Tokyo Metabolism: Learning about the City

30.11.2011, 15:15
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During the past two days, as they travelled to see the city of Yokohama and then explored the Harajuku and Shibuya districts of Tokyo, the students had an intense intake of both visual and verbal information. They are doing their assignments on such topics as Tokyo’s metabolism, transportation, disorientation, mobility, fragmentation, and others.

Established only in April of 2011, the Yokohama Graduate School of Architecture (Y-GSA) aims to train highly specialized future professionals whose work will involve a variety of urban innovation projects. The school is located in a former power plant that was converted into a studio for the school’s needs. A total of 40 students are undergoing a 2-year master’s programme here, switching between different research studios that touch upon various urban topics, with a possibility of a 6-month internship in an architectural office, instead of one of the studios.

Architecture is a highly competitive field in Japan. There are 7 major architectural bureaus here.  Of all graduates only 5% have an opportunity to go work abroad; most stay in their homeland and become professors or work in local offices.

At the Y-GSA, Professor Koh Kitayama, founder of WORKSHOP, one of Japan’s leading architectural offices, gave a lecture on the metabolism of Tokyo. A commissioner of Venice Biennale 2010, Kitayama talked about Tokyo of the 21st century by comparing western and eastern approaches to a city. «Urban public spaces are authoritarian devices for suppressing people», was written on Japan’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Mentioning this text to Strelka’s students, Kitayama stressed the importance of the subject of metabolism, a concept that 50 years ago became the first influential manifesto regarding the city that Japan gave to the world.

Tokyo is a city that allows free-standing objects within each block, though on a very small scale. These dwellings are mostly owned by one family and give a certain freedom for expression. Due to a complex planning legislation that limits the development of land plots in height and width, but allows the creation of in-between spaces, Tokyo’s landscape is constantly changing. The changes also take place due to earthquakes.

There are 1.7 million home owners in Tokyo. Because of the high heritage tax, plots of land get subdivided into smaller parts (1st, 2nd, 3rd generation), creating more individual owners. The territories between the newly constructed houses become residue spaces where gardens and public spaces appear. The city is continuously renewed, and in this constantly changing environment people don’t get attached to buildings, they value the change that is happening and are not keen on preservation. Here is where architects can unleash their creativity by using the opportunity to turn towards small-scale individual architecture.

After Professor Koh Kitayama’s lecture, the architect Julian Worral guided the students towards Osanbashi Pier that is the main international pier at the Yokohama port. Originally built in 1889, the pier was reconstructed in 2002 by Foreign Office Architects and has become a popular attraction for visitors and acts as an open public space. The fluid and multi-directional space creates a holistic architectural object, being a continuation of the ground surfaces. The structural folds of the pier are specially designed to cope with seismic activities and prevent the collapse of the building.

On Monday, the students went out on their assignments and explored the Harajuku, Shibuya and Omotesando areas of Tokyo. By the end of the week, on Friday, they will have to present their findings and impressions of Tokyo’s living, identity and urbanism. Meanwhile, they met with the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kazuyo Sejima who came to Strelka in May 2011. She spoke on her project of the Shibaura house that was recently completed. Perched up on a plot of land of 60 sq meters, the building was created with the desire to make it more open to the public. The inner courtyard of the multi-storey house continues from the ground to the top in a spiralling manner producing open terraces and thus merging the living space with the street outside.