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. Continue reading