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Reading Shinjuku

Part 1 Dissertation 1998
Jonathan Kendall
Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) London UK

‘The streets of this city have no names… the largest city in the world is practically unclassified the spaces which compose it in detail are unnamed.’
Roland Barthes

Shinjuku is the busiest station in Tokyo, perhaps the world. Every day, over two million people pass through this, one of the main comuter interchanges of the city.

In a city which lacks a ‘centre’ in the western metaphysical sense, Shinjuku is pre-eminent among a number of dynamic subcentres. These subcentres are located , lik Shinjuku, at the main train stations that feed the metropolis. While the transport infrastructure may be the raison d’etre for these centres, the visible manifestation for all of themrelates to commerce. For Shinjuku – as for the areas of Ikebukuro and Shibuya – major department stores are located above the stations, forming an attraction in themselves.

How are these urban spaces experienced and manipulated? This is an investigation arising from personal discovery within this, a social and urban environment so different from the european model. In this study, I intend to consider the idea of imposed systems for reading and understanding space, from the standpoint of one whose initial spatial literacy in the case of Tokyo was experiential rather than theoretical. I will look at two very different methodological approaches and how they might be applied to one specific area, and will be taking two literal (physical) signs as the vehicles for attempting to understand the area.

I will initially present the objects with which I am concerned and place them in their physical and cultural context before considering the theoretical approaches. I hope, by consideration of and comparison between the systems of thought, to be able to draw some brief conclusions about the nature of abstract academic disciplines and their applicability to social systems far removed from those on which they were originated. Can universality of application be achieved?


I have a personal motivation in wishing to enquire into certain qualities of this area. Having recently returned from working in the city, I have strong memories of the place, which for a number of months was my daily point of departure and arrival. Issues relating to the reading of space and familiarity are thus written partly from first person experience.

The role of the observer

It cannot be denied that this study, and the experiential research that was its foundation, is the work of an outsider to the place and culture being studied. The perspective is that of a western European, with all the cultural preconceptions and loadings applied to all phenomena that this implies. The ability to read, literally and metaphorically, is different.

Similarly, understanding of graphical representations of space – the reading of plan, section and perspectival views – are influenced by the process of architectural training.


Ando, Tadao, 'The City as Public Domain', A&U, 95:04 (April 1995), pp 2-5

Auge, Marc, 'Non-Places - Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, (London: Verso, 1995)

Chambers, Iain, 'Cities without maps', in Bird, John, Curtis, Barry, Putnam, Tim, Robertson, George and Tickner, Lisa (eds.), Mapping the Futures - Local Cultures, Global Change, (London: Routledge, 1993) pp. 188 - 198

Leach, Neil (ed.), 'Rethinking Architecture - a Reader in Cultural Theory, (London: Routledge, 1997
Jonathan Kendall

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