BIG IS BEAUTIFUL
Beauty shows itself to us when we don’t expect it. It grabs you by the throat.
A city where you can expect anything but where you are hardly ever prepared for, is Tokyo. It is not the city itself but rather its urbanity, its scale and density that make of this city an inexhaustible source of beauty. Dealing with the beauty of Tokyo is dealing with the beauty of urban life itself. Tokyo doesn’t immediately bring a slick image to mind like Paris and London do. In a tourist guide or on the Internet it is unlikely that you will find a picture of the city trying to persuade you to visit the city. Instead, you will probably find an image of a Buddha statue, cherry blossom or a bowl of rice trying to be persuasive. Tokyo has camouflaged this absence of a clear image by letting it being represented by Mt. Fuji, a mountain at approximately one hundred kilometers distance of the city center.
In recent centuries Mt. Fuji has been the undisputed icon of the city. On many images of the city dating from the period that Tokyo was still named Edo (1603-1867) the mountain is always present somewhere on the background. Or Mt. Fuji rather took a prominent place on the image with the city as an extra somewhere on the foreground.One of the world’s largest human settlements was being represented at that time by a natural phenomenon.
The immense industrial development of Japan after WO II has changed that situation. The amount of smog that the city has created since that time has had a disastrous effect on the visibility of the city. The image of Mt. Fuji has literally gone up in smoke.
On present-day images of the city the mountain is conspicuous by its absence. The city is now shown in manga’s, very popular Japanese comic books, the way it really is: an endless urban desert made out concrete, perforated with window and cut by rivers made out asphalt. The reason for the eligibility of the city lies in the fact that the public space is hardly designed. Urban interventions à la Haussmann’s in Paris are unthinkable for the state because most of the landed property belongs to the people, divided in an innumerable amount of little plots. Expropriation was never part of the vocabulary of the urban planner because landed property is the most important possession for a family in Tokyo. On street level you experience the city like some kind of fog where small detached houses loom up alternated with supermarkets and here and there a school. You can read on a lamppost in which ward you are, and signs saying ‘Welcome to…’ or ‘Thank you for visiting…’ let you know that you have actually entered or left the city, because visually Tokyo never stops and never begins.
Yet in this urban fog, beauty can be found just as frequently and definitely as intense as in a typical postcard-city. Two urban principles underlie this phenomenon: scale and density. Two simple principles but when being applied to the extreme leading to beauty.