Partner and director of urban design at Fletcher Priest, where his projects include the masterplan for the New Urban Centre of Riga, Latvia, and the London 2012 Athletes’ Village.
In the mid 1990s, armed with a rucksack, a list of contacts and idealism fuelled by letters from a friend who travelled there many years before and had never left, I arrived in Japan. At the time, every architectural magazine seemed full of interesting Japanese buildings, and I was looking for an opportunity to see for myself the work of Tange, Maki, Ito, Sejima and others. They were objects of beauty, often expressing a purity of ambition and a photogenic clarity of execution.
Months later I returned to London, fascinated as much by urbanism as buildings, with vivid memories that remain etched deep in my brain. In searching for buildings I also became interested in the organisation and culture of the city that had made them possible. Tokyo inspired me both directly, in offering new ways in which the city could be structured – vertically, culturally, temporally and digitally – and indirectly, in making me rethink, question and appreciate with fresh eyes the European models I had grown up with but had not properly interrogated.
I got lucky. I landed a job with Itsuko Hasegawa and, through contacts I never really understood, she offered me an apartment at a bargain rate in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s rapidly evolving retail, commercial and transport centres. Shinjuku sits on the circular metro line around which the city is structured, forming a string of nodes around its curiously empty centre. I was able to experience the city at first hand, living a hybrid existence as worker and tourist, insider and – mostly – outsider.
One of the best pieces of advice I received early on was not to pretend to understand Tokyo. The longer you stay, the stranger you discover it to be. I can’t claim to know Tokyo, only to have spent time there, to have walked the streets, to have got lost (frequently) and to have kept a record through thousands of photographs, piles of books and a list of ‘strange things in Japan’. This last item was the suggestion of Tom Heneghan, another visitor who had never quite left. His reasoning was that as you start to get deeper below the surface, you forget the strangeness of the city that initially overwhelmed you. New peculiarities take their place.
Looking at the list now, the images come flooding back. Tokyo by night is my kind of town because of the electric blue sky, illuminated with walls of video wrapping prosaic buildings. Assaults on the ears through competing sounds and noises. To a visitor lacking the language, sound and light become primal and sensory. Interpretation is virtually impossible.
When sunlight fades in Tokyo, the visual chaos of the architectural city is replaced by that of the electronic city. Orientation is no easier and the pace doesn’t drop. Rather, the energy increases, and the accelerated connectedness of society is even more evident. Every teenager owned a tiny mobile phone at a time when they were business class and brick-sized in London. Vending machines on the street provided beer and hot coffee, clothes and pornography.
Tokyo by night, because the daytime city is seemingly blind to disjunctions that – initially at least – jar to fresh eyes. At night, the beauty/ugly relationship seems less evident, and the glowing electric beauty has clearly won.
Tokyo at night because of the blurring between house and city and between city and workplace. Office equals family, and during the week the evening meal would be a break in the working day, returning to the desk afterwards until the last train home. Not through overload or impending deadline, just as a sign of commitment to the firm. Tiny homes, multi-generational families and long-distance commutes all combine to support a web of domesticity interspersed within the ‘public’ realm: a challenge to our rigid assumptions about uses and zoning.
Tokyo at night because of that travel cliché, the city of contrast. A short train ride and one can venture into the foothills of Mount Fuji, climbing with footprints illuminated by moonlight to reach a hot spring in time for sunrise, eating breakfast sushi in the nauseous combination of heat and sulphur.
Superficial disorder is not the same as chaos. Tokyo is a city in which difference is the product of a society closed for centuries but now connected to the world and ravenous for the modern. It has a strange combination of ritualised memory and brutally overlaid pragmatic structures and systems. The certainty of impermanence seems to energise the city, not grind it down.
Tokyo by night because, every now and then, the floor beneath your pillow starts to shake and – maybe this time – it will all have to be built from scratch, yet again.
First published in AT228, May 2012