5 WAYS MODERN TOKYO reinterprets THE PAST
June 5, 2017 / Images and Text by Jocelyn Beausire
It’s easy to characterize Tokyo as a model of utopian futurism, with gleaming towers, autonomous robots and capsule hotels, connected by a web of bullet train routes and devoid of nature. However, Tokyo isn’t all screens and hover-boards – or at least not yet. Local architects, designers, and artists are embracing and reinterpreting the city’s rich history of making and craftsmanship to shape a distinctly Japanese style of modern design. On a recent trip to Tokyo, GRAY editorial intern Jocelyn Beausire took note of five ways that Japan has seamlessly blended its heritage with state-of-the-art materials and technologies.
INTO THE WOODS
From Shinto shrines to traditional farm cottages, wood from Japanese beech, cypress, and cedar forests has long played a pivotal role in local building practice. The design world has long been fascinated by Japanese traditional bypass construction, where joints are not connected in a single seam but instead extend slightly past each-other, creating a stacked effect (far left). This effect, represented in the wood joinery of roof dougongs (series of interlocking wooden brackets used as roof supports) has been reinterpreted by Tokyo designers in the past decades to create warm, tactile, detail-rich modern structures. Tokyo-based architect Kengo Kuma demonstrates this in the wooden structural elements of his playful Pineapple Cake Store (middle) and Asakusa Tourist Information Tower (far right).
The weaving of Tatami mats and the custom of interlacing whole tree trunks and bark panels into the exterior of traditional shingled homes has informed the design of many modern structures dotting the Tokyo landscape. In the burgeoning neighborhood of Daikanyama (frequently called the “Brooklyn of Tokyo”), architect Tomoko Ikegai and Klein Dytham Architecture heralded back to the ancient craft by weaving emblematic T’s into the façade of the Tsutaya Bookstore (far right).
BOLD SKYLINE STATEMENTS
In historic Edo, the city which existed on the site of modern Tokyo from 1603 to 1868, the high density of wooden structures meant easy kindling for large fires. The population quickly organized a response system, with firemen raising a wooden Matoi – a flag with a symbol of their unit – to announce their approach. These sculptural forms have a modern reincarnation in the prevalence of mammoth-scale graphic tokens and signage. Bright, graphic symbols are seen across the Tokyo skyline in the form of advertisements, business signs, and statement pieces, like the golden flame atop Philippe Starck’s Asahi Brewery Headquarters (far right).
GEOMETRIES OF DIFFUSION
Interiors have long been a focus in Japanese residential design, with traditional homes letting in diffuse light through rectilinear, sliding paper Shoji screens. The panels closest to the ground were left unscreened, so that sitting members of the household could have a view to the outside (far left). Geometric façade details are common, frequently seen in inlaid tilework on the side of high-rise buildings, a cheaper and more seismically sound alternative to brick (middle left). But recently, many contemporary designers are adopting a more traditional, nature-oriented attitude, inviting the outdoors in and screening light through rectilinear openings. This approach to letting in diffuse light through paper or metal screens, rather than Western-style skylights, and selecting and prioritizing specific views can be seen in Jun'ya Ishigami’s KAIT Kobo studio building (middle right), and the Yoshida Printing Headquarters designed by Kazuyo Sejima (far right).
Traditionally, the Japanese cast off their shoes as they enter their homes. Tabi socks, which are as easily worn outdoors (often with sandals) as they are inside, became a mainstay in wardrobes beginning in the 15th century. The characteristic separation of the big toe from the rest of the foot is said to relax and stimulate the mind, and the many modern adaptations (including jika-tabi boots for outdoors, middle left) have been embraced for their psychological affects as much as their unique style. Modern Tokyo-dwellers embrace footwear as a style statement, using bright colors and inventive shapes to express their individuality amidst the dizzyingly dense population.