My back pages: Memento Mori

I originally published this take on Tokyo’s then-spankin’-new Roppongi Hills building 21 July 2003, on my old site. The overwhelming mood here is sorrow – for the city, for my inability to find a comfortable place there – and it is perhaps worth dusting off now that I’m about to get on a plane for Narita as a very different person, in a very different time, headed to a very different place. I’ll be interested to see how self, city and piece have held up.

Judging from the mail I get, by the way, this is one of the most fondly-remembered and -missed of v-2 articles, so it gives me great pleasure to restore it to visibility here. Folks who weren’t around in the v-2 days might enjoy seeing it for the first time.

I promise you, this is the last thing I shall ever write for this site concerning Mori Building’s Roppongi Hills project.

Those of you who have been reading v-2 over the last year are, perhaps, overly acquainted with my sentiments regarding this massive act of hubris, this “urban renewal” project that rivals any dream Robert Moses ever had. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I reflect on its meaning a little bit further: it’s the lens through which I’ve come to see contemporary Japan. It serves the same role for me that the concrete industry did for Alex Kerr in his indispensable Dogs and Demons – not that I compare my writing to that work, in either authority or depth of research.

Roppongi Hills is, for me, an eidolon of my two years in a place I once imagined the capital of the future, and grew to loathe as I found it increasingly stifling and timid, unwilling (or unable?) to break out of an essentially feudal paradigm. The future I came to live in came to seem the thinnest veneer of chrome plating flaking rapidly from a medieval armature, something all bamboo and timeless village verities; this place, to put it mildly, is not a laboratory for the working-out of new ways of being human, in any but the most superficial and unchallenging ways.

To which it is a perfectly valid thing to say, well, so what? Who asked you to project your neophile fantasies onto Japan? My only answer to this is that Japan itself invited me to do so, in those depictions of its self that reached me across the Pacific: Masami Teraoka and H ART CHAOS, Yamamoto and Miyake, Akira and Tetsuo, the Iron Man, Ando and Ito and never least the Metabolists, with their plans to fill Tokyo Bay with towers. My imaginings were amplified and fed back to me by a hundred architectural monographs, a thousand Sony ads, ten thousand pictures of orange-haired, cellphone-wielding Harajuku schoolgirls in towering platform boots.

It was in part to assess the truth of those imaginings that I came here to live. Seven hundred and seventy-nine days and nights later, I can render the following, final report.

It will be easy to accuse me, in much of the following, as suffering from ethnocentricity. It’s true that some of my discomfort in Japan has stemmed from a personal inability to adjust – even after two years – to ways of doing things that are simply different from the systems I grew up with and was trained to accept. I have taken pains to note where this is so.

Six six sixties

Last night I stood in the shadow of Louise Bourgeois’s rather malevolent sculpture of an egg-bearing spider in the courtyard of Six Six Plaza, at the core of the Roppongi Hills development. “Six Six” is the English rendering of the longstanding, appealingly slangy Japanese name for Roppongi’s sixth block, or chome; naming the plaza this is an indirect way of admitting that an entire pre-extant neighborhood has been bought up and excised from the city, its thoroughfares and rights of way subsumed within the circulation scheme of a private development.

It was a lovely evening, the kind that’s all too rare in Tokyo summertime: soft air, just humid enough to evoke the seaside rather than the jungle, with a fat yellow moon rising behind the orange thrust of Tokyo Tower. The constant flicker of an immense video screen on which played animations specially executed for the development and reminders of the sale currently unfolding in the attached retail zone washed the plaza in shifting electric shadows, filled the air with noise.

Happy Tokyoites, never anything less than well-turned-out, flowed through the plaza, bound perhaps from the subway station to the Sky View attraction, not in mad throngs, but in sufficient numbers to impress at seven-thirty on a Wednesday night. Occasionally, one or two or three would lose their bearings, pause in obvious confusion – looking for all the world like ants, momentarily confounded by the erasure of their pheromone trail – before friendly guides hustled over to help them. Still, annoyance seemed far away, and from time to time one could hear exclamations of sugoii!! (roughly, “great!” or “super!” or simply “wow!”) rising from those stepping into the plaza for the first time.

It was this vocal approbation I found so depressing, so likely to be understood by the builder, the architectural press, and interested members of the public as confirmation of success, when the entire Roppongi Hills experience is exemplary of the worst in contemporary architecture and urban planning. It’s a throwback to early 1960s notions of city and space, wreathed perhaps in the rhetoric of digital cities and global dataflow, but even then only to the detriment of its potential.

The big nowhere

Why “the worst”? What, after all, is so very bad about this place? Surely it can’t be appreciably worse than its equivalents elsewhere?

There are two ways to answer that question. The first is to say that, yes, Roppongi Hills is rife with choices and features that are simply bad practice, seeded with dozens of moments of confoundment and disappointment that would rate poorly anywhere. The second is to consider this place in the light of everything Japan is historically so very accomplished at, culturally: subtlety, balance, proportion, elegance, fit and finish. It’s in this second register that the project’s failure of imagination and execution is exposed as far more dramatic.

Let’s concentrate, for the time being, on those aspects of Roppongi Hills that would get poor marks no matter where they were encountered.

For starters, the complex is simply pretentious. Conceived, presumably, as the apotheosis of early-twenty-first branding and marketing practice for real-estate development (as well as enduring monument to its builder), this is a mixed-use “environment” that has not merely its own logo, but its own identity system. It has not one but several slogans – one modestly insisting that “Tokyo lifestyles will be forever altered by Roppongi Hills.” It boasts a “unique and ambitious cultural complex.”

Not content with pedestrian ambitions (like simply being good), Roppongi Hills has to be “unique,” a “dynamic lifestyle destination” conceived as “a highly responsive space for intellectual relaxation” (!) and “true cultural hub” that comes fully equipped with a “concept and meaning.” A real-estate developer asserting these things would be laughed out of town in Houston, in Moscow, in Bangkok – although, sadly, one might get away with it in New York.

Well. From the sound of things, Mori wants Roppongi Hills to be judged on some pretty high standards – say, those of the 1939 GM Futurama, Barcelona’s Ramblas, the Tate Modern and Mall of America all rolled into one – but it’s difficult to take such a desire seriously when the place can’t even get the basics right.

And so things that might seem quibbles in other contexts, things it might seem petty to point out, become fair game. Like the fact that even the elevators have superfluous lighting effects, luminescent panels underfoot flaring and fading with the floors, and that even so they get it wrong, dimming with ascent instead of the poetic inverse. That nobody’s apparently considered the downstream maintenance burden imposed by such effects, nor how they’re likely to play not a week after opening but once they’ve been experienced five hundred mornings in a row.

Or the fact that the plaza’s main space of circulation, ostensibly designed to evoke a “mountain ravine” (why?), not merely confounds perfectly reasonable attempts to orient oneself but looks cheap besides. Or, now that you mention “cheap,” the fact that most visible surfaces are clad in a tacky yellow veneer that looks like precast stone. This would-be world-beater comes to seem like the malign product of a collaboration between Victor Gruen and Garden State Brickface and Stucco.

OK, these are inward-facing missteps. You can avoid them easily enough. Some of the other very bad things about Roppongi Hills aren’t so easy to dodge.

Roppongi Hills, like many of Mori’s other “Hills” projects scattered throughout greater Minato Ward – Ark Hills, Atago Green Hills, Shiroyama Hills, and so forth – is lifted up and out of the urban fabric on a podium, true to Corbusian form. The responsible civic authorities have allowed the natural flow of vehicles and pedestrians through the neighborhood to be channeled through this privatized space, such that one cannot walk in a straight line from, say, the southwest corner of Nishi-Azabu intersection to Roppongi’s subway station without passing onto Mori property.

Even walking along Roppongi-dori, the arterial passing through the district, requires a diversion up an escalator, across a footbridge, and down a stairway on the opposite side – all private. The pedestrian so doing is, of course, subjected all the while to commercial messages promoting Roppongi Hills, the other Mori developments, and the shops and firms associated with them. (The same is true of the exit at the distal end of the Hibiya subway line’s Roppongi station, which empties directly into the Hills complex, and whose standard and quite legible directional signage has been excised in favor of placards matching the complex’s graphic treatment.) Tough luck, too, if you use a wheelchair: passage previously afforded with simple curb-cuts now requires a lengthy circumnavigation involving two separate elevators.

This big nowhere has a way of sucking you in, whether you want to play or not.

Superflat fields forever

The ads. I should describe the complex’s advertising campaign, which centers around the aforementioned animated characters devised by Takashi Murakami. Murakami’s brightly-colored “superflat” world imagines Roppongi Hills as a delightful technohallucinogenic cornucopia, spewing energy and novelty into a Lucy-in-the-sky meadowscape where improbable creatures prance and gambol in irrepressible, childlike glee.

Such “chara”-driven advertising is simply ubiquitous in Japanese commercial culture, to the point that no firm, or even the Metropolitan Police for that matter, is entirely complete without its adorable anthropomorphic mascot. It is a recognizably Japanese mode of presentation – dense, nonsensical, happy, toothache-sweet, and distracting – and Murakami is an ace at it. Say what you will about his work, but it is distinctively local, to the degree that his collaboration with Louis Vuitton, in much the same mode as the Roppongi Hills ads, was recently alluded to in a mass advertisement as a reason to be proud of being Japanese.

Ironically, this singular vision contrasts strongly with the plaza itself, which is one of those places that feels like it could be anywhere: a virtual twin (pun very much intended) to Buena Vista Gardens in San Francisco. It’s pleasant enough in its way – manicured, landscaped, controlled – but shows no clue that it is of Roppongi, or Tokyo, or Japan, or much of anywhere at all. It is truly a part of the same international retail/travel/hospitality hyperspace that any fully-credentialed participant in the global overclass never need leave.

Mori advertises its Hills to this class, in Newsweek and elsewhere, as “unique ‘City in a City’ multifunctional environment[s], central-city locations that have it all: offices, stores, restaurants, and entertainment options.” The subtext is crystal clear, not even a subtext really: with English-speaking concierges “ready to direct you to the nearest convenience store…even at 3AM,” the Hills are safe spaces for the itinerant footsoldiers of glo/mo capital to sink local roots.

And it’s this, more than anything else, that leaves me scratching my head at Mori’s acclaim among Japan’s own, generally conservative tastemakers: no agency in the land seems more eager to sell the whole place out, to pave over its unique ways-of-doing-and-being for the convenience of the AXAs and the Morgan Stanleys and their foreign legion of blue-oxford-shirted, chino’d operatives. It’s a different kind of superflatness than Takashi Murakami’s, for sure.

No expense has been spared to achieve this laminar blandness, but the effect is paradoxical. If Roppongi Hills routes easily around the sort of gold-and-marble atrocities common during Japan’s 1980s “bubble economy,” it still strikes one as the act of nouveaux riches desperate to buy taste: everything is top-shelf and name-brand, including the public art and sidewalk benches.

This sounds churlish, I know – damned if they do, damned if they don’t – but the sheer avidity with which Mori Building pursues the approval of the taste elite should be a signal that all is not right. Roppongi Hills, finally, is like some parvenu billionaire walking you through the halls of his Palm Beach compound, reminding you that each painting must be “quality” because it cost so very much. Having nothing to say, it cannot speak for itself, and must speak instead in the commingled voices of its (notably, Western) surrogates and acquisitions: Louis Vuitton and Grand Hyatt, Jasper Morrison, Jonathan Barnbrook and Virgin Cinemas.

Is the development, then, uniquely, even perversely, Japanese? Or is it merely another pacified, pacifying site for global consumption, as distinct from the others of its kind as a Starbucks Manila is from a Starbucks London souvenir mug? It doesn’t seem to want to decide, and it’s in this sense of being caught between two irreconcilable visions of the world that the place most evokes its host culture for me.

Signals and noises

Here is where I see the greatest, saddest parallel between this building project and my daily experience of contemporary Japan: in the clamor of these voices, and all the superlatives they evoke, Roppongi Hills is absolutely desperate to fill every space, to shut out doubt with affirmations not even of its specialness, but of its simple existence. Like an idiot beacon shrieking “I’m here! I’m here!” into the humid night, Roppongi Hills inserts itself into every possible vista, spoors the entire neighborhood with its sonic effluvium.

It puts me in mind of something bizarre Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said not too long ago, on the occasion of Japan’s third Nobel Prize for chemistry in as many years: that “Japan isn’t dead yet.” At the time, it seemed a little curious to me that an official of any government – a Prime Minister, no less – would feel it necessary to publicly proclaim their nation still among the living.

But there’s a way in which Koizumi’s comment makes perfect sense. The Japan I came to see and to live in from half a world away, a culture of design known worldwide as the ne plus ultra in refinement, whose arts and crafts were famed for their asymptotic approach to the essential, does indeed seem moribund.

The values of a culture dedicated to the moment when nothing further could be left out, at least in those elite art and craft activities with which it has chosen to define itself – architecture, calligraphy and painting, poetry and pottery, and lest this read as a paean to antiquity, consumer electronics – are repudiated, even inverted in a place like Six Six Plaza.

Japan, if the things it currently chooses as its avatars can be taken as any evidence, is a place that no longer seems to care much for the subtle and harmonious balance of proportion and form. Instead, as fifteen minutes on the street of any of its urban cores will more than attest, it seems hellbent on filling every available moment and corner with visual, sonic, and semantic noise.

It’s not just in the things that are offered to people for commercial consumption, it’s in the choices of the people themselves: notice how many people flip out their keitai the instant they step from a subway station, as if they can’t bear too many more moments outside the communion of ones and zeroes.

Consider the interfaces of Japanese consumer electronics, ever more clouded with the pointless technological extraneity that I think of as das blinkenlights. Take a look, especially, at just about any Japanese corporate Web site, each page crammed with winking graphics, cutesy mascots, and content-free exhortations from the CEO. It’s hard to believe that this is the land from which hail so many of our notions of the charged void and the meaningful silence.

But here we seize up against some problems.

I know I flirt, troublingly, with the blunder by which Baudrillard accused would-be critics of such spectacles of “fix[ing] a real from which all meaning and charm, all depth and energy of representation have vanished in a hallucinatory resemblance,” when that reality was itself a fiction to begin with. I do think, however, that a meaningful distinction can be made between the daily life of the neighborhood that existed in Roppongi 6-chome previously, and that of the thrice-reified thing which supplanted it.

More seriously, I’m always wary of attempts to celebrate the ineffable aspect in Japanese culture; such attempts border dangerously on a sentimental Orientalism that not merely denies how very much that culture owes to its parents in China and Korea but whitewashes the pain and suffering inflicted in the acquisition.

I’m still more suspicious when people, even and maybe especially those with the best intentions, arrive from abroad with a received notion of what a culture “should” be. After all, I don’t take kindly to foreigners insisting that the core of Americanness is cowboys and Indians (let alone Bloods and Crips); nor is there any reason why anyone but the Japanese should have a say in what comes to constitute their culture. It’s not for me to say that the work of Shigeru Ban is a “truer” or “deeper” reflection of the culture’s values than the machinery that produces an Ayumi Hamasaki, even if I pray that this is so.

Given all that, it’s easy to dismiss any of what I feel to be true about the more disturbing resonances of this one bad development project. From what platform, after all, can one assert with any credibility that Japan used to be expert at finding the one element in a situation that bore psychological meaning, at manipulating the tension between what is made explicit and what is left unsaid? From what stance is it permissible to note that it now seems content wallowing in the banal and the mediocre, if that mediocrity promotes itself loudly enough?

I find myself longing for Japan to rediscover what it used to do so well: manipulating with a great degree of care what we would now think of as the ratio between signal and noise, in pursuit of such exemplars of aesthetic reductionism as the haiku, the original Sony Walkman, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s superb night oceanscapes. I feel this, and know all the while that such a feeling is untenable: unwanted, supernumerary, irrelevant to conditions on the ground.

The lock-out effect

We know from self-organizing systems theory that there’s something called a lock-in effect, something that happens when one of a variety of alternatives – keyboard layouts, videotape formats, operating systems – passes a certain point of criticality and begins to enjoy a position of such pre-eminence that other options must find marginal niches, or fall by the wayside entirely.

We know, from our studies of human psychology, that success breeds its own curious, self-justifying aura – that the later works of Andy Warhol, for example, must have been Great Art, because Andy Warhol was known to be a Great Artist.

We know that it is ever difficult to speak truth to power, always and anywhere, but most especially in small communities where one’s life chances can be profoundly affected by how well one is seen to comply with the dominant ethos.

And we know, from what we were taught in sociology class, that Japan is a “group-oriented” culture, one where consensus is valued above all and open dissent is an unacceptable affront to wa, to harmony.

When you mix all these influences together, you get a circumstance that looks a lot like the one that produced Roppongi Hills.

You get a place where everyone recognized as an authority on such matters as, say, art or architecture, already knows everyone else in a similar position, relies critically on the continued favor of their peers for access to clients, contacts, bully pulpits, magazine covers. Once folks like this have thrown their reputation behind a judgment of quality – especially those grand eminences in the lambent autumn of a celebrated career – well, public disagreement can be injurious to one’s own prospects. Easier just to nod an assent: oh, sure, it’s great.

This, of course, also has the effect of locking out voices calling any of this into question – those embarrassing, unwelcome, discordant interjections reminding one and all that, hey, this really isn’t “sugoii,” that it’s actually pretty shabby. And simply totting up the numbers and calling things as they are is a task that falls to outsiders, whose viewpoints are valuable precisely because they’re deniable: can be incorporated, even acted on, without ever having to be acknowledged.

So let me make use of that privilege. Let me say that this development, so far from being a signpost to the way things will be done in the urban future – at least, in any future I’d want myself or my loved ones to be a part of – is merely an upjutting, backward-looking memorial to a cultural aspect that prefers noise to meaning, a world-class act of badness.

“This is just one building project,” I can hear some of you saying. “Isn’t there some good Japanese architecture you could be writing about? Ignore it, get over yourself, move on.” Yeah, well, it’s a whole lot less easy to ignore if the same dynamic plays out at the scale of a national culture and economy.

The same bad faith, the same denial, the selfsame closed loop of blank-check affirmation that produce “mere” bad architecture in Minato ward are responsible for a great many of this troubled nation’s other problems. Pointing this out, as a foreigner, brands one a “Japan hater,” or subjects the critic to a lecture on the horrors of their own nation, as if the misdeeds of others were ever an excuse for one’s own malfeasance.

Complicating any discussion of these matters, too, is the vocal faction among Western Nippophiles – many of whom have never set foot in Japan for even so long as a layover at Narita on their way to someplace else – who regard any criticism of Japanese culture as an assault on their personal choices. (The relationship between such apologists and the representation of Japan in the wider world, and particularly the sexual economy underlying that representation, is indeed a fruitful topic, and one richly deserving of explication, but unfortunately that will have to remain grist for a future article.)

By far, most of the criticism I’ve received regarding my commentary on Japan has come not from Japanese – who could assuredly not care less – but from such gaijin, who seem disproportionately grateful for the things they’ve received from their Japans, and just as unable to accept that not everyone can or would share in these benisons.

Windows on (a) world

I don’t know what to think about any of this, honestly, any of these often-contradictory lines of evidence I’ve laid before you today. I’ve often enough fulminated, waiting in one line or another during my years in Japan, at the rote and inefficient obeisance to time-honored rituals that puts this place at marked odds with (my) “contemporary” notions of brisk, clean efficiency – and here I am damning someone for producing something designed to be efficient enough for the world market. The irony barely requires acknowledgment.

Here’s what I want.

I want, as a critic who hopes to inspire more thoughtful and humanistic architecture, to tie all of these threads into one convincing argument, one summa that will encapsulate all of the things which depress me about this awful building and the culture for which, for me, it has become emblematic; for once it’s not particularly satisfying to stand with Nietzsche and decry the will to systemization. I’d like Roppongi Hills, or my version of it, to stand as an object lesson of how not to do it, one simple heuristic to guide the choices of developers and architects, mayors and residents and citizens alike.

I’d like, as a citizen of a world that includes Japan, for that culture to recover even a little bit of the attention to detail and meaning that once helped distinguish it among all humanity’s other voices: above all to design, once again, artifacts that do more with less. In our common life of constant, clamorous information overload, we need these instincts now more than ever – these solutions latent in the cultural genepool, as it were, just as valuable as the anticarcinogenic alkaloids supposedly naturally produced by rare species of Amazon flora, and every bit as endangered.

I’d like for my Japanese friends and associates to live in a world that doesn’t fetishize Japaneseness, aestheticize it even in its ugly sides, simultaneously infantilizing and absolving it. The tendency is – I know! – to giggle over sumo-wrestler trading cards and hentai games, minuscule motorcycles and capsule hotels and say, oh, how delightful, how odd and funny and other. Which lets both “them” and “us” off the hook, and I’m not having it.

I’d like, finally, for more people to get on a plane and experience Tokyo, experience Japan, not for a week or two but for long enough to deal with landlords and coworkers, neighbors and doctors and ward-office bureaucrats: in short, for long enough to get through the screen of received image and taste the daily reality. Both Japan and the rest of the world would be better off for it.

My fear, if none of these things happen, is that Japan will continue to enjoy a sort of perverse, condescending exemption from all the rules that apply elsewhere, and that this exemption will underwrite still further and more serious departures. (I worry particularly about fields especially beloved in Japan, like nanotechnology and humanoid robotics, where systems designed to local taste may be allowed to become pervasive elsewhere, without any notion on the part of either designer or adopter that they encode and reproduce a peculiarly Japanese take on reality.)

As for Roppongi Hills itself, it’s easy to forget – when one lives in a Tokyo in which it thrusts not merely from the skyline, but glossily, insistently from the covers of half the magazines on the stand and ads on the subway – that nobody much cares about it or Mori Building or anything about them in the wider world beyond. It’s just another bad development, of a sort that the world is already full of. It’s not precisely like it’s in any danger of receiving the sort of massive international acclaim that might require the injection of authoritative contrarian viewpoints, right?

Which is well and good for most of the people reading about the place, and not nearly so for those who must live or work in its shadow.

7 responses to “My back pages: Memento Mori”

  1. JM says :

    Thanks for re-posting this. A lot of food for thought still relevant in 2009. Not only about Tokyo and Japanese culture but the ever-changing landscape of Asian cities in general.

  2. Mentifex says :

    I always enjoy Beatles references like “Superflat Fields Forever.”

  3. Joe McCarthy says :

    In a “snack culture” era, it’s amazing how posts with depth can remain current after what seems like a long time … I wonder if anyone will want to go back and revisit any of their – or anyone else’s – tweets 6 years later.

    If you are open to additional requests for reposts, I was trying to track down one of your earlier posts on “Real Value and the Nature of Work” that was particularly inspiring during a challenging period, and that I’d referenced in a blog post on When One Door Closes, Another Opens.

    The URL I used then was … I’d love to update my post – that I revisit from time to time – with a fresh URL for your post.

  4. AG says :

    Your wish, Joe, is my command! As it happens, I’ve been thinking about that piece a lot lately myself, and I think you’re right, it’s a splendid time to attempt a resurrection.

    I’ll ping you when it’s up.

  5. Huan and Thomas says :

    After our discussion in Amsterdam we are glad to see the resurgence of the kind of depth and length that matches your level of output, both qualitatively and in terms of field coverage.

    Please continue, we enjoyed it very much. When are you around?

  6. RH says :

    I have nothing terribly substantive to say – this is just some unabashed hero worship… I am absolutely blown away by your brilliance. The last time I felt similarly inspired by an encounter with genius was when I read the novels and essays of the late David Foster Wallace. Stumbling upon your essay has made my day; I can’t wait to go out and buy your book(s).

  7. AG says :

    (blushes, drops gaze, shuffles feet)

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