty centre, the final paper will argue that Tokyo relies on landscape as an ordering device. The reasoning is based on a series of structural and formal developments that existed in Edo and still persist. albeit in new configurations, in the modern day city.  The analysis of these developments will demonstrate the specificity of the Japanese sensibility and the culture of urban Tokyo which gives rise to a centrifugal and irregular form. The precedence of landscape as a result of this sensibility is a distinctive and particular state, derived from a holistic and embedded urban and natural environment. The formal and structural developments that uphold the preeminence of landscape will be expounded upon in greater detail. These include three key concepts: 1. Scenography and the city form; 2. The structure of meaning; 3. The persisting palimpsest of Edo.

The Japanese are artful and deliberate in their construction of compositional views which incorporate layers of the city and distant ‘borrowed’ scenery. Vantage points within Edo, for example, included thirty-six carefully constructed views of Mount Fuji, the city an extension of its cascading foothills. (Hidenobu, p. 138). The image of the city as a curated artifact that enmeshes the built form with its pre-existing generator, acts as a reminder of the importance of landscape and its role in the formation of the city. This also segue’s into the second structural influence on the city, which is the structure of meaning.

In the Western context, meaning at an urban scale is derived from landmarks that act as a kind of punctuation on the skyline. Tokyo until recently did not possess bristling towers and spires, rather it was a ‘vast city of roofs,’ as Edward S. Morse described it. The horizontal spread of the city is closely tied with the contours of the landscape and a deference to natural features that hold symbolic meaning. Spatial lacunae such as the large void of the Imperial Palace grounds or the daimyo residence compounds act as symbolic vortexes around which the city circulates and develops.

The third concept that will be explored in the final paper is that of the persisting palimpsest of Edo-Tokyo as a framework within which the modern city has been built. While Tokyo has undergone several rebuilding efforts due to catastrophic fires and earthquakes, the structural and symbolic features of Edo are an enduring physical and psychic phenomena. Despite the import of Western architectural and urban ideology during the Meji period, the underlying structure of Tokyo has been resilient, incorporating change within city lots while resisting broader urban interventions (like those experienced by Haussmann-era Paris). One example of this type of development is the daimyo compounds, which were purchased by corporations as the only remaining large parcels in central Tokyo and built up as landmark mixed-use corporate complexes. These types of new developments may have their own internal logic (based on International or Western standards) but they do not radiate out to influence the urban structure. The void having been inverted, obfuscates the reading of the landscape but it still defers to the Edo-era form of the city.

Scenography and the city form

Tokyo is based upon an orography of seven hills and five corresponding valleys, the intersection of which necessitated specific responses in spatial planning and gave the city its physical form. The seven hills include the highlands of Ueno, Hongo, Koishikawa-Mejiro, Ushigome, Yotsuya-Kojimachi, Akasaka-Azabu, and Shiba-Shirogane. The valleys of Sendai-Shinobazu, Sashigaya, Hirakawa, Tameike, and Furukawa (Hidenobu, p. 11) weave in-between the highlands, giving the city a bi-fold distinction. The physical separation of the city between the low-city (Shitamache) and the high city (Yamanote) also separated the classes during its early incarnation as Edo (1603 – 1867), with the commoners residing in the water-oriented city and the upper classes maintaining their domain in the hills. The name Edo referred to the estuary condition of the city, ‘with over 2155 km of water courses crossed by 6000 bridges’ (Sacchi, p. 19), the most prominent of which is the Sumida river. The image of the city is generated by its relationship to the water, especially in the lower part of the city which was more populous during this earlier era in its development.

The physical separation of the city gave rise to a dual system of road networks relating to the ridges and valleys separately, each with its own set of spatial and visual references. The series of oriented grids in the low city was informed by a canal system which acted as the primary means of conveyance for tradespeople and commoners. Carriages transported the aristocracy and upper classes to their estates along the ridge roads which followed the topography of headlands that overlooked the valleys and the plebeian city below. Roads leading out of the city were initially built to terminate at temple and shrine complexes, but these spaces eventually evolved into a series of ‘soft shells’ within which city life flourished. While they are primarily sacred spaces, they also became the locus of seasonal spectacles and popular entertainment, such as the springtime Hanami (cherry-blossom viewing). The distribution of these spaces encouraged development around open spaces while also providing a structure of meaning that figured prominently in the image of the city for its inhabitants. One can imagine the release of arriving at the verdant and lush temple grounds following the intense, chaotic compression of the low city. With the urban vista revealed below, the comprehension of the city form and its relationship to its topography would become apparent.

Although Edo lacked a visual centre as is common with Western cities, the scattered temples formed a composite series of ‘centres’ that formed the psychological and physical nodes for gathering. These spaces for collective urban experience are not monumental focal points in an of themselves, rather they frame the vista of the surrounding landscape. Just as the city itself eludes a notable centre, the ‘soft centres’ elude a specific architectonic reading and divert attention back out to the city and distant landscape features.

“Most Japanese villages and towns were born and grew in the foothills or valleys as if inclining toward, or being cradled by a dependence on nature, the urban vista itself became intimately bound up with large-scale features of the terrain, such as the shapes of mountains, hills, and rivers.” (Hidenobu, 135)

The structuring of space in Edo is based on this notion of the city as being integral with nature, its spatial features derived form the curving landscape of the Musashino uplands. The topography became the effective landmark of the city rather than the architecture buildings or urban space embodying the mental image, as is the case with Western cities. The city is supple and flexible in its structure, following the contours of the hills and valleys, and without the walls or the material solidity of stone, it is more open and continuous with the territory it occupies. Rather than an opposing relationship of nature and artifice, Edo was closely intertwined with its underlying landscape features. “In Japan, cities are like villages that have grown naturally from the power of nature,” says Arata Isozaki. This is true also of Edo where great attention was paid to orientation and aspect in the siting of compounds and buildings.

When Edward Morse first witnessed Tokyo, he was struck by “a vast sea of roofs, – the gray shingles and dark slate-color of the tiles, with dull reflections from their surfaces.” He also noted that, “with the absence of chimneys and the almost universal use of charcoal for heating purposes, the cities have an atmosphere of remarkable clearness and purity; so clear, indeed, is the atmosphere that one may look over the city and see distinctly revealed the minuter details of the landscape beyond” (Morse, p. 1-2). Tokyo at the time of Morse’s writing in 1886 was pre-industrial, without the air-borne pollution and smog that became characteristic of cities like London or Manchester. The spatial qualities of the city of ‘slate-color roofs,’ without the spires of churches or the obscuring smoke from industry and wood-burning fireplaces, resulted in an urban environment that visually deferred to the distant landscape.

There is a fluid exchange between interior and exterior space, especially in the design of residential architecture in Japan. In the context of Tokyo with its highly urbanized situation, the same characteristics still imbue the city despite the need for privacy and the control of visual or physical access to space. The philosophy of mono no aware, or ‘man in tune with nature,’ is a central notion for the Japanese since there is no conception of where the city or home ends and nature begins – it is simply one continuous shizenkan (vision of nature) with man perceived as integral with the house, city, garden and the distant landscape. The city is therefore composed of scenographic compositions that incorporate each of these elements in a layered and visually cohesive manner.

The Edo strolling garden

The Edo period witnessed the most comprehensive and coherent development of scenography through city building and garden-making because of the centralized political power enforced by the Tokugawa shogunate. For nearly 270 years, Tokugawa Ieyasu followed by his successors instituted a socio-political system that manifested spatial effects on the city. The baku-han government (bakufu meaning central government, while han refers to the provinces) maintained approximately 250 daimyo overlords who were granted the right to rule their lands by the grace of the shogun (Keane, p. 100). The system provided the social stability required to develop large garden estates in central and suburban Tokyo, many of which have persisted into modern-day Tokyo.

The Edo strolling garden was used as a representation of the wealth and status of the daimyo, its social function to entertain guests and provide a leisurely diversion for the visiting shogun, the overlord himself and his retinue. Since the estate doubled as the political seat from which affairs of the state were handled, particular attention was paid to designing and planting elaborate, sumptuous landscapes. This type of open space is a significant development from previous Japanese gardens, such as those of the Kyoto Heian-period which embodied the philosophy of Zen and Shintoism and privileged a singular view in a scenographic composition. The haptic strolling garden prescribed movement along a path to arrive at a series of constructed views which unfolded in a linear choreographed experience.

“The views were carefully controlled so that while strolling about the gardens along a meandering path, one went from one scene to the next as if moving through the layered backdrops of a stage set. In turn, each scene is revealed and then concealed to be appreciated again much later from a different vantage point.” (Keane, p. 109)

The strolling garden is a kind of miniaturization of the broader city as a delineated collection of views, but at the larger scale there is certainly a less prescribed way to move through it. The city is a much more amorphous and less ordered system, but in the collective memory of its inhabitants are inscribed vantage points which evoke the same structure of meaning. A classic example of this is the Thirty-six woodblock prints of Mount Fuji by Utagawa Hiroshige which represent the the most famous views of the imposing, snow-capped volcano that figures largely in the imagination of Tokyoites. There are ten views which are taken from the city itself, a testament to the skill and purposefulness with which scenography was carried out in Edo.

Daimyo estates, because of their large scale, have in recent years, been purchased by powerful zaibatsu corporations to develop massive multi-use complexes. Many of the gardens within the city have been replaced by tall buildings which have obscured the image and view corridors of Edo, but the underlying framework of the city from that period remains. In certain situations, such as the Shinjuku-koen, view sheds have been maintained despite the enormous pressures to maximize development. Building height regulations have prevented the obstruction of distant landscape elements, allowing some of the original relationships of the city to its framed shakkei (borrowed scenery) to be maintained.

The structure of meaning

The origin of borrowed scenery used in Japanese garden design and within the context of city scenography can be traced back to the Muromachi-period Zen temples (Keane, p. 140). Prominent figures in the temple would select elements in the surrounding landscape and give them Buddhist names, each laden with a spiritual message. Natural features and sometimes built elements (i.e. bridges) were incorporated as part of the jikkyo (ten stages or boundaries) by priests who effectively expanded the territory of the temple by imbuing the context with symbolic meaning, re-contextualizing the physical and metaphysical realms as part of a continuous whole.

Edo-era gardens evolved into much more secular spaces, but the vestige of contextualizing and territorializing the environment continued as an aesthetic practice. The compositional technique was derived from Zen Buddhist practices and ink-wash landscape paintings from both the Sung-dynasty in China and medieval Japan (Keane, p. 140). Landscape paintings from this period foregrounded man as relatively insignificant in comparison to the grandeur and vastness of nature. In the shakkei garden, the distant view is incorporated as part of the overall composition through the elimination or obscuring of the middle ground. Architectural elements such as fences or dense foliage in the middle ground drew the distant view forward while deepening the foreground, effectively unifying the composition.

A similar structure of meaning operates in Edo, “a notion of city building akin to to landscaping” (Hidenobu, p. 137) drawing in the distant Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba as symbolic landmarks. The collective image of Edo is thus created by a number of views scattered throughout the city, an entirely different experience from that of a Western city with the distinct image of a central piazza or densely built downtown. Edo was uniformly a low city, partly due to seismic reasons so landmarks to orient oneself in the tightly packed streets were pulled in from the distant landscape. For the unaccustomed visitor, the city would have been a chaotic experience with little in the way of recognizable architectural elements for wayfinding; for the native denizen of the city, the clearly defined network of places with significant vistas provided a means for orientation and more importantly, a structure of meaning.

“This city cannot be known except through some sort of ethnographic activity: you need to find your bearings….by walking its streets, by looking around you, through habit and experience: each discovery is both intense and fragile, it cannot be repeated, and only its trace can be left in our memory: in this sense, visiting a place for the first time is like starting to write about it: as the address has not been written down, it has to found its own writing” (Barthes).

Cultural and religions philosophy and its impact on city form

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. As discussed earlier, 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 daimyo system and its effect on city growth

The break with ancient ideology can be said to have started with the Tokugawa shogunate which instituted the daimyo system. The predating ancient structure and later political system did not necessarily compete for expression in the urban form, rather they existed in tandem, with each approach adopting aspects of the other’s tendencies. Religious ideology was secularized and incorporated without the weighty apparatus of meaning, but still evocative of centuries-old references such as auspicious orientation or Zen aesthetics. The major effect of the daimyo system was the creation of large open spaces which became the vessels for collective memory in the city, figuratively as the space for release and viewing while also as spatial records for cultural influence from abroad.

While the urban structure has been continually altered, there has never been a complete loss of the ancient structure of Edo-Tokyo because of the capacity of the daimyo estates to absorb spatial experimentation. There are several examples of former daimyo districts that have survived multiple iterations and now enjoy wide appeal as some of the city’s best parks and gardens. The imperial gardens of Shinjuku, the Aoyama cemetary and the Shin-Edogawa park are all examples (Sacchi, p. 80-1), but the Tokyo University campus is perhaps the most relevant crystallization of an ancient residence, the former home of the Maeda lords of the Kaga province, converted into a public space using the spatial doctrines learned from the West. The space of the Yamanote in the High City is characterized by this type of “Garden City” form, framed by the rural suburban landscape and dramatic views to Mount Fuji as well as the Tokyo Bay. The daimyo lords maintained these sumptuous residences in the expansive plain even though they were given residence the castle of the Low City. Their privilege and power enabled them to control large tracts of property which have given the city its current form, defined as it is by nodes of development reminiscent of the void of the Imperial gardens in the centre of the city.

Another effect of the new structure of power in Edo was a re-framing of age-old notions of the city as subject to the vicissitudes of the natural world. Since the city represented power and its preservation ensured that the seat of power remained there, it was in the best interests of the daimyo overlords to maintain the physical structure intact. One of the major catastrophic influences on the city was the frequent fires that razed entire districts to the ground, especially in the densely packed Low City. Fire breaks changed the spatial character of this part of the city, with large swaths of residential areas demolished to maintain an effective distance for fire management. While changes to the materiality of housing stock were also mandated (following the example of Western cities), these changes were not implemented until after the Meji Restoration (Smith, p. 50). Part of the reason that these changes were not more forcefully policed was perhaps due to a persisting belief that the city is an “ephemeron”, as well as a realization that most fires only effected the plebeian Low City – the actual seat of power was held in the High City in the daimyo estates which were much less likely to he destroyed by fires because of the ample buffering open space.

Symbolism and representation

The representation of the city in the arts and cultural milieu is an effective way of deducing perceptions and the collective memory of its inhabitants. Jinnai Hidenobu writes at length about the popular board game played in the late Edo and early Meji-era, a decisive moment when the ancient system of urban development was being superseded by the politically motivated daimyo system. Meisho-sugoroku, or parcheesi of noted places, demonstrates that the “whole city is conceived as a single cosmos whose famous places are tied together by threads of symbolic meaning” (Hidenobu, p. 137). The city is depicted as a collection of images which evoke the memory of constructed views at prominent locations. Instead of   the physically self-referential urban imagery of a main plaza or landmark architecture, meisho-sugoroku demonstrates that the image of Edo pulled in landmarks from the surrounding landscape.

The pivotal point in the centripetal structure of the Western city is displaced in favour of multiple points and a centrifugal structure. The spatial structure and the collective memory are aligned, with the Japanese understanding of the city as a collection of significant views between which there are voids that must be negotiated; rather than movement delineated across topography between these points, it is time that is traversed. The spatio-temporal understanding of the city in the late Edo period foreshadows the contemporary perception of the city, framed by the speed and dislocation of modern transportation.

Another aspect to the representation of the city manifests itself in the design of maps which are drawn in a similar manner to the meisho-sugoroku board game. Using a hybrid representation form, plots and streets are denoted in an abstract planimetric manner common to modern day maps, while the surrounding landscape is elaborated upon in a three-dimensional, painterly manner. These Edo-era maps were multi-directional and could be oriented to privilege the view being represented; the most commonly depicted three-dimensional elements were “hills, gates, shrines, temples, walls etc. Thus, the maps result from the way in which landscape is experienced” (Sacchi, p. 55).

The persisting palimpsest of Edo

While much of the symbolism that characterized Edo-Tokyo has been obscured due to the advent of modern technology and the importation of Western concepts of city design, the original framework still functions and persists. Traditional and ancient mechanisms mediating between architecture, lot and its context have been cast aside in favor of modernization since the Meji period. This has led to the deterioration of constructed view sheds and completely a different orographic perception of the city. Former daimyo residences that commanded extraordinary views across the Low City, for example in Yotsuya, Ichigaya and Koishikawa, have been compromised by the construction of tall condominium towers. The elimination of the collective memory is a radical change from Edo to modern-day Tokyo with much of the High City’s verdant spaces and panoramic vistas lost in the throes of modernization. There are fortunately still some vestiges of Edo-Tokyo’s urban design legacy in areas such as Aoyama and Azabu where in the back streets beyond the fashion houses and architecture ‘epicentres’ are “tiny valleys, small hills and well cared-for gardens” (Sacchi, p. 83). The underlying framework of Edo is still operating and directing the future of urbanism in Tokyo in an understated way that is not completely apparent because of the loss of the distant landscape. Tokyo is effectively composed of a ubiquitous middle ground, heightened by the density and close quarters experienced by its denizens.

“Tokyo, is a place-by-place place—how each location relates to the last remains obscure. Lacking vistas and grand plans, you have no sense of travel between points: rather, you leave an experience and start another somewhere else. The intervening motion is out of place and time” (Thackera, 1989, p. 66).

Modern Tokyo is a chaotic ensemble of city districts, each seemingly independent but forming the incoherent whole which has been termed the “mosaic city and a collage city” (Hidenobu, p. 7). The city has synthesized and hybridized into an urban entity that is less dependent on form than on content. There are very few images of the city that effectively convey the vastness or complexity, mostly focus on the Imperial Palace grounds with the jumble of tall buildings amidst a carpet of low-rise edifices surrounding it. Despite this visually disconcerting image, it is clear from the city’s history and persisting underlying framework that the hidden order of Edo-Tokyo still maintains a strong influence.

In short, we can say that the overall structure of the contemporary city is probably the result of a multifaceted and unique process of hybridization between the ancient structure of old Edo and the careless importation of modern Western teachings. Such a process has produced ambiguous “innovation” that is hard to identify, disquieting and disagreeable in many ways, but that is undoubtedly also fascinating, fluid and easily adaptable. “And the reason why Tokyo is so extensive is that it has never had a plan, a centre or visible order. The result is that Tokyo is ‘used’ today just as it was in the past.” (Arata Isozaki quoted in Sacchi, p. 97)

Tokyo has been compared to an amoeba, and certainly this is a good analogy because of the multi-cellular nature of this creature. With its multi-nodal configuration and empty centre, Tokyo is a flexible, orderly structure that incorporates chaos and randomness, which is perhaps the reason why it has developed and grown to such an extraordinary scale. Without the seeming haphazardness and endless capacity to reproduce itself, the city would probably not have become the largest city on the planet. The whole structure tolerates deviations and innovations, hybridizing and incorporating contradictory urban design approaches into its form. The flexibility and tolerance of the city is its most important quality, allowing it to develop in a seemingly ad hoc manner that is in fact built upon an orderly and purposeful system that has its origins in Edo-Tokyo, and perhaps even further into antiquity.


In conclusion, although Tokyo is seemingly impenetrable and labyrinthine to the outsider, 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 Edo-era house and 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.

The Japanese house is analogous to the city and particularly Tokyo as it incorporates a haptic sensibility. The domestic environment operates at the foreground and middle ground within the context of the walled compound while also incorporating the “borrowed landscape” background of mountains and ocean. The axial perspective is denied in favour of the oblique and dynamic view. Moving through the Japanese home and garden, this composed set of relationships is constantly in flux, unfolding as the city does to reveal elements and views.

The four generators of development comprised of the historical development around nodes, the relationship of the city to its topographic underpinning, its scenographic and compositional views, and through the analogous relationship to the Japanese house and garden, allows for a decoding of the schema of the city. Tokyo is understood as a text that is symbolic and referential, but at the fundamental level, a construction based on the pre-existing conditions of topography and landscape. The city confounds a Euro-centric reading with its empty centre, numberless streets and multi-nodal configuration, but if one analyses the city from a historical and landscape-oriented perspective, the city itself unfolds and begins to reveal its underlying meaning.


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Copyright © 2009 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.

2 thoughts on “empty centre: symbolism and the urban structure of tokyo

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