Souvenirs of Japan


From our hotel room

I had read statistics about Tokyo – for example that metropolitan Tokyo has more people than California or Canada.   That the City has a municipal budget equal to that of India.  That one train station serves 3.5 million people a day.

But I wasn’t prepared. All our time in Tokyo I felt like a country mouse. In a cab we’d drive through a Times Square, then another, then another. A half-dozen high-rise financial districts. Trying to grasp the layout I’d unfold a big map, to find out it covered just one neighborhood. Our sense of scale was so off that we’d find a destination that looked near and head out to walk before realizing we were miles away.


Often I didn’t know where we were, or going, or coming from (and hardly cared.)

It’s hard to imagine how such an enormous city can “work”, but it does, and without the ad hoc, patched together feel of New York. It is famously spotless, everyone is polite, the trains run on time, there is very little graffiti, no smashed car windows, nobody high or drunk, bicycles unlocked, no honking or raised voices.

On our return I was reminded what an advanced civilization Japan is, compared to our primitive one – litter thrown  everywhere, smashed car windows, people raving or lying on the sidewalks. Someone has even spray painted a graffiti tag on our street tree.

I was amazed that a big global capital city could have such a homogeneous population: just about everyone you see is Asian.  San Francisco, New York, Paris, London are all diverse, with Asians, black, brown, and white people. Not Tokyo. The only other city I’ve visited with such homogeneity was Buenos Aires, where every one is white pretty much.

Right off its broad freeway streets, Tokyo everywhere has more intimate, alleys and streets, perfect for getting lost.


And on those streets, more restaurants per capita than any other city. Many of these seat only a handful of patrons and the economics of such small places consistently puzzled us.

Because there is so much competition and because of the Japanese pride in work and attention to detail it would be hard find a bad meal. Ours ranged from good to beyond great. And not just the Japanese cuisine.  A Japanese friend told us how disappointed she was when she ate in French restaurants – in Paris.

I read that so many Japanese eat out because the price of restaurant meals isn’t much more than the cost of groceries. And we saw very few grocery stores.

kimono 711

The big shopping hot spot is 7-11, which is a Japanese corporation and sells everything.

Maybe it’s not all so sweet under the surface. There are special “women only”cars during rush hour for those who want to avoid groping.



If you are a Japanese college graduate and a man you are expected to become a salaryman and if you don’t it’s a shame on you-  and your parents. You get a job in the April after you graduate (that’s when corporations hire) and you stay at that job until you retire. You don’t leave, you don’t get laid off or fired. After work you are expected to dine and drink with your colleagues. Everyone dresses the same: dark suit, white shirt, dark tie.

It sounds miserable and many salarymen commit suicide. The popular spot is the Chuo subway line, paralyzing the commute.


Now there are barriers that only open when the train has arrived

For such a dense city, Tokyo has a surprising number of single-family homes in the center of town:



I liked the humble buildings.  Here, a park restroom:


I even like the ugly buildings:


You might not expect it, but Japanese buildings are not built to last.  They are replaced every 30 years or so.  As in Israel, buildings are either very, very old or young.

Nearly two million buildings occupy the central 23 wards of Tokyo.  About a quarter of these were built since 1990. According to Botond Bognar,quoted in Zen Places and Neon Places by Vinayak Bharne, “In 1997 the annual degree of change within Tokyo’s densely built urban zones was about 30% (encompassing facade improvements to entirely new structures).  The average life span of a building was around 26 years.  Virtually any new building had a zero value after three years, even if built of reinforced concrete, the true value of the property lying in the ground below”.

In Hiroshima I saw the most lamentable, misbegotten building I’ve ever seen.

Hiroshima has a Peace Park with memorials to the atom bomb and a peace center where the G7 foreign ministers convened a couple of days after we left.


There is the famous ruin of the bombed out building and when we got there an opera singer was singing to a group of school kids who later turned out to be a chorus. It was very moving.

The Peace Park’s memorials are lined up toward this shell, with an eternal flame and an arched monument leading up to it, all on an axis. And then this office building:


What a blemish.

One more shot, with the G7 ministersg7

In any town you can’t get far without coming across a shrine (those are Shinto) or a temple (which are Buddhist).

And not just in town. Check out this unmarked shrine we stumbled across on an equally unmarked trail near Hakone:

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Often there’s a garden that will change what you think a garden can do. To me, their beauty was a type of transcendental transportation.

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This one, in Kyoto, was designed in the 14th century.


This one is in the heart of Tokyo.

Nature is a big deal. Especially cherry blossoms and we were there for the week or so that they are in full bloom. Japanese love to photograph the blossoms and I loved to photograph the photographers:



And they like to picnic under them.

Shinto is the state religion; you’ve got to be Japanese to get in, there’s no founder and no big book, and the Emperor is a deity. Deities also manifest in rocks and trees and animals and holiness is everywhere and worthy of respect. So the whole Japanese attitude is one of respect. It really comes through. There is a lot of bowing.

Shintoism and Buddhism are ambient, not just in the gardens and temples.


Hotel night table


Japan opened my eyes to another way of living. I’m not an expert and maybe I saw what I wanted to see. But everyone recognizes the sense of mutual respect, attention to details, non-competitiveness, regard for the environment and for oneself and others.

Rather than just tourist sites, it was the culture that we came to see. The gardens, the blossoms, the trains, the enormity of Tokyo, the meals, and the landscape: all worth the trip.

But the air of civilization, that’s my favorite memory of Japan.

Four Poles in Five Blocks

On a short walk in my neighborhood this morning, I must have passed hundreds of poles: Light poles, utility poles, sign poles.

They do their jobs of holding up stuff but I noticed that they can do a lot more.

Here in just a few blocks, some upgrades:

knit pole

This Stop sign pole is across from a yarn store.

no more evictions2

Light pole as soap box.


This memorial pole shows up on my corner every year around this time.

It is for young Emily Dunn, hit by a bus at this intersection.

I’ve posted about it before: ad hoc monuments

pole dancers

These pole dancers are in a series of guerrilla pieces in the neighborhood. Bravo, somebody!


You can tell a lot about a city by its layout.  The arrangement of streets tells the history of a place.  If you look closely, you can see the story of slow growth from cramped forts to booming modern cities.  Or the evidence of evolution from farmland or prairie to grid.

There are the medieval European cities with their high walls and twisty narrow streets.  You can tell they grew organically, the buildings huddled together, defended by the ramparts.  They were designed by fear.


And not just in Europe: look at the Wall Street area in Manhattan:1847_Lower_Manhattan_mapWall Street’s wall was built in 1653, by African slaves, to keep out Indians.

As these towns grew, the modern parts became more open, optimistic.  B GRID

  It’s easy to pick out the romantic European patterns and the pragmatic American ones.urban-form_layout2-eSome people say that San Francisco is the most European of American cities.

It would be even more so if the post Earthquake plan by Daniel Burnham had been adopted: mission_burnham_close San Francisco’s layout ignores the hills and even water.1851MapThe heart of the Financial District was under San Francisco Bay.

The city exploded during the Gold Rush, and its exuberant disregard of obstacles is reflected in the streets.  And its culture to this day.

The patterns of our streets are our cities’ tree rings.  They are the fingerprints of the urban past.

And somewhere, on them: you.

Tell Me a Building

“The book will kill the building”.

That’s what a character says in Notre Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). It takes place in medieval France and he is talking about how printing will replace the storytelling role of the cathedral. Cathedrals were pretty much the architecture – and the literature – of the day. They taught the illiterate masses the dogma of the Church through form and iconography.


holy cow


The whole buildings were designed to tell a story.

Of course, the book didn’t kill the building.  Books and buildings actually get along pretty well. In my office, I have stacks of books about buildings:

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Books about individual buildings like the TWA Terminal or Pan Am building in New York, or the Chicago Tribune Tower, or groups of buildings like Rockefeller Center

I’ve got books on ruined buildings in Pompeii and Detroit, guidebooks to the architecture of Havana and Pyongyang, books about buildings by architect or by style.

secret lives

The thing is, by and large they aren’t really about buildings; they’re story books.

They tell about the people who had the ideas, took the risks, hit roadblocks and overcame them. Or about how a building was first used, then about what it became.

You can see every week in the real estate ads the stories brokers telll about buildings, how glamorous and carefree your life would be if only you lived here or there.

But the best stories about buildings are the ones we tell:

My parents were married in that hotel.

I had my first job in this building.

I met _____ in that building.

Zen and the Art of Billboards

Walking home from a class at the San Francisco Zen Center, I noticed this billboard.


And then this one:

breathe 2

They’re not like most billboards, whose job is to convince you of how much better your life would be if you drank this or went there or wore that.

My friend Felipe Dulzaides and I were able to put up a series of eight billboards, briefly, a few years ago, each with the intent to make the passerby pay attention to the location.

Each one featured some aspect of its site, suddenly huge: basketball backboards, parking lot stripes, surveillance camera, overhead wires.   They looked like these:




(These photos by Felipe Dulzaides)

In Zen practice there is something called a Koan, which is a question that you can’t answer using your everyday mind.   You ponder until something clicks.

This billboard, until recently at the corner of 17th and Mission Streets, is a good example:

17reasons w

Later it lost its “why” and became just “17 Reasons”.

Then it was taken down, as shown in this film: .

Now, the 17 Reasons and the Why have gone their separate ways. Maybe some day they will be reunited.

Here, perhaps the most Zen billboard of all:


The Client

Here is a salute to clients.   The ones who care about how a building works and what it looks like.

Image Clients like Eusebi Guell (1846 – 1918), who hired Antoni Gaudi to design his house:

ImageGuell owned a ceramic tile company, hence the skin.

 Or, closer to home, Phyllis Lambert (nee Bronfman), the daughter of the scion of the Seagram company who, at age 26, took charge of the design and construction of their landmark headquarters on Park Avenue.

ImageShe was living in Paris, studying sculpture, when she stepped in to hire Mies Van der Rohe and his sidekick Philip Johnson, to design the company’s new headquarters.   Then she moved back to NY and took a desk in their office.


 Her dad might have preferred something more baronial, old world and gentile.

Image Seagram Headquarters, Montreal

 From Paris she wrote:

 “You must put up a building that expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society.  You have a great responsibility and your building is not only for the people of your companies, it is much for all people in New York and the rest of the world.”

ten-buildings-changed-america-7With its popular plaza, exquisite detailing, and public art, the Seagram Building is a landmark of modern architecture and urbanism.

Five years later came the Pan Am building, the largest commercial structure to date:

ImageThe client wasn’t Pan Am; they came in after construction had begun.  The clients were Grand Central Railroad (and its shareholders), the Diesel Construction Company, and twelve banks (six American and six British).  The design was by Emery Roth and Sons, with respectability provided by the more prestigious Walter Gropius and Pietro Bellushi.  Everybody hated the building, then and now.

Guell and Lambert were wealthy individuals, like Frank Woolworth, who famously paid out of pocket for the 1913 Woolworth building. They didn’t cut corners on costs: the Seagram building’s skin is bronze and it was at the time the most expensive skyscraper ever built.  Their buildings represented them to the world.

There is no more Seagram company, no more Woolworth’s and certainly no more Guell. But there are still clients.  Like Steve Jobs, who famously obsessed on the design details of Apple devices, Apple stores, Apple headquarters, and Pixar studios.

Most clients default to a handful of safe architects, the ones who can work with the neighbors and the planners and the investors and lenders and the clients to bring in safe buildings.

But I have seen mediocre architects do good buildings for good clients – and good architects do crappy buildings for bad clients. But it is the architect who gets the credit or the blame.

 So a toast to the client – the bold ones, the brave ones, but most of all the caring ones.

The Right Address

I had a billionaire client.
100% 1%.
And he made sure I knew about his jet and his household staff and his wife’s jewels.

One day I was waiting in his office to have lunch with him. An older Chinese guy came through, with a white guy following him taking notes. I overheard, “put statues of tigers facing the elevators. A bowl of water here. Move these chairs from the window.”
Feng Shui.

My first thought: this is medieval.
My second thought: But he’s the billionaire, not me.
Now I’ve got one of those hexagonal mirrors in my office window, but I can’t say I notice any difference in my luck.


That guy moved his office to 88 Kearny, to reap some of the luck from the number 8.

In Chinese superstition, that’s the number to hang your hat on.


From this morning’s paper.

The thing is, the Chinese word for 8 sounds a lot like發: “wealth”.

The Beijing Olympics started on 8/8/08.  At 8 minutes and 8 seconds after 8 PM.

New developments here in San Francisco seek 8s in their addresses:

8 Washington Street (which actually seems kind of cursed; opponents have put it on the November ballot),


8 Octavia, under construction.

and the grand slam of 888 Brannan Street.

I worked on the conversion of that building from warehouse to offices. My first client lost the building to the lender (not so lucky) and then I was hired by the new owner, who had better luck. It’s the new headquarters of Airbnb.

Not so lucky: the number 4, which sounds an awful lot like 死, “death”.

444 Market Street even changed its name, to 1 Front Street.

I attended the groundbreaking for a high rise that included a ritual involving tossing dyed rice in the air. Not so lucky for me, I got red spots on my jacket. The building was never built and the developer went bankrupt.

Maybe you’re more modern and not easily spooked. This stuff seems silly and not very modern.

ShanghaiMissingFloorsLike in this Shanghai elevator, skipping both the 13th and 4th floors

But honestly, wouldn’t this address make you uneasy?

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