Monday, 24 March 2008

Architecture Means Something

For a country that prizes craftsmanship so highly, it's odd that there is such a paucity of good architecture in Japan. Of course, there are wonderful examples of modern buildings in the major cities, but ordinary apartment buildings, houses and shops are uninspired and dull in the extreme. In fact, they remind me of nothing more than the dehumanising concrete-slab school of architecture foisted on cities like Bishkek and Almaty during the Soviet era; everything is functional and modern, nothing is beautiful and linked to the past. The Soviets of course had their ideological reasons for institutionalising boring architecture, but I'm not sure what Japan's excuse is.

Part of the problem, of course, is the war. Not even German cities suffered as badly as Japanese ones did from firebombing: 51% of the total area of Tokyo, 58% of Yokohama, 68% of Okayama and 99% of Toyama were flattened by bombing raids during the war; it's difficult for any sort of native architectural tradition to withstand that sort of destruction and the need for rapid rebuilding that followed.

But at the same time, there's something odd in Japanese psychology, I feel, that seems to want to keep past and present as discrete entities. Kyoto and Kamakura are full of beautiful old temples. But most of them sit next to ugly blocks of faceless concrete. It's almost as if the Japanese are completely unaware of the inconsistencies that arise when you protect an old temple because it's a world heritage site, but flatten the traditional (and in their own way equally beautiful and culturally important) houses around it in order to build a block of flats. The result is a museum-like atmosphere in the temples and shrines of places like Kyoto, rather than that of a living institution.

The one exception to this is Yokohama, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. I don't know why this should be, although Yokohama has always been the most open and cosmopolitan city in Japan, which I'm sure has something to do with it. But the city seems much more comfortable with its architectural heritage than the rest of the country; it is certainly the only one which maintains its surviving 19th and early 20th century buildings in any number; these include some stunningly beautiful fin de siecle warehouses on the harbour front and dozens of elegant old port authority buildings downtown which the city has wisely chose to set up its government offices inside of - ensuring that they stay alive and vital rather than crumble away or turn into pure tourist attractions in permanent stasis like most of Kyoto. It surely is no accident, then, that Yokohama is also the centre for great contemporary architecture in Japan; its Minato Mirai bayside development holds not only Japan's tallest building but also many of its most notable modern creations.

Architecture is a funny thing. I've always thought that it has a much greater influence on human happiness than it's given credit for. The Soviet Bloc created a lot of misery for its citizens by ignoring this reality and forcing people to move into ugly squares and rectangles of grey. I've certainly noticed that people in downtown Yokohama seem a lot more relaxed and easygoing than they do in other Japanese cities. I have no doubt whatsoever that it's because they live in a city which makes an effort to be beautiful and to keep some form of continuity with its past.


Bilbo said...

Very interesting post. One of the things that makes European cities so beautiful is their mixture of old and new...when I lived in Wiesbaden, Germany, I used to enjoy visiting the many older buildings that survived the war. Do you have any pictures to post of some traditional Japanese architecture?

Amanda said...

I like this post. On all my visits to Japan, I always felt like it was a modern city but their everyday living buildings were SO BORING. They had such creative technology but they lived in such cardboard style buildings.

Thanks for putting my own thoughts into words and then providing some insight to this aspect of Japan.