Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tokyo Skytree, thoughts on

Tokyo Skytree is a monstrosity.  It's a new tower/shopping mall/entertainment/office space/urban oasis/tourist destination/self-contained-instant-city in the east part of the city, an area better known for its Edo and prewar-Tokyo survivals than its postmodern monstrosities.  In fact it's the tallest tower in the world, they say.  And it's not precisely new anymore - it opened last year.  But I refused to go when I was in Japan last summer, it's such a monstrosity.

The skyline in that part of Tokyo is pretty low.  It's urban still, denser than most anyplace in the US certainly, but as Tokyo goes it's relatively tame.  So this tower really stands out.  It looms over the neighborhood like Godzilla, or like the Hotel of Doom in Pyongyang.  It doesn't help that the triangle-into-circle design makes it look asymmetrical from some angles, that the decks look lopsided and/or upside-down, that the coloring makes it look unfinished at best and doomy grayish-black at worst during the daytime, or that the very tippy-top, rather than tapering off into a spire, ends with a flat disc, like something else was meant to go there.  For years I'd see it going up - I could see it when taking the Narita Express in from the airport - and just cringe at this ungainly thing looming over my, okay I'll admit it, favorite part of the city.

At night, now that it's finished, it looks a little better.  Lit up in red or blue, with the steel framework looking white rather than smog-gray, it at least succeeds in looking cheerfully futuristic rather than depressing.  But I still think it looks ridiculous.  At night it looks like a 1950s B-movie raygun pointing up at the heavens - it even projects light straight up from that flat tip.  I'm sure that's not the image they had in mind, but at least it's something.

The thing is, I used to love checking out Tokyo's newest tower/shopping mall/entertainment/office space/urban oasis/tourist destination/self-contained-instant-cities.  Sunshine City was only ten years old when I first arrived in Japan - new enough to still retain some novelty, but old enough that its emulators were starting to be completed.  Now there are too many to count, and for the most part I think they've enriched Tokyo's urban wonderland immensely.  Shiodome, Roppongi Hills, Omotesando Hills, Tokyo Midtown, Shinjuku Southern Terrace, Odaiba, Tokyo Tocho, Landmark Tower in Yokohama.  The thing is, these all fit:  they're mostly in parts of town that don't have a very long history, by Japanese standards.  Most parts of western Tokyo, and of course Yokohama, were just fields or villages until the end of the 19th century.  Greater Tokyo's endless urban renewal makes a certain kind of sense in these areas.  Let Shinjuku be even more Shinjuku.  That's its job.

Asakusa's job - the job of the east-of-the-Sumida neighborhoods in which Skytree sits - is different.  Those parts of town are the more-or-less officially designated repositories of Old Japan in Tokyo.  Even Edo, founded circa 1600, is a young city by Japanese standards, which means that many people in this country don't give Tokyo much respect for its historic landmarks;  plus, earthquake fire and war have left precious few of them behind.  But the neighborhoods around Asakusa at least preserve some of the feel of the early postwar period, and sometimes the prewar period, and in many neighborhoods still contain traces, evidences, survivals, of Edo.  Most people seem to feel that's a good thing, even if it means that this part of town also feels old, rundown, grimy, and unfashionable.  Maybe because it feels that way.  At best, Skytree is a distraction from that;  at worst, it might destroy it.  Was my fear.

As I say, I used to love these self-contained-instant-cities within Tokyo.  They're architectural, urban-planning, postmodern wonders.  The more monstrous the better.  They always made me proud of my adopted home city, that this place could hold both the backstreets of Fukagawa and the skyscrapers of Shinagawa.  As a would-be prince of the city in my 20s, I would explore them eagerly, marvel at their newness, get off on their amazing intricacy.  This is what it means to be a city, I felt.  Nothing in my home country could come close - New York has no idea, Los Angeles, can't even dream it.

You get old, you start seeing things a little differently.  We went to Roppongi Hills last week and instead of thrilling to the daring design, the bleeding-edge hipness, I saw capitalism in hyperdrive.  Money seeking more money.  Materialism, sure.  Sick consumerism.  I'm a little less sanguine about that then I once was.  And I'm sure it has a lot to do with getting older.  Youth, wealth, and beauty are what modernity demands of you - certainly what Roppongi Hills expects of you - and while I never had wealth or beauty, I once had youth, and that counted for a lot.  Now I've lost that, and I just felt out of place at Roppongi Hills. 

That's not quite the vibe at Skytree.  We were there tonight, Saturday night, date night, and I didn't feel much more out of place than I do anywhere in Tokyo.  But still:  the fact seems to be that I no longer thrill to the very idea of a new postmodern monstrosity in my beloved city.  At least, not in that part of it.  I could take it or leave it.

We went tonight.  Kind of had to force ourselves.  The would-be old Tokyo hand in me, who would pride himself on knowing the city inside and out, won out over the shitamachi loyalist, and we went.  And it was okay.  Turns out to be far enough from Asakusa itself that it's probably not going to transform that neighborhood much.  And we went at night, and as I say, it looks better at night.  And the view from the top - well, it's pretty magnificent.  No arguing with that.

But we may never go back.


Rurousha said...

Thanks for a very interesting post about Sky Tree. I admit that I'm an unabashed fan - I think it's a beautiful design and a stunning engineering concept - but I have VERY mixed feelings about its effect on the shitamachi (where I live).

Condominium brochures in our post boxes have increased noticeably, and they all advertise a view of Sky Tree as their prime attraction. Every month I see more wooden houses being demolished to make way for yet another blah condominium. I know wooden houses are a fire risk, and we can't stop progress, and the relatively poor Sumida Ward probably needs a financial injection, but ... drat ... this other shitamachi loyalist wishes she could save time in a bottle.

Matt said...

Yes, great comeback piece. I went through a very similar transformation, from Fuck Yeah Megalopolises/Trantor As Ideal to realizing that what I like about cities is the concentration of humanity, not capital.

What these giant developments really are are highly efficient pipelines for transferring money from individual consumers to big corporations. I don't claim to be some kind of non-materialistic saint, but it turns out I'm not the neoliberal cyberpunk megacorp-riding radical I imagined myself to be either.

Tanuki said...

Thanks for the comments! Yeah, I've been away a while. Work. Then, the longer I go without blogging, the more pressure I put on myself to write something worth reading. Not that this was, but...

@Matt: yeah, I've gone through a similar political transformation. My parents' generation seems to have gotten more conservative as they get older, so dependably so that it seems like a natural law. But the older I more uncompromisingly leftist I become. Old-school liberal.

@Rurousha: I hadn't really thought of Skytree's effect on housing in the area. I was mostly thinking about what that new concatenation of stores would do to pre-existing commercial areas. But wow: if shitamachi gets totally condo-fied, that would really be the end of everything. "Views of Skytree." What a thought. I wonder if anybody actually believes their new condo's view of Skytree will last more than a year or two anyway? Somebody's bound to build another condo in the way.