Made in Tokyo

The Paradox

City Since ancient days, the “city”, an urban complex, has always been considered a harbor and nurturer of civilization. In fact, the urban came to be understood synonymously with the civil, as opposed to the wild outside the urban centers. Nature was considered hostile and cities provided shelter from it. Even more so where cities centers of knowledge and advancement, both technologically and philosophically.

The modern world, pushing this antique notion to the extreme, brought forth a new type of understanding of the city as an urban complex. The modern city is a paradox organism that is inertly artificial and natural at the same time. It is an artificial entity, created by humans and in this respect it is not, such as nature, uncontrolled and self-enfolding. However, a city, how planned it might be, albeit being an artificially created organism, in turn shows traits of a natural organism in that it evolves and develops in a rather free manner. Its streets’ network will expand, if need be, such as the roots or branches of a tree that grows bigger. Its buildings will rise toward the sky, if need be, just like a plant grows taller with time.

This development is natural in that it follows an organic impulse and urge to expand – inherent to any living species. Simultaneously, it is artificial, since a city per se is inorganic in itself, fundamentally consisting of steel, concrete and glass. This development, however, is never fully uncontrolled, as it is always triggered by the people living in the city. It is man’s instinctive drive to shape his own environment in order to accommodate his needs and wants. This paradox existence is further apparent in the city being simultaneously both a hostile, artificial concrete habitat, as well as welcoming shelter.

Tokyo, as one of the world’s largest and most populous urban centers, is all of the above, and much more. A large city, a metropolis as Tokyo so to speak, is often said to be growing out of control. However, is this really so? A city is shaped by those who inhabit it. Be it after their own desires or to cater to basic needs or luxury, to revenue or charity – a city is always subject to contrasting demands, which render it an inherently paradox entity. At the same time, this paradox characteristic of the world’s greatest cities, especially Tokyo, creates a fascinating sphere of light and shadows, movement and static, of the artificial and the natural. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and his early 20th century strive for a “new vision”, a fundamentally different approach to visuality, as well as to the perception of the world and its forms, by which he attempted to increase, alter and stimulate man’s senses, has found its contemporary manifestation in Tokyo.

Tokyo itself is not just an urban entity as any other. Rather it is a symphony, enchantingly composed of these contrasting elements and sensual stimuli that position Tokyo in such a special place among the world’s great cities, each unique in itself. Tokyo is a stunning conglomerate of the most multiple forms and varied perspectives. It is an extremely heterogeneous body that opens up a manifold of new visual stimuli in terms of light, shape and perspective. Saskia Sassen coined Tokyo one of the world’s only three “global cities” and thus, in an economic context, unconsciously awarded it a label that it fulfills in many other respects.

Tokyo is a global city also in that it manifests fundamental contrasts of the so-named global world – above all the contrast of urbanity and nature or tradition. While countless buildings rise against the sky, seemingly competing with the clouds, there is much of older Japan to be found – and among this, plenty with which Japan defines its own tradition, such as the omnipresent cherry trees blooming in spring. Yet, while their blossoms create a fascinatingly subtle, warm light in the sun, the nights in Tokyo are commanded by the neon lights on high-rise buildings that scream out Tokyo’s claim to being a global city, a world center of commerce.

Thus, the modern, global city, is a product of the classical metropolis, and yet it has evolved and distanced itself from its ancient predecessor through its inherent paradoxes and visual stimuli that create a complex and fascinating new approach to life.

Frank Feltens © 2010