Archives for posts with tag: time

Cross-posted from Volume 

The Cycle of Japan is an ongoing lecture series at the Academy of Architecture in Amsterdam that is exploring what the Netherlands can learn from Japanese urban practice. Edwin Gardner kicked off the series with a talk on February 14th. His lecture was a deeply poetic and psychogeographic meditation on the nature of cyclical time in Tokyo, and its effect on the city’s built environment.


Edwin Gardner is a theorist, architect and cofounder of Monnik, a Dutch research collective. He was in Tokyo to put together Still City, an alternative guide to the city. There, he met and did workshops with various artists, designers, and other urban explorers during a mentally stimulating and physically exhausting two-month stay.

Gardner presented his thoughts in the style of retrospective diary entries. Like his meditations on Tokyo, the entries were presented non-chronologically. He began by establishing the familiar. In the Netherlands, and the West in general, there is a notion that progress is equal to growth: an increase of buildings, of cities, of developed square metres. This means that in crisis, expansion mechanisms come to a halt, and the economy is effectively paralyzed.

Standard linear growth scenario

In Japan there is more of a cyclic notion of growth. Construction and demolition, growth and non-growth are essential elements of the same structure. As its economy has not experienced growth for two decades, Japan is indeed a post-growth urban society. The country is in fact demographically shrinking.

The idea of cyclic time in Japan versus linear in the West is conceptually clear, but is hard to grasp and apply to the realm of the pragmatic. Instead, we quickly get to deep philosophical meditations on space and time that are very interesting, but not too useful. Gardner puts it straight: “Tokyo doesn’t grow or shrink. But what does that mean?”

Japan GDP Growth Rate

Before delving into Tokyo, Gardner brought us back to the Netherlands, where space and time are more stable. Generally, Western cities are essentially timelines. The progression of medieval, organic and compact centres, followed by more organized expansions of inner city suburbs, with newer ones surrounding those, followed by 1960s modernist towers and American-style suburbs in the periphery root us in a linear progression of stable time as expressed in space.

This type of stability is not present in cyclical Tokyo, as reflected in the city’s built form.

Using a variety of examples, Gardner demonstrated instances of cyclical time in Japan’s biggest city. For one, the average age of a person in Tokyo is 40, while the average age of a building is 26: people live to see their city change. Gardner explains that this is because the Japanese put more emphasis on the land itself, rather than the buildings on the land. Houses are treated like cars. The newer they are, the more valuable. With use, their value depreciates. Houses are built with their demolition written into their contracts. Therefore, there is constant re-building. In Tokyo, there are temples that are younger than communications towers. This recurrence of things, rather than a linear progression in space, provides stability.

Tokyo Megalopolis

Gardner’s lecture was enhanced by the simultaneous presentation of large-format aerial footage of Tokyo. The footage is hypnotic, panning over the city’s endless horizons and periodically focusing on specific buildings, monuments, and intersections. Tokyo is enormous. A city within a metropolitan region of 35 million, 4 hour commutes are common. The undulating aerial views illustrated both the enormity of the place, and the difficulty of grasping the concept of a city that is constantly rebuilding itself in endless growth and decay. Tokyo, abuzz with traffic, appears otherwise motionless. It is a city that is simultaneously still and dynamic, “a starry sky, twinkling/a city of continuously regenerating cells”.

In terms of cyclical time’s application to economic and architectural pragmatism, Tokyo’s low average building age and constant de/re-construction translates to a housing market that can quickly react to demographic shifts. Recently, there has been a rise in households comprised of singles and couples with no children. These two categories currently make up 40% of Tokyo’s population. As a result, the demand for apartments under 20 square metres has risen. The city of simultaneous growth and decay provides a built environment that can quickly adapt to reflect this new demographic reality.


While the lecture was a deeply engaging, poetic and psychogeographic meditation on time and space in Japan, it provided relatively few practical examples of how the Netherlands can learn from Japanese urban practice.

Gardner’s talk, however, provided the space for a deep (re)consideration of how our notions of time and space effect our cities and our economies. To widely acknowledge the possibility of simultaneous growth and non-growth is the first step in include it into our consciousness and practices as we continue to build and densify cities in the Netherlands. The notion of a functioning economy, despite crisis, is also powerful. (Despite official positions, you’ll know this intuitively in cultural scenes’ abilities to thrive within times of economic trouble.)

Gardner also referenced the concept of the ‘circular economy’, and the challenge of our society’s transition toward that model. The circular economy reflects a natural system that reuses its waste and values diversity. There is no “end” of a product’s life cycle, rather a constant reuse of materials – the cradle to cradle model.

Tokyo Subway control room

To be clear, establishing a circular economy would not be a case of simply adopting the Japanese notion of cyclical time. It is a radical economic transformation that would mean a shift from dependence on fossil fuels toward renewable energy, a transition that Japan, despite its cyclical notion of time, has also not made huge advancements with.

Be sure to join us at the next installment of the Capita Selecta Cycle of Japan Series on February 21st for Moriko Kira’s lecture and more in-depth investigations of Japanese urbanism and its application to the Netherlands. The lectures are open to the public and take place at the Academy of Architecture in Amsterdam, Waterlooplein 213. All lectures are in English and start at 20:00. Admission is free.


Being here is realizing that fundamental uniqueness of place.

Being here is that very particular weather at this time of year; The voice of Metro Morning on the Radio.

The Sound of Streetcars scraping against their metal tracks. The Sound of the Subway wooshing underground as you bike north, past chirping intersections;  the stale scent of the TTC.

Being here is knowing that Here is always — the constant clockwork of place that is fundamentally tied to some space, somewhere.


Google satellite imagery that covers the entire globe is a relatively recent technological innovation relative to the history of cartography. Yet, it has been around long enough that over the years, Google has updated the aerial imagery in many parts of the world many times.

This happens more often than you might expect. In fact, in very major cities like New York, Google offers almost monthly satellite imagery from 2004 on, and  even some images from as far back as 1978! (though the quality is understandably much poorer from earlier dates).

On Google Earth, one now has the ability to flip through the various editions of satellite images over the same geographic space, enabling the experience of a city in one of its most fundamental forms: as a constantly changing, dynamic entity, as opposed to the static image that online Google maps offer.

Check out this progression back in time of a small area of Greenwich Village in New York City:








Click on the thumb nails to see a bigger image. Google provides images almost monthly for more recent years, but data becomes more disparate from earlier dates. The satellite imagery from 1978 is almost illegible at this scale.

Though pretty amazing, this feature is  somewhat meaningless to someone unfamiliar to an area of a city, but even to someone very familiar with an area or/of a city. It’s very hard to detect what must be incredible change between 1978 and 2009. An aerial view lacks certain features that are significant to our urban experiences, namely, people, store facades, trees and plants, urban furniture. Instead you get a more generalized sense of change, and meaningful differences register only with major redevelopments.

Take this example near in downtown Toronto:





Notice how the golf course in the middle disappears between 2002 and 2006, and buildings on the right are slowly developed and multiplied on this tract of formerly light industrial land west of Fort York and East of the Skydome. Expect major condo-ization here in the years to come.

The change in land is registered meaningfully in these aerial images.

Another incredible example from Toronto is the ability to visualize the frontier of suburbanization at the city’s edge. These shot are from the Major Mackenzie/Bathurst area, a spot that has seen the transformation of many farms into suburban developments recently:



With close examination, one can see the transformation of farmland to suburban developments, especially in the centre of these photos.

Street view is a relatively more recent innovation, and I am excited for the opportunity to similarly browse through time on the street-view scale – this will most definitely provide a rich and interesting perspective on the way cities change over the years; a plane on which both the subtle differences and major redevelopments of the same street corner will, as never before, be able to be visually experienced. The US street view photos were taken in 2003, and compared to the most recent additions (Romania!), are of very poor quality. An update is immanent, and I can only hope they enable the time-travel function as they do on Google Earth.

The impact of this on our conceptions of space and place is immense. Never before have we had the ability to concretely visualize the change of a place in such an “objective” way. The advent of street-view time travel will definitely further impact our sense of space and history in the city.