The City as Battlesuit

A really stimulating article by Matt Jones over at Future Metro, my new favourite site, which I have only just discovered thanks to David Barnard-Wills. This manages to combine several of my interests: urban futures, surveillance, security, ubicomp, SF and comics, into one tasty package – I’ll have to check out Matt’s own blog too.

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.

Utopian urbanism

…it is the adventurous, progressive, social democratic spirit of the New Deal and the World’s Fair that it is most worth revisiting now…

Naxos´ rerelease of The City
Naxos' rerelease of The City

A post which has little to do with surveillance and security today, but much more to do with another of my interests, in urban futures…

The predominantly classical music company, Naxos, has issued a new version of the classic 1939 documentary, The City, which was released to coincide with the New York World´s Fair. The film is a superb piece of work in many areas – a great script by the legendary urbanist, Lewis Mumford, based on his book, The Culture of Cities, luscious cinematography by Ralph Steiner and and Willard van Dyke and, the reason why Naxos is involved, a brilliant score by Aaron Copeland, which has been re-recorded for this release. It is already available for free download from the Internet Archive (a treasure house of historical material), but of course you won´t get the specially rerecorded score or the extra documentaries that accompany the anyway relatively inexpensive re-release.

A past vision of an urban utopia...
A past vision of an urban utopia...

Despite its serious message, the film ultimately shares the optimistic atmosphere of the World’s Fair – see, for example, Andrew F. Wood’s lovely site full of those influential images of progress that so shaped the rest of Twentieth Century’s idea of what the future would look like and then later, should have looked like. Today, it has acquired a new relevance, produced as it was out of that amazing surge of energy in US society resulting from Roosevelt’s solution to the Great Depression, the New Deal. Mumford´s admonition that “the age of rebuilding is here. We must remold our old cities and build new communities, better suited to our needs” (see this article about the movie) has never been more pertinent. As of 2007, we entered an age when the majority of the world’s population is living in cities that are already divided by extremes of wealth and poverty (especially here in Brazil), and a global recession is developing, which should cause humanity to rethink its priorities.

The 1930s saw the best and worst of the drive to utopianism. Some of those paths resulted in the holocaust and the gulags, some led to the unsustainable consumer capitalism we are still trying to revive, but it is the adventurous, progressive, social democratic spirit of the New Deal and the World’s Fair that it is most worth revisiting now.

The Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba
The Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba

Here in Brazil, another nation, like the USA, which struggled throughout the Twentieth Century to fashion itself into a democratic utopia, we can also see this spirit embodied in the gorgeous curves of Oscar Niemeyer‘s fluid Brazilian modernism. Lewis Mumford may be long gone, but Niemeyer is still with us at 101 years old, and still working with the same commitment.

It is a sobering thought that it will not be long before there is no-one left from that generation of urbanists, the generation that was committed to invention, beauty and social progress. Here’s to them…

(thanks to Janet Forbes of York University, Toronto, whose post to a mailing list inspired this reverie)