Tokyo: Architecture As Performance

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Nagakin Capsule Tower. James Lloyd, 28 May 2013.

28 May 2013
Author: Hande Oney – Architecture

Today we had a very interesting lecture by Dr. Julian Worrall, of Waseda University, in Tokyo. Julian-sensei’s main focus was how the city of Tokyo could be perceived through the study of Japanese culture. In order to understand how the city of Tokyo works, it is essential to look at the cultural division between private and public space. The division between the private and public is a reflection of the Japanese lifestyle where family life and work life are separated. Julian-sensei presented reflections on Tokyo by world known architects from different cultural backgrounds: Le Corbusier, Toyo Ito, and Rem Koolhaas. The European perspective views Japanese architecture as an artwork presented on a pedestal, as a perfected object. The local Japanese view from Toyo Ito compares Western and Japanese architecture – while Western cities are designed as open-air museums, Japanese cities are like a theater stage with a constantly changing performance.

To look more into the idea of performance, Julian-sensei divides his approach into three: ‘art of transience,’ ‘reign of standards,’ and ‘embodiment of the social.’  The ‘art of transience’ is the notion of temporal art – art that changes, adapts and transforms over time like a living organism. One of the examples that Julian-sensei presented is the Ise Shrine; the shrine is one of the most important shrines in Japan. While Ise still carries its importance and identity, every twenty years it is burned down and rebuilt on a neighboring site. The physical materiality of the shrine is much less important then its performative quality. The religious practices and tradition stays the same while the physicality changes.

Also, the Metabolists viewed architecture as an ephemeral, temporal, phenomenon; they designed buildings that were intended to adapt to their changing cities. A few examples might be given: the Marine City, Tokyo Bay Project, and Nagakin Capsule Tower. While presenting elements from Japanese traditions, these projects could also be adapted to urban growth and change.

The adapting nature of buildings in Tokyo could also be linked to clothing and fashion. The buildings in the high commercial district are mostly represented by their façades.  Buildings become the clothing piece that in time become worn out, lose their popularity, and are obliged to change. This element of design according to fashion and popularity could also be seen in the planning of the Omotesando district with the division and spread of high-end firms and low commercial firms.

The second aspect is the ‘reign of standards’ according to fulfillment and requirements; this included the hidden part of the city’s infrastructure.  These elements are the ones that go through change the most often, but there are some like the overpasses that have also created a certain emotional attachment to people and have become a part of their generation. One important example is the ubiquitous 7/11 convenience store; these stores are vital socially and also adapt to their society. Beyond their social role, they are also corporate recording stations for all sorts of information, include age and gender.

The third aspect is the ‘embodiment of the social.’ Performance is also an expressed as social behavior. Definition of public space changes from culture to culture. Public space is commonly defined as a space that is shaped for the users to define and perform in it. For Westerners the ‘public’ is a combination of personal and common whereas for Japanese it is political and communal. These two different approaches can largely explain the uses and designs of public spaces in Tokyo.

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