A Brief Tour of Some of My Favorite Tokyo Buildings

Of the many cities that I’ve visited around the world, Tokyo is easily my favorite.  I like how you can seamlessly bike all over the place, even if you can’t park your bike anywhere.  I like how address number 1 could be next to number 550 which can be next to number 78.  And, among many other reasons, I like the truly bizarre things that pop up from foundations – you know, buildings – and the things that stick out from buildings.  Funny though, before the 2, 080 feet-tall Tokyo Skytree was finished on February 29, 2012, I never thought of the city as a place with a prominent or skyline that could be recognized by a mere silhouette.  Of course, this is partially as a consequence of existing in an area prone to earthquakes.

Tokyo Skytree…Not a Favorite

Now, for the elephant in the room.  Since Tokyo was almost entirely destroyed twice – first, by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and then by US air raids during World War II – very few historic structures were left standing.  However, with the US helping to get Japan back on track right after the end of that war, new ideas, businesses and population booms flourished.

Thus, with leisure travel to the Japanese curtailed for nearly everyone currently outside of Japan, let’s take a brief (Part 1) tour of the city…

Huh, that’s not a building.  You’re right…but I am including this roller coaster – known as the Thunder Dolphin – as a result of its nuance.  Located next to the Tokyo Dome stadium – home of the Tokyo Giants baseball team – in Tokyo Dome City, the Thunder Dolphin is a steel coaster that has top speeds of around 78 miles per hour (~130 kph).  What I think is cool about it is that it not only passes through a sliver of a neighboring shopping complex (you can see it in the above photo, on the left), but it also goes through the center of the Big O Ferris Wheel!

The Thunder Dolphin was probably the most enjoyable roller coaster I’ve taken until now, but I really must check out Falcon’s Flight next.

When I first walked past the Shinanomachi Rengakan (信濃町煉瓦館 rengakan = “brick building”), I thought it was a government building, for instance a mint, or something else having to do with finance…or doubled as a  movie villain’s not-so-secret lair.

Nope.

The Shinanomachi Rengakan, a stone’s throw from the Shinanomachi metro station, forms the southeastern corner of the Shinjuku (district) branch of Keio University.  The curious structure was finished in 1995 (in Japanese), and today primarily houses offices of medical and media companies.

For Tokyo architecture buffs, Nakagin Capsule Tower needs no introduction.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower, which can be found close to the upscale Ginza and Shiodome neighborhoods, is one of the most iconic buildings in Tokyo.  Built in 1972 by architect Kurokawa Kishou (黒川 紀章), Nakagin Capsule Tower is the clearest realization of Kurokawa’s Metabolist architectural movement.  Metabolism stresses flexibility, convenience, and the concept that cities should be able to adapt to future changes; for each of the two towers, individual prefabricated “capsules” replete with a small bathroom, desk, and radio (in other words, everything the burgeoning salaryman class of the 1960s would need) were fed into a single column.

Maybe you can even check out the Nakagin Capsule Tower once international travel resumes.

Not far from the the Nakagin Capsule Tower, we have another shining the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center (静岡新聞静岡放送ビル).  It was completed in 1967 by Japanese starchitect Kenzo Tange (丹下 健三), who also designed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – Tokyo’s current City Hall, Hiroshima Peace Park, the Fuji TV Building, and, stadiums for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, among many other edifices.

The Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center has one tower into which thirteen individual office modules are “plugged-in.”  At the time, space was left in between groups of 2-3 modules so that others could be connected to the central tower, though this growth never materialized.  Given how densely packed cities have become, might we see a Metabolist renaissance somewhere in the world?

Menacing, no?

This otherworldly edifice is called the Reiyuukai Shakaden (霊友会釈迦殿), or the Spiritual Friendship Association Hall of the Buddha Shakyamuni.  Easy peasy.  

The Reiyuukai sect of Buddhism was established some time in the early 1920s, and formally recognized by the Japanese government in 1930.  Although the Reiyuukai Shakaden was built in 1975, since its religious origins stem from the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, it stores hundreds of tons of water, in the event of another disaster.  Furthermore, it houses a concert hall, and additionally (at least, prior to COVID-19) offers free Japanese language and calligraphy classes.

Ever wanted to have your very own Polyvinyl Chloride (err, PVC) model of jambalaya, a squid shooting its ink towards a plate of pasta, or fugu?  Then, you just have to find the “Niimi Chef,” perched above the Niimi kitchenware world building, finished in 1961.  To the right of this 7-story structure (that is, if you are looking directly at the chef), you will find the Kappabashi shopping street, known for stores selling cups, bowls, shop signs, chopsticks, fake food models, and many other items commonly found in a (Japanese) kitchen.  In that sense, the Niimi Chef building is a landmark for me, a reminder that at last, I’m back in my favorite city.

ADDRESSES


Have you/would you want to visit Tokyo?  Which buildings would you include among your favorites?

Façadism: Not the Only Controversy in Architecture

In the simplest terms, façadism – also known as facadism – refers to when the front-facing exterior (façade) of a building is preserved, regardless of what happens to the remaining part of the structure.  For an example, let’s take this façade, located relatively near the sweets market in La Merced, Mexico City:

Mexico City might be a more nuanced place for facadism, if only because it is very prone to earthquakes.  Indeed, there could be any number of occurrences as to why a façade would be salvaged; among those, historical preservation, unique beauty, and and a state beyond repair for the rest of the building are some of the more common reasons.

The concept of facadism has been controversial for years, though has become much more so due to the skyrocketing real estate prices in such cities as New York, London, and Sydney.  Often availing of historic facades as a scapegoat for skyscraper projects that completely ignore the original building’s raison d’être, property developers are generally the last ones standing in a court battle with city officials and/or defiant communities.  To clarify, some of those facades might be on national lists of historic preservation, therefore cannot be bulldozed save for being in dangerous condition; that developers can do what they wish behind-the-scenes, so to speak, is just a facet of capitalism.

Egyptian Revival Façade of the former Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company, now part of Penn Mutual Tower, Philadelphia, USA

Façadism isn’t always done distastefully; though highly subjective, I tend to think the Greek Revival example serving as the entrance to the American wing in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is a standout.  But, if you tend to think it’s all an eyesore, you might be interested to know that there used to be a tongue-in-cheek award – the Carbuncle Cup -given out annually to the worst offender in the United Kingdom.

Now that we’ve learned a bit about facadism, I hypothesize that there are other aspects of architectural grievances that are overlooked, particularly in the face of tourism.  Namely, I am referring to Shiro Syndrome, a phrase that I originally concocted while traveling to Osaka, Japan in 2005.

Shiro Syndrome – in Japanese, shiro 城 means “castle” – refers to the reconstruction of castles (and temples, shrines, historic sites, etc.), frequently with contemporary materials.  This is not specific to Japan, but being that it’s one of my most-visited countries, I can’t help but think about it, and that one moment in Osaka that started it all:

Although construction started on the castle in 1583, due to a combination of domestic strife and lightning, the current ferro-concrete structure was finished in 1931.  Further repairs were completed in 1997, and an elevator was added soon after.

Which brings me to the question…do you think the present-day Osaka Castle should still be considered historic?

The same could be asked of many of the pagodas in Bagan, Myanmar:

Bagan, which was the seat of an eponymous kingdom between the 9th and 13th centuries, saw the construction of hundreds of pagodas during that time.  However, subsequent to a catastrophic earthquake in 1975, many pagodas were hastily renovated with modern technology; another earthquake in 2016 damaged many more extant pagodas, worrying historians and archeologists alike about how the repairs would be carried out.

Then, we have the truly unusual Kawasaki Warehouse, in Kawasaki, Japan, which closed late last year.

Directly inspired by long-destroyed Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong
A feeble attempt at recreating Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City

The entire concept of the building was to capture the essence of Hong Kong’s infamous Kowloon Walled City, a massive ghetto which was finally razed in 1994.  If you’re curious about how it looked, the movie Bloodsport was allowed to film inside the labyrinthine Kowloon Walled City.


What is your opinion of façadism?  How would you compare it to the other two architectural topics mentioned above?