January 14, 2002
Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA
Like any tourist, I took a few pictures in Japan this week,
and, like most, someone took mine. The spot chosen to commemorate
the journey, to fix it beyond my own frail memory, would probably
not be on your itinerary or list of venerable sites. Naomi
Pollock our correspondentand I had called on an
architect whose studio lay outside the center of Tokyo adjacent
to a residential area, and following the visit, had ambled
down a lane that curved with the contours of the topography.
The winter sun had warmed the air to maritime freshness; plum
blossoms were trying to pop. The clean street was filled with
mothers and babies and grandparents and kids, headed to the
pharmacy or the market for a treat, or simply visiting. Beneath
the four story buildings, storefronts beamed their offerings:
here, a cacophony of neon pink toys and candy; next door,
the smoky depths of an antique store, beside an open stall
where a woman minded display cases filled with pungent fish
and prepackaged sushi. At a fork in the street before pots
of sticky-sweet flowers, I stopped and Naomi snapped pictures.
Here beat the civilized heart of Japan.
In this multi-layered country, mountain wilderness rolls
down to cities that, in their historic antecedents such as
Kyoto, constantly unfolded inwardly from walled street to
courtyard to flowing interior space to inner courtyard, where
wrapping became artful for objects and people (think of the
kimono, with its under and outer garments). While the late
20th century reconstruction of cities brought astonishing
modernity and a stylistic polyglot to the entire country,
the home still lies under a protective veil; entertaining
occurs in restaurants, bars, or other public places, or in
members-only clubs. The street represents Japans contemporary
face, the visible, animated component of the whole organism.
Asian street vitality is nothing new. At Asakusa, the riverine
precinct near the heart of ancient Edo east of downtown Tokyo,
the market stalls crowd the procession way toward the Senjii
shrine, the oldest temple site in the city, and hawkers call
out above the crowds in voices indistinguishable from those
in Hong Kong or Bangkok. Jump downtown for the contemporary
equivalent, where street activity reaches fever pitch on the
Ginza on a Sunday evening, blue and red and white vertically
lighted signs ablaze and all doors open. Shoppers four abreast
buzz through the Matsuya department store, examining the contemporary
pottery or perambulating casually through Hermes, designed
by Renzo Piano. How many scarves could they buy, after all?
The brand matters, whatever the brand might be.
And what do you do on a street? Move. You walk, ride, pause,
and then walk again, taking the measure of time and place
in one meter increments, the width of the human stride. In
essence, on the street in Tokyo or in Milan, whether Japanese
or New Yorkers, we are living, not passively by sitting, but
by moving and seeing, watching and talkingsometimes
buying. Social activity, yes, but also something more. To
see this urban vitality as simply commerce misses part of
the point, I think, as well. What I saw in Tokyo on the street
has more to do with a kind of unfolding, if you will, for
people whose lives are circumscribed by other physical and
social layers. On the street, we put on a new set of garmentsbroader,
open to the sky, filled with infinite possibilitiesasserting
our humanity, which consists not only of mind, but also of
body. In Tokyo, we put on the street.
to "From the Field"