Down with the Construction Industry!

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I live in a peaceful, nouveau riche neighborhood on the border between Setagaya-ku and Meguro-ku, where the magnanimous demolition teams swoop in once a week to level another house with traditional architecture and replace it with two luxurious three-story condos measuring fifteen feet across. Lately, the construction state offered a handful of wealthy people a new place to call home in another faux-Form-Follows-Function reinforced concrete Modernist daydream. The tenants next door were not so happy and raised the handmade banner seen below upon their second-floor balcony. It reads: 「近隣の住環境を奪うな!隣家との間50cm余り?風も通らぬ圧迫建設!!」In English: “Don’t take away our neighborhood living environment! You can’t leave even 50 cm between the houses? This is such oppressive construction that even the wind can’t pass through!”

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One should not expect very much lebensraum in Tokyo, but I understand the neighbor’s emotions: The sons and daughters of local merchants are selling off the old Showa houses and selling the land to real estate developers with an eye on the 40 year-old business star with the yellow Porche and high-water pants. But why such the abject desperation for land-grabbing in late 2005? This isn’t the Bubble. Just give the neighbors half a goddamn meter and get a move on to destroying some more antique residences in Yutenji. Think of all the poor concrete just waiting for a chance to be used!

W. David MARX (Marxy)
December 5, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

24 Responses

  1. saru Says:

    Aren’t there building codes against such construction? I am sure the neighboring property values plummet.

  2. Momus Says:

    According to this article about Atelier Bow Wow, all houses in Tokyo are required to have one metre gap spaces between them. Atelier Bow Wow, though, are interested precisely in high density as a peculiarty of Japanese “pet architecure”. In their Mini House “they built the second floor out over top of the gap space to allow room for a very small car, a Mini Cooper, to fit underneath. Tsukamoto explains that the second floor flares out over the car, giving it the appearance of a mini-skirt.”

    However, “the land upon which Mini House is built is owned by the government which plans to build an expressway there at some point in the next ten or twenty years. “The environment around Mini-house is unstable and the house is very small,” Tsukamoto explains. “I think it is a good example, or reportage, of what is happening in Japan”.

  3. Chris_B Says:

    Why such desperate land grabbing? Because property values are low right now so buying is cheap. Also the estate taxes are so onerous that the sons and daughters sometimes think they have little choice but to sell at the first offer that comes around.

  4. Carola Says:

    I guess there’s rules against putting buildings too close together, still, this is Japan, and there are ALWAYS ways around every rule, if the right person somehow ows you.
    I m not saying i agree with the way things are constructed over here, but – the constant change is also a big part of what makes Tokyo what it is, right? A fascinating amoeba…according to Yoshinobu Ashihara’s “The hidden order”. Initially function follows form wasnt really a part of that though. But, if the amoebic character is carried on then there’s hope that what might be considered state of the art now will vanish again after another 10 years. Then again…what is to follow…

  5. alin Says:

    marxy, how do you rationalize this. it is precisely the showa houses that are the embodyiment of and breeding ground for the things you’d like reformed here. while the condos surely are a manifestation of the neo-liberal spirit you promote.

    calling showa houses ‘traditional-japanese’ is like calling kamikaze pilots traditional japanese. showa houses are a distortion, taken to extreme under various pressures of something that carry something that can be called traditional in them.

    it is actually with the showa houses that the terrible gap between houses was created. (traditional ma became useless yet obligatory sukima) i thought the law was actually 40 cm, this would reflect the reality but i guess Tsukamoto would know what he’s talking about.

    so unlike the showa houses that marxy, bizarrely, yet typical for a reformist who turns out to be conservationist, likes preserved, the new condos actually, basically, do tend to take into consideration things like light, head-space (for modern, contemporary vertical living), interaction with surrounding environment (yes, in spite of the neighbors’ here drama – the house bumping into house, window blocking is actually a showa thing, just looks more dramatic if it’s concrete) and so forth.

    the best thing showa (traditional?!) architecture/building may have created is the in-between spaces people like bow wow can use for truly creative experiments, i for one am not unhappy to see another showa building go or be re-formed. As for the older, pre-showa stuff, the little that’s left, no-one’s rushing to tear that down.

  6. alin Says:

    But why such the abject desperation for land-grabbing in late 2005? This isn’t the Bubble

    atarimae. because it’s cheap. (again chris and me agree) and because some people do have a positive, optimistic view of japan’s future.

  7. marxy Says:

    I get your point, Alin.

    My main problem with the construction companies is that what they build is ultimately way less aesthetically pleasing than what they destroy. I’m not a total sucker for “traditional” architecture and do have a soft spot for Modernism (I think the concrete boxes featured in this article are one of the more handsome projects this area has seen in a while), BUT you can’t really imagine how ugly the normal three-story skinny houses they are erecting are. And no, Cultural Relativists, before you jump on me and claim that these are great houses that I’m not “getting,” come to my neighborhood and judge for yourself. Ugly, ugly houses. I’ll post some pictures.

    There are some nice ultra-large houses one chome away for the super, super rich, but these mid-range upper middle class condos they keep building kill off all the ambiance of the neighborhood and also already look dated upon opening. At least a Buddhist temple or Kyoto-style house is what it is. These new buildings here are nothing – neither sleek Modernist function or quaint tradition. Just mush. No, cheap, easily-erected mush that puts extra cash back in the construction companies’ wallets.

  8. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    Went around Umegaoka lately for the first time. I noticed a lot of “Designer Mansions” type houses…many were quite nice!

  9. DB Says:

    I totally agree that most of the new houses are horrible to behold, but I kinda got over some of my anger at the old places being constantly torn down when my friend pointed out that they are terrible in an earthquake. He’s a geologist and he told me that some huge percentage of the people who died in the hanshin quake were in old wooden houses. So it’s like one man’s neighborhood eye candy is another man’s drafty shithole with no shower that may someday kill him in his sleep.

  10. alin Says:

    according to these guys at least at an earthquake in sendai a couple of months ago or so, while there was no damage there strangely a house collapsed in tokyo.

  11. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    I’ve always heard that wooden structures, due to their flexibility, are great for withstanding earthquakes–but not the fires that spring up after!

  12. porandojin Says:

    i have never been inside a wooden house during an earthquake but i was told it does shakes more than a concrete one

  13. r. Says:

    porandojin say that wood shakes more than concrete, and that, it does! but they’ll both fall down when the big one hits, and i’d prefer to be buried under wood than concrete.

  14. Brad Says:

    if I’m not mistaken, it’s not necessarily the wood, it’s the heavy tile roofs on top of that wood that present the danger during an earthquake. I was in Nishinomiya during the Hanshin quake and the modern houses around me withstood the quake just fine, but the traditional, old-school houses pretty much all collapsed.

  15. Chris_B Says:

    alin: I’m not optimistic about condo construction at all. I see it as the worst of the “take the money and run” trends as evidenced by the recent Aneha scandals. Guess who is gonna end up paying for all that greed, negligence, good ol boyism and corruption? Once again, its us the taxpayer. Oh, our dear friend Gov. Ishihara wants more condos and fewer individual family houses built in Tokyo.

    All is not doom and gloom however, in my neighborhood at least 10 charming small houses have gone up for each condo. Unfortunately we do have one 17 story tower going up on the hill above our area. It will block out our sunlight for two hours a day during the winter. The steel skeleton is like a giant middle finger to us down at the bottom of the hill.

    As far as space between units goes, well I can reach out my window and touch my neighbor’s house. It only becomes a problem when the structure next to yours is signifigantly taller.

  16. marxy Says:

    My back window faces another house’s bedroom window. I can always hear the guy hack up loogies in the shower. Once I opened the window during the summer and was practicing one of my songs, only to have the neighbors slam their window in protest!

  17. Chris_B Says:

    Guess I’m lucky my neighbors dont seem to mind my music at all.

  18. alin Says:

    I’m not optimistic about condo construction at all

    neither am i, really. what is exciting though (and i’m not speaking from the perspective of a house owner who’s view’s been blocked by concrete), is the interplay of various currents within the amoeba-like thing. on one hand, yes, there is a force that would turn the whole city into a singular concrete monolith. yet, among other things, the fact that that is not the result of a fascist vision (classic city-planing-like) but itself an organic entity prevents that from happening. it is exactly the lack of grand vision in city planing that saves this city from imploding i’d say. (in deluze/gautari lingo tokyo is rhyzome not tree.) i’m eagerly waiting the organic fragmentation of some of the massive visionary structures that recently popped up. roppongi hills etc.

  19. marxy Says:

    Sure, sure. But the archaic, oligopolistic arrangement of construction firms in Japan means it’s all going to be the same crappy stuff unless the home owner is rich enough to request a building of his/her own design. Kudzu is also crazy and amoeba-like, but no one thinks it’s good for the Southern landscape. You can have beauty in Modernist order or post-Modernist madness, but that doesn’t mean order or madness are automatically beautiful.

  20. Chris_B Says:

    all those $5 words, my head is spinning!

    allow me to state for the record that all the Hills projects look like the product of a team of speed freaks on LSD. It dont get no more cheezy.

  21. alin Says:

    archaic, oligopolistic arrangement of construction firms

    the yarikata is archaic (or is that traditional?) the products are not – and they do tend to be , for better or worse, decently-made. (well, i did grow up in eastern europe so i can tell a badly made thing when i see one)

    crappy stuff unless the home owner is rich enough to request a building of his/her own design

    isn’t that the same everywhere?.
    do you really think the ratio between inspired vs. average/sub-average architecture is lower in tokyo than in other places? even NYC, what remains building-wise take away the phalii ?

  22. dzima Says:

    Marxy said:crappy stuff unless the home owner is rich enough to request a building of his/her own design

    then alin said: isn’t that the same everywhere?

    This comment from Marxy is just another example of how narrowminded he can be, despite (or maybe because of) his education level. He’s so busy “getting mad at Japan” that he forgets that there’s actually a world outside of America and Japan (not only I’ve never seen him making any insightful comments about other countries but he has actually made pretty derogatory comments about places in Eastern Europe, Latin America and South-East Asia. I’m pretty skeptical about Marxy ever trying to fix that).

    Anyway, life must be very hard for a white American living in Japan (in a peaceful, nouveau riche neighbourhood) on a Monbusho scholarship! It’s like being a pariah of society!

  23. marxy Says:

    Well, I’ll have you know that I aspire to be as open minded as an Australian living in Japan on a Monbusho scholarship! But it takes time! So keep browbeating me, boys!

  24. alin Says:

    you could be on a right track there: australianize yourself, antipodise yourself (arrrgh) deterritorialize yourself,. don’t know much about scholarshps.