WHY IS TOKYO’S SKYLINE SO BORING?
Although Shanghai now has the largest population of any single urban jurisdiction, Tokyo is still by all means the largest urban area in the world, and has been for some time. The sum of Tokyo’s greater metropolitan population is over 36 million, which still dwarfs its competitors for now. Tokyo overtook New York as the world’s biggest city in the mid-1960s and since then, Tokyo has remained at the top.
In addition to size, Tokyo is rich. Tokyo has the largest total economic output (GDP) of any city in the world, even adjusting for income vs. the cost of living (PPP).
Despite Tokyo’s huge population and economic development, the city cuts a rather unknown visual image in most people’s minds. Images of blinking lights, crowded crosswalks and bustling noodle shops define Tokyo. The skyline is rather nondescript. Shanghai has its iconic, twisting futuristic Pudong district. Paris has the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower. Every building in Dubai seems to be screaming for our attention. New York and Hong Kong have jagged, famous high-rises built against their wide waterfronts. But, if you ask someone to draw or describe the Tokyo skyline, you’ll probably get a lot of hesitation and confusion.
Given its size and wealth, it would be expected that Tokyo have an impressive, iconic skyline to rival any city in the world. However, Tokyo’s skyline is still bland, boxy and unmemorable. Why?
Here are some reasons:
Tokyo sits atop some of the most shaky land in the world. Earthquakes are a regular occurrence here. The 1923 Great Kantō earthquake destroyed 50% of the buildings in Tokyo and killed 150,000 of its citizens.
Due to this danger, Tokyo has always had a height limit for buildings. Today, technology allows for safer construction. Meaning, Tokyo has some building upward to do.
Tokyo’s height limit for a skyscraper is now around 750 feet (250m). That’s not all that high. Panama City, for example, has ten buildings over 750 feet and just 3% of Tokyo’s population. Until 1963, Tokyo had a height limit of just under 100 feet (31 meters). Once that height limit was raised, Tokyo built hundreds of taller towers, but the construction didn’t have much personality. Developers and architects designed buildings not to be unique, but rather to hold as much profitable space as they could. Therefore…
TOKYO’S ARCHITECTURE IS BOXLIKE
Due to strict rules on height, buildings in Tokyo have grown stumpy and fat. Developers get the most usable space out of their building lot as possible. In the end, you get a building that looks like a box, with few articulations or surprises. The old New York “ziggurat” pyramid style is inefficient and uncommon here.
For example, the 54-story Mori Tower in Ropponggi has just as much floorspace than the Willis Tower (Sears Tower) in Chicago, which is twice it’s height at 108 stories.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL, NOT GRAND STATEMENTS
Coming into Tokyo from other Asian countries, I’m always impressed with the quality of materials in the buildings. Additionally, the Japanese do a great job of keeping their buildings clean and updated. Pride seems to be taken in quality and upkeep, but in Japan the design of office buildings and residential high-rises are often overlooked. This is because…
THE JAPANESE DON’T EXPECT BUILDINGS TO LAST LONG
Though today at peace and prosperity, Japan has had many disasters in the past century. Earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and atomic bombs are some of the horrible events that have destroyed large parts of Japanese cities. This has left a mentality that buildings will not last more than a few decades.
Because of this short-term mentality, Japan has some really crazy and risky residential architecture. Home builders don’t have to consider the resale value of their home, so they take risks. When they die or sell their home, the new owner will tear it down and build a new home in its place. However, in commercial architecture, this leads to a lack of ambition in the design of the building and attention to its profitability, construction costs, and safety. Building something that will be the pride of the city isn’t really on the mind.
‘Kenkyo’ is the virtue of modesty in Japan. This virtue stresses being reserved and practical. Absurdity and individualism are rarely seen as positive characteristics.
Japanese design prioritizes simplicity and minimalism. Traditional Taoist belief is that beauty should blossom in the mind and not be dictated by one’s physical surroundings. Japanese interiors and exteriors are often carefully simple, with little “flair”. Modesty. Contrast the Kenkyo mindset to the showy ambition of the Shanghai of today, or New York in the 1920s, and you can see why the skyline of Tokyo has remained simple.
SMALL LOT SIZES
Tall buildings in Osaka and Yokohama are generally built on landfill in waterfront areas. Tokyo developed from a series of small fishing villages and, even after its destruction by earthquakes and war, no grand plan for Tokyo was ever introduced. Lot sizes rarely change in the city and these small parcels of land can rarely accommodate a high-rise building. A lack of rectilinear blocks (think New York City) also inhibits tall construction.
TOKYO HAS SO MANY ‘DOWNTOWNS’
Tokyo did not develop concentrically like most European and North American cities. There was never really one “center” of Tokyo, but rather many centers and districts that grew into one. So, there is no Manhattan of Tokyo; no obvious place where the tallest towers would grow. Rather, development and density is spread throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area. When a city has five to ten high-rise districts, it’s harder to get that one iconic picture of the Tokyo skyline. Instead, we get a sea of modest high-rise that stretch as far as the eye can see.
THERE’S NOT MUCH WATER IN TOKYO
It’s natural that the center of a city should develop around it’s most historically significant waterfront. That is where the ships come and go. There, landfill can give a city new space to build on. The dramatic contrast of water and steel makes for a memorable image of a skyline, as seen in Shanghai, New York and Hong Kong. However, Tokyo doesn’t have a definitive waterfront.
Tokyo Bay is not quite at the center of Tokyo. The rivers that run through the city are rather narrow and the population centers did not develop around them. The train stations, not the waterways are what have become centers of population and development. Therefore, we don’t get many dramatic images of water and steel.
…SO, WILL TOKYO EVER BUILD A SKYLINE TO MATCH OTHER GREAT CITIES?
Not any time soon. An iconic skyline doesn’t seem to be an important priority for the city’s builders. While Chinese cities are constantly topping-off higher and higher with something to prove to the world, Tokyo’s beauty lies in its endless street life and constantly-changing culture. Tokyo is an introverted city of efficiency and small wonders, not grand statements.
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