Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Tokyo Rising

Architectural planning and design is often born solely of national pride and ambition. Tokyo Skytree, completed in 2011 and built primarily to replace the skyscraper-stifled 1958 Tokyo Tower to aid blocked TV broadcast signals, seems to achieve both. I once again subject myself to vertigo for a brief visit to the contemporary Tokyo icon.

“Ah yes, Bunny Café”, greets the passing Japanese man eager to practice his English, bringing his humble bike to a halt in front of me as I stop in front of a small window. I am on my way to the Toyko Skytree, my orientation obvious as the tower beckons and glistens further down the road. 

I had made my way from the neighbouring Sensō-ji Buddhist temple complex in Asakusa. The giant lanterns, traditional wooden structures dating back to 645 C.E., gardens and Samurai statues surrounding it couldn’t be any more different from my next destination. From Tokyo’s oldest to Tokyo’s newest.

The ‘Bunny Hug Café’, and its adorable hopping inhabitants, will soon be dwarfed and lost in a panoramic cityscape, along with everything else around me. 

After a brief, if awkward exchange about the stormy weather back at home in the UK, and the freak snow storm in much of Japan, leaving large tidily swept icy piles along the roadside, I continue onwards. A cloudless, clear and sunny sky all around me promises good visibility from the tower.

At the base, I find myself struggling to crane my neck far enough to take it all in. The lattice-like structure surround it seems to stretch endlessly, and effortlessly, as though adding volume and fortification. The white intricate framework conveys an organic, natural energy that the red ironwork of Tokyo Tower lacks. The colour is actually the traditional Japanese bluish white hue ‘aijiro’.

Airport security style queuing ensues inside. The base of the lattice structure is visible inside. I struggle to understand how a huge tower can be supported by a few winding supports; best not to think about it.
A cartoonish moving mural displayed on TV screens above the queues highlights what can be seen from above. Such an interpretation can often make more sense than a real world view from above.

The walls are lined with various forms of inspiration for the towers design, ranging from what looks like traditional Japanese Heian period pagodas, to the more absurd but obviously influential shapes of, for example, a coiled spring.

Tickets are purchased accompanied with the usual friendly Japanese etiquette, and I am ushered to another waiting area after passing through a security checkpoint, to await an elevator. 

At 2080 feet high, Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower in the world, surpassing the Canton Tower in Ghuangzhou, China, but not to be confused with the tallest structure – Tokyo Skytree is second to the Burj Khalifa of Dubai in that merit. I will be heading to the first observatory at 1150 feet, the ‘Tembo Deck’, housing a restaurant, café and shop.

After witnessing a horde of noisy School-children being herded into the lift before me, I’m slightly relieved. I am called forward and watch the rapidly descending numbers above, until the lift doors open. The large lift is airy and mood-lit, with calming music offering reassurance during the otherwise alarmingly fast ascension. 

Whoosh – rather unexpectedly, the doors soon open revealing a very bright space; sun-shine gleams from ahead. Working my way around the ‘deck’ clockwise, useful touch-screen sight-spotting guides assist in making sense of the sprawling urban brightness. Tokyo looks bizarrely flat, and predominantly grey from up here.

Nausea grips as I lean tentatively over the glass floor section, as it does when the irrational thought of potential earthquakes enters my mind. Ironically I’m sure that this the cutting edge of earthquake safe design; or so I hope. In fact, the tower is reinforced with a seismic proofing concrete central shaft. It’s also equipped with ‘oil dampers’, most of the way up, capable of absorbing 50% of an earthquake’s energy. Reassuring indeed.

I imagine that the view might be stunning at night, although perhaps the best view might be of the tower itself in the evening, illuminated by LED lights, and capable of various different configurations for occasions, like Christmas.

The naming of Tokyo Skytree isn’t actually a direct spin-off from the design phase. Rather democratically, a public vote was cast in which 110,000 Tokyoites chose from six potential names, themselves suggestions from the general public. The tower was very nearly named ‘Tokyo Edo Tower’, with ‘Dream Lookout’ and ‘Rising Tower’ as other suggestions. ‘Tokyo Skytree’ emerged as the favourite with 30% of the vote.

I get a better view of Tokyo from the other side of the tower, where there is less glare from the otherwise welcome sun. Another mild panic about the sheer height combined with the imaginary earthquake scenario in my head prompts the decision to head back down to earth. The deck above isn’t going to be an option for me today.

An impromptu visit from a clearly fearless, or completely insane window cleaner puts me to shame. I perish the thought of being winched up by a few cables, 350 metres above Tokyo.

The elevator reaches the ground as quickly as it rose. I am left wondering if this is the future of architecture. How long will it be until the skyline around Skytree reaches the same level, much in the same way Tokyo Tower was vertically depreciated? Is such construction sustainable, and ultimately necessary? Perhaps technologies will change, eliminating the need for such tall structures for practical purposes, but Tokyo Skytree speaks more than this for Japan. Architecture is a chance to exhibit cultural identity and ambition, infused with a ‘we can do this’ message about a countries economy. I don’t think it will stop here.