One of the things that we consistently stress is the need to travel and study varied urban conditions. We believe by studying these conditions that we can inform our projects and extend our experience and specialization beyond our own work. Being able to take an objective look at anonymous works around the global provides us the opportunity to critically analyze these places and transform our analysis into useful lessons.
We have always been intrigued by Asian cities based on our experiences studying and visiting them. The very different cultures and approaches to urbanism is a cause of constant fascination. This is the first of two posts examining our two favorite Asian cities: Tokyo, a city of fascinating energy and Hong Kong, the Forgotten City in China’s ascent to the world stage. This post highlights our urban observations from the planet’s largest megalopolis and its unique brand of public space.
Tokyo: Lights, Cameras, Action
Tokyo exemplifies many elements that provide a vision for the nature of the city of the future. “Tokyo” is actually a conglomeration of urban areas that stretches from Tokyo station in the heart of the Ginza entertainment district through the port town of Yokohama to the former capitol Kyoto and Osaka. In many ways it approximates the nature of a city-region such as Los Angeles (of course, on a much more urbanized level) connected by Shinkassen (high speed railway) as opposed to congested freeways.
Many comparisons have been made between the futuristic vision of Los Angeles put forth by Ridley Scott in the movie Blade Runner (Paramount Pictures 1981) and the city of Tokyo as it exists today. The visual chaos brought forth in the film is indicative of the look and feel of the Japanese metropolis. Tokyo’s public spaces have character unlike any other city. They are at once both monumental and informal. In direct contrast to archetypal European urban spaces, these spaces are not geometrically defined by their surrounding buildings. These new urban space types are defined by their focal points, the larger than life electronic video screens. The spaces in Shibuya and Shinjuku, two youth-oriented entertainment and retail districts of Tokyo, create public space out of the street itself. This is partly due to the extreme density. Over 1 million people a day travel through Shinjuku station alone!
The giant video walls play an even more prominent role in the creation of new urban space. They in effect take the place of the monuments of old. Throughout the latter part of the twentieth century designers have struggled with the proper expression of the memorial. Ever since the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall in Washington D.C. by Maya Lin the debate has raged on as to whether monuments within public spaces should be figurative or abstract. The Japanese urban space turns this debate on end. It replaces the “statue” and the “sculpture” with overwhelming technological expression. Essentially the relationship between memorials and primary public space is erased. Monuments are for more formal or sacred spaces. The new, informal public space looks to technology for its organization and sense of appropriate order, or lack thereof.
Shibuya Station makes Times Square look docile in comparison. Two to three million people pass through its subway gates everyday. The interesting thing is that conceptually it is not unlike Times Square. There is no central gathering spot or “square”. The street, the sidewalks, and the buildings all combine into one contiguous public space immediately outside of the station. So, the traditional act of “gathering” occurs as a transitional experience from transit station through the streets and to a destination, if a destination is desired. If not, one can partake of the communal experience as an observer from one of the many restaurants or shops that ring the intersection at the station entrance.
Our cities in the future can engage technology in a manner in which it can be used to create a place of communal experience. Urban areas are uniquely equipped to provide this type of experience because of the concentration of the built “infrastructure” of buildings, open space, and landmarks, which create an environment of intense energy. Tokyo exemplifies some interesting thinking on the interrelationship of technology and space.
In part two we will look at Hong Kong, which, due to its history, provides a counterpoint to both the Tokyo model AND the models being put forth for other Chinese cities.