Many cities have fallen and risen over centuries in the world. Some fell due to conquerors and their armies, some were left barren due to catastrophic natural calamities but very few have been affected by both and risen from their ashes. Tokyo, one of the largest cities in Japan and the most populated metropolitan area in the world. One can only imagine the devastation witnessed in the city after the Great Kanto earthquake and World War II.

To understand the revisions and advancements made to overcome this major setback to their economy and people, the past is of utmost importance to comprehend. Due to such events, the vision for the architectural fabric of the nation is completely diverse and conflicting in some ways. 

At one end, there are depictions of a modern-day Japan with numerous screens and panels flashing and depicting the new millennial age of anime and action movies like Akira, and books like The End of the world by Murakami. On the other end, we see people are stereotypical regarding traditional Japanese buildings and gardens, which are bi-products of an ancient yet unforgettable culture and time. 

Although either way, the country has a unique identity that isn’t similar to any other architectural style in the world. Hence, one has to address both sides of the coin while comprehending the history of such cities, what it is at present and what it can be in the future.



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View of the skyline of Tokyo_©Morio 
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Dystopian Tokyo in Akira_©TMS Entertainment, TOHO 

The Past

The past of the city is deeply enriched with history, traditions, beliefs, and customs. Several philosophies like the ying-yang, wabi-sabi, etc., have always played a major role in Japanese architecture as a whole. Tokyo similarly was one of the main precincts in the nation with important cultural practices and methodologies. 

Previously known as the fishing village of Edo, it became an important city in the Tokugawa shogunate as it was a pedestal for political decisions and platforms in 1603. After several empires and shogunates, the city was renamed Tokyo in 1889 and established as a city of Japan. 

During this period of its rich history, the artisans and architects of the city believed in the natural and raw nature of the building to be exhibited in its purest form without any impurities or additions to it. Hence, the two major tribes of the country built homes and temples out of the natural local materials available in their purest form. Elevated plinths to prevent insect infestation as well as overhangs to protect from natural effects.


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Painting of Edo in the 17th Centruy_©Natural Museum of Japanese History 
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Tōdai-Ji Buddhist Temple in Nara Japan_©Martin Falbisoner
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Jomon Tribe Houses_©Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan
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Yayoi Stilt Homes_©Ted Scott 

But as the civilization grew, we saw much more advancement in the way the materials were used and exploited. Wooden joints without any additional fixtures like nails, screws, adhesives, etc., were witnessed. Buildings of 15 story heights were constructed as religious shrines and temples for their use without the help of any modern-day technology but purely on perfection and hard work. This still holds its place culturally and architecturally due to its resilience to the overall change in the country’s fabric and natural disasters. 

Due to natural disasters like the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, the city realized the vulnerability it faces due to its geographical position and topography. 

The need to make sustainable buildings with proper safety precautions considered was acknowledged and is being followed to date. The greatest blowback that the city suffered was the bombing of the city during World War II. Due to bombings caused by allied air raids, the original fabric the almost destroyed. The most dreadful day of the bombings caused several residential wards to collapse due to attacks causing millions of deaths and rendering millions homeless. 

These aftermaths of the attacks had depleted the population to alarming levels causing infrastructure loss, demolishing of buildings, temporary tent-like structures as residences, etc. During these tough times, Tokyo came under the administration of the United States of America which further stunted the growth of the country. These circumstances in a way made people lose faith in permanence, balance, immortality, and traditionality. 

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Aftermath of Tokyo Bombing in March 1945_© U.S.National Archives.
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Aerial view of Tokyo on March 10, 1945, after bombings_© U.S.National Archives.

The Transition

To get new bearings, the city of Tokyo struggled under the new administration as many officials interfered in the Japanese rebuilding programs and focused on creating better transportation infrastructure and facilities. The rebirth of the city began in the late 1950s when architects influenced by the European architectural era began their unique footing in the country. 

Tokyo saw a whole new revamp of its fabric by 1964 to host the Tokyo Olympics. The hosting of this prestigious event was seen as a grand stage appearance for the nation as it was their chance to showcase their strengths after a devastating event.

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Opening ceremony in Tokyo Olympics 1964_©KYODO.

Architecture during these times took a different turn. The architects wanted to create identities with modern ways of the craft yet show hints of the traditional roots within. Many architects like Kenzo Tange, Kisho Kurokawa, Arata Isozaki, and many others established their practices and started revolutionizing the fabric with modern-day materials like concrete, steel, and glass. This brought about the strong western influence to the city which we can still see today enveloping and hiding the ancient yet strong Japanese temples and shrines.

The Present

The revolutionary change made by these architects of Japan made a clear distinction between Japanese architecture. It would either look like an artist or craftsman designed it or have an industrial look to the whole structure with strong, imposing materials. This industrial wave changed the paradigm of the city and pushed it towards the future. 

Structures like the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, Nakagin Capsule Tower, and Hiroshima Memorial shaped the present-day architecture witnessed in Tokyo. It gave birth to contemporary styles which were deeply immersed in Japanese traditions. Due to such changes and advancements, the present-day skyline of Tokyo is mostly modern, contemporary, and technologically driven. 

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Aerial view of Kokuritsu Yoyogi Kyōgijō, Tokyo, Japan_© Museler, A.
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The Nakagin Capsule Tower_© Jordy Meow.

Once adorned with small, modest scales, and low-height residential buildings are now restructured and replaced with a tall glass, concrete, and steel buildings which is now the trademark for a metropolitan city in the current times. Although what makes Tokyo stand out is the values and lessons it has learned over its history which can be observed to its most minute details. Spots with scenic, zen and peaceful environments with cherry blossoms and traditional wooden buildings can be seen in the city but it has been now veiled with the latest architectural styles and necessities. 

Tokyo has now been growing at a constant uniform rate, which has allowed it to build up, to get the most out of the geographical land it possesses. Newer technological production and architectural styles are being established regularly. Tokyo will in the coming years have a dominant progress rate which will make it the one to watch in the future.

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New Olympic Stadium in Tokyo by Kengo Kuma_© Japan Sports Council.

Ashwini is an architecture student who is trying to pursue her love for writing. She is an avid reader and also has an interest in graphic designing. She believes that the power of the pen can bring out the soul of a building to the mortal world.

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