Sunday, June 10, 2007

"Vertical Gated Communities"

One evening, I got off the Yamanote Line in Shinagawa and headed towards Tokyo Bay. After walking about fifteen minutes, I found myself among several luxury apartment towers - many more than I had imagined would be there. There have been news reports about this trend in the local media, but I hadn't realized the extent of this kind of development, and as I stood at street level contemplating the behind-locked-security-doors towers that I couldn't enter, I suddenly realized that the "gated community" trend is in Japan too....

The towers themselves look as though they would be nice to live in - like luxury hotels, they have swank lobbies and the residents of the upper floors have views of Tokyo Bay or a canal, and/or the Tokyo skyline. Unlike hotels, you need to enter a security number before the doors will open and there is often a guard on duty just inside the doors. Think vertical gated community - with (often underground) parking lots full of cars, but it's not possible for any large percentage of the inhabitants of Tokyo to go to work by car, due to there being nowhere to put the cars. You might get to work in two or three hours (as opposed to 30-60 minutes by train) but then what do you do with your large fire-breathing machinery when you get there?

But back to standing on the ground in front of one of the luxury towers - looking high up in the sky, you can see - behind large and deep balconies - what appear to be quite nice interiors - with warm incandescent lighting (or florescent imitations of it) and hotel-like interiors with nice furniture, indirect lighting, etc.

Nearly the entire area is full of these upscale towers, but there are a few lessor buildings mixed in - a twelve-story apartment building here, a fifteen-story building there, and what looks like a warehouse. The towers appear to be around 40-stories high. The range that qualifies a building as a Luxury Tower seems to be from twenty to forty (or more) stories.

Sitting on a bench on the side of one of the swankier looking buildings with grounds that function like a small, but rather nice looking park - paths through grass; discrete lights shining down (no direct or harsh light at eye-level), landscaped with bushes and fairly large trees (obviously put there at the time of construction in the not-too-distant past - with cables holding them up until they can grow out their roots). This particular tower looks as though it was completed within the past year or two. Across the street is another huge apartment building (huge in diameter as well as height) under construction, looking strange in its completely unlit immense form, in the middle of sparking towers awash in internal and exterior lighting.

Sitting on a bench in the small park, I look up and see a few of the brighter stars through the branches of one of the larger trees... and begin contemplating the atmosphere of the area. I look around at the park I'm sitting in and take note of the many nice aspects to it - the well arranged design, with a tasteful mixture of grasses, bushes, trees, benches, and paths; the almost perfect temperature of the June 4th evening, making it a perfect time to be siting outside, and yet I'm the only person sitting there. Occasionally a person walks by with a dog on a leash, women go by in nice clothes, often with an overpriced "brand" bag on arm; men walk by either with a snazzy (also overpriced?) briefcase in hand or with a backpack attached to their office-wear-clad selves (probably those making the 15-20 minute hike from Shinagawa on foot instead of taking the bus) .

As nice as this apartment tower park is, the streets are the streets (as in concrete cold/hot and unfriendly to anything not fire-breathing) , and there are no restaurants, no stores (except one convenience store I saw) and no discernible culture. Just streets with cars and buses driving by, and the wonderful towers rising into the sky. I imagine if I lived in one, I'd be tempted to have food supplies delivered and just stay up in the tower, only coming down to go to work or go somewhere. Otherwise I'd make use of the balcony (except that most of them have a glass sided balconies - to improve the view from inside I suppose - so there's no privacy to it!) when the weather was nice and otherwise just enjoy the interior luxury up in the sky and ignore the not-so-nice ground.

Speaking of which... this area near the shoreline of Tokyo Bay is all land-fill, and (call it my overactive imagination if you will, but... ) as I've noticed before in such areas - there seems to be the opposite effect of the energizing effect of natural spots of beauty, with the area producing a deep fatigue. Considering that some of the landfill along Tokyo Bay is composed of trash with a layer of dirt on top, it doesn't seem strange to me that it would be more tiring to sit atop a trash mountain than a real mountain of rock and dirt only.

Another key to the strange atmosphere at street level is the warehouse - which seems to be in its element somehow. Imagine an old shoreline area of a major city with mostly delivery and storage related buildings. Tear down most of the industrial type buildings, then toss in several 40-story luxury apartment towers and you may find yourself accurately imagining this area in near proximity to the Tokyo Bay shoreline and the noisy elevated rails of several train lines, still feeling a little industrial as it heads in an upscale direction.

There was recently a report on one of the weekend news shows about how it's popular to live in apartments alongside canals. From the look of things in the Shinagawa area, I think that predominantly means that area. I don't think there's quite the concentration of new trendy high-rise apartments anywhere else in the city. Personally, while I agree that a view of water from an apartment is nice (any kind of water, whether river, lake, ocean or canal), canals in mega-cities are not generally composed of pristine crystal clear sparkling water. Indeed, there's often a slight smell to city canals. So - if I were living in that area, I think I really would just stay up in my sky tower (the higher the better) and not spend much time down on the not-so-nice ground.

I took a walk along one of the canals (a ten to fifteen minute walk from the bay) and came to an older apartment building with smaller balconies and no locked security doors and grand hotel style lobby. Somehow the whole building seems more friendly and relaxed. That's not to say I wouldn't opt for a sky apartment before one of the old smaller ones, but there was that feeling of the building being more friendly - aided in no small degree by the entire first floor being composed of shops and restaurants. There was a sushi bar, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a barber shop, and something unidentifiable behind it's metal roll shutters closed for the day. Maybe there are exclusive restaurants and shops in the sky towers, but I don't think so - what with the always-locked security doors, the only customers they could have would have to come from within the building.

Back to the attraction of the canals - they used to have smooth, steep concrete sides leading up to a wall next to the roads going along their sides, but over many years, they have narrowed the canals by building park-like areas (with walkways and park benches) within the levees, and this fact alone does make them vastly nicer than they used to be. It's a good thing that they are nicer than before, but exclusive? Why not, I guess. The fact that those living in that area can *walk* home from Shinagawa Station is pretty amazing. Generally the major transfer stations on the Yamanote Line (Tokyo, Shinagawa, Ueno, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, etc.) are somewhere you transfer to a commuter line that takes you out to affordable housing about an hour or so from central Tokyo, so the idea of already being home in one of those places is pretty amazing. Hmmmm..... I wouldn't mind having an apartment in one of those places myself! Although I think I'd rather be a sky tower dweller in Shinjuku, with the building sitting on real land, than in Shinagawa, with the building sitting on landfill. Land not being available in Shinjuku, there are fewer towers though, and here is the reason for an industrial area heading upscale with high-rise towers - in a city completely carpeted with buildings, you put new large ones where you can find space for them!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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