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What does it mean to build a street in the sky in Japan?

Part 2 Dissertation 2007
Paul Adam Staniland
Mackintosh School of Architecture Glasgow UK
The question ‘What does it mean to build a street in the sky in Japan?’ explores the idea of the ‘street in the sky’ in relation to Motomachi; a high density housing block in Hiroshima designed by Masato Otaka, the oldest member of a group of Japanese architects called the Metabolists. The ‘street in the sky’ is a concept much maligned in Britain, and the ‘failure’ of which is often laid at the architects feet, but only in the most narrow of critiques. This study, using Motomachi, Japan and the ideas of the Metabolists as a base, will argue that though good design is important, it can never be taken as an idea in isolation, but that it has a complex interrelationship to cultural and social conditions. As such it will be argued that it is through the mobilisation of current and existing ideas that design can take on new or abstracted forms to deal with contemporary issues; this offers the possibility of a revalidation or re-examination of the notion of the ‘street in the sky’ as an architectural and urban element.

This investigation developed out of a personal interest in the notion of the ‘street in the sky’, coupled with an excitement found in the experience of Japanese streets, which appear very different to their Western counterparts. These two interests come together at Motomachi in a way which offers new insights into the idea of the ‘street in the sky’; what does it mean to build a ‘street in the sky’ based on a fundamentally different notion of the street, and how does this difference affect the way they are occupied and used?

The research started with an in-depth study of the building itself and included interviews with the Architect in charge of the development, several heads of the residents’ associations at Motomachi and authors on Metabolism. This acted as a base on which to relate to the ideas of the Metabolists and start to compare with those of Team 10; another group concerned with the idea of ‘street’, but based on very different cultural and social traditions.

Paul Adam Staniland

The analysis of the Motomachi Housing project designed by Masato Otaka in Hiroshima is based on original research. Interviews and photographs by the author support a detailed and careful analysis of the architectural and urban qualities of the project. The interviews allow Adam also to position the project within architectural history such that interesting parallels emerge between the theories of the Metabolists and Team X. This comparison is substantiated by tracing the ‘success’ of ‘the street in the sky’, back to the cultural traditions of Japan and the role of the traditional street in its society.

This broad and in depth contextualisation allows Adam to outline a nuanced critique of the project that also opens up questions about the western preconception of deck access. The argument maps out the complex interrelationships between architectural spaces and the forms of inhabitations they engender. The street in the sky in Motomachi actualises an interplay between the individual and the collective that can only be understood as a diagram of more generalised functions across Japanese society.

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