In my previous post, I reviewed an old book on Japan while teasing a new one:
If you read one book about Japan this year, it should be the beautiful, new Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City by Jorge Almazan and his Studiolab colleagues, including Joe McReynolds. But if you read two books about Japan, as you should, the second one should be André Sorensen’s essential The Making of Urban Japan.
And readers responded – buying both books:
Now we get to delve into Emergent Tokyo. Here is my extended discussion with Professor Almazán, edited for length.
Salim Furth: I love your chapter on “yokocho”, alleys lined with tiny bars and restaurants like the one Americans see in the show Midnight Diner. Yokocho look a little like medieval Middle Eastern souks, but you point out that they originated as an orderly relocation strategy for postwar black markets, dictated and built by national authorities. Then proprietors took over, adding upper stories, changing uses, and personalizing. Is there enough space in 21st-century building codes and business models for continued physical evolution of yokocho? How is that occurring?
Jorge Almazán: The yokocho that were created to relocate post-war black marketeers are in fact still evolving. But let me address building codes and business models separately. In terms of physical evolution, it is true that current regulations would make it very difficult to add new floors, and therefore we cannot expect additional vertical growth. But the regulation allows owners to retrofit, reinforce and renovate current buildings. Many of the young owners, for example, are transforming their bars into more open and community-oriented configurations.
Building codes are not the result of allegedly pure and innocent building science. Like any other law, they are the result of ideological assumptions, political struggle, and lobby pressure (from the real estate construction industries). We can imagine future building codes responding to current social demands towards a more human-scale approach to urbanism, allowing more proactive preservation of historical yokocho and even the creation of new ones. We have already seen legal changes in Japan pointing in this direction (as new laws or deregulation of existing ones).
But beyond the physical evolution, yokocho potential to evolve is more interesting as an urban model. That is the realm where the restaurant industry is finding creative advantages and business opportunities. Many of the latest large-scale redevelopment projects have included commercial floors with yokocho-like arrangements of small bars and restaurants, like the Toranomon Yokocho or Shibuya Yokocho, offering the diversity of atmospheres, the ease of interaction among customers, and the intimacy of the historical yokocho. That said, most of these new pseudo-yokocho only reproduce the physical arrangement of the historical yokocho. What they lack is precisely the greatest urban and business potential of the authentic yokocho: a surprisingly rich and adaptable emergent urban entity created by a multiplicity of independent actors. In [true] yokocho, independent operators engage with each other in a non-hierarchical relation of cooperative competition, creating a localized economy of agglomeration that results in an urban place much greater than the sum of its tiny parts.
Salim Furth: In the first chapter, you draw a sharp distinction between “chaos” and “emergence”. Why is emergence a better concept than chaos for understanding Tokyo?
Jorge Almazán: “Emergence” is a property of “complex systems,” which are distinct “chaotic systems” (See Stephen Wolfram’s work.) Roughly speaking, complex systems’ behavior is not regular, but it isn’t chaotic either. Complex systems have structure, even if it is difficult to define. In this formal sense, cities (including Tokyo) are closer to emergent complex systems than purely chaotic systems.
At a more popular level, “chaos” is always mentioned when talking about Tokyo, especially outside Japan. “Chaos theory” was popularized among architects in the late 1980s, and it allowed Japanese architects to see Tokyo in a more positive light. But this narrative of chaos is a dead-end. It left many architects without critical tools to analyze the city and charter a vision for the future.
In the popular discourse, “chaos” is often understood as a complete lack of planning or design. That is a dangerous conclusion. We all like the vital and energetic disorder of Tokyo, but we should recognize the underlying structures that produced it over time. Disorder needs to be designed. The idea of emergence (the spontaneous creation of order and functionality from the bottom-up) is a promising approach for all cities in general, especially for cities with a heavy top-down planning tradition. Tokyo’s light urban planning combined with the small scale of land plots, and the creativity of many of its citizens produced a particularly fertile ground that accelerates bottom-up emergent urban phenomena.
Salim Furth: Some of the spaces in Emergent Tokyo benefit from well-placed trees or potted plants. Those are almost always delightful in a city, but there’s a tension between providing space and sunlight for plants and allowing for narrow passages and tall buildings. In the U.S., the Garden City movement’s love of greenery has led to a lot of dead, oversized urban spaces. What can we learn from Tokyo about including trees in small spaces?
Jorge Almazán: This is not only an American problem. The Modernist obsession with expansive open spaces left many European post-war recent developments with too large and too ill-located parks.
Tokyo does not excel in the creation and protection of public greenery. What is really intriguing is Tokyo’s informal greenery. In many neighborhoods, even the most densely built, each neighbor maintains a tiny garden, sometimes with trees but most often small greenery and potted plants. This is a bottom-up practice, there is no local ordinance forcing owners to maintain them. In spite of their tiny size, their presence throughout the whole neighborhood creates an overall sense of greenery.
This phenomenon has cultural roots. But it serves contemporary functions beyond visual refreshment. It is a gentle way to demarcate property boundaries and create visual barriers to keep privacy, without aggressive elements like fences and walls.
It is a way to signify a commitment to embellish the neighborhood and express the individual personality of the homeowner. Some use a Victorian style with many flowers, some use bonsai and other Japanese elements, and some cover the whole building with ivy. Recently I see many Mediterranean greenery, even olive trees, and very often potted herbs for cooking.
In our interviews, we found that small greenery triggers conversations and interactions between neighbors too. Strangers and even neighbors are more likely to talk if there is a third element or stimulus that connect them. Using Holly Whyte’s terminology, greenery is this “triangulation” device that provides a social bond between people.
Salim Furth: In Chapter 6 you convinced me that “dense, low-rise neighborhoods” are the most natural urban form in Tokyo. That is, this urban form tends to emerge from a variety of initial conditions, including planned garden suburbs (Higashi-Nakanobu), gridded artificial land (Tsukishima), and unplanned sprawl (North Shirokane).
Does this form dominate because of its intrinsic advantages or because land use institutions favored it? Several times, you describe these neighborhoods as a “delicate balance”, but it seems to me they’re more of a hardy weed.
Jorge Almazán: The reasons for the domination of this urban form are mixed. Low-rise construction has the intrinsic advantage that can be easily and cheaply designed and built, especially in wood (the dominant structural material of these neighborhoods). There is also a clear intention by planning authorities to create low-rise areas, at least in those many areas zoned as “low-rise exclusively residential areas,” with maximum heights of 10 or 12 m. What authorities probably did not foresee is the high ground coverage and population densities that many neighborhoods reached over time, as a result of disparate influences, like land subdivision to pay the high inheritance taxes, or the deregulation in FAR calculation methods.
This largely unintended result is a unique urban fabric that often strikes a balance between preserving a village-like small scale with the advantages of a metropolitan context. You are right that these urban fabrics grow and expand rapidly as weeds. But they are delicate because their best qualities can be easily damaged by internal dynamics (like the invasion of parking spaces replacing gardens); or external forces (like road widenings or large-scale redevelopments), turning them characterless and unwelcoming. Our book is a call to understand, cultivate, and harvest the beneficial effects of this native weed, rather than insisting on bulldozing and razing it.
Salim Furth: You and your colleagues are releasing a Japanese language edition later this year. How does the book serve Japanese and foreign audiences differently?
Both editions are practically identical, with a difference in framing. The English edition contextualizes Tokyo in the global discourse, emphasizing lessons that we can extract for other cities around the world. The Japanese version is framed within the internal discussions in Japan.
[Within Japan,] the relative attractiveness of Tokyo has decreased due to the recent wave of large-scale redevelopments, and there is a search for alternatives. Our book is a call to pay attention to the value of Tokyo’s own vernacular urbanism.
As foreigners, you and I are mesmerized by zakkyo buildings or yokocho, but within Japan, scholars, and authorities often ignore and neglect them as urban subproducts. In spite of their conspicuous presence and popularity, the official discourse still considers most of Emergent Tokyo as unsightly, dangerous, or underdeveloped. The book offers the Japanese readership a fresh view of their own everyday life environment as a valuable social, spatial, and even aesthetic legacy from which they could envision alternative futures.
Finally, the book uses one language that needs no translation: the lingua franca of graphics. We believe that new knowledge can be produced not only verbally or numerically, but also graphically. The discipline of scrupulously drawing all the case study areas obliged us to discard vapid rhetoric and focus on tangible aspects that can be mapped, drawn, and eventually designed. We also included numerous photographs, selected after years of fieldwork, building trust with locals, and obtaining rare permission to take bird’s-eye views and intimate interiors shots.
Salim Furth: I would ask where people should buy the book, but I think I know the answer. After reading Emergent Tokyo, one is more convinced than ever that it’s worth supporting local merchants. Small bookstores might need to special order. But the book is so visual, it deserves to be on display racks so people can touch it and flip through. It’s also available via Oro Editions and Amazon.
Jorge Almazán: Yes, and on the way home from your local bookseller, you might find a cozy café to read in.