Jorge Almazán is a Tokyo-based architect and a researcher and an educator at the graduate Center for Space and Environment Design Engineering at Keio University, where he leads Studiolab, a university-based collaboration platform dedicated to design innovation and research.
He is also the author of Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City, which is the focus of this interview.
In this conversation, we cover Tokyo’s design, Yokocho alleyways, public spaces in Tokyo, and plenty more!
I hope you have as much fun as I did, so please enjoy my conversation with Jorge Almazán.
[00:00:31] – [First question] – Jorge’s background with Japan
[00:03:59] – “Made in Tokyo” and its influence on Jorge
[00:07:44] – The process for writing Emergent Tokyo
[00:13:07] – Describing Tokyo’s 5 Emergent Patterns
[00:18:52] – Jorge’s personal favourite emergent pattern
[00:21:28] – The beauty of smaller spaces
[00:30:48] – “Designing the Spontaneous City” and the contradictions there
[00:36:15] – Tokyo’s Neighbourhoods and housing affordability
[00:51:20] – Why the lack of benches and seating in public spaces in Tokyo?
[01:01:08] – Trying to formulate a model of emergent urbanism based on Tokyo.
[01:08:49] – Wrapping up
Connect with Jorge:
- Jorge Almazán Architects’ Website
- Jorge Almazán Studiolab YouTube
- Connect with Jorge on LinkedIn
- Connect with Jorge on Twitter
Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favourite podcast platform.
[00:00:00] Kalani Scarrott: Hello, and welcome to Compounding Curiosity. I’m your host, Kalani Scarrott, and this podcast is all about compounding your curiosity alongside my own through thoughtful interviews with interesting guests. For transcripts and detailed show notes, check out the links in the description. Hopefully, you’re as keen as me to learn something new, so let’s get stuck in.
My very special guest today is Jorge Almazán. He is an architect and is currently a researcher and educator at the Graduate Center for Space and Environment Design Engineering at Keio University, where he leads Studio Lab, a university-based collaboration platform dedicated to design innovation and research. But for the focus of today’s conversation, he is also the author of “Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City”, which is an amazing read. It is a great book, a beautiful book, tons of info, and especially for me, coming from a background with no architectural design, I still found it extremely valuable. So we chatted about everything in Tokyo and its design. So please enjoy my conversation with Jorge Almazán.
Jorge, thank you so much for coming on today, really is an honor. I loved your book, but I’d love to start with you and your history. So, you’ve been a resident of Tokyo for nearly 20 years now, and originally from Spain but how did this all start, the interest in both Japan and then in your work as an architect and urban design?
[00:01:35] Jorge Almazán: First of all, thank you for having me. I am really glad to have this conversation with you. I came in 2003, in April, so it’s going to be 20 years very soon. At the beginning, I came as a research student. There are these scholarships from the Japanese Ministry of Education and I came as a research student and I found a very good research laboratory. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Japanese system of graduate education in which you are assigned to a supervisor which we call a laboratory. It’s a research group and that research group, the supervisor, was really interesting. His name was Junzo Kuroda, and he’s the person who wrote the book ‘Made in Tokyo.’ I was so interested in what he was doing and researching that I decided to join the PhD program. After that, I was actually ready to go back to finish my Japanese period. And in fact, I was teaching in Seoul. I was teaching in one university and also doing some projects. But later, very soon, I had a proposal from Keio University, specifically, I had an offer, or the information about this offer from another very interesting Japanese architect called Sejima, who was an amazing female architect. I decided that I have to go back to Japan. So I end up something at the beginning that was supposed to be like two years, end up being that multiplied by ten. But of course, Japan is an amazing culture and it’s one of the places that challenges many of our conceptions. I think it has been really an adventure every day. Although in the book that we are going to talk about later, I was also trying to challenge myself a little bit, some of these ideas that we bring to Japan very often as foreigners.
[00:03:59] Kalani Scarrott: Could you talk about ‘Made in Tokyo’ and the influence it had on you and your book?
[00:04:10] Jorge Almazán: ‘Made in Tokyo’ is this book done by Junzo Kuroda and also Momoyo Kaijima, who is his partner in the office of Atelier Bow-Wow. It’s a book that’s quite known for those in architecture and urban design. But if people don’t know and your audience doesn’t know, it’s a book of a collection of hybrid buildings, buildings that have very innovative combinations of uses, for example, a driving school on the top of a supermarket or a shopping mall, that’s a very functional and shameless combination. I would say, of uses very pragmatic that you can find all around Tokyo and maybe the theory was that somehow Tokyo is a city in which those strange combinations or new combinations are possible because basically it’s a city made of pragmatic decisions in which the western concepts of beauty and what is correct and not correct doesn’t count. So he was using Dame as a category of this architecture. Dame is something that you say to children when they are doing something really bad, they say Dame. So, it’s like this bad architecture. This book, in fact, has been very influential in my work also and this is part of a legacy or a lineage of research that goes up even to pre-war times because they have been architects and working on observational studies on the city. Architects used to be increasingly less but traditionally they have been considered themselves elite and that the society had to accept their ideas because they were like the avant-garde. This lineage of architects and researchers had a different attitude. They have a more observational attitude. So, let’s try to observe what’s going on in the city and then learn from the city. Of course, this is not only happening in Japan. You can have a similar line of research that starts in Jane Jacobs, for example, the Death and Life of Great American Cities, or another book quite famous by Robert Venturi, another architect called Learning from Las Vegas. So there is a lineage of architecture which is not the mainstream, in which rather than imposing from the top our avant-garde ideas, we are learning from the actual city, even if it doesn’t fit well our conceptions. So I think that was really new for me. As a student, I was really fascinated by this idea of going to the city as an unending source of inspiration and surprises. If you change the way you look at the city, it’s an incredible and complex ecosystem, especially in places like Tokyo, you would be surprised and you would be surprised every day just walking on the streets and paying attention to details.
[00:07:44] Kalani Scarrott: It’s so beautiful hearing you describe it. I love it but did that sow the seeds for you writing your own book? How did that all start and what was that process?
[00:07:52] Jorge Almazán: The starting point was the PhD and supervisor, this collaboration with Tsukamoto. But at the same time, I was a little bit not completely convinced of other things or other theories that were around in Tokyo studies or urban studies in Japan. Especially, I think there is an emphasis on the uniqueness of Japanese cities and how different they are from the west. How our Western ways of analyzing doesn’t really fit something which is so culturally different. So there was such an emphasis on that and as a foreigner who arrives in Japan and you are told that, of course you are going to respect that. You’re not going to try to impose your way of thinking. That was my attitude, very humble and I’m not going to judge anything. I’ll just learn and absorb. That was one idea that I found increasingly difficult to accept, and the other was the dominant idea that Tokyo is a city of chaos. It’s a city in which there is a lack of order, but somehow everything works, and there’s a beauty of our glamorous chaos. I call it glamorous chaos. Those two ideas were not only repeated by foreigners, which is something that I can understand because we always come with our orientalist views. We tend to essentialize other cultures and we consider them exotic. But which in principle could sound positive, like you’re going to a place and exotic means, in a sense, also interesting, fascinating and beautiful but at the same time, it’s a very colonizing view. It’s like looking at cultures as something which doesn’t fit the dynamism that we have in the west and something that at the end is not rational. So in this orientalist view, there are also lots of prejudices. I was really surprised that even many of my Japanese colleagues were accepting that explanation and they were telling me how different they are from the west and how unique their cities are and how different and ‘oh, come on, you cannot understand this and that.’ After so many years and seeing through the details, you start to understand that there is a lot of self-orientalism also in that discourse. That self-orientalism was not always present in Japan. It’s something that started in the 70s and 80s, this is something recent and for different political reasons, which maybe we cannot address now. But I started to see the political background, sociological background of all those ideas which were floating around. Therefore I decided that I need to make a book that separates all those essentialist ideas without neglecting the importance of culture but going to things that you would apply to analyze any city, western or not, like policy, history, regulations, sociology, all those things and how all those things beautifully in certain patterns. I think we will talk about them later. They beautifully merge to create amazing spaces but you don’t need to go to the mystery of Japan or to explain that, it’s easier to go that way. If you go into detail, it becomes more understandable. You see that you can apply the same frameworks. In my viewpoint, it becomes even more fascinating because then you see the layers of history, internal contradictions, internal struggles in Japan, how they project an image to the west and to other countries, which is pretty much constructed and debated and is the result of internal struggles. When you see all the diversity, you see that it’s even more interesting, it’s even more fascinating. And I think the book was our best attempt to show this complexity and diversity that goes beyond just saying that Japanese is so unique.
[00:13:07] Kalani Scarrott: You’ve hit the nail on the head for why I love it so much because even for me, I’m an outsider and I don’t understand urban design architecture. But you gave me a great launching pad into understanding why I love the building so much and it’s so cool to have something from post-World War II or even, like you said in the 70s and 80s, certain political events happened, there’s unintended consequences down the line or how it evolves. It’s extremely hard and obviously near impossible to summarize a book, but could you maybe list those five emergent patterns across Tokyo’s 23 wards that you describe in the book because it’ll be cooler hearing and understanding it?
[00:13:40] Jorge Almazán: I have the book with me and the book starts with a general introduction and then it goes to five patterns. The book is titled ”Emergent Tokyo” and it’s a term from the complexity sciences. It’s the idea of the creation of order and functionality from the bottom up without a central brain or master planning that controls everything. I think that was probably an aspect of Tokyo which was, from my viewpoint, more fascinating. There are more aspects of Tokyo, of course. Tokyo is a very complex city but I think that was our main point because it was a way to accept that Tokyo is different from cities like Paris, New York, Barcelona, but still, it’s not about chaos, it’s about certain orders and we have to understand and try to explain them. So as examples or radical examples of that emergence, we were looking at Yokocho Alleyways, which are districts of microbars, very close together, very compact, exacio buildings which are like slender buildings on narrow plots which stack on top of each other for different uses. I would say it’s a verticalized version of the Yokocha that appears basically from the 70s all around Tokyo, under track infields which are spaces under railways and also under highways that have been colonized by small businesses and therefore they have managed to create magnets. In places that usually are problems in the city when you have an elevated highway that interrupts the urban fabric and creates social segregation and so on. But in many places in Tokyo, it doesn’t happen. And what happens is that it’s a place where people gather because of these microbusinesses and Akio streets, Akio is a word in Japanese which means something like covered rivers. Tokyo was a city full of rivers and canals. Especially before the 1964 Olympics, many of them were covered in a rush quite rapidly without really plans about what would happen with those streets that emerged because if you cover a river, you would have a street. Therefore you have a huge system of very free streets. Many of them cannot be accessed by cars. Others can be accessed in which people and business associations, et cetera, started to use very freely. So I would say it’s an example of emergence in public space. And the last pattern is dense low rise neighborhoods which are quite prominent. If you have been to Tokyo, the most surprising thing when you go to Tokyo the first time is that it’s not this Blade Runner image of skyscrapers. That part is really just a small part around the station. The rest is like an ocean of houses. I would say quite low rise. Although there are also mid rises, the general impression is that Tokyo is really like a low rise ocean of built landscape. My first impression was that it was a failed urbanism because it’s like a sprawl thing. But in the book, we explain what are the positive aspects because it has very particular characteristics that made them very livable and very supportive for things that we are now discussing in urban design and architecture, for example, walkability or community or sustainability of resilience. All those things are happening in those neighborhoods and therefore It’s a manifesto. So it’s a book that is different from the academic journal paper in which you cannot really express yourself much. It’s more like openly, like, I would say, really positioning ourselves within these debates and saying we can learn from Tokyo as we can learn from Paris or New York. Therefore we need to go beyond this cultural essentialism and start to analyze things in detail to discover properties and qualities that maybe with adaptations could be applied also in our cities in the west.
[00:18:52] Kalani Scarrott: I have to ask, do you have a personal favorite emergent pattern in Tokyo?
[00:18:57] Jorge Almazán: Well, the Yokochou are the most clear pattern because they are made of small units run by independent businesses and independent owners. And then when they come together or when they are in the compounds where they are located, they really work as a unit that is much stronger and more intense than the sum of its parts. But within that, I must say that during the process of researching in this book, I discovered one, which is Yanagi Koji in Nishi Onikubo on the chuo line. It’s a suburban Yokochou. The famous ones are Golden Guy in Shinjuku or Number Yokochou. It’s more humble and a little bit laid back and more quiet. But it was very interesting because it is very open. It also works pretty much during the day too. So it’s basically now run by immigrants mixed with Japanese, which shows a new phase, I would say, in Japanese cities, in which foreigners will be starting to be integrated. It is super accepted by the community. They are really well integrated. It’s very open, especially amazing because it’s the smallest footprint that I have found. Yokochou are incredibly small, but these ones, I think it’s like 6 m². So it’s like you could have a bar in your room with everything, with a kitchen, counter, everything. It’s possible, you see that it’s possible because the space is so well designed and that intimacy that creates is a very good lesson also like my space and you don’t need huge space in order to have a small third space. This community place, maybe we just need well located and well-designed 6 m² are enough.
[00:21:28] Kalani Scarrott: It’s interesting, those smaller spaces too, because from a business perspective they can experiment more because it’s not such a big commitment on land or resources too.
[00:21:39] Jorge Almazán: I think we shouldn’t underestimate the potential of incubation of those micro spaces because that’s one of my critiques in the book. We also end up criticizing the mega corporate super redevelopments that are happening now in Tokyo. I don’t have any problem against bigness in principle. We need to analyze if it works or not, if it’s positive for the city or not and what we see is that all those young chefs, young entrepreneurs, people who have good ideas but they don’t have money, are expelled from the city. After redevelopment, you only have chain stores. So I think cities are machines to create new things and innovation. And if you allow only already brands with good reputation and people who have already super developed businesses and chain stores and so on, you are missing a very important point, which is the surprise, the innovation. Of course, you need small rents for those people, for those guys and I think we could integrate them. I think it’s important to redevelop in certain circumstances, especially in places like in Japan where you have earthquakes and so on. That might be necessary, but we should find ways to integrate that smallness. I think that’s a good point. I think that’s something that might interest people who are in policy making and people in business also. I think they could be inspired by the cases that we are describing in the book.
[00:23:29] Kalani Scarrott: On the topic of small spaces, Yokochou and Alleyways, for anyone unaware, could you explain how they came to be and to add on to that, are we going to get any more or is what we have what we got because of their unique development? Do you want to explain and expand on that?
[00:23:46] Jorge Almazán: Well, it’s very interesting because my first reaction when I saw one of these Yokochou is like, wow, this is the most radical and beautiful example of Japanese smallness, and it’s so small, it’s even smaller than the smallest house that I have ever seen. So I was like, wow but it was very surprising to find, when you start to research, that, in fact, it’s the result of policies related to American occupation forces in Japan. So maybe we should give more credit to the Americans rather than the Japanese, which contradicts the whole narrative about Japanese smallness and so on, because what happened is, after the war, there were black markets in front of almost every station in Tokyo. And I say that there is a specific order from the Japanese, they call it GHQ, like general headquarters or American headquarters to dismantle those black markets but they didn’t treat them as criminals. I think everyone was actually using them because they were racial, but it was not enough. So they treated them more as entrepreneurs and survivors and they relocated many of them into other compounds which were not in front of the station, but close to the station. So they were relocation programs and projects and one philosophy and one idea that I have found and as much as I could find is related with these ideas that Americans bring democracy and being egalitarian, is that they should give the same amount of space to everyone. So at the end, what they did is subdivide the land into very small pieces and everyone has an equal amount of land, very small. Sometimes it was like 6 m², sometimes it was just one floor. Now what we see is mostly two floors but most of them have been grown later. The original was just one floor and that policy created those small micro spaces and through time they change and they slowly change from markets. There was a period in which, I would say, hidden bars for salary men. Salary men, like this archetype of the hardworking workaholic and also alcoholic, any kind of Japanese office worker that goes at night, sings karaoke and so on. But now they are becoming more open and they are very diverse. So you see how they evolve over time but originally it was a very clear plan and that’s why I think that it’s a very good example in which when you have a very clear and simple plan and you leave it and you let it evolve over time, allowing young entrepreneurs freedom to experiment with very cheap rentals, rent prices and so on. At the end, after 50, 60 years, you have amazing districts. I think this is one proof of it. As you mention, their structures are very old. They are wooden structures and most of them cannot be redeveloped or rebuilt in the same size because of the Japanese architectural standards law. So most of them are being renovated without changing the volume, and many of them are disappearing for several reasons. So what we see is that those who are remaining are still very popular. We see that in many of these redevelopments, we see imitations of those yokochou, for example, there is one very recent one called Shibuya yokochou, which is located on the ground floor of the shopping mall that replaced Miyashita Park in Shibuya. There is another in Toranomon hills, Toranomon Yokochou. That one is inside a skyscraper. It’s inside a high rise building but my criticism of those, let’s say, imitations, is that at the end, they don’t work. They have all the aesthetics. They have this cho Ching which is a Japanese red paper lantern. They have all the paraphernalia tactics of the old bar but at the end, they don’t have the most important part, which is, in my opinion, the independent ownership that people are allowed. So, they are curated and essentially organized and managed. In the end, they feel like shopping mall food courts really are the same. Like, you have several small stalls and then you chew your food and you go to another place and you eat it there. So I think they are missing a very important point, which is the sociological infrastructure and relationships in these communities, and they are taking the superficial side of it. So I believe we could go farther and replicate Yokochou, taking also that other side, which is giving freedom to entrepreneurs and allowing them to experiment more, even to fail. Why not? At the end have vibrant places, as we see now. So, I think this is missing from the redevelopments. Again, the aesthetics are there. The smallness is also there. Most of them are also made of small stalls and small bars but the sociological infrastructure or the community based on independent owners is missing there and I think that’s an important point, too.
[00:30:48] Kalani Scarrott: Interesting and very well described. That’s perfect. At the start of the question, you mentioned contradictions and I’d love to dive into that more. We talked a bit about it before we started recording, even in the book, ‘Designing the Spontaneous City,’ which is a contradiction in itself. Could you talk a bit about that, even contradictions in the response to your book and the varying people?
[00:31:07] Jorge Almazán: So very soon it’s going to be the first year since the publication, so we have been lucky enough to have lots of feedback. Most of them are really positive. I am the first person who is absolutely surprised. I didn’t know that this was going to be like this. People are going to be so interested beyond architecture and beyond urban design. I was surprised by some comments which were addressing the contradictions. I was surprised that some positive comments were praising, let’s say, how the book defends a little bit of these radically liberal ideas of letting market forces shape in a spontaneous way, the city and so on. And others were criticizing that we were anti-capitalist and anti-growth. I think there’s an issue here. Probably many of these debates are based on abstract ideas about, for example, regulation or deregulation or how we define market forces, et cetera. But they don’t go to the granular examples, to the granular analysis to see what works and doesn’t work. I would say for certain scales and under certain conditions, letting people work in a very liberal environment works very well but when you have those conditions completely changed and you limit the number of actors that it was happening, for example, in redevelopments and we increase the scale so much that each redevelopment has a huge environmental impact which cannot be compared with the impact of a small bar, then I think we should start thinking about how all these ideological debates relate to issues of scale. For example, you change the scale, I think you should also change how you analyze things. My conclusion is that to a certain extent, Tokyo challenges many of our ideological frameworks and all these ideas about how a city should be managed. And I think we need to accept by the end that we need both. We need design and we also need spontaneous order. I think everyone would accept that for important infrastructure, we need to design it. Like trains, anti-disaster infrastructure and many other things but there is a gray zone in which there are many possibilities. I think in that case, we should really go into the details and I think we need more case studies. The book offers a case study in which you can see what are the conditions, what are the scales, and maybe we can transfer those lessons to other contexts. Because, as I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t believe that this is basically a cultural issue. It’s not like Japanese are fundamentally different, essentially different from any other countries. I think there are many things that could be shared and learned. And, yes, that would be my reply to those contradictory comments, which I really appreciate, because it forced me to think beyond the book, which is, like, maybe we should stop thinking just in very abstract terms, like pro-growth, degrowth regulation, a complete liberalization and see more like details. Let’s go for case studies and see what works and not and see if we can replicate or transfer some of those lessons without having too many prejudices or stereotypes about what works and not. So these are the things that I have been thinking these days, so my thinking is still not very elaborated yet, but it’s nice that we have this opportunity to discuss this. I don’t know what you think about this personally.
[00:35:53] Kalani Scarrott: No, I love that answer, especially because my friend recently, I was talking to him, and he’s Japanese-Swedish and he said the same thing, People’s perceptions of Japan are so black and white. It’s so old school, but also it’s so futuristic but the reality is somewhere in the middle, and that detail often gets lost and the details are the funniest, too.
[00:36:12] Jorge Almazán: Yeah, the details are very important.
[00:36:15] Kalani Scarrott: I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t bring up housing and affordability because it’s such a hot topic right now. So you wrote about the joy of dense, low rise neighborhoods. So with housing as it is today, especially around affordability, what makes these neighborhoods so special and what could other cities learn from these neighborhoods?
[00:36:33] Jorge Almazán: So this is a very important point because I have some notes also on these, because I know this is super discussed now among the younger generation in the United States, also in Australia, I guess. Well, the book doesn’t really analyze this issue in particular. So, there is no economic analysis of this. So those who really want to understand, I think they should go to journal papers which are addressing this but in my opinion, these neighborhoods are positive because I have three points, basically because they have an adaptable urban fabric. The small scale allows you to adapt very easily to your house. So, adaptability is a very important point. Also, super important is transit convenience. So, we are not talking about car dependent neighborhoods. We are talking about possibly one of the most redundant and dense public transport and rail transport networks in the world, in which almost every part of us consider the central 23 wards of Tokyo. I would say maybe if you are in the farthest place you can get in 45 minutes, less than 1 hour for sure, into a super metropolitan center like Shibuya, Shinjuku or Ginza, in which you have everything, all the cultural facilities, et cetera. So, we are not talking now. It’s very important. That point is very important because you can have your low rise, quiet neighborhood, but also you can have the metropolitan condition. It’s not choosing between those two. I think the public transport issue is something that we need to include in this debate. It’s very important and of course, I would also mention the vibrant community life as something that also results from this spatial, I would say condition of small scale like community life, streets in which you really can meet your neighbor, et cetera. So I think there is something about the low rise which is positive. I’m not saying that the high rises are bad. I’m saying that a very dense, public space in which you can encounter people and have a sense of being part of a community is very positive, especially for those the younger, the children and the elderly communities are super important. We have seen this in the pandemic, how important it is even for our mental health, being able to see people even at that level, seeing people is very important. And if you live secluded, either in a tower or in your suburban home, you can suffer, I would say, from a little bit of isolation. So, these communities are very important. Then if we go to the particular case of Tokyo in the book, I have six issues or items. I would say that many of these neighborhoods are very permeable. So it’s not like for example, in Australia I know that you have lots of row houses in which you have a continuous wall of houses and we are talking about houses, like one single house, basically one single building in each plot. So you have lots of gap spaces in between, like buildings which cannot touch each other. Basically, in Japan, because of certain regulations, it’s fire regulation. It’s not anti-seismic regulation as many people think. It’s not for earthquakes. It’s basically fire regulation. We don’t go into details, but it’s basically for that. There is a feeling of a different spatial sensation if you go because I have done the same analysis in Melbourne and in Tokyo with the same population density. In Melbourne you have areas in which you have row houses on both sides and a big road in the middle. It’s beautiful, the trees are beautiful and so on but it doesn’t give you the sense of porosity, permeability and compact sense of community. I think the greenery is amazing because this is another example of emergence. I think this is cultural. I think this is a point where we could say it’s cultural in which everyone is contributing a little bit to the community by putting small pots, even cultivating small trees. So they create micro gardens within their spots, sometimes even outside, invading a little bit of the public space but the police seem to tolerate it. When you walk through many of these neighborhoods, if you have been in Tokyo, you see it’s really surprising. Like these micro gardens really cared for. You see some people have flowers, some people like olive trees. You see the personality of everyone, and they are devices for communicating. You see lots of people talking about the greenery and so on and the beautifiers of the space, but in an emergent manner. I think that’s another beautifying and interesting viewpoint. Another one which I think it’s very important is that because of how these neighborhoods were developed, they give preference to pedestrians. So, they are very walkable. So after the war, Tokyo expanded rapidly and authorities didn’t really have the time or the resources to organize and plan everything. So lots of those expansions were very disorganized in the sense that they were not like a grid that was extending over. It was more like patches and sometimes even people were creating their own lanes. It was a very spontaneous thing. So, it’s a little bit labyrinthic. There is no clear grid but the authorities later made bigger avenues, crossing or cutting through that maze and then you have a combination of very efficient arterial roads, very well planned ring roads and radial roads combined with very small scale streets. Therefore, you don’t have to go through traffic. You don’t have traffic that has to go through those neighborhoods because it’s not efficient. You don’t want to go inside. So basically, only people who know the neighborhood well go inside, therefore, in a natural way without forcing people. Forcing people with barriers and so just because of the structure of the city itself, what you have is that basically people or cars crossing those areas tend to go slowly. Many of the streets, they combine or they don’t differentiate walkways or sideways and the road itself, it’s everything as a continuous pavement. So the people, persons, bicycles, cars are coexistent, and are sharing space. So, it’s very interesting. It’s against challenges like many of our ideas. It’s very walkable, but there is no sensation that it’s top down. I think I was seeing these protests against the 15 minute city recently. I don’t know if you have seen that. There have been lots of protests about this concept of 15 minutes city, but basically the idea of walkable communities where the cars have to go slowly and give preference to pedestrians. I think this is something that happens naturally in Tokyo. You can experience that and I must say this is working also because you also have a very train station that puts you in 30 minutes in Shibuya or in Shinjuku, in a center, in a very good location where you can have access to cultural facilities, to work, shopping, et cetera. I think it works very well. That combination between arterial roads, public transport, and then more intimate and granular kind of urban structure inside that naturally, without the feeling of being forced to do something, but naturally kind of gives preference to the human scale activities, walking and bicycling. Then I would maybe add safety. I think we didn’t talk about safety, but I think that’s very important. In Japan, there is a cultural issue. Maybe we might accept that, or there is something that goes through education, and maybe we have to go, talk about education and many other things to really understand the issue of safety. But I would argue in the book that the urban structure also helps because when you have a street that is continuously aligned, a very small street aligned with many houses, without those big avenues that you see in Melbourne and other cities, it’s difficult to commit a crime because you are very visible. So, this is something that Jane Jacobs’ mentioned. She mentioned like eyes on the street that was applied for New York. I think the same happens in these neighborhoods, when you have that density and proximity, it’s something that you can see. You can see very young, primary school children walking alone on the streets, taking the bus, even going to the station and getting into trains, which is amazing because the first time I was like, oh, I have to call the police because there is this super tiny guy walking there, but you see they are safe. This is really amazing for women. All women who come to Tokyo mention this. They mentioned the pleasure of walking alone at night in a park, something that in many Western cities I wouldn’t recommend in certain areas of European cities, for example, but I guess everywhere else or many other cities. So I think safety is an important issue that should be mentioned. Last but not least, I would say that all these neighborhoods are not the super manicured, beautiful neighborhoods that you see in American suburbs. And also, I really love these row houses that I saw in Melbourne, Australia, with the beautiful verandas and metal work and so on. So that’s really beautiful but you don’t have that unity here in Tokyo. Each building has a different size, different roof shape and also different uses. One important thing is that zoning is not very strict, and even in the most residentially zoned areas, you are allowed to have commercial uses combined. So you can go through those neighborhoods and find a small boutique or small ramen shop or ramen restaurant or bookshops, that’s the most incredible diversity of things. And interestingly, most of them, the owners, are living upstairs, which is a combination that happens very often in pre modern cities. Therefore rents are very cheap because you don’t have to rent. You own the place. You are allowed to experiment. So one of the best coffees, for example, coffee shops that I know in Tokyo, they are in those neighborhoods, very hidden. It is called Oba Chan, the old mother still working there. Maybe she has 80s or 90s, dripping coffee, doing it carefully because she’s enjoying that. Maybe she’s not really getting a super huge profit out of it. So I guess she wouldn’t be allowed to work in a chain store because they require bigger profits. She’s enjoying it and she’s contributing. She’s making some money, I guess, because the coffees, that particular place that I have in mind is quite well, but we can find many other examples. So I think this is an interesting model, how these businesses that might not be super profitable but still make sense for individuals and contribute to the liveability and vibrancy of an area could be allowed if we permit or allow these more relaxed zoning laws. So in this case, for example, I am pro-deregulation in this case, for this particular case and this particular scale. So I’m not the socialist that wants to regulate everything. Go case by case, and let’s see what works and doesn’t work and I think for this case, allowing a little bit more diversity in zoning, potentially could help a lot.
[00:51:20] Kalani Scarrott: I love that answer so much and it was one thing I noticed when I traveled to Japan, which is mixed use zoning. It’s not a concept we have here. So, it’s so cool having my hostel and people’s houses next door, and then coffee shops with people living upstairs, it’s so cool. I think it really adds to the city and space. One thing I do want to touch on, because this is going to be off the cuff, so you might have nothing or something, I don’t know. I was just looking through my highlights of the book. So you’re talking about ‘SL Plaza’ in Shibuya or Shimbashi, I don’t know, but either way, it’s a popular meeting spot, but the square does not offer opportunities to sit, a result of the implicit general ban on benches in Japanese public squares spaces. So I wanted to ask why the bin situation in Japan, I’ve understood through all the Sarin attacks and stuff like that but the benches in Japan, it was such a throwaway line. I was like, why do they not have many public spaces to sit?
[00:52:13] Jorge Almazán: This is one of the biggest research areas in the book. We are not maybe addressing it specifically in the book, but it’s one of the big stories. One of the big discussions about Japanese cities is if there is public space or not. And lots of Japanese colleagues of mine and researchers have been arguing and defending the idea that public space is a Western idea that was not originally happening or didn’t exist in the old Edo period. Edo is the old name of Tokyo, and therefore this is culturally doesn’t really fit. If you have been to Tokyo, you have probably seen that there are not many benches. A bench for me is a mark that indicates the acceptance or not of public space. We could talk about many other issues like trees and the design of the materials and finishes and many other things but presence or not of benches are a very easy aspect to measure and can observe. In fact, you don’t have so many places to sit outside in Tokyo. I don’t know if you found yourself in trouble when you came here, but for me one of the most normal things would be to go to a company and buy a bento or onigiri, even if I’m Spaniard and I come from a sunny place, but still, if there is nice weather, I like to be outside. So let’s go sit outside and you don’t find a place. So why is that? I don’t buy this story of the cultural narrative essentialist thing because I think that public space is basically something universal. When I’m talking about public space, I’m talking about being outside, enjoying the sun, talking with people and walking. I think that’s the homo-sapiens thing. I don’t think this is culture. I think everyone would enjoy these things. Statistically speaking, there are people who are different but basically, I would say that if you prepare a questionnaire in very different countries, I think those basic qualities of public space, everyone would agree that they are socially positive things. So the reason why there are so few benches in public space is because of regulation. It’s not cultural and it’s because in Japanese regulation, independently of the ownership of the public space, the public space can be owned by the municipality, can be owned by the prefecture, can be owned by the national government. All those entities are public. So, we pay them through our taxes, and we can claim if we want to change something, we can go to our politicians and say, I want to change this plaza through our vote. So it’s public in that sense but the management of those spaces is under the jurisdiction of the police. In Japan there are no municipal police. The American occupation forces tried to impose municipal police but immediately after they left Japanese, they created a national police. So it seems like something that really didn’t work for some reason. And that means it’s a very centrally managed system. The police, their regulation or their mission is to facilitate traffic and movement. So everything that is about letting people stay in activities is considered dangerous or considered something that could go against. If there is an accident, the police in charge in that area could be responsible for that. If there is someone sitting on a bench and a drunken car guy drives out of the street and there is someone getting injured or some damage, in theory, the police that allowed that bench on public space could be responsible. So I completely understand, this is not a criticism against the police. I would do the same because if on a personal level I have to be responsible, I think this has to be solved on a regulatory level, not personal level. So what we see in Tokyo is that in certain places, you can see people outside. We did interviews in those places and we were told that there was a tacit agreement between the police and the owners to allow them. So it is forbidden but we know that there are not many cars passing through. There have been no accidents here for 60 years. It’s an agreement between the parties, an unofficial and informal agreement. That’s why we started to think, what’s going on? We found that there is regulation and therefore it’s very difficult to put benches in public spaces. I must say that this is changing very slowly and the new generations of architects and designers, they also don’t buy so much this story about we Japanese, we are so different, don’t have public space or we don’t need public space because our culture blah, blah, blah. They are really learning. In this case, I think Western cities are more advanced in this particular case because we have developed regulatory systems and policies to allow it and to create those public spaces and to allow people to sit outside. I must say that in parks, it’s possible. We are talking about benches on plazas and streets because plazas and streets are all considered or defined in Japanese as Doro and Doro means road. There is no distinction between a plaza or a street. Everything is a road and the police are in charge of roads. That’s the reason why benches are so difficult to establish in Japan. With the pandemic, this is another example of deregulations relaxations of these rules. Again, one more example that I am pro-deregulation in this case, in which under certain circumstances, even on roads, even on those places defined as Doro, you can allow staying activities like terrace, cafes and markets, et cetera. And thanks to that deregulation, the police feel a little bit more comfortable because they say, we are just following the rules. We are not taking our personal responsibility. So, it’s changing but too slowly, I think. Come on, guys, public spaces are working in many cities. I understand that Japan is especially prone to natural disasters and therefore we have to be more careful, but in quiet open spaces, like that plaza that you mentioned at the beginning, I think it would be perfectly okay to put some more stained spaces or allow a little bit more of stained spaces. In my opinion, that would not be a big problem.
[01:01:08] Kalani Scarrott: So interesting and thank you for that answer. Is there anything else we haven’t covered today about either you, your book or Tokyo’s Design? Anything else you want to cover?
[01:01:19] Jorge Almazán: I think we talked already, more or less, but we didn’t touch on the last chapter much, but at the end, we are trying to formulate a model of emergent urbanism based on Tokyo. I think it’s very important to distinguish between scales. So it’s not the same to have an emergency situation when there are multiple or a huge number of actors and when there are only a few actors. When I mention only a few actors, it is another Tokyo that you can also see when you come to the city, which is what we call corporate led Tokyo. Everyone who comes now, he or she, will be surprised by the number of redevelopment projects. The general feeling was that these projects were redeveloped because of the Olympics. Tokyo was going to be renewed for the Olympics but from the beginning, I thought that there was an excuse somehow, because I saw that this started in 2002, a little bit before I arrived because of regulatory change. So that law hasn’t changed and we still see lots of big neighborhoods, complete blocks being demolished and transformed into one single typology of building, which is the skyscraper, the large scale rise or super high rise building, 50 floors, offices and condominiums connected not anymore by that network of alleys and greenery and small independent businesses, but in this case, it’s more like a shopping mall space. So I was very concerned that I didn’t hear or I was not conscious or aware. And I think I am quite updated about debates in Japanese about Tokyo, an open criticism, a systematic criticism about the negative side of those redevelopments. The book at the end is addressing in a systematic way those negative sides and warning policymakers and also architects that there are qualities in existing Tokyo that we might want to preserve somehow. The buildings themselves, I understand they are old, many of them are Buddhist structures. I understand they have to be renewed but we can keep certain scales, maybe we can keep certain relationships, set their values. The book has also been translated into Japanese. That was very important for me and it was translated and published in October. I am now getting feedback from the Japanese side and I think somehow we are contributing with this book also to the Japanese internal debate about what to do with Tokyo in the future.
[01:04:59] Kalani Scarrott: Was the book changed a bit when it was translated because I remember hearing on a podcast you were targeting?
[01:05:04] Jorge Almazán: It’s not a translation. Well, I think 80% of the book is exactly the same. We had very good team editors and translators. I can read Japanese and give my own opinions, but I’m not native. There was a professional team behind and they were pointing out several things that, for the Japanese audience, were maybe not so necessary, and other things that might be more important. For example, the book dedicates quite a lot of space to demolish and demystify all these stereotypes that foreigners have about Tokyo. I think many of them were not necessary for the Japanese because they don’t bring these prejudices, not all of them. So that part was a little bit reduced, and we increased details for other parts. But I think this final chapter was almost untouched. So the open criticism, systematic criticism of the social, environmental, economic, and also, I would say, even static consequences of these mega redevelopments, that chapter is kept in Japanese. I am seeing very interesting debates, also opinions against and opinions in favor of mega redevelopment, but people who have commented on Twitter and messages that I have received that somehow the things that they were feeling, things that didn’t match or didn’t work for them. It was an abstract sense that somehow the book managed to write them in a systematic and clear way and give structure to that sensation that many people in Tokyo have. Although authorities and the world of finance and politics are all defending the redevelopment of large tracts of Tokyo, that might not be the only way and maybe we need to combine policies and we also need to why not think of what foreigners love about Tokyo because we have a fresh view. If you have almost all foreigners that I know and international visitors, they aren’t so interested in visiting one more shopping mall or one more skyscraper that is exactly the same that they have in Melbourne and New York. They are more interested in those neighborhoods and the microbars and many of those aspects that we are. So there is some value that even if you want to sell Tokyo as a product in an international market, even if you are only interested in finance or a little profit, I would say I think you should consider twice before demolishing many of those neighborhoods because that potential also as a resource for tourism. So we are trying to participate in that Japanese internal debate also.
[01:08:49] Kalani Scarrott: I love that answer and couldn’t agree more. Jorge, thank you so much for coming on today. And not just saying this but I seriously love the book so freaking much. It’s one of those books that needs to be a book, you know what I mean? I’m a bit critical of books but this one I love having. It’s beautiful and amazing.
[01:09:07] Jorge Almazán: Thank you very much. I think, you know, because you’re having this business of creating content and writing. This is a very lonely job. Of course, we are in a team but at the end you spend lots of hours with, in this case, drawings. Also, because we spent so many hours drawing and alone in front of your computer, in front of a piece of paper and drawing and writing. Some days you end up saying, I’m wasting my time. I could go to one of these microbars now and have fun with my friends. So, it’s really important. I will from now on, tell more to the authors that I like and the books that I enjoyed. This positive feedback is really important and I really appreciate it because it gives us motivation to keep working and thinking of next projects also.
[01:10:11] Kalani Scarrott: Yeah, especially with the book you had so much time to release, so at least this podcast, I can turn around a couple of weeks and get feedback but a book, that’s a big undertaking.
[01:10:20] Jorge Almazán: I don’t know if you know the world of academia, but I think there is one problem now that academia is obsessed with journal papers. Like short, peer reviewed journal papers and the problem is that those papers are usually shorter than books and they don’t allow you to develop a whole argument or a core idea through several cases and so on. So I think it goes a little bit against some of the dominant mainstreams now in academia. But I think it’s very important that people recognize the value of books. Even in this period in which you can get to the Internet and get so much information. I still think books are important, not the physicality of them, although that is also, in my opinion, important. That’s why we spend time on making it beautiful but having a certain volume, 200 pages or 300 pages, in which you dedicate time to develop in a coherent way as much as you can and as beautiful as you can a certain idea, I think that’s something that shouldn’t be lost. I think it’s important for the advancement of ideas rather than short articles.
[01:11:45] Kalani Scarrott: Love it, couldn’t agree more. Jorge, thank you so much for coming on today. Where can people find you?
[01:11:53] Jorge Almazán: I am on almost all social media and I receive emails and I think it’s quite easy to find me on the internet and if someone is interested in anything, any project, I am more than happy to test these ideas, especially in other countries. It would be very interesting to see how much of these ideas work in other contexts, for example, would be very interesting. So I’m very interested in initiating conversations and projects all around the world. So most welcome. Anyone is most welcome to contact me.
[01:12:35] Kalani Scarrott: I’ll include links to all the places you are on the internet. But you said about reaching out to authors, it’s pretty easy to find authors these days, like I found you through your website.
[01:12:45] Jorge Almazán: Exactly. I was not such a big fan of social media, but being able to send a message to an author of a book that you like, I think it’s quite a big thing. I think it’s a huge improvement because it’s so easy and you can establish a conversation. In fact, I have been starting lots of conversations and I also think of friendships with people thanks to social media. So I think it’s very important what you are doing also like YouTube and podcasts.
[01:13:34] Kalani Scarrott: It’s so cool. I never get tired of it because you read an amazing book and then you reach out to the author and then you get a podcast out of it. It’s actually amazing. Jorge, thank you so much for being very generous with your time. I really appreciate it.
[01:13:48] Jorge Almazán: Thank you so much.