Saturday, January 20, 2007

Urban Tokyo Series - pt.1: Doujunkai Apaato and your New Hills Lifestyle!

Really Architecture is proud to present a new 8-part series on urban Tokyo. This series of columns will be penned by our guest writer/correspondent - Darryl Wee, urbanite hipster and former guest-Parisian/Bostonian currently teaching English in Tokyo. We hope that this series of entries may inspire our readers to take a fascination with the soul behind our urban environments.

In a city known for feverish new development and a generally shinier patina than most, gracefully decaying buildings are something of a Tokyo marvel. The average lifespan of public housing, shuugou juutaku or danchi projects, is 30 years. Especially during the feverish era of postwar rebuilding, entire tracts of faceless "tofu" apartment complexes materialized overnight; in an effort to rehouse maximum numbers of people at minimal cost, they were often in slapdash materials, marred by haphazard workmanship. Walls and floors were thin, uninsulated, prone to leakages and fractures.

Subsequently, and usually within that narrow 30-year horizon, upwardly mobile residents got fed up of dealing with the repairs, and simply upped and moved elsewhere, or else tore down and rebuilt in something more "modern," like concrete, tile and aluminium. Because they were provisional structures in the first place, preservation and heritage were never on the cards at all. Those housing blocks that were not part of this mass rehousing scheme, built before the war and spared the blitzing of Tokyo, however, were of a much higher quality.

(This was during a time before the rather twee self-branding campaigns began - now danchi are danchi, apartments are (non-public) apartments, "heights" denote a little more luxury, and "mansions" are a guarantee of comprehensive "western" mod cons like dishwashers and *gasp* combination toilet-bathrooms).

In other large metropoles, mid-century architecture, especially of the Corbusian "Unities of Habitation" variety, has become a motherlode of perfumed ruins, prized as "authentic" historical blank canvases for architects and photographers to install their studios in...Tokyo's the same (and very probably more smitten. In any cool cafe worth its half its pretentions, the magazine rack is sure to have the Casa Brutus "BIG 3 extra issue" featuring all the forgotten and obscure works by Corb, Wright and Mies - including an unbelievably curated architour of Chandigarh).

Perhaps this pre-war/post-war rift in quality control has fueled an even greater obsession with the charmingly creaky and paint-peeling walk-up tenements, sometimes with hardly anything else to recommend them except their venerable age. As recently as the Bubble 80s, though, Tokyoites were too busy speculating in French country chateaus and Manhattan penthouses to pay much attention to their own native deadstock of public housing, known collectively as the Doujunkai apartments.

Originally numbering 16 projects in Tokyo and Yokohama built in the late 1920s and early 30s, the sturdy, practical construction in reinforced concrete (fireproof and earthquake-resistant), ample ventilation and natural light made them ideal for dense inner city living. The majority were dismantled in the 80s, and presently only two remain, in the eastern "downtown" (shitamachi) districts of Uenoshita and Minowa.

More recently, there have been some sensitive facade treatments and adaptive reuse, however. Daikanyama, a satellite residential district of Shibuya, is something of an ongoing (half-century, and counting...) study in public housing on a human scale. Maki Fumihiko's Hillside Terrace, a sort of proto-Metabolist housing project, used clever partitioning and layering in an attempt to revive the idea of a "commons" in a public housing project. It has hosted unfinished alterations and progressive annexes since the 60s.

The Daikanyama Doujunkai was "upgraded" in 2000 to become the more condominium-ish Daikanyama Address. All this is somewhat besides the point, if you consider that Daikanyama, together with adjacent Nakameguro and Ebisu, is now part of one of the most gentrified sections of the city, cheek-by-jowl with discreet bars, sidewalk and canal-bank cafes, boutiques and all the rest of it. If the Doujunkai has "survived" in Daikanyama, perhaps it's only as some kind of token communal landmark that can then be safely reworked, helping to bolster land prices and spur on the nostalgia industry...

The other recent metamorphosis is of course Ando's Omotesando Hills, a studiously unconventional shopping mall that recalls the graceful curves of the New York Guggenheim; sure, it's about shopping and rabid consumerism, but at least Ando tries to disguise those ugly motives with his trademark artisanal concrete, sloping walkways and sensitive skylighting. The former Aoyama Doujunkai survives as the "gallery wing" of the complex (home to a number of art galleries) that shows off the open plan stairwells and simple frontal balconies to best effect.

Behind all this apparently sensitive redevelopment, however, is the sinister master vision of one Mori Minoru, who has in the past decade or so syndicated his network of "Hills": a sort of 21st century urban template of Bigness (I wonder what Koolhaas would have to say about this) for a scattershot Tokyo, a city he sees as languishing in the face of competition from Shanghai, Bangkok and Singapore.

His diagnosis isn't incorrect, but the prospect of his network of Hills, each one a vertically-integrated playground of curated leisure for moneyed internationals, strikes me as a Ballardian nightmare of super-rich gated communes. Already he has five major Hills in place; the first, Atago Green Hills, was completed in 2001, and Omotesando Hills opened to sharply-dressed mobs only last year. He stumbled a little over Roppongi Hills, because of the number of people he had to buy out and resettle, but the trend seems unlikely to abate.

Tokyo "Midtown", another live-work-play megaplex, is scheduled to sprout in the same neighborhood in a couple years. Like some kind of global superstructure plastered onto the lowrise Tokyo landscape, Mori's Hills would be appalling even in Singapore or Shanghai, but they are especially depressing in Tokyo, a city I trusted would be mature enough to fend off the grandiose urban ideals of some meddlesome technocrat.

For more of Darryl's writings, click here.