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Sunday, March 18, 2012

A metro area that excels in architectural details

ARCHITECTURAL GUIDE TOKYO, by Ulf Meyer. DOM publishers, 2011, 248 pp., $35.95 (paper with elastic strap)

In 1998, for the first time in history, the number of people living in cities became bigger than the rural population. Japan is not extraneous to this phenomenon. It is clearly visible everywhere, and especially along the old Tokaido road where — from Tokyo to Nagoya to Kobe — one conglomeration fades into the next one.

With nearly 37 million inhabitants, the so-called Greater Tokyo is the world's biggest urban aggregation. This kind of unchecked development usually results in many serious structural and social problems (Italian journalist Vittorio Zucconi once said if Rome had the same population, it would quickly turn into another Calcutta). Yet, while not exactly a paradise on Earth, Tokyo has brilliantly managed to avoid many of the ills of intense urbanization. It may be polluted and congested, but has a relatively low crime rate, an efficient public transportation network, and friendly neighborhoods. It is also virtually drug and graffiti free.

Though in the last 20 years Tokyo has become a go-to place for many architectural lovers, at first sight author Ulf Meyer would seem to be an unlikely fan of the city. After all the German architect is a partner in the firm Ingenhoven Architects in Dusseldorf, Germany, who are considered one of Europe's leading practices for green architecture — not one of Tokyo's strong points. But Meyer since 1998 has visited the city at least once a year and in 2001 even spent one year working for Shigeru Ban Architects in Tokyo.

While living here, Meyer often led groups on architectural tours. The next natural step was writing a field guide to help other foreign visitors tackle this urban jungle and discover its architectural treasures. In doing this, Meyer has opted to focus on 13 of the 23 central wards that comprise what in the past used to be called Tokyo City.

This exquisitely designed book — which looks like an oversized Moleskine notebook complete with its traditional elastic strap — opens with 12 double-page panoramic views, followed by Meyer's introduction. Botond Bognar, a leading foreign specialist on Japanese architecture, contributed a witty and penetrating essay on Tokyo's role in the context of world and especially East Asian cities. Bognar, among other things, points out that Tokyo ranks as the largest metropolis in terms of corporate headquarters and total bank deposits — a rather worrying fact when we consider the region's history of natural disasters.

The guide itself features over 200 buildings by both foreign and Japanese architects, from the post-1945 era. The usual suspects are included as well as many less known architectural oddities. The guiding principles in choosing them have been not only artistic value and architectural worth but also accessibility. In fact, purely residential buildings have been left out unless there is public access to their interiors.

Both Meyer and Bognar stress the fact that Tokyo "might be the first city in the world to function as a laboratory for experiments in the urbanized future of mankind." This "total city" never ceases to change and reinvent itself, with buildings and sometimes entire neighborhood suddenly disappearing and being replaced but something completely different.

According to Meyer nobody can become a 'Tokyo Expert' because it is impossible to have a proper and definitive knowledge of the city. Constantly reshaped by man-made and natural disasters, and the rules of the real-estate market, nothing is sacred and anything goes. Only in Tokyo, after all, could a masterpiece like Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel have been unceremoniously knocked down after surviving both the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the American bombings that devastated most of the city.

Without anything resembling urban planning, a recognizable form or a clearly defined skyline, Tokyo excels in the details, and, as Bognar points out, it is a place "where the parts are always more in focus than the whole." In this respect, its "spectacular contemporary architecture" plays a big part in making it one of the most exciting cities in the world.

Compared to similar books on the same subject, Meyer's guide looks gorgeous: All the photos are in color; the maps are detailed and better than average; the buildings are color-coded according to the ward where they stand; and there are several indexes at the end, including one for the 107 architects featured in the guidebook.

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