Friday, 23 July 2010

The atelier and the park

Just some thoughts on Miyashita Park in Shibuya. For those who need a re-cap, Nike has bought the naming rights to the park, which will be renamed Miyashita Nike Park. Equipped with new sports facilities, the new park will charge an entrance fee from visitors and evict the homeless who live there. The firm hired for this outrageous reconstruction is the famous Atelier Bow-Wow (Atorie Wan).

There's a glaring irony here which I think deserves to be more widely known.

Atelier Bow Wow was founded in 1992 by the architects Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima. This is how they are introduced in the advertisement for their new book, Behaviorology, which was released earlier this year: "Achieving near cult status among architectural students around the world, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima of Atelier Bow-Wow have built a career confronting the challenges posed by dense urban environments. Their city houses—enclosed in vibrant, idiosyncratic forms—are distinguished by their capacity to accommodate the changing needs of the occupants" (Amazon). In various sites on the web (here for instance), they are also said to be inspired by Lefebvre and striving for a more "responsive urbanism through the adaptability and mutative qualities of architecture".

Their 1998 Made in Tokyo is a good illustration of their approach to architecture. It is a collection of anonymous Tokyo buildings which "give priority to efficiency and utility" but which are "quite strange when viewed closely". They are "sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes too serious". They are mostly the result of honest attempt to fulfil the needs of their users without being bothered by thoughts of beauty, cultural worth or history. Among them one finds narrow department stores meandering like snakes under a strech of railroad, apartments combined with horse stables, big shrine precincts on the rooftop of shopping areas, car schools on top of super markets, factories built on top of abandoned railways, and so on. Listed among their objects is also Miyashita Park, since it is built on top of a parking house.
They appear out of greedy utilitarianism; 'there's some space left over here, so let's use it for something else'; 'wouldn't it be useful to put this here, and put that over there'. So these samples mix together the building and the surrounding elements, and make up an unexpected significant whole. For example, they might merge together railway, roadway, retaining walls and other civil works to become something where the limit of the building is ill defined. Or they might mix functions which are just a bit unbelievable, simply because of similarity in length or expanse required for two particular functions, or because that thin crack of space seems wasted. As a result, people and vehicles, people and objects co-exist without hierarchy in the same space and form, and strange organisms of urbanism are packaged together. 
Usually, these strange buildings are regarded as lacking in artistic worth or even as grotesque failures. What attracts the authors to them is that they represent an architecture from below, an architecture which adapts itself to the needs of users. It creates what a "lively space" which willingly lets itself be infected with the accidents of the site instead of trying to control or neutralize them. In an interview, Tsukamoto talks of the need use the "fragmented energy" of the city for what he, following Lefebvre, calls a "meaningful production of urban space".

Another example of the firm's fondness for unplanned or unexpected uses of urban space is their 2002 book Pet Architecture. "Pet architecture is a term for the buildings that have been squeezed into left over urban spaces. Curious shapes and inventive solutions for drainage, windows and air conditioning abound. Most of all, it is the extraordinary miniature size of these shacks, store rooms, sushi bars and bike shops which makes this project so fresh" (from the Amazon ad). Some funny examples can be seen here. Common to them all is that they are the result, not of large scale planning, but of people making use of left-over space in a seemingly improvised or ad hoc fashion according to their needs.

To me this sounds very much like Aoki Jun, another Tokyo architect who advocates spaces without pre-given functions which users can change according to their needs and wishes. Last year I read his 2004 book Harappa to yûenchi. Here he distinguishes between two kinds of environment. On the one hand there are "wildernesses" (harappa, literally wild field), in which you don't know in advance what will happen and where it is up to users how they want to use it. An “amusement park” (yûenchi) by contrast is a space designed for a specific purpose in which proper use is already decided in advance. The task of the architect, he thinks, is to encourage the feeling of ”wilderness”.

What's interesting is how clearly Aoki links his distinction to the problem of human empowerment. When spaces are used in unplanned ways - for instance when a closed down school is used for an exhibition -then something resembling ”nature” occurs. He writes that it’s like when a seed is blown haphazardly by the wind on a field (Aoki 2004:10). Such "natural" environments are not designed to make us feel in any particular way. It is all up to us how we want to use it. They call forth the feeling that we can change our environment with our own power. What Aoki writes here resembles what I've been writing about ruins and wastelands and he seems to have made the same associations. "The wilderness is in other words a wasteland", he writes (ibid 11). He compares it to the empty lot of land in the anime Doraemon, where the children gather to play. In gathering there, the children have no pre-ordained purpose. They just gather there and then decide together what to do. ”The wilderness is not fun in itself. Almost daily, one has to invent new ways of playing” (ibid 12).

Here I think of the artists, activists and homeless who since March this year have been staging a sit-in in Miyashita Park to protest against and prevent its reconstruction. Under the name AIR (Artists In Residence) they use it for a variety of imaginative artistic activities. The park today is filled with funny dolls, placards, sculptures and objects made up of shoes, umbrellas, pieces of cloth, garbage and other things available. They cook food together and arrange rock concerts, film screenings, rave parties, outdoor karaoke, poetry readings, workshops and play soccer. There's a park library and a community garden where they plant herbs and vegetables.

What's happening in the park is that they're inventing new ways of playing, just as in a "wilderness". They're acting together to invent ways of having fun, doing the opposite of what you do in an "amusement park" where it’s already decided in advance how you are supposed to enjoy yourself. One of the artists, Ogawa Tetsuo, writes in an essay that he likes Miyashita Park “since it is more like a wasteland than a park”. It is because it's a wasteland that the homeless have been able to live there, and “culture and art are born out of wastelands” (Ogawa 2009). What's so good with a wasteland is precisely that they're unregulated and neglected by the authorities, thus creating a breathing space where users themselves can reshape space according to their needs, desires and whims.

Using Aoki's terminology, we can say that the planned Nike-fication of Miyashita Park is a clear example of a wilderness being turned into an amusement park. The construction will turn it into a space for consumers, part and parcel of the already thoroughly commercialized surroundings of Shibuya.

In view of this, it is ironic to read what Atelier Bow-Wow's Tsukamoto himself states in an interview ("Atelier Bow-Wow: Tokyo Anatomy", Archinect, 22 May 2007). Asked what he thinks makes a good public space, he answers:
The quality of public space is up to the peoples' participation. If all the participants are just a customer it is not a real public space. For example, in a shopping mall there are many people gathering and talking. It looks like public space, but they are just customers. They are all guests. They don't have any responsibilities to maintain the space. I think that just being in a gathering space is different from participating in the shared space with someone.
Sadly, the atelier appears to be turning a blind eye to its participation in the destruction of public space - whether out of cynicism, ignorance or lack of courage. This irony has not been lost on the artists defending the park, who in October last year issued an open letter to the atelier. Stating their agreement with the atelier's appreciation of grassroot users being able to participate in the production of urban space, they end the letter by asking it a series of questions, such as: What was its stance regarding the huts and tents built by the homeless in the park? Why did it accept the task of reconstructing the park? As far as I can tell, the atelier never replied.

Siegfried Kracauer once wrote that "the value of cities is determined according to the number of places in which improvisation is permitted". The Nike-fication of Miyashita Park will diminsh that number if it is carried out. There is indeed much one would like to ask the atelier. What's wrong with the "pet architecture" of the blue-sheet tents of the homeless? Why contribute to crushing the improvised and empowering use of urban space you claim to be championing? Don't you realize how silly your books will read if you go through with it?

The atelier now faces three options. To lose its reputation, to pull out of the project, or to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of a constructing an amusement park which is simulteneously a wilderness. Meanwhile, AIR is offering its own version of an architecture from below, of a "lively space" in which users decide on what to do in an improvised fashion, reclaiming and détourning urban space and using it in unplanned ways.


Aoki, Jun (2004) Harappa to yûenchi, Matsudo: Ôkokusha.

Ogawa, Tetsuo (2009) “Motto akichi o! Miyashita kôen ga naiki kôen ni” (More empty land! Miyashita Park will become Niki Park), Impaction 170 (August).

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Amino Yoshihiko (12): Capitalism and muen

The problem of how muen relates to capitalism in Amino's thinking is almost as controversial as how it relates to the emperor. To put it simply, muen is, on the one hand, linked to an ancient freedom which Amino associates with "primitive communism". This freedom is said to derive from a feeling of the sacred which creates a realm in which secular hierarchies and laws melt away and property relations no longer hold. This is the concept of muen used when Amino claims that the “primitive” (muen) yields to the “civilized” in the course of the late middle ages, the latter being represented by the establishment of a burgeoning monetary economy and the hegemony of the worldview of an “agricultural” settled population. But on the other hand, the realm of muen is also described as the birth-place of capitalism and the market. Amino even goes so far as to claim that goods can only turn into commodities by passing through a realm of muen where they are liberated from their ties to their producers and previous owners - a claim which suggests that the principle of muen cannot possibly have decayed or weakened in the late middle ages.

The problem is how these two aspects of muen hang together. How can muen be a stand-in for communism if  it is also conductive of capitalism? Was Amino's prime concern to explain the emergence of capitalism in medieval Japan or to excavate ancient layers of consciousness in order to find a radical idea of freedom that could serve as a counter-weight to or relativize the capitalist society of today?

The two ideas of muen

Amino's thinking wasn't static. Many claim that a shift occurred in the course of the 80s and 90s and that "muen as freedom" became downplayed in favor of "muen as capitalism" (e.g. Sakurai 2001:452ff). This may be so. However, as a look in almost any of his books befinning with the 1978 Muen Kugai Raku will show, he never really relinquished any of these ideas of muen. The concern with the capitalist market is evident already in Muen Kugai Raku and the idea of muen as a "no-property" is prominent even in the late books.

A good place to assess the extent of Amino's shift is Nihon chûsei toshi no sekai (2001) in which a series of texts dealing with muen from the late 70s to the mid-90s are collected. In one of the newer texts (”Chûsei toshi kenkyû no mondaiten to tenbô” from 1996) Amino looks back on the earlier texts, stating that he still maintains that places in nature such as mountains and riverbanks had a sacred quality in medieval times which made them function as asylums. However, he now believes that it is too simplistic to draw a direct line from that to ”freedom”, ”peace” and ”equality” as he did in Muen Kugai Raku (Amino 2001:411). The reason is the link to capitalism.

The realm of muen contributed to the emergence of capitalism in many ways. In a basic sense, it was only by passing through "the world of gods and buddhas" that things could be severed from their links to the concrete human beings who had produced, owned or used them, and become commodities. This was why the early markets tended to spring up in places like riverbanks, in front of temples or in marginal spaces on the outskirts of the settled communities. Only there could people engage each others as strangers, without consideration for each other's private circumstances. In addition, the goods offered up to the kami or emperor was an important source of trade and commerce. Thus the imperial, religious and later also private storehouses served as an early form of banks, offering to lend rice in return for rent (suiko). During the middle ages, the temples in particular played an important role in finance. Religious networks for collecting charity (kanjin) were an important source of trade networks, monks often played a central role in trade and money-lending, and ideologies legitimating commercialism were fashioned by the Ikkôshû and Nichiren. The system of making offerings of salt or fish to the kami, emperor or local leaders was also, as I've mentioned in earlier posts, the origin of the kugonin system.

What happens in the late middle ages - Amino talks about a crucial transition period in the 14th century - is that commercialism liberates itself from its religious underpinnings. The irony of history was that the monetary economy which had been born out of the realm of muen started to undermine the prestige of Gods and Buddhas. The increase in literacy contributed to this erosion of the prestige of religion. The resulting picture is somewhat reminiscent of Weber's thesis of the birth of capitalism from a protestant "ethic" from which it then becomes independent, forming an autonomous system without any need of religious anchorings. I am also reminded of Marcel Mauss' idea of the religious origin of economic value, described in The Gift.

Muen, then, was the birthplace of capitalism in Japan. The freedom of capitalism grew out of the freedom of the asylum. In his often stated approval of Nakazawa Shin'ichi's drastic remark that "muen, that's capitalism, isn't it" (e.g. Amino 2007:415), Amino even goes a step further, identifying muen with capitalism. Rather than seeing muen as itself capitalistic, however, it seems more useful to view it as a precondition for capitalism. That muen is hardly in itself capitalistic is clear from Amino's examples. Thus he usually describes it as a kind of commons, a sphere of life with no masters and no owners (mu-shu), free from the logic of property and secular hierarchy.

This can be seen even in very late texts, for instance when he - following Katsumata Shizuo - describes the logic behind the robber expression otosu, literally meaning "letting something fall or drop (to the ground)" but used by robbers in the sense of liberating objects from their owners. Things that were found lying on the ground were regarded as without owner, as gifts from the gods which were free to pick up for anyone who happened to find them. The expression otosu thus signified that the "dropped" goods had entered the commons, the world of muen where they no longer belonged to anybody. Similarly, the expression otoshiya was used for mountain huts in which such goods would be stored (Amino 2003:40ff). Many similar examples could be added to illustrate the idea of goods leaving the sphere of private possession and entering a world of free "communist" circulation. The one that comes first to mind to many is probably that of uchi-kowashi, an established form of protest by the common people whereby they would march to the house of, say a rice merchant hoarding rice to drive up prices, and destroy or distribute the goods in the store. A similar logic was at work in the eejanaika riots of the late bakumatsu era, when singing and chanting town people would dance into the houses of the wealthy and powerful, demanding food and drink, or clothes and other goods, only to consume it or give it away immediately, letting it circulate.

As for the future, Amino believes in continuing research in order to show how muen can also be a way of overcoming capitalism, ”to think further about the problem which I have indicated by such terms as muen, kugai, and raku, in order to reach a vantage point superceding capitalism” (Amino 2001:413).

Muen, then, is not identical to capitalism. It rather functions as a kind of "reset", cancelling out the existing secular ties of goods and thus freeing them up for new configurations in which they are inserted into new ties. Those ties can be those of the capitalist market but they can also be those of a variety of other logics, such as the redistributive logic of robbers or the popular justice of townspeople.

An aporia?

Still, the ambiguity in Amino's works as to whether muen is seen primarily as a sacred realm of freedom or as the seedbed of capitalism remains. This ambiguity entangles him in difficulties which almost seem aporetic (for criticism of Amino regarding this, see Oguma's interview in Amino 2002, esp. p.190). It also invites a variety of interpretations, depending on which conception of muen the interpreter favors. If one saves consistency by stressing the link to capitalism, then the role of freedom in Amino's thought is left unexplained. It is easy to find interpreters who downplay the aspect of muen as freedom, focusing instead almost entirely on the relation of muen to capitalism (e.g. Ozeki 2003). If on the other hand the question of freedom is focused, then the link to capitalism must be downplayed.

Muen as relation

One way to resolve the dilemma is to view muen as a relational concept. This is a perspective offered by the historian Sakurai Eiji. Although he himself is primarily interested in the link between muen and capitalism, his idea of muen is in my view supple enough to point towards a way of reconciling the two conceptions of muen. That he is far from ignoring the link between muen and "communism" is evident in the way he starts his commentary on one of Amino's book, namely by quoting a passage from Muen Kugai Raku in which Amino writes about the "ghostlike" shape of muen and mushoyû ("no-property") which follows private property like a shadow, ”constantly, quietly, or perhaps rising with a look of anger or resentment” (quoted in Sakurai 2001:449). Sakurai compares this to the ghost of communism in the Communist Manifesto. He then goes on to the problem that if muen is linked to capitalism it obviously makes no sense to assert, as Amino does, that muen is weakened or decays in the period from the late middle ages and onwards into the Edo period. Now my own solution to this dilemma, as mentioned, is to say that capitalism quickly developed into a system of its own no longer in need of sacred trappings. That way it obviously becomes possible to say that capitalism flourished in the Edo period while muen withered away. However, Sakurai shows that there is another solution. While Amino tends to think of muen as originating in an inherent sacred quality in certain places or people, he himself thinks of muen as a relational concept. In some cases muen arises because certain places are regarded as sacred, but that is by no means necessary. That refugees, for instance, can obtain asylum in a country is not because that country is ”sacred”. The country is not in itself a "place of no-relation" (muen no ba), but simply "unrelated" (muen) to the country of origin. In the same way, capitalism and market relations arise in places outside the village community, not necessarily because such places are considered sacred in themselves but because they are outside and thus "unrelated" to the community (ibid 455f).

In Sakurai's version, this relational concept of muen amounts to a desacralization. Sacrality is no longer central to the idea of muen, as it is in Amino, since muen simply means that things are unrelated. With this redefinition, Sakurai has changed it into a concept very much suited to describing capitalist societies. He thus drops the assertion, so often heard in Amino, that the principle of muen decayed in the late middle ages. Even in the Edo-period, with its flourishing capitalism, muen was alive and well.

Let me now state my own interpretation. It differs slightly from Sakurai since I am less interested in capitalism and more interested in how muen functioned as an idea of freedom. I reject those passages in which Amino directly identifies muen with capitalism. Capitalism may very well have developed out of muen, but that does not mean that it is identical to it or that such a development is necessary. The freedom of capital is at most a  "fallen" version of the freedom offered by muen. It is "fallen" since it introduces new secular ties, generating its own losers and dependencies. A genuine muen would have to function as a shelter for all losers. Even losers in market exchange would be able to escape there and find a haven where the stigma of their defeat is erased.The muen of temples and other religious organizations should similarly be viewed as "fallen" since they create new hierarchies.

Like Sakurai, however, I too favor a relational concept of muen. Muen to me is essentially a "resetting" in which the norms and rules that determine our conduct and our status in ordinary everyday life are cancelled. This conception of muen is narrower than Amino's. I see muen as immensely difficult to institutionalize without compromising it. Outside natural settings, it probably always has an emphemeral, liminal quality, since it essentially consist in the operation of resetting through which a thing or a person passes before it once again "falls" and becomes entangled in new ties. Thus the resetting of mind before engaging in a musical performance could be described as a state of muen. Similarly, a game of chess during which players forget about the surrounding society is muen in relation to that society. The separate worlds created by these activities presuppose that the participants pass through a state of muen, but since the activities themselves tend to generate new ties among musicians and players, even they will in the long run be unable to realize muen except in an imperfect or "fallen" state.

The fact that I view muen as a liminal, threshold state (somewhat like Turner's state of "liminality") means that connotations of the sacred continue to color my concept of muen. Here too I differ from Sakurai. This sensation of the sacred, however, is not necessarily linked to any religious institution and is not nececcsarily accompanied by any thought of sacrality. It's an "everyday" sacrality. I believe that Amino himself uses the word "sacred" in this sense when he talks about "rivers and mountains" or the world of nature as sacred or when he claims that the outcasts were regarded with respect and awe because of their closeness to the sacred.

The larger picture

Presumably, one reason that Amino never felt the relation between the aspects of muen as freedom and as capitalism were acutely problematic was his preoccupation with deconstructing the idea of Japan as a unitary "island-country" based on rice agriculture and liberating himself from the productionist bias of Marxist historiography. Muen as an ancient idea of freedom was one way to achieve those ends, but so was paying attention to capitalism and other "non-agriculturalist" ways of life.

There is something of a parallel here to Deleuze & Guattari, who similarly idolize the nomadic in their attempt to break with the sedentary, with the logic of the state. To them, just as to Amino, capitalism is ambivalent, impossible to categorize neatly. Their mode of thinking, just as in Amino's, is primarily dualistic – not to say manichean (or, as Yamaori Tetsuo says about Amino, "antithetical"). It is a thinking in which complexity is generated through the superimposition of a series of dualisms - nomadic/sedentary, striated/smooth, agricultural/non-agricultural, primitive/civilized, and so on - and a fruitful tension arises through the effort to relate them to each other.

The problems occur when phenomena can’t be captured dualistically. This is why the problem of capitalism is so significant to both Amino and Deleuze & Guattari. Is capitalism to be celebrated for its deterritorializing effects or resisted because of its reterritorializations? Has the nomadic been furthered by capitalism or not? Did muen retreat with the defeat of the "primitive" or is it part of the victorious capitalism?

Capitalism may well be a force that contributes to the weakening of the logic of sedentary or agricultural. But surely that doesn't mean that the nomadic impulse won't one day revolt against it, or that the idea of muen won't inspire a longing for a freedom beyond the freedom of capital.


Amino, Yoshihiko (1997) Nihon shakai no rekishi (The history of Japanese society), vol. 1, Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2001) Nihon chûsei toshi no sekai (The world of medieval Japanese cities), Tokyo: Chikuma shobô.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2002) “Jinruishiteki tenkanki ni okeru rekishigaku to Nihon” (History and Japan in a transformative period of humankind” (interview by Oguma Eiji), pp 143-232, in Amino & al ‘Nihon’ o megutte: Amino Yoshihiko taidan-shû (About ‘Japan’: Collection of conversations with Amino Yoshihiko), Tokyo: Kôdansha.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2003) 'Wasurareta Nihonjin' o yomu (Reading 'Forgotten Japanese'), Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2007) “Kyôkai ni ikiru hitobito – seibetsu kara senshi e” (People living in the margins: from sanctification to discrimination), pp 397-422, in Amino Yoshihiko chosakushî, Vol. 12: Muen Kugai Raku, Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Ozeki, Motoaki (2003) “Amino shigaku no mondai keiretsu” (The lineage of problems in Amino historiography), pp 29-57, in Kojita, Yasunao (ed) Amino shigaku no koekata – Atarashii rekishizô o motomete, Tokyo: Yumani shobô.

Sakurai, Eiji (2001) “Kaisetsu: ‘Muen’ron – ‘rô-marukishisuto’ no keikoku” (Commentary: About “muen” – the warning of an “old Marxist”), in Amino, Yoshihiko Nihon chûsei toshi no sekai (The world of medieval Japanese cities), Tokyo: Chikuma shobô.
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