Higashiikebukuro. Photo by Blaine Brownell

Higashiikebukuro. Photo by Blaine Brownell.

Reclaiming Lost Tokyo

“Tokyo is a great metropolis that seems to have lost the face of its own past.”
—Hidenobu Jinnai

In Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, Japanese architectural historian Hidenobu Jinnai recalls his initial shock during his first visit to New York City: “New York, which I had always taken to be at the vanguard of contemporary civilization—and in a sense a model city for Tokyo—is in fact made up of old buildings dating from tile latter half of tile nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.” (Jinnai, 1) Tokyo, by contrast, has been rebuilt several times in the past century due to earthquakes, fires, and the bombing of World War II. In addition, post-war economic growth and zoning regulation changes have since motivated a rapid increase of urban density. As a result, buildings in Tokyo have the shortest average lifespan of any city—in fact, it is difficult to find a house in Tokyo that is over 100 years old. By comparison, a city like New York seems quite old indeed.

Although Tokyo’s hyper-contemporary nature exhibits many benefits—such as advanced infrastructure, transportation, services, technology, etc.—the fact that its historic fabric is rapidly disappearing represents a significant cultural loss. Although rare, one can still find pockets of history in Tokyo in the form of pre-war neighborhoods that have survived past calamities. To walk the old, winding streets of Kagurazaka, Tsukuda, or Higashiikebukuro (pictured) is to experience a city of the past, steeped in traditional charms and imbued with a community-focused, pedestrian-centric atmosphere. Unsurprisingly, these neighborhoods face serious challenges and are under intense pressure to change. The potential threats of natural hazards such as earthquakes and fire, for example, encourage landowners and city planners to raze old wooden structures and widen narrow streets. At the same time, increased land values and more liberal zoning laws provide incentives for developers to construct new high-rise buildings in old neighborhoods. As a result, Tokyo’s historic fabric is doomed to disappear entirely.

In this project, you will evaluate a historic neighborhood and propose potential solutions for its preservation. Note that preservation in this case refers to the thoughtful retention of qualities, both measurable and immeasurable, that makes this neighborhood unique. It does not indicate the literal “freezing” of the physical environment in its current state, which simply ignores the forces of change. Rather, the challenge will be to create a design proposal that addresses the need for change while maintaining fundamental, defining characteristics of the place. Qualities that can be easily measured include street width, building height and scale, storefront width, program, etc. Aspects that are less tangible include atmosphere, sound, light, activity, and movement. By reclaiming old Tokyo, you are not partaking exclusively in an act of historicism, but rather developing strategies for preserving important threads of Japanese culture and humanity in an increasingly western and mechanized realm.

This will be a collaborative project conducted with Dr. Kaori Ito and her students at the Tokyo University of Science. You will work in small multi-national groups (approximately two students from each university) for the purposes of discussing your work and touring the city together. Your team should decide upon a general theme or approach that connects individual interests without restricting the group effort.

Each team will select a different historic neighborhood from a list provided, and document a three-four block stretch of a primary circulation path through this neighborhood in photographs and maps. Each team is then to produce the following measured drawings (or drawing/photo-montages) of this public space: plan (1), elevations (2), cross-sections (at least 2). You may also record video footage (optional) of this circulation space to convey the experience of moving through it.

Please select an area from this list as a starting-point for your group (maps will be provided):

  • Higashiikebukuro
  • Kagurazaka
  • Kitasenju
  • Tsukuda

As you study your neighborhood, identify the primary forces driving its demise. Are they natural or human-made, environmental or economic (or both)? Based on this assessment, develop design strategies for the preservation of your neighborhood that will be visible within the streetscape you recorded. Strategies can be practical, fantastic, or both—however, your team should consider at least one strategy that makes the greatest positive impact with minimal physical intervention. Create a second set of measured drawings that depicts your design changes, using the first set of drawings as a basis for intervention. Consider both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of your design proposals, including the material details and atmosphere of your modified streetscape. If you have time, your team could produce a brief edited video that captures the experience of this place.

You will present your project in a public critique at the Tokyo University of Science on Saturday, June 7, 2014. Several guest jurors will be in attendance. Your presentation should be in a digital format that may be projected on a screen, and must include both sets of drawings listed above—in addition to photos, a video, or other optional content. Clearly describe your analysis of your site, the forces pressuring it to change, and your argument for how it should be preserved. Your team’s verbal presentation should be confined to 10 minutes, and may be bilingual. You are also required to submit your work digitally (Google Drive preferred) to receive your course grade.

Your team will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

  • Concept: Strength of conceptual approach
  • Realization: Strength of formal development, with emphasis on imagination and competency; articulation of position relative to studio questions
  • Process: Consistency and range of exploratory effort
  • Representation: Quality of visual and verbal presentation
  • Collaboration: Ability to develop a cohesive proposal within a group format

Readings on the following research topics/models will be shared electronically prior to our departure:

  • Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, Hill and Wang, 1983
  • Hidenobu Jinnai, Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, University of California Press, 1995
  • Momoyo Kaijima, Junzo Kuroda, and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Made in Tokyo, Kajima Institute, 2006
  • Koh Kitayama, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, and Ryue Nishizawa, Tokyo Metabolizing, Toto, 2010
  • Bruce Mau, New Tokyo Life Style Think Zone, Mori, 2001
  • Hidetoshi Ohno, Tokyo 2050: Fiber City, Shinkenchikusha, 2006

BDA workshop criteria
A 3-credit workshop “meets for a total of 45 hours with an expected 90 to 135 hours of outside time.”


  • in-studio sessions: 4 x 4 hours + 1 x 6 hours = 22 hours
  • studio tours: 5 x 5 hours = 25 hours
  • total: 47 hours

outside time:

  • studio site visits: 2 x 4 hours = 8 hours
  • other outside time, Tokyo: 10 days x 6 hours = 60 hours
  • other outside time, beyond Tokyo: 7 days x 14 hours = 98 hours
  • total: 166 hours

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