Tokyo Starting to Seek Relief From Its Architectural Cacophony


It is about as ugly a mix of old and new as can be found.

Over a dark river in the heart of Tokyo stands the Nihonbashi bridge, a charming stone span decorated with statues of dragon-like creatures that has for 400 years been the meeting point of major roads leading to the capital.

Just feet above the Nihonbashi looms the Metropolitan Expressway, a four-lane, smog-enshrouded testament to the ills of modern traffic and the drab grayness of concrete.

It’s a dispiriting sight for many people. For some, it’s also a powerful symbol of what Tokyo has become--and must try to change.


“Tokyo is chaotic,” said Osamu Nakagawa, associate professor of the history of urban planning at Kyoto Institute of Technology. “It lacks long-term city planning.”

Though urban sprawl is hardly unusual in the world’s megalopolises, Tokyo has an added problem --a history of repeated destruction and rapid rebirth that has deeply influenced the attitudes of the people who live here.

“We use things once and throw them away. Even houses are seen as throwaways,” said Yukio Nishimura, professor of urban design and planning at the University of Tokyo. “But we are beginning to see some change in this attitude.”

About 12 million people live in the 875 square miles that is Tokyo, making it one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

It has been Japan’s political and commercial center since the 1600s, but it lacks much visual evidence of that history. Like most other urban areas in Japan, Tokyo has often been shattered by earthquakes or burned down.

Just this century, an earthquake and fire destroyed most of the city in 1923, and American air raids late in World War II burned the city to the ground again and killed 80,000 people.


After each disaster, Tokyo rose with survival and protection, not beauty and comfort, as the overriding construction concerns. The concept of long-term planning never had much of a chance to catch on.

Tokyo neighborhoods tend to be a hodgepodge of old and new, cheap and expensive. Lumberyards and small factories dot residential areas. Old wooden houses sit isolated on blocks that went high-rise years ago.

Economic booms have also played a big role in the mishmash.

As Japan recovered from its defeat in World War II, buildings were thrown up willy-nilly, as fast as they could be built. Zoning laws were kept to a minimum so as not to hinder Tokyo’s rise from the ruins.

Construction of highways and railroads was given priority not only to help develop the country’s economy but also to showcase Japan’s resilience for the world with the 1964 Summer Olympic Games.

The drab highway over the Nihonbashi--built in 1963--is a perfect example.

“The importance of appearance has been forgotten in Tokyo’s development as a city,” said Toyokatsu Shiina, a city official responsible for urban planning.

Having grown up with such sights, many residents see it all as natural.

“I think nothing of the highway,” Tokyo native Yoshiyuki Hagiwara said of the Nihonbashi scenery. “It’s been there since I was a child, and I don’t know how the bridge would look without the highway.”

But attitudes are changing.

In recent years, several major development projects have become new symbols of the city. One is Tokyo’s City Hall, a $1.3-billion project consisting of two skyscrapers and an adjacent assembly hall, completed in 1991.

Another is an ambitious project to use the waterfront--a mix of shopping, entertainment, residential and office areas on 1,092 acres of reclaimed land. The project began in 1991, and development is expected to continue through 2015.

Tokyo’s old side is also getting some new respect.

Under city regulations adopted in 1997, efforts are being made to preserve buildings of historic value that are not yet designated as national cultural assets.

So far, Tokyo has selected 14 historic buildings, including the head office of Mitsukoshi department store, built in 1914, and St. Paul University’s library and chapel, built in 1918.

“I think people are beginning to realize how important it is to save old things,” said architect Hironobu Furihata, who has helped preserve about 220 old farmhouses across Japan.

Progress is even being made at the Nihonbashi.

Spurred by the efforts of a local residents association, the government has agreed to designate the bridge as a national cultural asset, which means the span can get government subsidies for repair.

Eventually the group wants to see the highway moved, but they concede that isn’t likely for at least 20 or 30 years.

“We think it’s possible to bury the highway underground,” said a member, Akinori Nagamori. “We want to see the blue sky above the bridge return.”