Tokyo, Tokyo
About the Tokyo Apartments of Sou Fujimoto.
Pasajes Diseño #22, October, 2010

Photo by Iwan Baan.

You know this story. Many people have tried it before. Perhaps even you have thought about it already. Someone completely absorbed with one single idea starts to create a more or less private reproduction of that desire.
Gradually, it becomes something else, something more than just a reproduction. Pure passion. Obsession. And what started as a simple and personal investigation ends up becoming the key element of that particular person’s existence. Anyone can imagine, but it won’t be me who will mention them, in how many different ways this can be done.

But all right, one of these ways, just to mention one, I promise, could be the one that Sou Fujimoto, an architect, has just accomplished. He has just created a very personal vision of his own city, Tokyo, within a tiny plot of less than 100 square meters located also in the very same city of Tokyo. But, how is it possible to reproduce, or even just to attempt to represent a city of more than 2,000,000,000 square meters in such a tiny spot? Maybe because of the risk to fail in the try to answer such a grandiose question, it could be a good idea to take a look at two other cases that with fascinating results (for the authors being, according to the one writing this, true geniuses) had tried to expose and understand the logic behind other architectural attempts of this kind.

Paul Auster published in 1990 his novel “The music of chance”. In this novel, one of the characters, a millionaire called Stone, is totally immersed in the construction of his “city of the world”, a reproduction of his own life, a miniature of all the most important episodes that made him be who he really is. But it is not only an autobiographical vision of the world but also an utopian one, trying to build it as he would like it to be in his perfect world. Auster, an expert in writing about all kinds of eccentricities and obsessions, also notes that the millionaire is planning to build a reproduction of this model within the model, a task that most likely will take him the rest of his life. Furthermore, there is this other character called Nashe who embedded somehow into this “city of the world” will point out, sharply, that there is something obscurely offensive in the very same “idea of such an extravagant smallness”.

Charlie Kaufman, in the other attempt I wanted to mention (yes, I know, I just named a third one), presented in 2008 his film “Synecdoche, New York”. Its main character and theater director named Caden also creates a reproduction of his own world, or to be more specific, his own life. But in this case the reproduction is a synecdoche in which one part (of the play) is used for the whole (of life) or the whole for the part. Caden, obsessed with the creation of a brutally realistic and honest play, starts building the scenography of every moment of his life, which leads him inevitably to build another scenography within the main scenography. Gradually, this process begins to blur the limits between reality and fiction and continue developing until (attention, spoiler!) the death of Caden.

(At this point, I cannot do anything else but recommend you strongly to revisit both pieces for the much more profound meaning they give to the problem showed here when enjoyed with this idea in mind)

But let’s go back now to Tokyo. Fujimoto describes this work as a “miniature of Tokyo. Tokyo which never exists is made into a form”. With just four housing units of two or three rooms each of them and distributed along three stories, it could barely be called a collective housing project, and by any means (apparently) a representation of a whole city. But Fujimoto, an expert on working on the thin line between the abstract and the figurative, uses here the main feature of his city to represent it. The (apparent) disorder of Tokyo has guided conceptually the appearance of this project.

And what is exactly what makes Fujimoto to use this concept as a response to a commission like this one? If we look at Stone and Caden, even though they build these reproductions as literal copies of the original, 1:1 scale in Caden’s case and miniatures in Stone’s, both characters need these reproductions as mechanisms to interact with reality, to understand it. And the (obsessive) mimesis used as the only key element to avoid distancing from the original source is probably also the reason of both (fictional) failures. But the stacked prototypes of this project are not duplicates of the typical Japanese house; they are more abstract, as in their ambition they could refer to any contemporary metropolis. Fujimoto, in his attempt to understand his (the) city and by default also himself, seems free of the worst trap, that is, the complexity inherent in the replica and the use of another replica as the only solution of the first one, and so on and so forth. This way, he has avoided the distortion that any replication would have generated in the final result (if this could be reached, which is uncertain, to say the least).

Fujimoto describes how the project is trying to create a place which is infinitely rich and crowded and disorderly as Tokyo itself, but also points out that is also resisting to get vanished in that very same disorder. Perhaps this ambivalence is the reason of its (real) success. Look at the project and you will only see chaos and complexity. It will be almost impossible to understand how it is possible that there are four independent apartments in such an ensemble of “houses”. But then the amazing thing is that it works just as an optical illusion: for the one who lives here is not complicated at all. As it occurs in Tokyo, the inhabitants move surprisingly confident through what it seems for the non-trained eye as a terrifying amalgam. For us, the strangers, it is just one big chaos. We could call it the perfect mix of natural elements (what we are used to see and use) and artificial ones (the unexpected ones).

Fujimoto has just created something very simple with a very complicated geometry. He builds the most intricate buildings with an apparent lack of effort in such a way that allows their inhabitants, and even us, strangers, to be able to understand his personal vision of a city like Tokyo; or the other way around, as Fujimoto himself explains: “When you take the exterior stairs, you will have the experience as if climbing a mountain as big as the city. It seems that you have your own house at the foot of a mountain. And by the act of going up and down the mountain, the mountain becomes the whole city which will be experienced as its own house”. The fact that right now you, wherever you are looking at the images of this project and trying to (mentally) walk through them, are able to understand a little better the city of Tokyo, is a gift, a kind of miracle that Sou Fujimoto is giving away to not only its inhabitants, but also to all the strangers hoping to understand, strangers like us.