The Ultimate Country of Cities

A tribute and a reason to pause and consider ones own position in relation to disaster and, civility and society in our own country.. could we in the tip of Africa hope one day to be a society that while divided in many ways act cohesively enough before disaster in every little decision  to one day  master social and civil discourse like this? By Vishaan Chakrabarti in UrbanOmnibus

Tokyo, 2010 | Photos by Vishaan ChakrabartiTokyo, 2010 | Photos by Vishaan Chakrabarti

This, my tenth and final entry for a Country of Cities on Urban Omnibus, is in essence a highly personal love letter to Japan. For over a year, the wonderful readers of the Omnibus have cheered and jeered as I have relentlessly argued that the United States faces a series of deeply connected challenges: economic decline, energy dependence, oil wars, terrorism, xenophobia, protectionism, mounting debt, and spiraling health care costs. These challenges, while vexing when taken together, are surmountable with the silver bullet of the city. The combined growth of the skyscraper and the subway, I continue to posit, is the best path to keep our nation and our developing planet economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. The recent catastrophe in Japan has shaken me into remembering, however, that the real trailblazers in truly dense urban living have been the Japanese, for which they have largely prospered, and because of which they will overcome the unthinkable triple tragedy they now face.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, 2010, during the annual ceremony marking the anniversary of the atomic bombing | AFP/ Getty Images / Kazuhiro NogiHiroshima Peace Memorial Park, 2010, during the annual ceremony marking the anniversary of the atomic bombing | AFP/ Getty Images / Kazuhiro Nogi

Twenty years ago this August, a group of us went to Japan as graduate students fresh from two months of study in China (where skyscrapers were under construction on the then dirt roads of Shenzen, next to its new train station). I was enthralled by and enamored of a Japan whose towers and trains redefined the West as the underdeveloped world. We rode Tokyo’s surface rail for two days before realizing we hadn’t even been on the subway system yet. Knowing my time in Japan was limited, my father gave me the lifelong gift of a two-week rail pass on the Shinkansen, the world’s first bullet train, which unbelievably had opened in 1964. August 6th would be the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and we were inspired to see a memorial service that included the coming together of school children from all over the country. Every hotel in Hiroshima was booked, but we discovered that the bullet train made the journey from a distant farming village with an inexpensive, immaculate ryokan in mere minutes. To witness the service was a privilege, as we three were the only gaijin in sight in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park that morning. At 8:16am, the time of the bombing, thousands around us young and old dropped to the ground, essentially playing dead. The city went silent. An ambulance wailed in the distance. Minutes passed like hours, drums started to beat, the people rose from the sidewalks and went about their day, as we, dazed, found ourselves wandering shopping streets replete with American flags and statuettes of Liberty. We would go on to Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and ultimately, with a larger group from MIT, to Tokyo to study the densification of Marunouchi.

The lessons from that trip — the lessons of atrocity morphed into forgiveness, of farm juxtaposed with city, of park transformed to memorial, of verticality imbued with life, of hyper-density enabled by hyper-infrastructure, and ultimately of adversity repurposed for prosperity — would go on to color all that I know and feel about cities, all that I have advocated on these pages, and all that would form my own approach to the memorial at the World Trade Center, to the High Line, to the Hudson Yards and #7 line, and now to both of my ongoing professional passions, urban development pedagogy and the rebuilding of Pennsylvania Station.

Recently and on short notice, I was asked to be the host for a Columbia conference on building technology in Tokyo. Remarkably, because of the tightness of the schedule, I was afforded a helicopter ride from distant Narita Airport to the top of a skyscraper near the conference. During that heavenly twenty-minute joyride I sat gobsmacked by a Tokyo transformed. Twenty years earlier, while smaller towers abounded, skyscrapers were still a controversy, but today they define the morphology of the city. As so exquisitely described in Ian Buruma’s recent article for the Wall Street Journal, the permanence of skyscrapers is a relatively new development in a country so susceptible to natural disaster. Buruma points to traditional construction of wood and paper, and of course to the periodic twenty-year reconstruction of the Ise shrine, as embodying the premise that for Japanese architecture, “the only permanence is its impermanence.”

Farmland, Japan, 2010 | Photo by Vishaan ChakrabartiFarmland, Japan, 2010 | Photo by Vishaan Chakrabarti

Yet, in a mountainous country the approximate size of California but with the arable land area only twice the size of Massachusetts, Japan houses some 127 million people in a condition that is roughly ten times denser than the United States. In this situation, skyscrapers became inevitable given Japan’s prowess in manufacturing, shipping, information technology, financial services and the arts. Beyond economic rationale, however, density is a way of life in Japan. It is commonplace to find a bar on the eighth floor of a sliver building. In farming communities, freed from the moralizing madness of the Jeffersonian grid, housing is clustered together into tight communities with crop fields dispersed on the perimeter. Urbane society is the glue that holds the entire nation together.

And today, it is that glue that we are witnessing. In their fine nightly reporting, Anderson Cooper, Sanjay Gupta and Soledad O’Brien continually comment on the civility with which the populace responds to water running out at shelters, or long waits for transport, or caring for the elderly. To be sure, this civility can also be linked to an unwillingness to confront bad news at the institutional level, as witnessed by baffling statements from the government, by obfuscation from Tokyo Electric Power, and by the general bureaucratic malaise that has stagnated Japan’s economy for well over a decade.

But it is at the individual level that we will witness the rebirth of a nation. It is individual workers who hopefully will return power to the cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi. It is individuals who will rebuild the coastline, the retirement communities, and the country’s sense of self-confidence and pride.

To be sure, we should pause to give the Japanese, particularly their architects and engineers, some praise in this calamity. For all the failures of seawalls and power plants, little is said about the fact that most engineered buildings seem to have withstood the massive temblor and tsunami. With some of the strictest building codes in the world, Japanese skyscrapers were not weaponized in this disaster. Astonishing video of Tokyo skyscrapers swaying “like trees in the breeze,” as one onlooker noted, did their job by swaying as designed. In the extraordinarybefore-after photos of Sendai airport, amidst the flood damage, it is remarkable to see the air traffic control tower and terminal still standing. One can only hope our cities can boast the same in a similar consequence.

Sendai Airport Terminal after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami | Photo by Flickr user robertodavido
Aerial view of the Sendai Airport after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami | Photo: AFP/HO/NHK
Sendai Airport Terminal after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami | Top: Roberto De Vido, Yokosuka, Japan.Bottom: AFP/HO/NHK

It is natural, in the face of this tragedy, to question density and infrastructure. After all, it is one thing to see the horror of earthquakes and tsunamis ravage largely rural nations, yet it is another to see them ravage a nation that in many ways is more technologically advanced than our own. But it is critical to remember that Tokyo rebuilt after both a major earthquake in 1923 and the bombings of World War II. New York is rebuilding after 9/11. Beirut has rebuilt a stunning city on the Mediterranean. Bahrain will hopefully someday rebuild Pearl Square. In their excellent bookThe Resilient City, Campanella and Vale reveal the capacity of dense modern cities to rebuild.

Density has served Japan well and will continue to do so. One could argue that if their population were spread out, fewer would be susceptible to disaster. Similar arguments were waged during the Cold War in the US, when the Federal government subsidized the sprawling girth of the American middle class to flee both the arms race and race riots. But, as I have attempted to illuminate in these pages, spreading out only leads to oil dependence and further environmental degradation, which in turn leads to sea level rise and fiercer storm surges.

Admittedly, the alternative of densification leaves many questions unanswered. Cities may use less petrol per person, but they require vast amounts of electricity that must be generated efficiently, and with the advent of electric buses and taxis, this demand will only grow. Many hoped that nuclear energy was a partial solution, or at least a bridge to truly renewable energy, but this is an assertion that must be fully scrutinized, with the question of how to store spent fuel again at the forefront. To read that active reactors in California like Diablo Canyon were built to withstand earthquakes of magnitude 7.5 is cold comfort. Perhaps hope can be found in burgeoning waste-to-energy technology.

This earthquake, even at magnitude 9.0, cannot shake our resolve. To the contrary, with the oil fields of the Middle East in ever deepening turmoil, we must extend our hands, heads and hearts to our dear friends across the Pacific, and learn to be more like them in their civility, to live as they do in their density, to build our world much as they have, in Japan, the ultimate Country of Cities.

"In a mountainous country the approximate size of California but with the arable land area only twice the size of Massachusetts, Japan houses some 127 million people in a condition that is roughly ten times denser than the United States." Photo by Vishaan Chakrabarti“In a mountainous country the approximate size of California but with the arable land area only twice the size of Massachusetts, Japan houses some 127 million people in a condition that is roughly ten times denser than the United States.” Photo by Vishaan Chakrabarti


This is the tenth and final installment in a series of opinion pieces in which Vishaan Chakrabarti casts key current events as rallying cries in his evolving argument for urban density, for a Country of CitiesThe views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, is the Marc Holliday Professor of Real Estate and the Director of the Real Estate Development program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University and the founding principal of Vishaan Chakrabarti Design Collaborative (VCDC, llc), an urban design, planning, and strategic advisory firm based in Manhattan. He is a registered architect in the State of New York and lives in Tribeca. Read more…

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