Recently I visited construction company Kajima’s headquarters in Akasaka to learn more about their extraordinary biodiversity program, and was charmed by the miniature Japanese garden in front of the modernist building. One could criticize the excess of hardscape, but it does make the small traditional garden pop in a dramatic way.
The perfectly pruned pines and arrangement around a “river” of pebbles and rock “mountains” makes a wonderful composition. Even the tallest trees are under 1 meter in this miniature dream landscape. While the environmental benefit is minimal, such stylized and well cared for nature creates a beauty that is unquantifiable and a momentary escape from urban life.
The contrast not only with the building but the surrounding neighborhood is extreme.
A single tree standing in the entrance to a modern Tokyo house provides a marvelous contrast between the traditional and the new. The beauty of the single tree and the clean lines of the boxy concrete home create a uniquely Japanese feeling, or what I introduced recently as wafu modern (和風モダン) in relation to Kuma Kenga’s new Nezu Museum and tea house.
The intricately pruned pine tree evokes hundreds of years of Japanese garden design almost single-handedly. The pairing suggests a forward-looking aesthetic that remembers and revitalizes traditional culture elements.
From an ecological perspective, the single tree and minimal shrubs provides very little habitat. This quiet cul-de-sac suffers a typical Tokyo over-abundance of pavement, which is a certain pathway to Tokyo Bay pollution from storm runoff and an obstacle to insect and plant life that could feed and shelter bees, birds and other urban wildlife.
Still, the effect of the tree is all the more dramatic against the excess of hardscape. I also would regret if urban ecology became a quantitative calculation of efficiencies and benefits. There must be a place for not only traditional culture but also the type of human care and aesthetic appreciation manifest in this stylized pine tree.
This five or ten year old residential mid-rise residential building is surrounded on two sides by hardscaped alleys that provide fire access. This design intentionally creates dead space since the developers chose not to allow pedestrian traffic. Nor did they create any amenity that would attract residents. Perhaps it keeps the apartments quieter, but this space is effectively dead for the public and even the residents.
This is a larger scale version of my previous post about dead space featuring fenced-in concrete triangles created to prevent bike parking near a Metro entrance and on a walking path, and excess pavement between houses.
For a city that suffered tremendous human and structural damages from World War II fire bombs, it is sad how little efforts are taken to preserve older houses and farms in Tokyo. The tax code, which levies an inheritance tax on the real value of property, literally forces many families to sell or subdivide their childhood homes in order to pay the tax bill.
When parents die, the wooden homes with large yards and small urban farms become quickly transformed into multi-unit condos and apartments. New construction in Tokyo is often cheap and pre-fabricated, with the idea being that buildings should last for thirty years before being raised and rebuilt. Old gardens and trees are replaced with hardscape that provides neither shade nor habitat.
Above are images of a grand home and garden near Nodai, the Tokyo University of Agriculture. It is one of only a handful of historic homes along the 20 minute walk between the Kyodo station and Nodai.
Below is an example from my neighborhood of brand new construction of a six unit building on what was previously a single family lot with garden. The amount of planting probably covers less than 2% of the lot size, and there’s four parking spaces paved in front.
Changes to the tax code are necessary to stop this steady erasure of history and habitat. Click the link below to see another nearby house during demolition and its rebuilt form.