By Tim Hornyak

House by house, Tokyo’s architects are reinventing the world’s greatest city

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells an aging Kublai Khan about the many fantastic places he claims to have visited. One is the metropolis of Thekla, a massive collection of “cranes pulling up other cranes, scaffoldings that embrace other scaffoldings, beams that prop up other beams.” When asked why Thekla’s construction is taking so long, the inhabitants respond, “So that its destruction cannot begin.” 

Polo might well have been describing the capital of Japan, which Calvino visited in 1976, instead of an imaginary city. Tokyo is a city of a thousand building sites, a vast patchwork of plots on which structures are built, used for a few decades, and then razed. It’s an endless cycle of construction and destruction fueled by mores, regulations and taxes. Despite this, a small but growing segment of homeowners in Japan are working with architects to create houses that incorporate natural elements in novel ways. They’re unique in Tokyo’s dense sprawl and they may just be worth preserving.  

The Tokyo idiom

On a macro level, Tokyo isn’t a beautiful city. When I first arrived 20 years ago, it seemed a riot of architectural styles in full embrace of kitsch. A postwar wooden yakitori joint might be shoehorned between a newly poured manshonof exposed concrete and a megawatt pachinko parlor of mirror chrome. Add to this lexicon vast forests of neon, fluorescent and LEDsigns, overlay a spaghetti canopy of power lines, crisscross it all with railways, ring roads and cramped lanes, and you get an idea of the city’s built environment. Don’t forget the 13.7 million people living in the heart of a greater metropolitan area of 38 million, the world’s largest. 

“It is an ancient Japanese belief that a house is only a temporary abode”

Kisho Kurokawa

This entity defies easy decoding. Tokyo is mash of nearly 50 cities where most streets are nameless and addresses are non-sequential. Above all, its sheer scale bewilders. Zoom out and each neon light is a dot in one of the countless capillaries of a vast artificial organism that has metastasized out of Tokyo Bay into Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa, and far to the south into the foothills of Mt. Fuji. As the seat of power of the Tokugawa shogunate, it was home to Edo Castle, one of history’s largest fortresses. In samurai times, Edo was known as the city of 800 villages, which were linked by moats, roads and other defenses. Tokugawa planners eschewed the Chinese-style grid of Kyoto in favor of an organic, concentric and fortified design that exploited the natural topography of hills and mud flats while reclaiming land from the bay. This blueprint survived many fires that swept the city, Japan’s late 19th-century modernization program that transformed Edo into Tokyo, and two catastrophic events of the 20thcentury: the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the 1945 U.S. firebombing. 

“As a result of the rebuilding, the construction industry grew and led the economy,” says Yoshiyuki Yamana, a professor of architecture at Tokyo University of Science. “In order to sustain this industry, national events such as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were promoted and saw the repeated remodeling of Tokyo. As a result, there is no continuity in buildings forming the city, and it is sometimes expressed as a city of memory loss.”

Houses of the floating world 

It’s perhaps on the level of individual structures that Tokyo is easiest to grasp. The first home I stayed in was a friend’s flimsy apaatofrom the 1960s in a back alley in Nakano. It consisted of a cramped kitchen, dining area and a tatami room with an outsized TV and a Sega Dreamcast. I slept in a futon on the mats a few feet from a gas heater, but the November chill still crept through gaps in the fusuma. After I smacked the lintel with my forehead several times, I developed an instinctive need to bow. Still, I was fond of the place, and enjoyed folding my body like an origami crane into the avocado-green fiberglass bathtub. Years later, after having lived in Shinjuku and Shibuya, I retraced my first steps in Japan down that back alley only to find the building had been replaced with a prefab structure clad in ersatz brick. 

“It is an ancient Japanese belief that a house is only a temporary abode,” the Metabolist architect Kisho Kurokawa wrote. “If it burns down, it can easily be rebuilt.” Impermanence and change define architecture in Tokyo. Wooden houses and even reinforced concrete buildings rarely last more than 40 years; commercial buildings that old are viewed as ancient. My favorite bar, a basement space in Kagurazaka where Suzuki-san spun Steely Dan vinyl on the turntable and ice globes in glasses of Hokkaido whisky, shut after the 2011 earthquake, its building demolished because of minor structural damage. Near my girlfriend’s apartment in Nakameguro, a gorgeous old-world house with an ornate wooden gate and meticulously trimmed garden was suddenly replaced with a low-rise block of condos. In a former geisha quarter on the Sumida River, a friend’s postwar ryoteirestaurant, where Japanese politicians sealed deals over sake and shamisen in the sixties, was pulled down to make way for a tower manshon. This is shrugged off as shoganai, unavoidable. But it can still be painful.

“There are several reasons for these short-term lifespans, but one big reason is that it is said that after 22 years, the property tax depreciation period for wooden houses expires and the real estate becomes worthless,” says Yamana. “Other factors include keeping up with earthquake resistance standards and selling property to pay inheritance taxes. The increase of houses built on small plots of land is accelerating, as is the customization of wooden homes.”   

Microscale innovations

This is the upside of the churn. Though many single-family homes are unremarkable prefab units from the likes of Panasonic, Daiwa and Sekisui, architects are boldly experimenting with custom dwellings. The wanderer of Tokyo’s great labyrinth can discover whimsical structures not only of wood but concrete, steel and aluminum. 

A series of staircases arching over transparent floors and skylights lends an ethereal, Escheresque feel to the space

One example of small-lot creativity is House Tokyo by Junichi Sampei and ALX Architect, constructed on a 480-square-foot plot in 2010. Clad in white perforated steel, the building looks like a multifaceted alabaster obelisk without obvious openings; at night, the windows are apparent and it takes on the appearance of a traditional Japanese lamp. Inside, skylights admit light into a geometric collage of white and grey surfaces, exposed concrete, metallic stairways and a glass bridge. Sou Fujimoto Architects’ House H is quite the opposite. Built in 2009 and modeled on a young tree branching out as it reaches for the sky, it defies boundaries between interior and exterior. Its exposed concrete shell features large rectangular openings around its garage and upper levels. A series of staircases arching over transparent floors and skylights lends an ethereal, Escheresque feel to the space but the design also gives inhabitants a greater awareness of each other as well as the surrounding residential neighborhood. 

Similarly, Monoclinic is a 2012 Setagaya Ward double-apartment residence with which architects at Atelier Tekuto aimed to embrace the sky. Its upper story features six windows configured in a large polyhedron that frames the sky and makes it an essential part of the interior. Nature also guided the design of Tree House by Mount Fuji Architects Studio. It opens up the interior into a series of spaces that sweep upward around a trunk-like central column, not unlike a spiral staircase. Radial support beams in the ceiling meet multipurpose cubbyholes on one wall while a loft serves as a gallery-style space in the canopy of the tree. Go Hasegawa & Associates’ Townhouse in Asakusa, completed in 2010, brings a surprising modernism to one of Tokyo’s traditional districts, just like the Tokyo Skytree looming overhead. The four-story family residence has offset windows and skylights over a stack of mezzanines, which also serve as sleeping areas, around an open interior space that’s topped with a sheltered rooftop terrace. “Due to the holes and the windows in the exterior walls and by altering the position of the skylights, you can look down diagonally at the neighborhood from the upper floors, and look up at the windows from the lower floors,” Hasegawa tells Philip Jodidio in his The Japanese House Reinvented.    

Hiroshi Matsukuma, a professor of architecture at Kyoto Institute of Technology and activist for preserving older architecture, is encouraged by projects in Tokyo neighborhoods such as Asakusa and Yanaka. Large-scale events like the Olympics will leave their own legacy, but Tokyoites are increasingly keen on making, and perhaps preserving, their own spaces. 

“Japan, which reached its peak population and has entered an era of rapid demographic decline, should face the problem of destruction of architectural culture,” says Matsukuma. “I am hoping that a change in consciousness that cherishes smaller places will progress amid urban development projects such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the 2025 Osaka Expo and the construction of large-scale casinos. We need policies to establish a living environment where everyone can depend on one another, with our limited resources and population.”