Essay: One Up, One Down

Tim Hornyak explores Tokyo's scrap-and-build culture.

Issue 32

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Arts & Culture

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells an aging Kublai Khan about the many fantastic places he claims to have visited. One is the metropolis of Thekla, a massive collection of “cranes pulling up other cranes, scaffoldings that embrace other scaffoldings, beams that prop up other beams.” When asked why Thekla’s construction is taking so long, the inhabitants respond, “So that its destruction cannot begin.”

Polo might well have been describing the capital of Japan, which Calvino visited in 1976, instead of an imaginary city. Tokyo is a city of a thousand building sites, a vast patchwork of plots on which structures are built, used for a few decades, and then razed. It’s an endless cycle of construction and destruction fueled by social mores, regulations and ta...

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