Notes on Tokyo


Tokyo is just one of the so many cities I have never set foot on. But they say that it is the biggest one, and it is the capital of a country which is relevant in more than one sense.

As seen from Spain, Japan is a very different country (and probably the same happens the other way round). But despite that, some things seem strikingly similar. A convulse history during the XXth century, with harsh conflicts and wars, and a fast urban growth, could as well describe Madrid or Barcelona as they could portray Tokyo. What is interesting is seeing that, as Okata and Murayama’s article “Tokyo’s Urban Growth, Urban Form and Sustainability” says, for most of the XXth century Tokyo grew largely without a Plan; or, to be more precise, along two plans, as many Spanish cities.

When I say two plans I do not mean explicit documents, but rather two levels of reality. Cerdá in Barcelona or Castro in Madrid designed in 1860 their grid extensions, that took a century to get completed; but this lapse of time was so long, in part, as this regular city, the ideal place for wealthy populations, develops in parallel to other area to which other people are forced to go living for a series of reasons (mainly poverty); these seemed first what a Brazilian favela would be today. The geometric contrast is clear, and persists today, despite the fact that they have become formal tissues with all the urban services.

As Okata and Murayama say, most of the growth of Tokyo during the XXth century happens along the railway corridors, occupying the rural land with scarce regulation. There seems not to be any kind of regular XIXth century urban bourgeois extension, and anyway, even if an urban core exists, this has faced the 1923 great quake and the war. There is a powerful geometry, but it is that of rivers, canals, rail and freeways, and that of a port that extends over the bay; here is the implicit plan of Tokyo.

Order in Tokyo seems to be based more on the possibility that everything relates in a reasonable way to its neighboring elements than to a quality that can be portrayed on a plan; neighborhood as opposed to design. In Madrid, Paris or Barcelona the design option was tested in the XIXth century, but the fact is that there has been no continuation to that idea of geometric regularity. If the city can no longer be understood by walking, and has no clear shape, or an uniform architecture, it has become an object in a different state, closer to sociology than to architecture; closer to the machine to live in than to architecture as an independent issue.

As Europeans cities, Tokyo (at a faster pace) approaches a new situation: the baby boom child are now  old people, and will die in some years, so the city can loose citizens. Can we learn from Tokio, which is ahead in that race?

Shibuya Station, Tokyo

Nine rail lines and three underground lines converge at Shibuya, one of the most important stations in Central Tokyo. It is a case of urban centrality linked to transit that have given Tokyo its present shape.


Shibuya2Department stores, and many other uses, stack over the site, deemed the fourth busiest commuter station in Japan. It is an aggregative architecture.

Tokyo: the size of the core


Tokyo presents itself as the biggest metro area in the world, with over 35 million residents. But as nearly any metropolitan area, it has a core. And that core says some things about how the city is, even more if you compare it to cities you know.

Tokyo’s core is marked by the bay, which is becoming more difficult to see as it is being filled for new urban uses, by the mouths of several rivers, the presence of the Imperial Palace and a motorway system that is much more apparent and ramified than in European or even American cities.

Biblio (57) Tokyo

Biblio 57- Tokyo

Tokyo will finally be the host city for the 2020 Oympics, so here go my congratulations to the city and country. Madrid and Istanbul were the remaining runner-up cities. As an architect, it was interesting to see in the Tokyo presentation some images of the wonderful Kenzo Tange buildings for the 1964 games, with an apparent good urban insertion. As a matter of fact, I must recognized I did not follow in detail the bids, partly because I have recently had to study several such processes, which has led me to the conclusion that bids are sales brochures, but, well, in the real execution of the project lies the rub (as nearly always). Besides, as for Madrid I have the advantage of having my own vision (better or worse, but informed) on what can be done here. On whether the choice has been the good one, only time can tell…

But I have never visited Tokyo (or Istanbul, for that matter). Those following this blog will know that this does not prevent me from giving an opinion if I find what I consider to be qualified sources. As in most cases, even if the Olympic bid (brilliantly exposed to the IOC last Saturday) seemed interesting, my interest goes to understanding how the city works. My knowledge on Japanese culture is limited (in some moments of PM Shinzo Abe’s speech his assurances over Fukushima puzzled me as my references are western, but rhetoric etiquette is different in each country…), but I will try (and thank any comment from anyone with better data).

The Bureau of Urban Development of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government published in 2011 a document in English showing the official planning context. As almost everywhere in the world, the administrative borders seem to loose over time their link to reality: the ring road overflows the administrative metropolitan area. Some Japanese specialties are clear, as the approach to disaster prevention. And there is a clear emphasis on the urban recycling of consolidated areas.

The Global Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Regeneration (Tokyo University) also brings more sources. Unfortunately, the links to its website ( are experiencing some problems. So let me propose a special experience: volume two of the CSUR Magazine (SUR), published in 2005, is titled “Understanding Tokyo”. Google still keeps a cached copy of the publication’s pdf, albeit without the images. I know that for those working in urban planning these images are essential to understand, but what really is relevant nowadays is not the lack of images, but rather that of meaningful explanations. So I propose to read the document (through and, in case of interest, complement what it says with other sources about the city. If your language is not English, Google will probably propose you a translated version to your home language: it is an option, but beware that it can be a problem with the columns layout, which will not happen if you read the original English/Japanese version.

As for urban tissue and density (something I’m particularly interested in) I propose Okata and Murayama’s text on urban growth, urban form and sustainability

Maps (2) People flow in Tokyo, geotaggers in Madrid


The CSIS (Center for Spatial Information Systems) at The University of Tokyo has a research program on the modeling of people flows in urban areas by using GPS devices. Here, the map is really a video you can see on youtube on the flow of persons in central Tokyo during a day in 2008.

When you use other sources, as geotags for images uploaded to flickr and picasa, you get interesting maps too, as the one by Eric Fisher, part of a world atlas which somehow describes tourism interest in some areas. Two interesting maps, provided you remember what is said in their description, as not everyone moving in the city carries a gps, and many photos manage not to be posted on flickr or picasa…