Master of Architecture candidate at the University of Washington. Spending October 2010 - March 2012 as a researcher at Kobe University on a Monbusho Fellowship, sponsored by the Japanese government. Researching the cultural and practical relationships between water and public space. Documenting research and reflections.

11 February 2011

How to find a cup of coffee, where everyone else drinks tea

             There’s a trend in Japan these days around mapping. Perhaps it has to do with the metabolic form of the cities here. In the Western U.S., many towns were designed around grids, giving them uniformity. Even when faced with topography, a grid was simply projected onto the terrain as if it were flat. In Seattle, as you may know, the streets imaginarily run right through the lakes, so you can find University Avenue on both sides as if the lake never existed. 
            Though it sounds relentlessly ordered, history of course provides plenty of idiosyncratic spatial exceptions. Downtown Seattle today has two grid systems that uneasily knit together. Similarly, Berkeley and Oakland have a strange transition as the cities have grown up from towns and formerly unoccupied or uninhabited land has become haphazardly rationalized along the old telegraph line.
            In Japan, the train, like the telegraph or cable car in the Bay Area, gives form to the urban eastern coast, roughly between Kyoto and Tokyo. Cities here are more dense and bustling around their monumental center: the train station. This intensification toward a significant structure or site was also notable before modernization, explored by Fumihiko Maki in such works as "Some Thoughts on Collective Form," in Metabolism I960. Maki uses the spatial design concepts he recognized in the vernacular Japanese landscape to legitimize and foment his own generation’s movement, Metabolism.
            One of the only cities in Japan to feature a grid is Kyoto, the old capitol, another is Nara, the older one. The reliance on the grid for urban planning is inherited from China. As the nation of Japan emerged, the countryside villages spread and crept into the craggy and shaking topography, as if they were a natural result.
            When they finally developed a mapping system to record, navigate, and of course monetize and control the nation’s cities, they came up with a system that, if it helps, we can imagine as the exact opposite of the Western system. In the west, we prioritize the street over the buildings and parks that line them. We navigate based on street names and right angles. In Japan, even where it is gridded the streets bear no such centrality. Major avenues are named, minor ones are not. To find an address I need to know the number of the block it’s on. The building I seek is numbered based on when it was constructed, not what it is next to. In other words, once on site, there is little I can do to find a specific building outside of referencing other sources such as locals, a printed city map, a gps application, or a map printed by the entity I seek.
            Initially, for a person used to gridded or at least named streets, this is confusing and frustrating. Not having been blessed with a keen sense of direction doubles my reliance on my smart phone. But, as I explore the city further, I find how common it is for places to offer printed maps to help you find them. Fliers handed out on the street, business cards, handbills distributed in café lobbies often feature a small detailed map.
            When I first moved to Kobe, I was unimpressed with the urban fabric around the main station, Sannomiya. It feels disorganized, brash, lurid, and banal. Where are the tiny stylish cafes that seep from every edge of Tokyo and Kyoto? How do I find the quiet individuals who like to sit next to a window and drink something warm, read, or chat? Maybe they are all at home? The city library offers no such place. The university study areas are stuffy and carpeted or fluorescent and inspire agoraphobia. Eventually I found a day to idly wander around a bookstore in Osaka. I uncovered a trove of guidebooks. The books are aimed at Japanese people visiting Japanese cities on a daytrip or for a weekend. I picked one out, an $8 magazine called “Café Book.” Although I saw it coming, I was kind of confused about how to read it, since it opens from the opposite direction as a Western book. That part is easy to understand, but referencing page numbers baffles. Page 100 is a hundred pages from the right cover of the book, not from the left cover of the book.
            The magazine covers the delcious foods you can find in the cafes, as well as providing quick snapshots of the interiors. Aha! here are the wooden tables and old rickety chairs, the potted plants and sleeping cats. Here is a carefully presented lunch set with a variety of small side dishes, not touching each other, each holding its portion of the plate like a lonely prima donna.
            As I follow the maps in the magazine, it becomes clear why this subculture wasn’t immediately apparent before. In Seattle, in architecture school, we briefly studied the Pike-Pine urban renewal plan. The city set aside a tree-lined corridor on Capitol Hill that was already beginning the process of gentrification, and made up a list of rules for businesses who could rent there. The resulting zoning laws created a more dense economic ecosystem of locally owned restaurants, cafes, bookstores, hair salons, concert venues, yoga studios, cinemas, record stores, et cetera. This small area, as a result, has a feeling or atmosphere. It’s unsurprising to find a nice courtyard or a great factory turned bookstore or a strange pin-ball fanatics artist squat in the basement of a beauty school. Well, of course the last one was a little surprising. Anyway, the neighborhood’s businesses are dense and variegated, primarily on street grade.
            In contrast, Kobe’s boutique cafés are distributed on many floors among skyscrapers, hotels, huge pachinko parlors, department stores, train lines, and covered shopping corridors. It is not unusual (apparently) to find a great subterranean bar with no natural light filled with cigarette smoke and stuccoed with grease particles post condensation. Conversely, today I am sitting in a turquoise walled café at the top of the steep stairs in a building that stands proudly beside its gigantic neighbors. From the street, but building looked abandoned. The top floor’s blinds were drawn, the second floor boasts a heap of water damaged office supplies, in front of the first floor was an imposing delivery truck.
            Carefully, I rotated the café book in my hands, slowly translated borrowed words and simple kanji, and scrutinized the third floor of various buildings. Finally, I combined the reference points on the map and applied them to what I could see, recognized a building name; saw a small placard advertising the café. Like a scent, I followed these small hints toward this place.
            My teachers would ask, rightly, how would a place like this stay in business? Who would go there? On a Thursday afternoon, it isn’t crowded. When I arrived around 2:30 pm, a group of girls were fawning over the café’s mascot, Zoé. Another girl came in later to drink tea and organize her date book. For a while it was only I, and now it must be near 4 and there’s a new girl drinking tea. In short, women, in groups and alone, seem to form the backbone for this and other boutique cafés. Fine with me!
            It’s satisfying to find something in real life that you see on a map, to decipher the abstract diagram into the formless disorder before you. Especially when you’re not very good at it, using a map gives you a sense of accomplishment. Following the whisper and hint of small signs and hand held maps heightens the sense of discovery one feels at uncovering a little place like this.
            Perhaps partly due to the institutional lack of zoning laws, perhaps due to the historic and topographical environmental formation for Japanese cities, using maps provided by businesses or media is more endemic to the experience of urban navigation in Japan.
            Often, on Thursday night, there’s a television program about a professor/comedian who takes walks in Tokyo accompanied by a film crew and a bouncy young female assistant. He walks through alleys, in culverts, along broadways, into government buildings, uncovering marks of pre-modern city planning. This culvert used to be a river; this noodle shop used to sell its fish; these officials are responsible for our current water provision; et cetera. One of his colleagues, Jinnai Hidenobu, has written and excellent book on this theme, Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology. The book relates Edo cityscapes to the modern city, and Venetian cityscapes to old Edo.
            In a recent exhibition, an organization of design leaders curated a show on Japanese design, 60s-00s. The exhibition was accompanied by lectures, a newsletter, and a walk. The walk led 30 spectators through downtown Tokyo to see and hear about a handful of architectural landmarks, again accompanied by a map.
            To celebrate the final year of avant-garde dancer Kazuo Ohno, his dance studio organized a festival. One event was a multi-sited dance performance where audience members are led through Yokohama city to different spaces suddenly commandeered as stages for a brief exposition. When we moved on, the stage reverted to an empty space.
            At the various Art festivals in Japan, including Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, the Yokohama Triennale, and now the Setouchi Triennale, it is the pedestrian’s path that knits the scattered sites of the festival into a whole. Added to this is the graphic representation of this invisible path in supporting media. The whole network exists as an idea but not as a physical form, except in the mind of the walker.
             Walter Benjamin’s flaneur that wandered the modern city from café to bridge to dining room would have quite a dull time in Kobe without a map. With a map, an invisible network can become tangible, lively: in the act of seeking out the secret and mysterious nodes in the imaginary net, I get to really looking at the buildings around me: where does the subway run underground and how can I tell? Where does the subway cross under the raised trainline? I can’t see it, but from the map it must be here. Where do I stand in relation to ocean, mountain, main avenue?
            As Janet Cardiff shows, the act of mapping a place can also become a subjective document, a record giving character and feeling to a set of streets and buildings we’ve never seen. By whispering into our ear what she sees, Cardiff recreates for us an imaginary cityscape with imaginary characters. It’s novel-esque, but based on real places that we can visit. There is a suggestion of narrative and intrigue, stories from childhood or stories invented, which give our guided audio tour down a street in Vancouver, Canada a knowable quality.
            The “Café Book” networks a group of cafés subjectively selected by a staff with certain tastes. I don’t know what their rules for including or excluding their suggestions. Some of the cafés and bars are clustered around a quest block or two of alley-facing businesses or empty feeling warehouses. In the act of navigating, I get to experiencing the city’s layers, its histories, its personality.