Jon Morrison

What Japanese cities can teach us about architecture

… and what they could learn from us in return

  • From Spectator Life
The Tokyo skyline [Getty]

There are three things that occur to you when you travel the length of Japan: that kimonos are surprisingly good for any occasion; that the country’s reputation for cruelty may partly derive from breakfasts comprising tea porridge and prawn soufflé; and that the hordes of camera-wielding Japanese tourists taking thousands of snaps – a comic trope in the 1980s, at least – were really just ahead of their time and the rest of us are only now catching up thanks to our iPhones.

First impressions of Tokyo might persuade you that you’ve accidentally fallen into a dystopian future: the march of skyscrapers and mesh of streets sprawls greyly on for the best part of 100 miles

Of course, in some ways Japan is the perfect society: the standards of honesty are such that they’ll chase you down if you leave six yen (2p) in change behind in a convenience store and you can set your watch by the buses, let alone the trains. I was delighted by the lack of tipping, too. But first impressions of Tokyo might persuade you that you’ve accidentally fallen into a dystopian future: it’s a place where snub-nosed locomotives slice through the suburbs at all hours, where neon-lit back-alleys offer incomprehensible services and where the march of skyscrapers and a mesh of streets as intractable as the telephone wires sprawls greyly on for the best part of 100 miles. This, after all, is the world’s largest metropolis, with a population of nearly 38 million.

But we’re here to talk about architecture, not maid cafes, Sapporo beer or fried octopus balls – and there’s a lot to talk about. In recent years, Japanese architects have come to dominate the scene: Kengo Kuma built the V&A Dundee, Shigeru Ban the Aspen Art Museum, Toyo Ito had a crack at the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, and Tadao Ando breathed new life (and a lot of cement) into the Bourse de Commerce in Paris and the Punta Della Dogana in Venice.

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