Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City

Jorge Almazan

ORO Editions 2022
A book review by Danny Yee © 2023 https://dannyreviews.com/
Emergent Tokyo begins with a typology of Tokyo neighbourhoods (Village, Local, Pocket, Mercantile Yamanote, Mercantile Shitamachi, Mass Residential and Office Tower) but its core is a detailed examination of five specific phenomena: yokochō alleyways, zakkyo buildings, undertrack infills, ankyo streets, and dense low-rise neighbourhoods. Three examples of each are examined in detail, with photographs, maps, floor plans, cross-sections, and birds-eye views — in some cases down to 60:1 plans showing the layout of individual bars.

Yokochō alleyways are "low-rise buildings of three storeys or less with footprints under 50 m², connected by alleys of less than 4 m in width" — Shinjuku's Golden Gai bar area is the most famous. Zakkyo buildings are eight to ten storey blocks on narrow footprints, typically with a mix of independent retail and service businesses on each floor and distinctive external vertical advertising. Of the "undertrack infills" enabled by raising of railways, the most successful offer "a coherent collection of independent shops in layouts designed to welcome residents from the surrounding neighborhood". Ankyo streets resulted from the filling in of small waterways, and offer a "small-scale, intimate urban experience" of hidden-away walking routes. And dense low-rise neighbourhoods — areas of detached houses with good transport links, high plot coverage, narrow alleys, and residual gaps between houses — are widespread but increasingly at risk from a combination of earthquake concerns, loss of greenery to subdivision and car parking, and conversion into apartment blocks.

All of these connect outwards and are open, often nearly seamlessly, to the streets around them, rather than being inward-looking and enclosed like office towers or shopping malls. They illustrate "a Tokyo model of emergent urbanism that arose as much from the bottom up through serendipity and painful necessity as it did through intentional design". This is contrasted with a corporate-led urbanism exemplified by huge monolithic developments offering crippled Privately Owned Public Spaces as a pablum.

There are possible lessons from these phenomena both for Tokyo and for other cities:

"the designer's role is not to dictate exactly what the end result of complex interactions should look like, but rather to design into being the necessary preconditions for emergence to occur. Tokyo offers a vivid blueprint of what this looks like in practice: neighborhoods filled with a multiplicity of independent owners and operators, economies of agglomeration, small-scale architecture, urban spaces that are physically and socially permeable, interconnected networks rather than top-down hierarchies, and bottom-up incremental growth rather than corporate redevelopment."

There's also a fascinating chapter on "Tokyology", presenting a typological time-line of approaches to thinking about Tokyo. This is moderately academic in focus, but Emergent Tokyo is accessible without any background in architectural theory or urbanism, and could be enjoyed by any visitor interested in the structure of the city around them. Looking for examples of the five phenomena covered could even provide a framework for a visit.

February 2023

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- books about Japan + Japanese history
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%T Emergent Tokyo
%S Designing the Spontaneous City
%A Almazan, Jorge
%I ORO Editions
%D 2022
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781951541323
%P 224pp