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  • John Barr

Do|Co|Mo|Mo|Japan|02 : Dojunkai Apartments : Tokyo : Dojunkai Corporation

Do|Co|Mo|Mo is an international organisation dedicated to the Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement. The Japanese branch has selected 100 works as representative of the development of the Modern Movement in Japan.

In a series of short posts I will feature some of the selected works that I have had the chance to visit and photograph. This post features one of the Dojunkai Apartment Blocks that were built in Tokyo following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923...

The Dojunkai Apartments

The Dojunkai Corporation was established by the Japanese government to help meet the requirement for housing following the widespread destruction caused by the earthquake that hit Tokyo in 1923. Amongst the variety of projects completed by the Corporation was a series of multi-level apartments constructed in reinforced concrete. These were progressive, not only in terms of construction techniques, but also socially and in their attempt to provide a new model of living for the growing middle class. Features included piped gas, water and electricity, refuse chutes and flush toilets. The regularity of a concrete structure was combined with a flexible programme that included the partial use of tatami mats and sliding screens within individual apartments, and the inclusion in some blocks of common spaces like solariums or sun rooms, music rooms, drawing rooms and lounges for socialising. Some also featured communal facilities such as Japanese baths, shops and café/restaurants that were for the use not only of the residents but also those living in the wider neighbourhood.

Although the different apartment blocks were put together using standard elements, these were arranged specifically to suit the requirements of each individual site and the needs of the residents in that area.

The Aoyama Apartments : Dojunkai Corporation : Yoshio Tsugeue and Hideo Kurosaki : 1927

One of the best known Dojunkai projects is the Aoyama Apartments, built on the famous, tree-lined boulevard, Omotesando. Running roughly east-west, from the up-market fashion district of Aoyama at its east end to the youth-culture district of Harajuku at its west end, Omotesando is a Tokyo landmark that both mediates between these two districts and is a destination in its own right. The south side of Omotesando has traditionally extended the up-market fashion houses of Aoyama westwards, whilst the north side has spread the grittier vibe of Harajuku eastwards, these two lifestyles facing each other across the street. This is the mix that has given Omotesando its unique character and appeal, and the Aoyama Apartments played a decisive role in creating that character and appeal…until 2003, when they were demolished to make way for a new shopping development designed by Tadao Ando for the developer Mori Corporation.

The Aoyama Apartments formed a long stretch on the north side of Omotesando and due to their flexible, modular layout, they provided an ideal home for the small independent businesses, galleries, start-ups, etc that had colonised them over a number of years, whilst some of the original apartments were still being used as residences. It was this rich mix and vitality that gave Omotesando its special appeal and made it the most compelling street in Tokyo, all the more so for being in such a central location – possibly unique amongst major cities.

The Aoyama Apartments. A long stretch of Omotesando providing cheap housing and colonised by small independent businesses, galleries, start-ups, etc. Perhaps unique on a major fashion retail street in a prime location within a major city.

Never were the ideas promoted by Jane Jacobs more clearly demonstrated: the value of a variety of uses and scales in the formation of a vibrant neighbourhood and, most importantly, the necessity for older buildings that had already recouped their capital cost and could bear the cheaper rents that foster the small, the different, the start-up. The Dojunkai Apartments were born out of social need and the Aoyama Apartments continued to serve the developing and changing social needs of their neighbourhood throughout their life. But that has gone with their demolition, to be replaced with more of the white noise that now fills cities worldwide: the same architecture, the same brands, the same food, the same experiences…

In designing the replacement for the Aoyama Apartments Ando has done his usual professional job, and his restrained design is a relief from the architectural zoo that now populates most of the rest of the street (contributions from Kengo Kuma, Jun Aoki, Toyo Ito, SANAA, Norihiko Dan, MVRDV, OMA) but, as Martin Webb has said when writing in the Japan Times: this is, after all, just another glorified shopping mall. He is talking, specifically, about Omotesando Hills, the replacement for the Aoyama Apartments designed by Ando, but he could just as well be describing the entire Omotesando boulevard. The variety and vitality has gone; the huge capital cost of the new development has to be recouped and that precludes the previous tenants in favour of corporate business and all the sterility and homogeneity that implies.

Top: Aoyama Apartments : Yoshio Tugeue and Hideo Kurosaki for Dojunkai Corporation : 1927.

Bottom: Omotesando Hills : Tadao Ando for Mori Corporation : 2005.

One of the admirable things about Japan is a comparative lack of sentimentality for the past. The Japanese do not revere old things simply because they are old and are always ready to embrace the new. This is particularly true of buildings, which are not preserved simply because they are old or interesting or represent a particular aspect of the past. To gain protection buildings need to be perceived as having some major cultural or historical value.

One of the regrettable things about Japan is a reluctance to see cultural or historical value in anything other than ancient things or, at least, pre-modern things, and an apparent inability to consider social value at all. This is apparent in the decision to allow the demolition of the Aoyama Apartments, where the cultural, historical and, above all, the continuing social value that they embodied was outweighed by the desire to maximise the economic gain from the piece of real estate that they occupied. This attitude is only emphasised by a concession that preserved one unit of the original apartments at the east end of the new development. This simply reinforces a view that the apartments are now some kind of quaint museum piece, interesting to study but not of value today. It completely misses the real value that the Aoyama Apartments continued to bring to the street, the neighbourhood and Tokyo. The case for retaining the Aoyama Apartments was not based on their historic or architectural interest (although they had those things) but on the important and rare contribution that they continued to make to a vibrant and living urban experience. Something of real, current, everyday value has been lost and will never be matched by its replacement.

One unit of the Aoyama Apartments preserved at the eastern end of the new development of Omotesando Hills only serves to emphasise both what has been lost and the failure to understand the true value embodied in the original.

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