Death of the dojunkai apartments

As I mentioned the other day, after the Kanto daishinsai (Great Kanto Earthquake) of 1923, there were many changes to planning and architecture in Tokyo, in particular a series of experiments with introducing western-style elements into the city, including wider streets to accommodate trams (streetcars), and new concrete mass housing influenced by the modern movement.

Dojunkai, a special organisation under the Interior Ministry, was set to provide such things. Between 1924 and 1936, this agency built 16 apartment blocks out of ferroconcrete and wood in Tokyo and Yokohama. The best known were those in Daikanyama (near Shibuya) and on Omotesando Avenue in Aoyama. The latter were controversially demolished in 2003 by the Mori Building Company Ltd to make way for their soulless Omotesando Hills shopping complex.

Much less celebrated however, were the Dojunkai appartments in Nippori (not Minowa as most people seem to think) in Aarakawa-ku, just round the corner from where I am staying. They’ve been empty and crumbling for a while, but now the writing is very literally on the wall, saying that they will be demolished too. It’s a sad moment: another episode in the slow death of the utopian urban ideal of the Twentieth Century. It’s also a reflection of the very high land prices in Tokyo and relative lack of value in what is on the land at any time (see this article for a good summary of the difficulty of any architectural preservation in Tokyo).

Anyway, not only are they valuable historical buildings, they are also degenerating rather stylishly so, at the very least, I thought I should get in and take some pictures before it was too late. So I did – much to the surprise of a crew of local authority workers who were surveying the place as I came out. Here are some of the shots. I didn’t (yet) go into any of the indvidual apartments – all those I tried were locked and some chained too – though I might try to in the early morning this week before anyone is around.

Tokyo Elections and Urban Development

Pretty much as predicted, the LDP lost badly in the Assembly elections for Tokyo. They ended up with only 38 seats to the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) 54. The LDP will continue to be part of the largest bloc in the Assembly thanks to the 22 seats held by the Komeito, the party of the Soka Gakkai, a lay organisation of the large Nichiren Shoshu evangelical Buddhist sect. The Komeito have almost single-handedly kept the LDP in power in Japan for years now, and seem to have no point to their existence at all, apart from ensuring that laws on religious organisations are kept as light as possible. Nevertheless, even as a bloc, the LDP / Komeito no longer have a majority in the 127-seat Assembly.

Under pressure, unpopular LDP Prime Minister, Aso Taro, has now called elections to the national Diet for August 30th. Normally one would expect a wipe-out of the LDP, but that’s not how Japanese politics works. With very strong rural and regional support, the LDP will most likely win again, but a different faction will get their man (and it will most probably be a man) into the PM’s office. There has been a non-LDP government before, but it happens so infrequently as to be almost unheard of…

Whilst Aso is unpopular and LDP’s response to the recession has been both predictably unimaginative and unsustainable (in short, “more concrete!”), this wasn’t just about national issues, despite what LDP spokespeople in Tokyo would have us believe. There are some serious economic and urban development issues in Tokyo. More people seem to have lost patience with long-standing Governor Ishihara, who is backed by the LDP on the whole, and in particular the almost collapse of Ishihara’s subsidies for Tokyo banks affected by the global collapse of financial services, and the latest mega-scheme to free up land for private sector redevelopment, the proposed move of the famous Tsukiji fishmarket from its convenient and historic location at the edge of fashionable and expensive Ginza to some remote toxic waste dump in the middle of nowhere. 20 years ago, even 5 years ago, such ridiculous schemes to aid private capital were routinely forced through, but in the current climate, this may not be possible. Finally, like Rio de Janeiro, where I was earlier in the year, Tokyo is candidate city for the 2016 Olympics with all the financial (and social and security) implications that bidding for and hosting such a mega-event implies, and people are starting to wonder whether the city can afford it.

Still, the relentless march of redevelopment continues elsewhere: the old Koma Theatre in Kabukicho, which I predicted would be targeted by developers as soon as they started trying to secure the area with CCTV cameras and intensified policing a few years back, is now almost demolished (pictures soon)… apparently Shinjuku’s red light district is now officially safe for more mainstream and less obviously dirty forms on capitalism.

Secure Cities

Following in the footsteps of leading urbanists like Mike Davis and Michael Sorkin, is a project led by Dr Jeremy Nemeth, an assistant professor at University of Colorado. which traces the degradation, securitization and privatization of what we used to optimistically refer to as ‘public space’. This project aims to map and quantify the space in three contemporary cities (New York, Los Angeles and San Fransisco) now restricted in the name of security. The website is online now, and their findings are summarized on the front page:

“Even before [the 9/11] terror attacks, owners and managers of high-profile public and private buildings had begun to militarize space by outfitting surrounding streets and sidewalks with rotating surveillance cameras, metal fences and concrete bollards. In emergency situations, such features may be reasonable impositions, but as threat levels fall these larger security zones fail to incorporate a diversity of uses and users.

Utilizing an innovative method developed by our interdisciplinary team, we find that over 17% of total space within our three study sites is closed entirely or severely limits public access. The ubiquity of these security zones encourages us to consider them a new land use type.”

(thanks to Dr Nemeth for the corrections to my original misattribution of his excellent project)

The downside of Brasilia

on foot, you are immediately confronted by the unpleasant reality of what is to the pedestrian effectively a huge expanse of carpark and highway separating the areas you might want to be. The functional split between the ‘zones’ only makes this worse.

Again, this is urbanism rather than surveillance, but here are some more musings and pictures on the urban form of Brasilia. Yesterday, I posted a lot of conventionally attractive shots of the buildings around the monumental axis of Brasilia. However, leaving aside the wider question of whether Brasilia outside of the planned centre functions as a city, there is a rather less beautiful side to the core.

This mainly has to do with the practical consequences of the philosophy behind the plan and particularly with functional separation and transport. As I noted when I first arrived, the city is dominated by roads. 5-lane highways run down either side of the monumental axis, and it is crossed by two major motorways in deep cuttings, with all the attendant slipways. These probably look very attractive as bold curving lines on a plan. They may even function if you are traveling by car (or bus). But on foot, you are immediately confronted by the unpleasant reality of what is to the pedestrian effectively a huge expanse of carpark and highway separating the areas you might want to be. The functional split between the ‘zones’ only makes this worse. Say you are in the hotel zone that I was staying in and you want to go out for a meal and a drink. Well, that’s 30-minutes walk to the nearest residential centre (where most of the evening options are located). Sure, you can take a taxi, but why should you have to? All the sports clubs are in separate ‘club zones’ even further away from either hotel, commercial or residential districts.

Now, okay, so the residential districts have most of their facilities (not including clubs) within walking distance – I said in my first impressions blog entry that I could actually imagine living here with a young family. And I still could. Natives of Brasilia are fanatical about the place. The residential districts work. You don’t really have to go anywhere near the soulless and secured shopping centres or take your chances running across massive motorways with uncaring drivers trying their best to ignore you. There is a simple metro system which runs between the districts and the centre (though it was largely closed for the building of new stations when I was there). You can walk around, between and under the blocks. They don’t appear to be totally obsessed with security in the manner of Sao Paulo or indeed most other large Brazilian cities. The blocks have concierges but not fences, walls and gates. Most of the windows do not even have bars.

But there is a reason and a price for this too. The residential zones are simply not socially mixed. Just about everyone who lives in the big blocks is a government or big corporate office employee. The ordinary workers and the poor live elsewhere entirely, in one of the satellite cities of Brasilia, and are bussed in and out via the busy central bus station every day. At the bus station, you find glimpses of the ‘ordinary Brazil’ – the cheap lanchonetes and pastelerias (in fact probably the best pasteleria I have found in Brazil so far)!, sidewalk vendors of DVDs and knock-off jewelry, the beggars, the hungry and the desperate. In many ways I felt more comfortable there than in the dry Le Corbusian dreamspaces of the government buildings.

Anyway, here’s some pictures of the ‘real Brasilia’ – or what it looks like if you stop focusing on the architecture and take a wider view!

In Brasilia: monumental space and… hip-hop?

I am now in Brasilia, where I have a number of interviews with parliamentarians, and officials from government Ministries and the federal police. The hotel I am staying in is right off the main monumental axis, in the northern hotel district. It is in some ways, the total opposite of where I was in Sampa, being masterplanned, spacious and with visible greenery. But it is a masterplan typical of Le Corbusier and his acolytes, that seems totally lacking in any flexibility or consideration for people not traveling by what they thought would be mankind’s liberation: the private car. So it is almost impossible to walk to a decent bar or cheap restaurant in the evening. You have to get a cab (or a bus if you know where you are going), to another ‘district’ for such things. The spaces are large and clearly designed to be monumental, but actually they fail in both being genuinely impressive and in being accessible. That is not to say that there are not some amazing buildings – of course there are many of Oscar Niemeyer’s greatest creations – but it is a place that looks better from the godlike view of the plan, or the selective gaze of the tourist brochure, than being within it as an ordinary person.

The taxi from the airport took a route through some of the contemporaneously planned and built residential districts. If it wasn’t for the semi-tropical vegetation, it could have been the Netherlands… long lines of similar 60s housing blocks, broken into neighbourhoods, each with its own little row of shops and restaurants, and divided by little parks and other community facilities. The blocks show quite a lot of variation in design and are certainly not all exactly the same, nor are they so large that they become inhuman in scale. With all the trees, and the facilities within walking distance, this really did seem like it wouldn’t be a bad – if not really an exciting – place to live. Which is exactly what I feel about many places in the Netherlands! For today, calm and unexciting is exactly what I need!

Strangely enough however, almost the first thing I came across when I got here was a local-government organised (and state petrochemicals company, Petrobras-sponsored) hip-hop festival, right on the main axis in the shadow of the TV Tower. So as the sun went down (if we could have seen it through the clouds) and the lights of the city blinked behind the hemispheres and towers of the Parliament building, I was getting down (well, tapping my feet) to some phat beats and conscious lyrics about the hardship and violence of life in the ‘periferia’ from the likes of Liberdade Condicional, and other favela stars. This, if nothing else so far, made me feel rather more hopeful for the future. For this evening only, the periferia had come right into the centre and was, symbolically at least, at the heart of Brazilian democracy.