Architecture and science fiction are interrelated forms. The author of a plan or a story imagines an intervention in the environment and a change in the lives of its inhabitants, which is revealed through narrative consequences. 1 A sprawling horizontal city remapped onto giant, vertical, spiral structures, with recyclable, movable housing pods plugging into the helix framework. Industrial cities floating off the Pacific coast of Japan, linking, expanding, shrinking, and shifting their locations according to economic demands. The family home reconceived as the mutual docking of capsules belonging to migratory, autonomous individuals. Architecture becoming liquid, invisible, indistinguishable from images. A second, virtual city overlapping the physical city. Some of these are architectural proposals, and some are works of fiction. Placing them side by side helps us see modern architects as authors of narrative, while appreciating SF writers for their role in imagining the interactions of built and natural environments and the consequences for human lives. 2
This is especially true for the Metabolist architects — and the writers they mixed with socially and professionally — in postwar Japan. In the decade leading up to the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, their works converged in an exploration of futurity and a repurposing of the past. Discourses of mirai (the future; literally the “not-yet-come”) proliferated through architectural projections of the “future city” (mirai toshi) and proposals for “future studies” (miraigaku), while past traumas were rescripted, in both architecture and fiction, through the motif of a future city in ruins. This was simultaneously a reassertion of history, an apocalyptic prediction, and an incubation bed for yet another future. Large areas in nearly all of Japan’s major cities had been leveled in World War II, and fifteen years later they were reemerging, in a more or less chaotic fashion, denser than before. Against this background, a group of young architects authored the manifesto Metabolism 1960: The Proposals for New Urbanism, which sought to reimagine the city at a time when high economic growth and large-scale government investments in infrastructure encouraged daring solutions to the problems of rapid urbanization.
For Isozaki Arata, the invisible city was a space of cybernetic interaction where ‘technology and planning overlap.’
The Metabolists believed that architecture and the city should be designed to remain open to processes of growth, decline, and transformation. This idea was informed by the flexible, modular forms of traditional Japanese architecture, in which “fittings” such as windows, shutters, doors, interior walls and screens, and tatami flooring components, set within a stable wooden framework, could be replaced or altered according to cycles of wear, the demands of weather and season, or changing living patterns. 3 But the Metabolists were not interested in merely extending traditional techniques to a modern context; they extrapolated from these principles to propose new designs, made with new materials and methods, at every scale, from the housing unit to the metropolis to the symbolic realm. As Kawazoe Noburu wrote, in 1961, “The rapidity of the metabolic changes in Tokyo in particular is without a parallel. If we are to formulate an idea of the city of the future, we must, I think, find it within this mobility, this ceaseless transformation.” Rather than pursuing a fixed form or “master plan,” Kawazoe felt architects and city planners should strive for a “continuous program,” wherein “each part should be so designed that intense metabolic changes can take place freely within it.” 4
The dematerialization of the city proved to be a resonant theme. Isozaki Arata’s influential essay “Invisible City,” published seven years after the Metabolist manifesto, echoed its language: “Design, or architecture, becomes reality when it overlaps with its own extinction. The future city is ruins.” 5 For Isozaki, buildings and cities were momentary fragments in a context of fluidity: “Viewed in terms of the time axis of transformation, the city is in a liquid state of constant organic reproduction and division. … We have before our eyes fragments of cities in the process of flux.” 6 Here the organic metaphors which the Metabolists had often used to describe change in the physical environment were extended to flows of energy and information. “Constant movement, diffusion, rejection of fixed images, and infinite increases of advertising and noise are part of daily life,” Isozaki wrote. To comprehend and intervene in the urban design of this liquid city, he invoked cybernetics and systems theory. Spatial elements, “reduced to codes” and “reorganized as a system model,” could be subjected to computer simulation as a new form of urban planning. The invisible city was a space of cybernetic interaction where “technology and planning overlap.” 7
Around the same time, Japanese scholars and journalists introduced the concept of the “information society” (jōhō shakai). Japan’s shift to a postindustrial economy was embraced in proposals such as Tange Kenzō’s A Plan for Tokyo, 1960-, his follow-up study Nihon rettō no shōraizō (The future image of the Japanese archipelago, 1966), and Kurokawa Kishō’s Metapolis — The Hishino Plan, 1967. Government ministries planned developments with names like “technopolis” and “teletopia” — precursors to today’s “smart cities” — even as critics warned of the overreach of the “managed society” (kanri shakai). Structural anthropologist Masakuni Kitazawa foresaw a “society administered through highly sophisticated mechanisms for forecasting, planning, and control,” based on “quantitative analysis of data and compilation of a set of optimum conditions for that society’s well-being,” in which a technocratic “power elite” would gently control all aspects of life, making it difficult to draw “a clear boundary between service and authoritarian control.” 8
For Sze Tsung Leong, ‘control space’ describes the millennial city reduced by technology to a ‘domain within which information is both extracted and deployed.’
This critique of the managed society, emerging from Japan in the 1960s, resonates with more recent debates about “control societies” or “control space” advanced by theorists in North America and Europe. Gilles Deleuze proposed a distinction between the “disciplinary societies” identified by Michel Foucault and the “control societies” of the late 20th century. While disciplinary societies were broken into sites of confinement such as prisons, hospitals, factories, and schools, and subjects were organized into categories of “individual” and “mass,” Deleuze’s control societies were structured so that “individuals become ‘dividuals’ and masses become samples, data, markets, or ‘banks.’”9 Where Kitazawa imagined state bureaucratic and security apparatuses colluding with private capital to suppress freedoms, Deleuze saw the locus of power as more diffuse — the world becoming a “single business” configured as an instrument of control. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues that Deleuze’s paranoid vision is itself characteristic of the control society, fulfilling the aims of control by “imaginatively ascribing to control power that it does not yet have and by erasing its failures.” 10 More concretely, Sze Tsung Leong updates the mechanisms of control to include millennial technologies such as the global positioning system, geographic information systems, and universal product codes, which organize urban space and track and plan the flows of products and consumers. He uses the term control space to describe the city reduced by these technologies to a “receptacle for numeric quantification, a domain within which information is both extracted and deployed.” 11 Under such conditions, “architecture grows increasingly flexible, increasingly ephemeral, increasingly targeted to changing needs and tastes, increasingly mutable.” In a word, liquid.
In tracing the evolution of this concept, we can start with the socio-technical visions realized and promoted by Isozaki Arata and Kurokawa Kishō at the 1970 Osaka Expo, which informed subsequent efforts by urban planners to guide the evolution of an “information society.” In Japanese architecture and science fiction from the 1960s through the 1990s, there was a shift from bureaucratic attempts to implement the “technopolis” through planning and economic guidance to a perception that the city itself was transforming through new media, new technology, and new patterns of consumption. In the first phase, the agent of change was understood to be the technocratic state in collusion with the national business sector; in the second phase, it was the consumer. Tellingly, the antagonist for most cyberpunk narratives is not a totalitarian government, as in Orwell’s 1984, but rather diffuse multinational corporations and their doubles, the international crime syndicate and the terrorist organization — shape-shifting representatives of the paranoid imagination of the control society.
The Osaka Expo as Cybercity
Initiated in 1965 and opening in March 1970, the Osaka Expo hosted pavilions from 78 countries and attracted a record 64 million visitors. It was master planned by the modernist architects Nishiyama Uzō and Tange Kenzō, who recruited a dozen other Japanese architects to design various elements. At its center, the Festival Plaza was conceived as an “invisible monument” to the exchange of information. Tange designed a broad plaza, open at the sides, and covered by a grand space-frame roof of prefabricated steel pipes and ball joints in a triangular lattice, topped by a lightweight, translucent polyester film. Okamoto Tarō’s exuberant Tower of the Sun burst through the roof, a kitschy antithesis to the cool rationality of Tange’s design.
Isozaki claimed that his roboticized stage devices ‘liquified architecture, which had been solid and spatial, into something momentary, experiential, and temporal.’
Isozaki Arata, the author of “Invisible City,” was charged with designing the plaza’s event systems to create an interactive “environment” (kankyō). 12 His solution involved moveable stage and seating components, adaptive lighting suspended from trolleys in the roof, and two giant robots to assist with the staging. Deme was a “performance robot” emitting light, sound, smoke, and scents to accompany events on stage, while Deku was a “sub-control station” for directing light, sound, and photography. Deme’s anthropomorphic form included two arms for moving stage components, props, and even people, and two transparent “eyes” that were actually control rooms. Although both robots had stations for human operators, they were also designed to respond automatically to environmental conditions on stage and among the crowd. The pattern of these responses, in the form of light and sound, could be programmed in advance as a type of score. 13 Isozaki claimed that his stage devices “liquified architecture, which had been solid and spatial, into something momentary, experiential, and temporal.” 14
Kurokawa Kishō, who had been a graduate student in Tange’s studio, designed three of the pavilions. Like Isozaki, he believed that the solid physicality of architecture was dematerializing, and he saw the Expo as a “training center” which prepared visitors for the experience of a highly mediated, information-based city.
I think architecture is destined to become a very metaphysical thing. You know today architecture is still fundamentally walls, floors and windows, but there is already an imaginable state of affairs where all these elements could become somehow simply images — there is going to be an interpenetration between very spiritual, very visual things and the physical world that we now work with. It is pointless to suggest that people will not understand this — they live with it already, information overload is the norm for urban man. What we must do is to learn to select and discriminate. I see the multiscreen, mixed media pavilion as a training center for just that. 15
Kurokawa conceived the architectural form of the capsule as a “feedback mechanism” to help the occupant receive, filter, and transmit information. As he put it in his “Capsule Declaration,” “just as an astronaut is protected by a perfect shelter from solar winds and cosmic rays, individuals should be protected by capsules in which they can reject information they do not need and in which they are sheltered from information they do not want, thereby allowing an individual to recover his subjectivity and independence.” 16
Through Isozaki’s roboticized event systems, Kurokawa’s capsules, and the pavilions’ multiscreen displays, the “city of the future” was realized as a highly cybernetic, mediatized environment — which we might retroactively term a model or simulation of a “cybercity.” 17 Computer systems tracked, compiled, and displayed data on the number and location of people who attended the Expo and the flow of automobiles in the parking lot, while visitors interacted with searchable guide terminals and similarly audacious displays of information technology. 18 Indeed, Tange and his collaborators conceived of the entire Expo site, with its various transportation and information subsystems, as a “giant physical environmental system” or “device” on “the scale of a city.” 19
The 1970 Osaka Expo was realized as a highly cybernetic, mediatized environment — which we might retroactively term a model or simulation of a ‘cybercity.’
Whereas Kurokawa emphasized the “spiritual” aspects of this new environment, critics saw a dystopian “techno-structure” in which information was fetishized and individual freedoms were repressed by a technocratic, capitalist state. 20 Yoshimura Masanobu, an artist who had worked alongside Isozaki, critiqued the “managed plaza” (kanri kōjō) as a space where authoritarian control and security were prioritized above spontaneous human exchanges. Science historian Yoshida Mitsukuni described visitors being “constantly managed and monitored by computers and security guards, and hustled along.” 21 At one point, guards on the Festival Plaza broke up a go-go line dance that formed spontaneously between scheduled performances, prompting art critic Haryū Ichirō to complain that “the plaza, which was supposed to liberate people from their everyday existence, has, on the contrary, become a symbol of Expo ’70 … built by power and imposed on the spectators.” Summing up his critique, Haryū wrote, “In terms of economics, Expo ’70 stands for the liberalization of capital, the reorganization and strengthening of industry in order to achieve economic domination over Asia; in terms of culture, under the banner of the information revolution, the Expo represents the merger of science and art and the use of technology in order to consolidate and manage ideology within the system.” 22
Haryū was similarly critical of Kurokawa’s vision of capsule living, which involved consumers assembling their residences from a catalog of prefabricated components. For Haryū, this was a delusional idea, based on the false “premise that in an information society the alienation of industrial society will vanish and that harmony between technology and humanity will naturally prevail”; it “deliberately disregards how this stunning process of transformation and renewal is born not out of human desire, but provoked by the entreaties of capital.” If mass production could enable the construction of personalized housing units, by that same logic, capital could manipulate and even manufacture desire: “Computers will be capable of turning people’s desires into numbers to be calculated, and in doing so, strengthen the manipulation and domination of the masses.” Haryū continued, “A situation emerges where individual desires are bypassed and wrapped in a false notion of the public, while capital supporting private enterprise monopolizes individuality and freedom of expression. The information society that Kurokawa paints with rosy colors is transformed into a tightly controlled society based on a techno-structure.” 23
Nevertheless, the socio-technical vision presented at the Osaka Expo was broadly embraced in the ministries and think tanks which shaped the next two decades of economic policy and urban planning. Bureaucratic reports outlined Japan’s transformation to a postindustrial economy and speculated about outcomes such as increased leisure time, self-cultivation, and human creativity, as new communication networks enabled decentralized, flexible, harmonious social interactions — a “technocrats’ Utopia,” as Tessa Morris-Suzuki describes it. 24 Urban planners promoted New Towns and industrial parks oriented toward information technology, such as Kurokawa’s plan for Hishino, which was based on the concept of the metapolis, an intermediate urban unit between the size of a house and a metropolis, connected to the global ecumenopolis through its information, communications, and transportation systems. 25 This model of a networked city influenced the 1969/1970 National Comprehensive Development Plan produced by the government’s Economic Planning Agency, and Kurokawa himself was appointed to its Research Committee for Large-Scale Development Projects and Information Networks. 26 In the next decade, two rival agencies, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, introduced “wired city” plans to outfit homes and public buildings in existing New Towns with advanced cable and fiberoptic networks, as well as a battery of experimental communications equipment, including two-way TV, fax devices, and home printers. 27 Despite mixed success in integrating the trial technologies into residents’ lives, the ministries pressed on in the 1980s with plans to establish “teletopia” cities and “new media communities.” 28 And in 1983 MITI launched an ambitious “technopolis” program, identifying sites for 26 new high-tech provincial towns, which would disperse technology throughout the country. 29
Development on Tokyo Bay mirrored a societal shift from technocratic, utopian planning to increasingly privatized economic development — from a managed society to control space.
In the capital city, the most ambitious techno-utopian scheme was a series of proposals for “Tokyo Teleport Town” on Tokyo Bay — the same site where Tange Kenzō had envisioned a megastructural development in his 1960 plan. Two decades later, soaring real estate prices in the bubble economy incentivized traditional land fill-based development, rather than Tange’s “linear city.” 30 In 1985 governor Suzuki Shun’ichi announced plans to build a model community for 60,000 residents and 100,000 workers, with high-tech amenities and advanced communications infrastructure. The project was scaled down after the economic crash in 1991, but some of the elements built over the next decade retained a techno-futurist orientation, including the Fuji Television Headquarters, designed by Tange; the Tokyo Big Sight convention center, featuring a Conference Tower of inverted titanium pyramids; the giant Tokyo Telecom Center; and the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. The shift at Tokyo Bay from an urban “subcenter” and model living community to a shopping and entertainment district mirrored a larger societal shift from technocratic, utopian planning, guided by national and metropolitan bureaucracies, to increasingly privatized economic development — from a managed society to control space.
The ideology and practices showcased at the Osaka Expo were also reflected in the redevelopment of two major commercial centers west of Tokyo: Shinjuku in the 1960s and Shibuya in the 1970s. First, near the Shinjuku metro station, developers drained a water purification plant to build a new urban “subcenter” (fukutoshin) of office towers and department stores. Commuters were connected to this skyscraper district by the metro station’s new spiral-shaped West Exit Plaza, designed by Le Corbusier disciple Sakakura Shunzō. But north of the station, the crowded streets of Kabukichō and vicinity were the epicenter of the city’s underground arts scene and leftist subcultures. In the spring and summer of 1969, as the renewal date for the U.S.–Japan Security Treaty loomed and war raged in Vietnam, musicians calling themselves “folk guerrillas” gathered with students and activists on the West Exit Plaza to debate issues, sing protest songs, collect signatures and donations for political causes, and distribute or sell “mini-komi” — small, independent publications. These activities were broken up by riot police after the “plaza” (hiroba) was officially redesignated as a “concourse” (tsūrō), and young people were charged with obstructing pedestrian traffic. 31 Critics noted the irony of a police crackdown on gatherings at Shinjuku station while architects of the state-sponsored Osaka Expo were planning a Festival Plaza ostensibly designed to encourage free exchanges of ideas and culture. 32 This context is critical to understanding the leftist critique of the Expo and its “managed plaza” as a space of surveillance and control.
In the 1970s, a new urban space with its own cultural zeitgeist emerged in Shibuya, a commuter center south of Shinjuku. The newly renamed Kōen dōri (Park Street) sloped upward from the vicinity of Shibuya station toward the NHK broadcasting center, Tange’s Olympic Stadium, and Yoyogi Park. Kōen dōri had its focal point midway up the slope, where Parco, a new branch of the Seibu Department Store, opened in 1973. Art critic Tōno Yoshiaki compared the scene at Kōen dōri to a street festival overflowing with crowds of young people and “bookshops, coffee shops, video arcades, record shops, boutiques, second-hand clothing stores, and crepe stands,” punctuated by the “vertical fair” of Parco, filled with its own merchant booths and stalls, and capped by the cultural cachet of the Seibu Gekijō Theater. 33 Writing in 1976, in language inflected by Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, architecture critic Makabe Toshiharu compared the “urban strategy” of Parco to the transparently authoritarian functionalist “planning ideology” of the Shinjuku subcenter, and to what he regarded as the failed experiments of the Osaka Expo. Makabe argued that Parco’s “Shibuya-ism” — including its perspectival reinterpretation of local urban amenities, and its cosmopolitan, avant-garde advertising campaigns — had succeeded in using the cityscape itself as a type of media to generate an “image” of urbanism that “pervades the city like a kind of mist” and “prevents contradictions [such as class and ideological conflicts] from becoming evident, or sometimes even incorporates these contradictions into its image-making.” In Makabe’s reading of the site, Parco represented a rejection of the “plaza” and “temple” as architectural forms; the building’s physical structure was de-emphasized, relative to the eclectic “assemblage” of interior and surrounding street spaces and the experiential “gestures” and “happenings” of Shibuya visitors. 34
From Shinjuku station to the pedestrian paradises of Yoyogi and Akihabara, the ‘managed plaza’ has been a site where ‘unruly’ popular appropriations of public space are controlled or suppressed.
As paraphrased by Tōno Yoshiaki, in an essay published the following year, Makabe saw the “Parco strategy” as “the post-Expo establishment’s way of realizing the false illusion of the ‘plaza’ … in a soft, invisible form in Shibuya. In other words, the strategy was to establish an ‘urban façade’ or a zone of ‘urban-ness’ that would serve as a buffer between complete state control and the everyday life of the individual.” Tōno contrasted the “relentless questioning” of the youth who participated in the folk rallies and sit-ins in Shinjuku with the “disorderly, elusive raw energy” of the youth of Shibuya. “To me,” he wrote, “it almost appears as though the people who built Parco at the middle of that hill — who conceived of this multidimensional festival space consisting of the horizontal Kōen-dōri and the vertical Parco building — were recreating the sit-in ideology of the ’70s, transforming it and incorporating it ingeniously, or perhaps instinctively, as a kind of commercial strategy.” While Tōno admitted that the youth of Shibuya, operating within a strictly commercial context, exhibited only a “controlled freedom,” he sought to move beyond the critique of state and corporate regulation of public spaces to appreciate the “human, innocent, compelling charming, rambling, and formless,” quality of the Shibuya crowds. 35
This street fair atmosphere was institutionalized in 1977 by the metropolitan government’s declaration of a “pedestrian paradise” (hokōsha tengoku), closed to street traffic on Sundays and holidays, just north of Kōen dōri, from the edge of Yoyogi Park along the broad Omotesandō boulevard through the Harajuku neighborhood. This new form of public space was quickly appropriated by youth subcultures such as takenoko-zoku in the late 1970s (girls wearing flashy synthetic fashions and performing synchronized street dances to disco music) and neo-rockabilly and fifties-revival bands in the 1980s. However, conflicts between public expression and state control emerged here as well; the pedestrian paradise was closed in the late 1990s because of concerns about noise and crime. More recently, disputes erupted around the propriety of cosplay and otagei dance performances at a pedestrian paradise in the Akihabara neighborhood. In 2008, a mass killing during the street closure was linked to purported antisocial and violent tendencies within otaku subculture. The weekly event was suspended for two years and performances were strictly regulated when it reopened. 36 We can thus trace a continuity over half a century: from Shinjuku station to Kōen dōri to the pedestrian paradises of Yoyogi and Akihabara, the “managed plaza” has been a site where “unruly” popular appropriations of public space are controlled or suppressed by authorities.
Itō Toyoo and the “Sea of Consumption”
In the 1980s, as Tokyo entered a bubble economy marked by real estate speculation and conspicuous consumption, youth subcultures emerged around enthusiasm for particular brands and insider knowledge of retail outlets, cafes, and restaurants. This consumer lifestyle, promoted by fashion magazines and television programs, was captured in Tanaka Yasuo’s 1980 novel Nantonaku kurisutaru (Somehow, crystal), whose female protagonist, a college student and part-time model, frequented the shops and eateries of Shibuya. A postmodern classic, the novel famously included extensive footnotes about specific brands mentioned in the main text, treating Tokyo as a construct of empty signs, consumed and displayed in a space of cultural play devoid of political consciousness or historical depth. 37
Steeped as he was in Metabolism, Itō surely recognized that Kurokawa’s presentation of capsule architecture as a customizable personal product paved the way for an architecture for a consumer society.
Architect Itō Toyoo was a key interpreter of this “sea of consumption.” After apprenticing in the office of Metabolist Kikutake Kiyonori, he debuted in 1971 with designs for the eccentrically hermetic capsule URBOT (Urban Robot), a residential dwelling personified as a robot that paradoxically rejected advanced technology. 38 Itō’s early realized projects, such as the White U house (1976), in Tokyo, featured minimalist, inward-oriented spaces that evaded the noise, commercialism, and “information overload” of the surrounding city. Nevertheless, he emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as a central commentator and practitioner in the consumerist, media-saturated environment of bubble and postbubble Japan. Amid a construction boom, architects were appearing daily in magazines, newspapers, and TV. “This phenomenon of architecture becoming popular and flooding the streets,” Itō observed, “is directly analogous to its being treated no better than wastepaper, and becoming, essentially, an object of consumption.” 39
Although architects might once have regarded their buildings in a higher category, distinguished from consumer items by their longer “service life” or status as “an immobile presence rooted in the land,” Itō argued that such thinking was no longer possible: “Urban space itself underwent codification and superficialization so rapidly that there was no time even to speak out against it. For architects, the issue has now become a question of not whether we can reject consumer society and still survive, but of whether we understand how completely we must break free of the idea that architecture alone can exist outside of consumption.” 40 Steeped as he was in Metabolism, Itō surely recognized that the earlier movement had already rejected the idea of architecture as “an immobile presence rooted in the land” in favor of an architecture conceived as open to change, growth, and deterioration; and that Kurokawa’s presentation of capsule architecture as a customizable personal product paved the way for an architecture for a consumer society. 41 Nevertheless, Itō perceived what was happening in the 1980s as an acceleration or intensification, which opened the way for responses from a new generation of architects.
One such response was his own installation Pao (1985), a domed, tent-like enclosure made of steel tubing and translucent textiles, named after the Chinese term for a Mongolian yurt. 42 In an exhibit at the Shibuya branch of the Seibu Department Store, Itō offered the transient architecture of this postmodern yurt as a rest station for “nomadic Tokyo women” wandering among the commuter workplaces, retail outlets, galleries, and cafés. According to art historian Jonathan Reynolds, Itō conceived of Pao as not only a physical shelter but also a media shelter, “a semipermeable membrane between its occupant and the media-saturated environment in which she lived,” referring to Itō’s dictum that architecture must be a “media suit” or “extension of our skin in relation to both nature and information.” 43 In its guise as media suit, Pao recalled Kurokawa’s capsule, a “cyborg architecture” helping the occupant to receive, filter, and transmit information; while as a shelter for the urban nomad, it reinforced the mobile, unrooted lifestyle of Kurokawa’s capsule occupant, Homo movens. Those concepts had been concretized in Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972), which was designed as housing for white-collar commuters. But while the affinities between these two works are striking, there were important differences as well. As Reynolds observes, the Nakagin capsules were constructed of harder and heavier materials than Pao’s gauzy tents and were bolted to the tower’s steel frame. 44 Further, there was a shift in the gender of the idealized occupants: while Nakagin capsules were marketed as futuristic pieds-à-terre for male businessmen (sararīman) commuting from distant suburbs or staying in Tokyo for brief periods, 45 Pao was presented as a fashionable waystation for young females (shōjo), who, like Tanaka’s protagonist Yuri, were positioned by male authors and architects as representatives of a new consumerist lifestyle.
In its guise as media suit, Itō’s Pao recalled Kurokawa’s capsule, a ‘cyborg architecture’ helping the occupant to receive, filter, and transmit information.
Itō addressed the interface of information technology and architecture more directly in signature works designed in the 1980s and ’90s. Tower of Winds (1986), in Yokohama, was a cylindrical tower with a translucent aluminum mesh skin composed of hundreds of computer-controlled light bulbs, neon rings, and floodlights that changed patterns according to noise and wind conditions, interfacing with the “information” of the building’s environment. Egg of Winds (1991) was a rotating, oval object 16 meters wide, located at the gate of a housing development. Video projectors both within and outside of the “egg” displayed layers of information for residents, as well as advertising and video art — an idiosyncratic take on the video screens that were proliferating in Japanese cities. In 1995, Itō won a competition to design the Sendai Mediatheque (2001), a large, six-story library, gallery, and media center with a translucent glass external skin and interior spaces that were minimally partitioned, except for thirteen glass-and-steel tubes that penetrated all six floors. These tubes were described as “spaces where information and different types of energy (light, air, water, sound, etc.) flow while facilitating vertical circulation.” 46 The design pointed toward a utopian sense of transparency and public accessibility, allowing patrons to access books, artworks, and other media with few physical barriers and a variety of sightlines and flows, both horizontally across the broad floors of the building and vertically or diagonally through the glass tubes. 47
The tendency of Itō’s architecture to dematerialize into a flow of images and information was perhaps most pronounced in his installation Dreams (1991), part of an exhibition curated by Isozaki Arata at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Itō installed 44 projectors on the ceiling and beneath the transparent floor of the gallery, casting “constantly changing images of Tokyo onto undulating aluminum and acrylic wall panels, wall hangings, and the acrylic floor.” 48 In the context of this curated show, Itō’s project could be seen as a response to Isozaki’s “Electric Labyrinth” (1968), which continued where “Invisible City” left off, with the possibility that cities might dematerialize into chaotic systems of signs and electronic simulation. But while Isozaki provocatively juxtaposed megastructural architecture (future) with the traumatic historical memory of Hiroshima and Early Modern sign-systems of Edo (past), Itō’s Dreams situated the present of Tokyo as the already dematerialized, flattened, “informationized,” simulated city. Itō wrote that he felt the installation was “an accurate simulation of the reality of Tokyo, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Tokyo is a simulated city. For instance, the experience of walking through the Kabuki-cho district at night closely resembles the experience of this imagistic space. In either space, our bodies float amid vast images and showers of sounds. When gazing into video-game screens, we are already on the other side of the screens.” 49
In “An Architecture Floating on the Sea of Signs,” architect and critic Yatsuka Hajime echoed Itō’s description of architecture adrift on “a sea of consumption,” while seeming to anticipate the insubstantial and undulating forms of Dreams. Yatsuka wrote, “In the ‘city of consumption,’ architecture tends to become a flow of images rather than a stock of buildings.” He went on to connect consumerism and the dematerialization of architecture:
Inasmuch as this consumerist process is related, both explicitly and implicitly, to the circuit of human desire, explicitly and implicitly, architecture necessarily symbolizes this desire in a profound way; it acquires the quality of signs rather than substance. Cities are now very complicated circuits of information and desire, which I call the “sea of signs,” and through this invisible and multi-layered network of information flow they act as loci for consumption. If Japanese cities could be called “rhizomes,” it would be because this system of information and desire is laid over and imbues the totality of architecture. Buildings today, more than ever, are an integral part of this invisible circuit. Although, no doubt, they still exist as real entities, they have already lost integrity, and lack the dimension of “depth,” which, of course, is the common feature of the media. “Architecture as media,” an axiom advocated as an assumptive theory some thirty years ago, now seems to be turned into reality without any reservation. 50
This depthless architecture, overlaid by circuits of information and desire, was realized most literally in the huge video screens that became ubiquitous in Japanese cities in the 1990s, some as large as building facades, indeed often serving as the facades themselves. 51 Once again, Shibuya was the epicenter of this phenomenon. Giant screens on buildings such as Q-Front and 109–2 overlooked the iconic scramble crossing in front of Shibuya station.
Responding to films like Blade Runner and Akira, Itō struggled with how his own architecture could function among the fluid ‘signs of consumption’ and ‘changing densities’ of information.
Summarizing post-bubble trends in the Japanese cityscape for an international audience in 2011, critic Igarashi Tarō described the flattening of Tokyo architecture. Building surfaces and their video advertising projections, he wrote, were becoming “more important than the shape and form of the buildings themselves.” He connected this trend to the penetration of information technology at “terminal spaces” such as convenience stores, automated loan machines, and karaoke boxes, “where people can connect to networks via consoles and terminals.” 52 Tokyo was starting to resemble Sze Tsung Leong’s “control space,” with the city being constantly remapped and reconfigured on the basis of “user data” and patterns of consumption. 53
Igarashi’s survey ended with an almost obligatory reference to Ridley Scott’s science fiction film Blade Runner (1982), with its dystopian cityscape inundated by video advertisements and neon signs. By then, such comparisons were cliché in architecture circles, thanks partly to Itō Toyoo’s influence as an early interpreter and proponent of Scott’s work. In “Burēdo rannā ni tsuite” (Concerning Blade Runner, 1990), Itō wrote that he often recalled the movie while walking amid the neon signs and crowds of Shinjuku’s Kabukichō. The soaring skyscrapers of Scott’s 21st-century Los Angeles seemed to “suggest the future direction of Tokyo.” Yet the mix of architectural anachronism and futuristic technology in Blade Runner is revealed in fragments, from scene to scene; a total picture or image of this dystopian city resists construction. 54
In “What Is the Reality of Architecture in a Futuristic City?”(1988), Itō used Blade Runner and Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s animated film Akira to outline four characteristics of a city “like present-day Tokyo” that could be captured better in science fiction film than in architectural drawings:
1. The relentless transformation into a labyrinth: The feeling of drifting through a complex space mounted on a futuristic vehicle. …
2. Spaces filled with noises produced by technology: The city atmosphere is suffused with a variety of sounds, colours, information and odours. These are not necessarily visualized but are mediated by technology and dispersed in the atmosphere, distributed in urban space with changing densities, like floating clouds or mist. In the movies, due to the appearance of humans with psychic abilities and androids, these atmospheric properties are discerned and recognized. …
3. An insubstantial world comprising only innumerable suspended symbols of consumption. … Up to ten years ago, the advertising signs in commercial spaces were no more than billboards or window displays, or at most affixed to the façades of buildings, but now they occupy entire interior spaces or even cover entire buildings. All urban spaces have now begun a cycle of incessantly changing signs of consumption.
4. Temporal cities created by the trails of bodies: Unreal spaces are produced through successions of events that are like fireworks set off throughout the city, which is sustained by a sense of distance completely different from the perspective and hierarchy of Western space. 55
As the viewer follows Blade Runner’s flying cars through L.A. skyscrapers or Akira’s futuristic motorcycles through Neo-Tokyo, the labyrinthine, kinetic, visceral qualities of the city are made real. These films emphasized new relationships between human subjectivity and environment, through the technologically enhanced senses of the characters, like the holographic record of a crime available to the Blade Runner detective and the anxious, violent telekinetic interactions between the Esper children and their urban surroundings in Akira. Responding to the advantages of film, Itō struggled with the question of how his own architecture could function among the fluid “signs of consumption” and “changing densities” of information — or, as he put the dilemma to himself, “how to make substantial architecture while substantial things are losing their meaning.” 56
Cyberspace and Techno-orientalism
Itō’s and Igarashi’s citations of Blade Runner as an analog of Tokyo underscore how the city has been viewed through an international lens of anxiety and desire which associates Japanese urbanism and technology with global futurity. David Morley and Kevin Robins use the term techno-orientalism to describe this structure of viewing, which links Japanese cities to science fiction, and especially to the postmodern, mediated, technology-inflected form of SF known as cyberpunk. 57 Morley and Robins discuss the “Japan Panic” in the West that followed Mitsubishi Real Estate’s acquisition of Rockefeller Center and Sony’s purchase of CBS Records and Columbia Pictures in the late 1980s. They connect the Western preoccupation with Japanese “global hegemony” to a fascination with and fear of the Other. Japan’s rise destabilized the supposed correlation between the West and the modern, and the East and the premodern: “If the future is technological, and if technology has become ‘Japanised,’ then the syllogism would suggest that the future is now Japanese too. … Japan is the future, and it is a future that seems to be transcending and displacing Western modernity.” 58 Touchstones here include Blade Runner (1982) and its source novel, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), as well as William Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer (1984) and his Bridge Trilogy of Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). However, media critic Ueno Toshiya argues further that techno-orientalism is not merely an exotic vision of Japan originating in the West but also a lens through which the Japanese came to perceive or misperceive themselves. 59
In Blade Runner and Neuromancer, we see Tokyo viewed through an international lens of anxiety and desire which associates Japanese urbanism and technology with global futurity.
Set in 2019, Blade Runner imagines a future Los Angeles which has hypertrophied into a megalopolis covering the Pacific coast. Ziggurat-like megastructures rise several hundred stories above Manhattan-style streets lined with comparatively modest skyscrapers. Director Ridley Scott, production designers Syd Mead and Lawrence G. Paull, art director David Snyder, and special effects expert Douglas Trumbull crafted a dense, multilayered mise-en-scène; some shots were composited from as many as 27 separately filmed elements. 60 Importantly, the visual style was informed by a concept of “retrofitting.” This was a battered, improvised future whose inhabitants had layered newer technology haphazardly onto the ruins — “upgrading old machinery or structures by slapping new add-ons to them.” 61 Far from an idyllic future, the film presents a city plagued by pollution, climate change, overpopulation, and racial and class tensions, not to mention the struggle between biological humans and androids or “replicants.”
The urban spaces of the film are crowded with neon signs in English, Chinese, and Japanese, and giant building-sized video screens, advertisements, and propaganda broadcast from vehicles floating above the streets. As William Gibson noted, “Scott understood the importance of information density to perceptual overload. When Blade Runner works best, it induces a lyrical sort of information sickness, that quintessentially modern cocktail of ecstasy and dread.” 62 Critic Scott Bukatman argues that the film’s dark and crowded mise-en-scène, with its exaggerated visual media evoking “sensations of unreality and pervasive spectacle,” anticipated the “dark city” of Gibson’s own cyberpunk novels, in which “the density of the central, inner, city became an analogy for the dispersed matrices of information circulation and overload, while cyberspace itself [that is, the space experienced when connected to an electronic interface] presented an urbanism stripped to its kinetic and monumental essentials.” 63
Elements of the Blade Runner set were reportedly inspired by streetscapes in New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Milan, Tokyo, and London; as well as by Hollywood film noir and by the art of Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius, and his colleagues who drew the French comic Métal Hurlant (Heavy Metal). 64 But while the visual sources are eclectic, “Asian” elements play an outsized role in the film’s socioaesthetic construction of the future. As Giuliana Bruno observes, “The city is a large market; an intrigue of underground networks pervades all relations. The explosive Orient dominates, the Orient of yesterday incorporating the Orient of today. Overlooking the city is the ‘Japanese simulacrum,’ the huge advertisement which alternates a seductive Japanese face and a Coca Cola sign. In the postindustrial city the explosion of urbanization, melting the futuristic high-tech look into an intercultural scenario, recreates the Third World inside the first.” 65 Here we see at least two overlapping types of “Asia” or “Orient.” First are the Asian “hordes,” including scores of non-white extras, embodying white fears that immigrants will overtake American cities (the “Third World inside the first”) and turn them into an underground “market” of shadowy transactions, crimes, and pleasures (all staples in Hollywood film noir). 66 Second is the “simulacrum” in which a powdered female face is seen popping pills and hawking Coca-Cola, a feminized Asia cast as the avatar of a consumerist techno-orientalism. The power to explore this techno-Orientalist landscape rests with the protagonist, a white, hypermasculine, hard-boiled noir detective named Deckard.
Gibson’s novel Neuromancer opens in a future Japan: Chiba City, across the bay from Tokyo. Here, too, the city is inundated with advertising (the tawdry Ninsei district is pocketed with holograms) and pollution (Chiba City lies under a “poisoned silver sky,” “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”). 67 And just as Blade Runner revolutionized visual culture with its dense, composited, multilevel, retrofitted mise-en-scène, Neuromancer challenged the norms of contemporary science fiction with a dense and imagistic prose style:
Now he slept in the cheapest coffins, the ones nearest the port, beneath the quartz-halogen floods that lit the docks all night like vast stages; where you couldn’t see the lights of Tokyo for the glare of the television sky, not even the towering hologram logo of the Fuji Electric Company, and Tokyo Bay was a black expanse where gulls wheeled above drifting shoals of white Styrofoam. Beneath the port lay the city, factory domes dominated by the vast cubes of corporate arcologies. Port and city were divided by a narrow borderland of older streets, an area with no official name. Night City, with Ninsei its heart. By day, the bars down Ninsei were shuttered and featureless, the neon dead, the holograms inert, waiting, under the poisoned silver sky. 68
As Bukatman has argued, the physical cities in Neuromancer, already densely interpenetrated with information technologies, are analogies for the experience of Cyberspace, a second space or “paraspace” accessible through an electronic interface, which the novel famously defines as a “consensual hallucination” and “a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. … Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.” 69 Conversely, the visual appearance of Cyberspace is compared to the city on Tokyo Boy: “like city lights, receding,” set against “a gray disk, the color of Chiba sky.” 70 In Gibson’s universe, Cyberspace, like the informationalized postmodern city it is modeled upon, is tied to the imagination of a high-tech, urban Japan, populated by multinational corporations and the criminal underworld of the yakuza. The protagonist here is Case — again, a hard-boiled, white, male cyber-navigator who negotiates an orientalized data matrix. 71
Kuroma Hisashi’s translation of Neuromancer appeared in 1985 and set off a cyberpunk boom in Japan. Ōhara Mariko and Masaki Gorō led a new generation of SF writers who were often compared with the Anglo-American cyberpunks. Masaki, in particular, was singled out by Tatsumi Takayuki as the “first hardcore Japanese cyberpunk writer” and frequently compared with Gibson. 72 His magnum opus, Viinasu shitei (Venus city, 1992), published not long after the crash of the bubble economy, presents a fascinating take on a 21st-century world where Japan is a dominant power overseeing a global Pax Nipponica. Near-future Tokyo is twinned with the eponymous virtual reality world of Venus City, which Masaki uses to present a provocative take on subjectivity in “cyberspace” — in particular, the fluidity of gender and racial/national identity in virtual environments, as well as the market dynamics of self-styling in the virtual city.
Protagonist Moriguchi Sakiko is a white-collar worker for the ARC Corporation, whose offices are located in a new city center (shin toshin) built on Tokyo Bay. By day, her work as a “research navigator” involves retrieving information in global electronic archives through a full-body interface, but at night, from inside her apartment in the old city center, she dons special goggles and a “data suit” and mounts a “3D magnetic stage” to enter a networked virtual reality. In this passage, Sakiko comments on the spatial relationship between Tokyo and Venus City:
I exited the expressway at the Nishi-Ikebukuro exit. The streets were getting a little crowded. The transportation net here resembled a wriggling mass of roundworms. . . . More than 20 million people were living in every corner of this tangled maze. . . . And 3D magnetic stages were installed in a considerable percentage of those peoples’ homes. Venus City was a second, imaginary city constructed on top of this tangled city’s maze. The Japanese people in their narrow land had built a city so crowded, and yet, still not satisfied, they had layered an electronic city on top of it. 73
In this virtual world, customers can buy real estate, customize buildings, and even purchase licenses to operate businesses. Users choose the gender (and pronouns) of their avatars and their skin color, facial structure, body type, and clothing; more complex, unusual, or high-functioning body and clothing types cost more money. Sakiko inhabits an androgynous male body, Saki, with translucent white skin and a “designer punk” look, which is described in detail. Other Venus City denizens adopt fashion protocols such as lacy “décolleté style” or “rubber bondage” fetish style. The subcultural logic and fashion economy of late 20th century Tokyo — as seen in neighborhoods like Shibuya, Harajuku, and Akihabara — is mirrored here in the business model of Venus City, in which bodily and sartorial customization can be had for a price. Users have freedom to explore second selves, and the commodification of identity is raised to a new level. There are no “plazas” for public interaction or civic discourse where the terms of the software are debated. Rather, there are pedestrian-oriented streets where one’s personal fashion can be displayed and others’ appreciated. Avatars self-segregate in bars and clubs according to shared fashion preferences.
Saki becomes involved in the rescue of Junko, a woman with a face “like a Japanese doll” pursued by a mysterious silver-skinned man. It turns out that Junko is actually the avatar of Jim, Sakiko’s American boss at the ARC Corporation. The silver-skinned man represents a shadowy foreign criminal organization which tries to blackmail Jim/Junko into revealing secret research findings that have geopolitical implications. This silver man may also be one of the rumored “Gods of the Net,” powerful beings who live full time in the virtual world. Much of the dramatic and psychological tension (and occasional humor) of the novel derives from acts of transgender and trans-racial/-national passing between the “physical world” and Venus City. Sakiko, a xenophobe who dislikes her male, American boss, ends up romantically involved with his female, Japanese avatar; while Jim is forced to identify as a “Japanese doll” by the sadistic, mysterious blackmailer, who “outs” his Japanophilia in its most clichéd form, against his will.
In virtual Venus City, the dematerialization of architecture is completed. This is a fictional realization of Kurokawa’s prediction: a world in which the ‘walls, floors, and windows’ of the city are ‘simply images.’
The novel thus stages dynamics of “control” and “freedom” in the dematerialized city. Within the predetermined software protocols of the Venus City system, Sakiko seems to have both “control” and “freedom” in controlling the appearance and guiding the behavior of her avatar, while Jim is coerced through intimidation and blackmail, and his avatar is entrapped and abused. His experience is a paranoid vision of a complete loss of freedom and control, which contrasts with the illusory personal freedom and control offered to Sakiko via her participation as a consumer. In the “paraspace” of Venus City, the dematerialization of architecture is completed. This is a fictional realization of Kurokawa’s prediction articulated two decades earlier: a world in which the “walls, floors, and windows” of the city are “simply images.” The system of purchasing a custom avatar fulfills the logic of his capsule dwellings, made to order from a catalog of possible components. As Haryū argued, “individuality and freedom of expression” are predetermined by a capitalist “techno-structure.”
In Venus City the techno-orientalism of the cyberpunk genre is pushed to excess, complete with a satiric reversal: Sakiko masquerades as the white, male, cyberpunk hero, while Jim plays the hypersexualized and fetishized Asian female. As Baryon Posadas notes, rather than celebrating the seemingly liberating capacity to inhabit other gender and racial identities in the virtual realm, the novel “calls attention to the racialized and gendered infrastructure of techno-Orientalism that often undergirds utopian valorizations of the virtual in cyberpunk.” Indeed, Masaki seems less concerned with mapping new imaginative territory than with illuminating the limitations of the SF/cyberpunk imagination of future cities and subjectivities. 74
And so we have arrived at one possible endpoint in the chain of metaphors — “invisible city,” “liquid city,” “technopolis,” “cyber city” — that emerged in Japan in the late 20th century to describe dematerialized urban space. These spatial imaginaries, negotiated by architects, critics, bureaucrats, SF writers and filmmakers, and others, intersect with debates around the “information society,” “managed society,” and “control space,” in a mediatized, postmodern space of hyperconsumption. As we explore the history of the association between new media/technology and the “future” Japanese city, we must also attend to its historicity, as a contingent and contested cultural construction.