Today's date:
Winter 2008

At Shibuya Station

Winter 2004

Tokyo — Having just strolled down the incline from Fumihiko Maki's serene Hillside Terrace complex of apartments and shops, I had architecture on my mind. Looking for a place to sit and read the morning papers, I followed the aroma to a cafe near the bustling entrance of a substation on the Shibuya line. Whether it's the attention to detail, the high-tech machines or perhaps the quality of the beans and water, I've always found the best coffee outside of Italy in Japan.

Sipping the crema from my espresso doppio, I sat down on one of the bar chairs looking out over a plank-like counter onto the street and opened the Daily Yomiuri. There, as in most other major world newspapers that day, was a picture of Frank Gehry's shimmering Walt Disney Concert Hall that had just opened in Los Angeles. Its metallic waves seemed to nearly undulate off the page. By contrast, all the other buildings in the background of the photo stood inert, like skyscraping tombstones.

Frank Gehry had created a building-size sculpture, that, to him, accomplished the same effect as his beloved dancing Shiva: a sense of frozen motion, of art more moving than stagnant. And the world was now recognizing his genius.

It was upon this thought that a conversation I once had with Frank Gehry came back to me. He told me his mature buildings reflect motion, because that is what we see when we look out into the world—cars whooshing by, planes flying overhead. And he said Tokyo was his favorite city visually.

"On one street you will find a temple next to an eight-story building from the 1950s next to a 30-story building constructed in the 1970s," Gehry described Tokyo. "Then they plastered neon signs all over and stuck a roadway in the middle of it all going off into space. It is dynamic, like those Erector sets we used to play with as kids. Along the freeways and down at Tokyo Bay, they build these Godzilla-size convention centers...then they will build those wacko indoor ski resorts that look like the Eiffel Tower. It is weird, but beautiful."

Tokyo, Gehry mused, was "like a Salman Rushdie novel," full of layers and plural identities, or "like James Joyce whose novels are episodic and open-ended, going all over the place, in seven directions at once."

Recalling his words, I looked up. A crush of humanity was pressing by outside the window: salarymen in identical suits, funky teenage boys with spiky orange hair, girls in short skirts with woolly knee socks, all with DoCoMos stuck to their thumbs and earphones fused to their heads. A gaggle of uniformed, distraught-looking schoolchildren marched with their bookbags. There were also older women, sensibly or fashionably dressed, one even shuffling along in a kimono. Above, to the left, a train rattled across the overpass. Buses flashed by. Taxis with their white-gloved drivers whisked passengers the other way. A string of low buildings going up an alleyway across the road was lined with vending machines, hung with lanterns and covered with Asahi ads; a seven-story triangular building, only one room wide where it faced the intersection, fell under the shadow of an unremarkable high-rise. Everywhere, telephone wires slashed the urban sky.

Taking it all in, I thought just how well the Disney Hall, just like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and other Gehry buildings like the "Fred and Ginger" "dancing" tower in Prague, captures this sense of vitality and motion. At the same moment, another image popped into my mind: the stylized unruliness of that haircut, angling in all directions, which the characters sport in popular manga comic books. It also captures the metropolitan frenzy that is Tokyo. Like the Disney Hall, this hair style, too, is frozen motion. Necessarily, both follow the rules of structure, but at the same time allow the unruliness of artistic choice.

That the hippest comic book artists and the world's most renowned architect have arrived at the same conception must mean something. If art is time put into matter, then it must mean this expresses a certain sensibility of our time. Is it a time that has abandoned the idea of universal clock-like causality and accepts instead an unforetold plurality of possibilities?