Feature, Guest Column

A 360-degrees view from the I-House, Roppongi, Tokyo

by Marco Kusumawijaya, 11.06.2010

When working in an organic farm in Takahata,Yamagata, I could not stop gazing around the 360-degrees blue dome of the sky that gently rests on the mountain range that rims the farmlands. The earth and heaven touches each other effortlessly and peacefully. One changes slowly with the seasons and light, while the other changes quickly with the wind that blows the clouds into different  shapes. I often felt disoriented as my urban eyes ironically could not distinguish anything as “landmark”.

In Tokyo, what would I see if I try to gaze around 360 degrees from the I-House? My urban eyes stubbornly wanted to depend on the geometry of built forms, while slowly realising that, in this age of contemporary urbanscape, graphic and literal (instead of geological and architectonic) signs are taking over.

Above ground, buildings are busy scraping the sky. They are full of aggresion. Even when they try to be suttle or artistic, their ambition shows itself, while the sky remains indifferent. Does any one ever miss the whole blue dome, the opportunity of having the “right view” of the wholeness of reality?  Does any one ever feel tired of bearing the look of tension between the ambition of men and the indifference of the sky?

And, what is wrong with not looking up, but straight instead?

Looking straight at the work and working of men, one sees that the magic of Japan is that it is not a magic. It is a result of hard work and keen focus. An attitude of doing everything like it is once-in-a-life-time prevails. Japan is among the most productive places in the world, producing about 8 % of its total GDP, 8 times of Indonesia’s,  or  16 times of Indonesia’s if expressed in per capita figure.

From the I-House, at least the two sides of Tokyo appear. The leisurely and peaceful Azabujuban side contrasts with hustling and busling Ropongi side. In some kitchens of both sides one could find some foreign migrant workers. The confident Azabujuban side contrasts with nervous Roppongi side where some people really are trying too hard to maintain dignity or, at least, good appearance. On the hill up the Ajabujuban side there is a world reknown contemporary arts museum perched on an olympian tower, with a sign about its location below in a maze of consumption spaces. On the other side, an exquisite design museum by architect Tadao Ando lies low and horizontal, bringing people humbling down below a park’s surface. A genius in molding space and light, Ando san does not need to make it stand tall to exert its presence.

Tokyo tower (completed and opened in 1958) is yet a bizarre phenomenon. Now it is not sure whether or not it will be as functional as before as a symbol of ever transforming digital communication, as its current height is not high enough to adequately support complete terrestrial digital broadcasting to the area.[1] Does it have a future as a climbing destination just to have a view of Tokyo from above, when one can have even more details (zoom in!) through Google Earth? And why would one see Tokyo from a “bird’s eye perspective”, when there is so much more to see from the level 1.6 meter above ground, and straight, and down?

The subway trains make Tokyo tick up to 12pm. It ticks underground and above ground. It integrates the city, and yet it gives posibility for Tokyo to differentiate its parts. Life spins with most intensity around major train stations. Characters develop in and around it. To really tick together with the city one has to live with and within the tubes, even when  one is half dead tired after a demanding work day. In the tubes one does her (or his too?) make-up, while quick breakfast is becoming tolerated and quickies are actually not beyond the pornographic industrial imagination.

The bigness of Tokyo—its individual buildings and their agglomeration together, the outreach of its infrastructures, and its built expanse—belittle humans while at the same time expresses the greatness of human beings,  as to their  energy to flock together to such scale, and their will to satisfy their desires. Do ants do the same scale with their towers of mud, relative to their own size? For sure, with their population much more than humans, they do neither consume nor produce that much to the disturbance of the earth.

Sustainability of Tokyo, or any metropolis of our time, seems to rest on a transformation of its consumptive and productive structure towards that which will scale down its ecological footprint (for which energy source is a major factor), reinvest generously in helping the earth to recover and regenerate, and project human greatness into a larger project: sustainable earth with its diversity of species and thriving, just human society. Surviving climate change only makes us better animals. To be better human beings, we need to solve other, mostly urban, problems: poverty, injustice, human rights violation, migrant workers, healthy (not just productive) works.

Published also in the Bulletin of the International House of Japan, Volume 30, Number 1, 2010, Tokyo. Marco Kusumawijaya was a fellow at the house, in the Asian Leadership Fellow Programme (ALFP), in September-November 2009.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokyo_Tower


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