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Friday, May 13, 2005

Coming and going: a report

We're back. And to my 2 regular readers (I know there's at least 2... I've seen the stats), I apologize for not making any effort to post while we were in NYC. But it was fun and I was very busy; running around seeing art directors, doing lunch, showing my book, handing out postcards. I also set up something that could prove to be quite cool, but until it launches I'd rather not publicly count my chickens (as it were).

One cool thing that did happen is I got an illo into the NYTimes. I wasn't planning on doing any work on this vacation (besides the meet n' greets) but when the Times calls... well, I answer. Besides, it's only the second time in 3 years they called, so... I'm really pleased with the way the illo turned out (big) and the whole process was remarkably smooth. The illo ran as the cover for the "Circuits" section and accompanied an article about how US cellphones are (finally) getting some of the 3G features that keitai's here in Japan have had for awhile. The new US cellphones are still astoundingly ugly, though, compared to ones here.

But what I really want to post here, before it fades, are some impressions of our arrivals and departures in NYC and Nippon.

Firstly, I fear the filth and squalor that I had expected on our return to NYC (see previous post) was mostly the result of an overactive imagination. It's amazing how only 6 months away can allow the worst aspects of a place to fester and grow in one's memory. Truth is, it's not that bad. Granted, within ten paces of first setting foot on Brooklyn soil I was confronted with my old nemesis, the half eaten chicken leg (our place on St. John's would get a daily blanket of the things in front of our stoop... like the remains of some fallen zombie chicken army) but the drive from JFK through East NY was not the soul crushing experience I had feared. It's certainly not as tidy as Japan, but it wasn't the filth apocalypse I had anticipated.

Also, what struck me is how green NYC is compared to Tokyo... so MANY more trees. And a kind of crumbly, tumble down, organic feel. Rounding the tip of Inwood (far upper Manhattan) on the Metro North train headed to my folks in Newburgh we passed under the Henry Hudson Bridge (shown above, courtesy of the MTA), I was surprised to see trees and rocks leading down to the water's edge. To
simply see under-utilized space. I never really thought about it before. In Japan, the river bank would have been concreted over and the trees replaced with advertisements of trees. Land is at such a premium in Japan and construction (and re-construction) occurs at such a frantic rate, that most open spaces are utilized in some fashion, ie: farmland or parking lots. But certainly not just left fallow. The Japanese have occupied this land far longer than the Americans have the Americas, but because of the ceaseless reshaping of the landscape here (Japan), ironically, the feel of history seems to lie longer and easier in NYC (well, that and the fact that much of Japan was bombed flat during WW2... but even the cities that escaped the bombers have lost much of the traditional architecture).

Perhaps it's the sense of history that also imbues NYC with a seriousness, a solemnity that pervades it's cityscape. A sense of civic culture built into the bones of the place; the public parks and green spaces, the wide sidewalks and plazas. All that granite and red brick and masonry; the solidity of the buildings. Most buildings in NYC retain their original purpose, an apartment buildings remains a place of dwelling, a highway remains a thoroughfare. In Tokyo, by contrast, buildings are chimeras, handling a variety of functions.

Take for example the billboard apartment building shown above. What's the purpose here, what's supporting what? Is the building a place of dwelling or commercial message?

And this... is it a highway or department store?
I didn't come up with this formulation. I'm borrowing here from the excellent guide book (and website), "Made in Tokyo". Here's a blurb from amazon.com:

A guide book to the unique modernity of Tokyo’s urban space through the architecture that architects would like to forget. Born of a functional need rather than aesthetic ideal, golf range nets span spaghetti snack bars and a host of 70 other remarkable combinations are pictured and described in this quintessential glimpse of Tokyo’s architectural grass roots."

But I take exception to the idea that you'd want to ignore or forget the buildings here... Riding back on the train from Narita, smeary with jetlag and glassine with sleep deprivation (I can't sleep at ALL on planes) the things that struck me the most, as we slid through the mixed urban spaces and rice patties, was how cheerful everything looked. Buildings here are pastel colored and smooth skinned, clad in sheets of aluminum or thin skims of concrete. And there's something virtual looking to them, like 3D computer models. They're all skin, no bones. And curiously inverted, like buildings turned inside out. All the infastructure of the buildings are on the exterior... all the heating and cooling units, the cabling; most apartment blocks have exterior stairwells and hallways and every residence has it's own balcony (the Japanese prefer to line dry their laundry to take advantage of the germ killing properties of sunlight). All the guts are on the outside.

There's just something so much more declarative about the buildings here. They all seem to have something to say. Sometimes the visual noise is cacophonous and ugly, but it's almost always cheery. The people can be famously reticent, but the buildings rarely are.

I had always thought of Tokyo as ugly, just ugly. And compared to NYC it is, but there's a ferment here, a restlessness. The buildings are squirming.