Ken-Ichi Sasaki on “Urban Tactility”

by Sandy Ikeda

One of the most striking things about the Tokyo skyline, at least for me, is how striking it isn’t. Viewed from afar — e.g., from its very-expensive-to-use elevated expressways (Narita Airport is too far from the city center to afford a decent panorama from the air) — the city, with few exceptions (such as Tokyo Tower), looks boxy and visually uninteresting.

This may be partly because much of Tokyo’s skyline was rebuilt after a terrible earthquake in 1923 and bombing in World War II. Yet the skylines of San Francisco (after the 1905 earthquake) and London (also the target of bombing during the war) are more interesting today than Tokyo’s.

The contrast between street-level and bird’s-eye views, on which Jane Jacobs based her opposition to modernist urban planning, is true to some extent of nearly all great cities, but in Tokyo’s case it’s especially stark. When I visualize New York or London, for example, in addition to the busy street life I also imagine their iconic landmarks, like the Wall Street and Midtown skylines or the Tower Bridge and Parliament. When I try to visualize Tokyo, only the street life comes to mind. Its almost insane busyness squeezed among impossibly compact city blocks can cause sensory overload.

I recently read an essay by the architect Ken-Ichi Sasaki that helps to explain this. Mr. Sasaki argues in “For whom is city design? Tactility versus visuality,” in “The City Cultures Reader,” that the aesthetics (and I would argue also the epistemics) of a city aren’t visual but tactile.

The most important factor in the aesthetics of the city is not visuality but tactility. I consider visuality as the viewpoint of the visitor to a city, and tactility as that of its inhabitants.

“Tactile knowledge” is what we feel in the presence of an object: the smells of a street, the texture of a building, the grade of a hill. It is the knowledge gained though contact or direct experience with an event or environment, and is closely related to Jacobs’s concept of “locality knowledge” as well as to F.A. Hayek’s “local knowledge.” While Mr. Sasaki focuses on one’s perception of physical objects rather than the social relations with which Jacobs and especially Hayek are primarily concerned, the significance he attaches to the knowledge of “the particular circumstances of time and place” (to quote Hayek) is, I think, the same.

If indeed the tactile aesthetic dominates the visual for the Japanese, or at least for Tokyo-ites, this may help to account for the visual drabness of such a great and lively city.


But Mr. Sasaki argues that in recent history, and outside of Tokyo at least, there has been a shift from the tactile to the visual in urban planners’ notion of what makes a city beautiful. I would imagine this has a lot to do with the transition, especially in the 20th century, from a pedestrian- to a vehicular-based urban perspective. Today we are more likely to experience most cities from the seat of a car than from a sidewalk, and contemporary designs for public spaces seem to reflect that.

Le Corbusier, for example, writing in 1929, famously describes an ideal modern city from the perspective of a “fast car” in the essay “A contemporary city” from his “City of Tomorrow,” in which he declares, “a city made for speed is made for success” and other non sequiturs.

The bias in urban policy toward the car and away from the pedestrian has profoundly changed our experience of the city center, making it less interesting. This in turn has discouraged the formation of social capital, which is the foundation for tactile/local knowledge and its utilization.

Mr. Sasaki concludes:

City design should take the view point not of the visitor but of the inhabitant, and should not pursue a ‘good’ form on the planning sheet, but a good feeling of tactility recognized by inhabitants, and even visitors.

Feels right to me!



2 thoughts on “Ken-Ichi Sasaki on “Urban Tactility”

  1. I agree. I think the distinction between tactile knowledge and visual knowledge is one of the central points of Jane Jacobs’s argument in the Death and Life.

    Yoshinobu Ashihara ascribes the Japanese preference for tactile knowledge to their custom of removing their shoe before entering a room and sitting on the floor. For more, see this post. Note also what he says about GK Chesterton.

  2. Patrick,

    Thanks very much for the pointer to the “Toynbee convector” blog post that quotes extensively from Ashihara. I particularly found interesting his observation that: “Chinese architecture is designed to be viewed from afar…, and in this respect it can be said to be more akin to the European and Greek traditions than it is to Japanese architecture. The distinction between Japanese and Chinese architecture, I would say, is in approach to the parts and the whole.” His extension of this idea from architecture to “whole-oriented” versus “parts-oriented” urban planning in relation to contemporary debates is interesting food for thought.

    Also, it reminded me of Sasaki’s observation that in medieval Paris the Cathedral of Notre Dame was not, as it is today, set in an open space clearly visible from an intermediate distance (that context was created much later and then more or less completed by Hausmann in the 19th century), but surrounded by a noisy warren of narrow streets so that to see it one would have to be practically standing next to it, close enough to feel it — the tactile again — and that its builders sculpted its facades and such with that in mind, striving to create a presence beyond the visual. This is something that the francophone (though not French) Corbusier was at best indifferent to.

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