Kyoto Tower: Traditionalism over Modernism

The serenity of Kyoto’s traditional scenery has been formed as a result of its rich natural environment and urban space, established by 1000 years of historical and cultural background as an imperial capital. The presence of historical monuments, cultural events and arts creates a unique urban landscape that cannot be discovered in other places. Thus, the Kyoto Tower, a contemporary addition to the ancient city back in the 1960s, received wide range of oppositions by various parties. The outcry further ignited debates on how Kyoto should deal with the influx of modernisation in its traditional grounds till nowadays. It is apparent that such dispute has stirred up debates on a more intellectual level, situating the clash between traditionalism and modernism into spotlight. Stakeholders that bear negative views on the issue are mainly scholars and citizens. They generally opted for preservation of the traditional cityscape. In this blogpost, I would like to focus on the protagonists’ view on opposing the construction of Kyoto Tower, thus discussing the cultural identity of Kyoto.

After the construction plan of Kyoto Tower was announced, it immediately triggered vigorous public protests from different disciplines. French Scholar, Jean Pierre Gaston posted written protests to Japanese Newspaper, as an attempt to halt the construction. Other concern groups such as The Group of Loving Kyoto, The Group of Wives to Protect Kyoto and The Council of The Young to Protest Construction of Kyoto Tower were established followingly, revealing the strong disapproval of the new addition to the city. They believed that the aesthetics of Kyoto was framed by its low skyline of traditional homes. Yet, Kyoto Tower, breaking the 31 meters maximum height of their Building Standard Act back then, was seen to be greatly obstructive to the entire scenery. A Japanologist Alex Kerr once criticised Kyoto Tower as a ‘symbolic stake through the heart’. This revealed the importance of the cityscape to the citizens’ cultural identity, the image of the city is deeply embedded to its skyline.

Referring to a photo test survey concerning the aesthetics of architecture in Kyoto, it reveals that Kyotoites has their affiliation towards tradition architecture,such as Kyo-Machiyas and shrines, and are less welcoming towards Western contemporary structures, such as Kyoto Tower. Christoph Brumann, the conductor of this survey, concluded that the citizens perceptions of ‘what is beautiful in Kyoto architecture and what is not do not diverge at all; in fact,… there is a wide agreement that the city’s historical and Japanese-style building are its best.’ Furthermore, the tower is like an “object building”, emphasizing its importance but ignoring its surrounding context, i.e. the ancient Kyoto fabric.

As the project was forcefully pushed through, the construction of the Kyoto Tower opened up a series of destruction of most of the old Town. The municipal government seized the opportunity to quicken the pace of destruction since then, more than 40000 Kyo-Machiyas ( old wooden traditional homes) were torn down, according to the International Society to Save Kyoto.

All these accounted for the proposition of oppressive movement towards the construction of Kyoto Tower. Backers of traditionalism are not minority but the general public and intellectuals. Although the tower has been built at last, but the tension between traditionalism and modernism still persists in the context of Kyoto, triggering a series of amendments in their landscape policies.

Alex Kerr, Lost Japan. (New York: Lonely Planet Publications, 1996), 179-180
Christoph Brumann,Tradition, Democracy and the Townscape of Kyoto: Claiming a Right to the Past ( New York: Routledge, 2012), 215-217
Pradyumna P. Karan, Japan in the 21st Century: Environment, Economy, and Society. (Kentucky, The University Press of Kentucky, 2005) 147-148

4 Comments on “Kyoto Tower: Traditionalism over Modernism

  1. Your clear narrative reminds me of my experience in Kyoto -the grid system with low rise houses, numerous temples scattered in the city, and unblocked view towards mountains at the far end. So it is understandable for me to see how strongly Kyoto people were against the modernism tower. I am curious was there any change in the design of Kyoto Tower responding to the protest? Did the architect try to embed some traditional ideas into the design after the public were aginst it? Anyway, it is interesting to think about how to transfer the traditional ideas in the modern context. Maybe architect like Shigeru Ban is the answer for traditionalism in Japan.

    • The narrative on the other also questions the role of modernity plays into historical villages. The modernization around Kyoto Tower/Station are in fact symbols of the historical city catching up with the pace of rapid developments around Japan. The station and the tower acts as an entrance to the traditional city; if concern groups successfully halted the construction Kyoto tower, would Kyoto still be as vivid as we see today? In response to Charlotte’s comment I think that the white colour design in itself is a consideration from the architect; being subtle during the day and highlighting at night, is perhaps an attempt in response to the change in lifestyles in a modernization framework.

      • Among all the cities i have been to, i found Kyoto having the most harmonic city-scape between modernist and traditional architecture. Perhaps the fact that some portion of modern movement was inspired by Japanese-styled houses. The clean and neat urban organisation echos to the simple and minimal building forms of the traditional wooden houses of Kyoto. Kyoto Tower, however, in my opinion, lost the simple cubic forms of both and became something alien to the city. It gave me an impression of “massive, high-profile, try too hard to blend in with colour, but fialed.”

        • Of course nowadays we see Kyoto as a vibrant and harmonious city and it contains a right balance between tradition and modernized, but it is only from our own perspective as a person born in a modernized generation. If we rewind the time back when the Kyoto Tower was hot topic on the street, it is absolutely normal for people who did not understand western architecture and not to mention modern architecture. It is common in any era that people at first would not accept unfamiliar thing that may have chance to ”pollute” their own culture like when the Louvre was built. However, I think it is very important for people to see how it came out would benefit themselves when it came to a concrete shape or after it was built. For the Kyoto Tower, there seems to have little direct benefits or interest related to the local residents or any other stakeholders nearby. So it is not the problem of whether there was any traditional element embed into the design or how ‘WE’ see it nowadays, the focus of the arguments back then should consider the positive/ negative effect of the tower because even it was built like an alien, as long as it brings real and direct interest to the people, they would eventually accept.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.