As the recipient of the 2019 Structural Engineering Research Fellowship, awarded by the SOM Foundation, I was prompted to research and study how structures can positively respond to humanizing density in our cities. Within my initial proposal, I discussed how dignity is the key to humanity.
Dignity allows someone to feel proud and respected and vitalizes culture amongst a people. It can be represented in many ways and is an important factor in how people take ownership of themselves and the things around them. It can be constructed within the fabric of one’s clothing or within the walls of one’s home. In a city, it can be embodied by a building or a structure that people personally relate to and are proud to be affiliated with or simply are just happy to be around. Within the built environment, dignity can humanize the growing density within our cities.
I sought to realize how dignity could be materialized into the built environment. As part of my research, one aspect that I targeted to perceive how structures can positively respond to humanizing density within our cities, was to find moments of successful works of structural architecture in urbanized areas. In Japan, some of these works are well-known, iconic structures like Toyko Skytree, SunnyHills, and the International Forum. These constructions embody a concept of the built environment that designs the architecture and the structure to be one and the same. Personally, I believe that with structural architecture, not only are those who personally relate to it dignified, but those around and within sight of an iconic construction can experience it as well.
It is common within the built environment to compartmentalize the design of architecture and structure. But when integrated as a singular, holistic design, structural architecture has the capability to be more efficient in space planning and more sustainable than traditional designs. It could be the solution that alleviates a growing concern of overpopulation and return dignity to those residing in increasingly urban and dense areas.
Japanese Cities as a Case Study
Developed, industrialized, and capitalized. Japan is not only a leading first world country, but it is a country whose expansion is constrained by geographic barriers like mountains, rivers, and the ocean. As an island, albeit a very large island, Japan is limited in its outward expansion and greatly challenged in its vertical expansion. Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka are a few of Japan’s largest cities and in total, shelter over fifteen million people. In these densely populated cities, some of the congestion is being alleviated through upward construction. As space is a common problem, methods to open up and open out the infrastructure is crucial to maintaining the civility of the people.
Furthermore, Japan’s lands are commonly affected by natural disasters concerning volcanoes, typhoons, floods, tsunamis, and of course, earthquakes. What remains after one of these natural disasters and the constant reconstruction of the country is a testament to the strength and resilience of Japan. With the country’s unique circumstances and restraints, innovation has become a necessity in their construction and reconstruction practices. While researching how space planning functions in urbanization and humanizing the density of the cities, I also studied how Japan’s innovation in construction can invigorate hope and reinvigorate the country’s dignity.
My research covers various parts of Japan’s infrastructure amongst several cities, which are representative of a global problem of overpopulated cities. While traveling throughout the country, I visited buildings like the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, the Yokohama Osanbashi Pier and the Hair Do Salon which challenged the architecture of their typical programs and redefined them to suit their urban environments. For example, the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower is a school whose campus is vertically oriented in a tower rather than spread out along acres of a campus. This allows the school to be situated in an urban environment with easy access to public transportation while maintaining a comparatively smaller building footprint.
Lastly, my research delves into how each structure or building is positioned to humanize the density of the cities in Japan, in hope, that the current and future development of cities around the world will have an exemplary solution to alleviate our growing population density.
Travels Throughout Japan
Prior to this fellowship, I had never traveled to Japan before. Thus, I initially relied heavily on information that I could uncover on my own, along with suggestions from people I was acquainted with and could connect with. I chose nine cities in Japan that I would research and study, which aligned with my timetable and budget.
My research looked at numerous cities in Japan, most of which were heavily populated, and it began in the heart of Tokyo. With over thirty-seven million people living within the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, the city ranks as the most populated city in Japan. It also maintains a relatively high-density factor at over seven thousand people per square mile and it is well known for numerous structures and buildings designed by renowned architects and engineers. (These values for the density factor cover the greater metropolitan area and can be calculated at greater densities dependent on the specific prefectures and wards that are being included or excluded as a part of the Tokyo area.) As a common destination for tourism, I believed that Tokyo would be suitable for the first city on my itinerary as it had a large number of English-speaking inhabitants as well as numerous tourist information centers. (Personally, I was nervous about the language barrier as I am not fluent in Japanese.) It was a city that was adjusted to visitors and would prove to be an example of how Tokyo accommodates and also welcomes the additional influx of people, specifically those not native to their country.
The second city on my itinerary was Chiba. With close to one million inhabitants, Chiba was far smaller in population than Tokyo but also covered a smaller area for their city limits. Thus, their population density factor is larger than that of greater Tokyo metropolitan area with over nine thousand people per square mile.