Culture and History – influence on the built form and urban design

by Jason on April 28, 2012

It’s amazing the things that open up when you just ask. I am reminded of this last Friday, and it has always blown my mind the opportunities that reveal itself when you do.

After my interview with the City of Oakland for a Strategic Planning Internship (fingers crossed), I went to Japantown to do additional field research for my urban design in planning course. As I began exploring the area right outside my specific site, the Japantown Peace Plaza, I decided to go into the National Japanese American Historical Society building across from it, hoping to find some more information on the plaza and Japantown. After giving my pitch as a student studying urban planning and looking for more resources, the storefront manager offered to call one of their board members and connect me with him. Not realizing where it would lead to, I took the offer, thinking that I would probably be able to email with the board member and learn some tidbits on the area. Instead, the board member, who happened to live locally, walked over with plans and documents in hand and I conducted an impromptu interview right there. Prepared? Nope. Excited? Definitely. So I jumped right in.

Ken Kaji is a 78 year old resident of Japantown. After being in an internment camp, his family moved to Michigan when the war was over, which was were he was raised and received his education. Upon his graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania as an architect, planner, and urban designer (I know, what luck!) he told me some fascinating things about how culture, trauma, and history plays into the built form.

He talked about how Japantown has suffered through three specific sets of trauma – the internment, urban renewal, and present gentrification or “upgrading.” The uprooting of families that caused discourse in the community and its businesses during the internment, the move and destruction of homes during urban renewal and redevelopment, and the veil of upgrading that is causing development to bypass the citizen process have constantly disturbed the roots the community is trying to plant into Japantown. The Peace Plaza isn’t a static monument, but one experiencing constant threat and upheaval, where the community and culture is being threatened. It has made me more thankful to pick Japantown as more than just a popular public space, but one fought, won, and preserved as a constant testament to the community and advocates that wish to maintain the neighborhood’s unique identity.

I asked him about the design aesthetic of Asian design in Western society. I’m not sure if he was scolding me or just critiqing my question when I asked this, as this question implies that there is one aesthetic for Asian design – not accounting for the classical: taiko, classical music, traditional dance, bonsai, with the contemporary: anime, hip hop, spoken word, harajuku fashion. It is the categorization of layers of culture into one aesthetic that has brought a theme-park version of what Japanese culture and form is. Thinking about it now, this is no different than when I was in India and was asked if all Americans eat hamburgers, as that was all Americans portrayed in Indian films ate.

The second response to my question was that the approach to the built form is different from Western and Eastern cultures. According to Kaji, each has distinct sources and characteristics:

Western culture and its influence on design and the built environment-

  • Christianity
  • Renaissance
  • Greek and Roman influences

These factors have made the built process externally driven, a constant attempt to control or conquer nature. He compares the French gardens, which are extremely structured, to the English gardens, which grow uncontrolled. Western culture is in extremes, he says, and their built environment shows it.

Eastern culture and its influence on design and the built environment-

  • Buddhism
  • balance
  • zen

When comparing Japanese gardens, Kaji made a reference to bonsai, the traditional Japanese landscape practice where if the plant seems to be too controlled, the best practice is the unbind it and let it grow on it’s own. Man is in partnership with nature and responds with the built environment, part of the total fabric.

He sourced the climbing of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer, Tenzing Norgay. Upon reaching the apex of Mount Everest, Hillary staked the British flag at its peak. Norgay, however, knelt and prayed to the mountain.

As I observe the Japantown Peace Plaza, I see what he meant. The cherry blossom trees are in bloom, and completely accessible. The fountain that surrounds the pagoda is low and often used as a playground for children. The natural aspects of the plaza are interwoven with the built environment and part of the experience. Sometimes I feel that culture plays a secondary role in city planning and urban design, where mechanics, statistics, and design theories rule. Yet culture is the culmination of struggles: political, economic, social, and traditional; that have played an immense role in shaping the way a city and region looks.

I was blown away by this experience and interview. I really was just expecting to get some pamphlets.

On another note, you should always take the opportunity to ask. I was able to access the rooftop of the east wing of the Japan Center Mall and took this great shot of the plaza at twilight.

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