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Alone Again, Or: Two projects exploring life in Tokyo’s evolving fabric
Tokyo’s urbanity conjures myriad assumptions; high-speed, high-density, high-fashion and high buildings too. Spaces for social encounter and neighbourliness have to be nurtured. KoozArch speaks about this with CCA Director Giovanna Borasi and the editors of "Sharing Tokyo" (Actar, 2023).

Tokyo’s urbanity conjures myriad assumptions; high-speed, high-density, high-fashion and high buildings too. Spaces for social encounter and neighbourliness have to be nurtured; this is the subject of the book Sharing Tokyo: Artifice and the Social World (Actar, 2023), edited by Mohsen Mostafavi and Kayoko Ota. Contemporarily Tokyo exists as a laboratory where ideas around living alone are being continuously tested and where the potential of socialisation by design becomes an active concern. This is explored in the second of a trilogy of documentary films conceived by Giovanna Borasi, Director of the Canadian Center for Architecture and directed by Daniel Schwarz, When We Live Alone.

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KOOZ I’d like to start with some startling statistics — found in both Sharing Tokyo and the documentary When We Live Alone. For instance, that ageing populations are the most pervasive in demographic trends and that by 2050 nearly 40% of the population of Japan will be over 65.

Kayoko and Mohsen, in Sharing Tokyo you explore ways in which design can lead to more equitable and inclusionary urban places. What prompted these investigations? How do you understand and approach the act of sharing, in the urban context?

KAYOKO OTA The statistics in both the film and publication are quite startling. It used to be common for Japanese families to have nine or eleven members but today this has fallen to less than three or two, with the majority being one. Yet beyond the numbers, the reason why we decided to undertake this investigation is the incredible disparity throughout the territory between those who have and those who do not have, in terms of the quality of life in large cities. Today, Tokyo is a sea of minuscule buildings juxtaposed with a growing number of clustered high-rise, large-scale developments, all of which proliferated following the neoliberal policies implemented by the government after the 20th century. Because of these, a growing concentration of rich people and of foreign investors are forcing the younger and elderly generations out of the centre and into the periphery.

"The reason why we decided to undertake this investigation is the incredible disparity throughout the territory between those who have and those who do not have, in terms of the quality of life in large cities."

- Kayoko Ota, editor of Sharing Tokyo, Artifice and the Social World (Actar, 2023).

MOHSEN MOSTAFAVI By way of context, we have been working on a multi-year research platform across design studios and seminars that investigate the future of urbanisation in Japan. Much of this work is focused on the relationship between demographic change and its potential impact on the built environment.

Recent examples of large-scale projects have tended to also privatise the public domain, which raises the question of who has access to the city. This aligns with Henri Lefebvre’s work on the right to the city but also more broadly the idea of the city as the locus not only for accessibility and sharing but also as the instigator of spatial justice.

"This aligns with the idea of the city as the locus not only for accessibility and sharing but also as the instigator of spatial justice."

- Mohsen Mostafavi, editor of Sharing Tokyo, Artifice and the Social World (Actar, 2023).

Amongst questions that the book seeks to address are ones relating to ageing and degrowth and how design can help provide forms of equity through a range of inclusionary spatial practices. The problem is that many recent large-scale developments prioritise high-end residential units that are simply not affordable by a large portion of the inhabitants of the city.

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KOOZ When thinking about the nature of shared space within an urban context, I’m instinctively drawn to the space of the square and the scale of the neighbourhood. In his essay “Inventing Neighborhood in Tokyo”, Jordan Sand describes how the English word “neighbourhood” has no precise or natural equivalent in Japanese; the closest term, knjo, denotes a locality and captures the spatial sense, but lacks the suggested element of communality. Could you maybe expand on the particular nature of Tokyo’s urban morphology?

MM During the making of the book, I often referred to the neighbourhood and was reminded by Kayoko that the word “neighbourhood” doesn’t have the exact equivalence in the Japanese language. This prompted us to ask Jordan Sand to write a text on the history of the word. Interestingly, he participated in some of the activities linked to the neighbourhood of Yanesen.

In terms of morphology, Tokyo evolved as a feudal city with a distinct high city for the feudal warlords and the low city for the rest of the inhabitants of Edo, the original name for Tokyo. Today, the high city is marked by the circular Yamanote Line. Tokyo can also be read through a series of districts, many of which are linked to the major railway stations as the central node of the area. Then there are other smaller-scale subdivisions or neighbourhoods.

"One of the provocations or issues of Sharing Tokyo is how the older neighbourhoods can provide the basis for an alternative approach to large-scale development."

- Mohsen Mostafavi, editor of Sharing Tokyo, Artifice and the Social World (Actar, 2023).

One of the provocations or issues of Sharing Tokyo is how the older neighbourhoods can provide the basis for an alternative approach to large-scale development. One of the benefits of the word neighbourhood in English is its association with the concept of neighbourliness which links the physical space to forms of social interaction.

From “Sharing Tokyo. Artifice and the Social World” (2023), edited by Mohsen Mostafavi and Kayoko Ota, published by Actar. Photographer: Kenta Hasegawa.

KOOZ The recent proliferation of Tokyo’s large-scale developments has been concentrated in the centre, which includes some of the city’s oldest “neighbourhoods”. Would you say that these projects ultimately symbolise the death of these places, or is it possible for them to coexist, even complement each other, within Tokyo’s urban fabric? Is there a way of shifting a project’s asset value from the strictly economic towards broader forms of value?

KO I think that in the very centre of Tokyo, that would be very difficult, though not impossible. We live at a time when the doctrine of capitalism is in full swing, and because Japanese real estate is cheaper than that of other big cities — such as New York, London, or even Beijing — a lot of capital is now flowing into the property market, as well in a number of other smaller towns throughout Japan. It seems that this trend is going to continue for another ten or even twenty years.

"We live at a time when the doctrine of capitalism is in full swing, and because Japanese real estate is cheaper than that of other big cities a lot of capital is now flowing into the property market."

- Kayoko Ota, editor of Sharing Tokyo, Artifice and the Social World (Actar, 2023).

That said, we recognise a few cases, like the Shibuya Stream redevelopment by Coelacanth and others as shown in the book, where efforts are made to regenerate spaces for the common within and beyond a high-rise building into the surrounding old urban fabric.

There are also interesting outliers; for instance, the example offered by the small town of Shimokitazawa, which has been the subject of a successful alternative planning strategy that favoured smaller, more human-scale constructions. These are the new hopes.

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KOOZ In Japan the value of land is very often linked to the width of the street, which means that there are competing and often conflicting interests when it comes to infrastructural change. What threat does street widening pose to the notion of sharing in Tokyo? In terms of shared civic amenity, have interstitial spaces — like pavements — proven to be particularly resilient?

KO I had a very good impression of the street in front of Takahashi Ippei’s Apartment House as filmed in When We Live Alone. The expanded relationship which the inhabitants of the house have among themselves and with the city is, in part, reflected in the strong visual connection that they have with passers-by on the narrow street onto which the house faces. Through this project and the relationships it weaves, Takahashi successfully presented a potential future of housing in this particular urban context of Tokyo.

The street has played an important role in establishing a sense of community in Japan since pre-modern times. As opposed to European cities, we have never had the history of the square as a place where people gather for solidarity or celebrate something. In Japan, streets have functioned to enhance social bonds and mutual care amongst the neighbours. Such relationships of inhabitants and streets are being erased with large-scale developments.

"The street has played an important role in establishing a sense of community in Japan since pre-modern times. As opposed to European cities, we have never had the history of the square as a place where people gather for solidarity or celebrate something."

- Kayoko Ota, editor of Sharing Tokyo, Artifice and the Social World (Actar, 2023).

MM The fact that the square doesn’t exist in Japan means that there are alternative forms of spaces for public representation such as the street or alleyway.

There is a direct correlation between the width of the streets and the permissible height and scale of development. This is why large-scale projects facing main urban arteries are often surrounded by older and smaller-scale urban fabric. This contrast between the new and the old adds a certain diversity and vibrancy to the experience of the city. There are however exceptions such as the Roppongi Hills development which organised a new and somewhat segregated urban pattern mainly due to the fact that the developers were able to accumulate a very large site for the project.

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KOOZ Giovanna, as seen in your documentary When We Live Alone, the Apartment House by Takahashi Ippei offers a new type of residential space, shared between eight people. For the inhabitants, the rhythms of urban life mean that the city’s parks and trains seemingly become extended parts of their ‘home’. To what extent does the documentary present an expanded notion of sharing and of collective habitation?

GIOVANNA BORASI I’ll start by pointing out that the reason we decided to film in Tokyo was not because it was the city where this phenomenon is most common — there are cities in northern Europe where the statistics are more extreme — but because in Tokyo the phenomenon translated into a striking kind of design and architectural culture. In Tokyo, we observed the emergence of other typologies that extend what living alone might mean, beyond the tiny house or many tiny houses together. In this sense what is interesting about Takahashi Ippei’s house is how his thinking was not about shrinking the space for the sake of shrinking space, but about really thinking how in doing so, one can actually create a community and use the city in an increasingly shared and expansive way. The house is an incentive for the simultaneous creation of both an immediate and expanded community.

Another thing that I found interesting about the house is the fact that it was conceived to be malleable, to change and reflect changes in its own demographics… So that, if necessary, the ‘dispersed’ house could return to the form of a family home with a kitchen, a living room and so on. This is particularly interesting within the contemporary architectural context, where everything is suddenly very specialised or typologically constrained.

"What is interesting about Takahashi Ippei’s house is how his thinking was not about shrinking the space for the sake of shrinking space, but about really thinking how in doing so, one can actually create a community."

- Giovanna Borasi, Director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

The work done with Kayoko through the CCA Models Talk series of videos was an interesting response to both this phenomenon and the questions of community-building and sharing in large scale developments, which Mohsen and Kayoko are looking at through the publication. This kind of consciousness is just part of what I think is incredible about Japan.

KO Yes, thank you, Giovanna, for mentioning that project. With Models Talk, we picked the most innovative young architects who are responding to these urban challenges through architectural proposals. The series presented diverse solutions which include attempts to create a new value for living in “tightness” and a sense of shared space within a neighbourhood and projects that take infrastructural hubs as opportunities for community building.

Still from "When We Live Alone", a documentary film conceived by Giovanna Borasi and directed by Daniel Schwartz.

KOOZ What would happen if one took Takahashi Ippei’s Apartment House as a blueprint for large-scale urban developments? Have you been able to perceive or predict any new shared paradigms for the Japanese capital?

MM One important point about the apartment building shown in When We Live Alone is that it's an extreme case, and often extreme cases are very valuable, as they allow one to think outside the norms. Housing design has become very conventional and standardised. So, anything that allows one to think differently has value. The apartment, seen in terms of its possibilities, is interesting because it enables and enhances the possibility of encounter. Yet, the project also denies the right to both a bathroom and a bedroom. The question is how society can provide more spaces for living that can still be generous and offer a good quality of life. Related to this question is: how can and should the state regain its responsibility towards its citizens and not delegate this responsibility solely to the private sector?

"How can and should the state regain its responsibility towards its citizens and not delegate this responsibility solely to the private sector?"

- Mohsen Mostafavi, editor of Sharing Tokyo, Artifice and the Social World (Actar, 2023).

In our design research, we deliberately intervene on multiple sites with the idea of creating the potential for radical urban transformation. The concern with small-scale intervention is the slowness of its impact. Therefore, by utilising many lots simultaneously, including the opportunities afforded by air rights, we aim to maximise the physical and social impact without the necessity of large-scale development. Describing the diverse scenarios for urban living is an indispensable part of such projects. For example, by working with novelists or with fiction, various aspects of the city can become more vivid. This relationship between architecture and the broader social world is key and can lead to the production of unexpected spatial conditions.

Still from "When We Live Alone", a documentary film conceived by Giovanna Borasi and directed by Daniel Schwartz.

GB I agree that these extreme projects compel us to rethink typologies, whilst representing a kind of devotion to how the architects want to live. In a way, the Moriyama House by Ryue Nishizawa was maybe less a shrunken and compact home, and more a prototype for a small-scale communal living in the format of a village.

"Throughout all three films, it was not about grouping a number of demographics together and finding a solution that would fit for all but rather unveiling the complexity behind these conditions and arguments."

- Giovanna Borasi, Director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

When undertaking the three documentaries (What It Takes to Make a Home, 2019; When We Live Alone, 2021; Where We Grow Older, 2023), we spoke with many sociologists and anthropologists to really understand the nature of these new demographics. In the case of people living alone in Japan, we realised that they clearly want to live in the city, because of its economic cost, because of public transportation, because of environmental issues, to reduce consumption, and so on. Throughout all three films, it was not about grouping a number of demographics together and finding a solution that would fit for all — as per the standardisation which modernism advocated — but rather unveiling the complexity behind these conditions and arguments. Housing is not just about giving a roof, but about allowing new ways of life to flourish, and I think Tokyo vividly illustrates these dialectics, which are, really, global phenomena.

Bio

Giovanna Borasi (born 1971 in Milan, Italy) is Director and Chief Curator of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, Quebec, Canada since 2020. She first joined the CCA as Curator for Contemporary Architecture in 2005. Borasi was educated in architecture at Politecnico di Milano, and has worked as a writer and editor in addition to her curatorial activities.

Mohsen Mostafavi is the Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and served as Dean of the GSD from 2008-2019. His publications include Approximations; Portman’s America and Other Speculations; and Ethics of the Urban: The City and the Spaces of the Political.

Kayoko Ota is an architectural curator and editor. Before joining the Japan Research Initiative at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, she curated Japan-based projects from the Canadian Centre for Architecture and was commissioner of the Japan Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale.

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

Published
27 Nov 2023
Reading time
15 minutes
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