The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

A brief history of big plans for Tokyo Bay

In the post-war years, the Metabolists made big plans for Tokyo Bay to relieve the pressure on the Japanese capital. Now there's another plan, called Next Tokyo 2045. Herbert Wright explains that these have not been the only visionary proposals. In reality, the city has been gradually encroaching on the Bay for centuries, and the big plans that materialise are mainly infrastructure.

Herbert Wright

Herbert Wright

Cities: Tokyo

Topics: Integrated planning, Land, Housing, Transport, New cities and special projects, Sustainability, Climate change, Architecture and urban design

When big cites have big challenges, there's nothing like a big plan. Tokyo is hyper-dense, hyper-productive, hyper-connected. But its 13.3 million population, increased in daytime by 2.4 million, is pressured and faces environmental threats, including rising sea levels. The latest visionary solution for the city, Next Tokyo 2045 from Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), involves housing 500,000 residents around a skyscraper 1,600m high, in the one place where there's room for it – in Tokyo Bay. The proposal's vision and scale alone make it one of the biggest urban planning proposals of out time. But is Next Tokyo anything new, and in any case, is a big plan always the best forward?

It's not the first time that solutions for Tokyo have reached across the water. When US Commodore Perry demanded that isolationist Japan open to the world in the 1850s, Egawa Hidetatsu built new islands or 'batteries' in the Bay to defend the Japanese capital, then called Edo, from foreign ships. As recently as 2010, Japanese construction companies announced bizarre megastructures with extreme engineering to site on the Bay. But it was the avant-garde Metabolists and their extraordinary urbanisms on water that have been most significant.


Before looking at the plans, it's worth remembering that most cities have grown organically, without a big plan. After World War Two, Tokyo did so in a hurry. Half the city was destroyed and the population was 3.5 million. As Japan's 'economic miracle' accelerated, Tokyo's population exploded, reaching 8.5 million by 1958. People were flooding back into the shattered city, but all the city authorities could guarantee was to provide infrastructure. Most residential and commercial building was ad-hoc, creating high-density neighbourhoods that expanded, coalesced and spread. Tokyo set the pattern for the rise of many subsequent megacities, not least Shenzhen after Deng's economic reforms of 1980.

Tokyo's rebuild was very different from the start-again big city planning that was materialising following Le Corbusier's utopian proposals for the Ville Contemporaine (1922) and Ville Radieuse (1930). They envisioned standardised, massive linear or tower housing blocks standing on piloti (columns) in green open space, integrated into a masterplan that segregated use (commercial, industrial etc) by zoning, and transport dominated by grids of wide highways. In the 1950s and 60s, these ideas materialised worldwide, in massive social housing projects and urban expressway schemes. The sculptural possibilities of concrete, a medium that could be shaped into almost anything from a modular element to a monumental form, were central to Big Plan urbanism. Japan was not immune to the idea of the big urban plan, nor the appropriation of the modular, modernist architecture that Corbusier also promoted.

In Japan, land is scarce, and it was natural that big plans would turn to the water. To address Tokyo's rapid population expansion, in 1958, Kuro Kano of the Japan Housing Corporation proposed massive Dutch-style polders over half the Bay. Later that year, young architect Masato Otaka's Neo Tokyo Plan – City on the Sea rejected polders and proposed concrete platforms curving around the Bay for zoned development linked by a network of highways. In the Corbusian-inspired residential zones, buildings would be supported on piles, as in Venice, and in some drafts of the plan, an airport was placed in the Bay's centre. Meanwhile, Kiyonori Kikutake proposed an even more radical idea. Marine City would be built on circular pads floating out at sea on vast buoyancy tanks. He would elaborate on the concept for years.

The Metabolists

All of these plans predated the manifesto, Metabolism: Proposals for New Urbanism, published in 1960. The ethos of Metabolism recognised a continual process of renewal and growth in design and technology, and the built-in extendability of their designs transcended the implied perfect finality of Corbusian visions. Otaka and Kikutake were original Metabolists, but their leader was Kenzo Tange. Inspired by Paris' new plan for La Defense, his Tokyo Plan was axial. It envisioned a spine of zoned islands between 31 kilometres of parallel road and rail lines spanning the Bay from central Tokyo to Sodegaura in Chiba Prefecture. Perpendicularly on either side, extendable monorail and road branches above the water would link large structures high on great columns, with roof profiles echoing Japanese temples, into which residents could self-build. There was insufficient time for Kenzo Tange to present his Tokyo Plan to the Tokyo World Conference of Design, the stage where the Metabolists announced themselves, but he did in a 45-minute show on NHK TV in 1961, addressing the public directly and reaching beyond architectural circles. The plan remains one of the greatest, most radical unbuilt urban plans ever.

In 1961, another Metabolist Kisho Kurokawa (who later designed the Nagakin Capsule Tower), proposed two urban structures – Helix City, based on towers shaped like DNA. They may have been sited anywhere, but his models show them rising from water. His Floating City was similar, but helical frames for housing did not reach upward, but down from interconnecting transport sections extending above a lake north of Tokyo. Arata Isozaki's Clusters in the Air, also conceived at this time, was not for the water, but rather proposed 250m-high core columns from which branches would extend on which to place pre-assembled living pods. This was similar to how Kikutake remodelled Marine City in 1963, with 270m-high cylindrical tower cores into which residential units would be slotted. Isozaki even referenced Bertrand Goldberg's similar-looking Marina City towers in Chicago, then under construction.

Metabolism caught the imagination of popular culture and chimed with the rise of a global faith in science and technology driving progress. A new Space Age had dawned, and science fiction, revitalised and on television, was presenting new worlds. In architecture, 'modernism' was beginning to move beyond Corbusier's pre-war ultra-rational uniformity and the constraints of the rectilinear box. At the same time that the Metabolists emerged, Archigram in the UK were imagining technological urban structures that moved and changed, almost like Transformers, while in the US, Buckminster Fuller proposed one of his geodesic domes kilometres wide over Manhattan.

Changing Visions

But the 1960s were the high-water mark for grand visionary technological urbanism. Futuristic urban plans for Tokyo Bay would subside while industrial and port development continued to incrementally reclaim land from right around Tokyo Bay. Pollution, declining fishing and loss of farmland were the results. In 1967, Tokyo's Shingawa Container Terminal opened, the first of several large container facilities. After 1968, over 2,000 hectares of the Bay were reclaimed, including the Central Breakwater islands, built between 1974 and 1998. By then, an environmental agenda was emerging, leading a trend to restore tidal flatlands and create nature reserves. The breakwater islands lie near to Tokyo's Haneda Airport, which, following a 1983 plan, was expanded with new runways and terminals opening between 1988 and 2000 on landfill on Tokyo Bay's western side.

In the 90s, Tokyo planned a new quarter for 100,000 residents called Teleport Town on the island of Odaiba, based on Hidetatsu's reclaimed batteries from 1853. The plan was cancelled, although the Rainbow Bridge connecting it to Central Tokyo over Bay water opened in 1993. Instead, as elsewhere, development followed bit by bit, rather than in a unified visionary plan. Odaiba's development has littered the island with icons. In 1995, the Tokyo International Exhibition Centre opened there, followed by Kenzo Tange's orthogonal grid frame-based Fuji TV building in 1997, a Ferris Wheel in 1999, and the Miraikan (Future Museum) in 2001.

Huge construction consortia have come to dominate Japanese development, increasingly usurping government in taking the lead on planning. They became the patrons for a new wave of spectacular Tokyo Bay plans. First, Obayashi Corporation commissioned Foster + Partners. They proposed a 170 storey, 840m-high conical vertical city within a spiralling frame for the Bay in 1989. 400m taller than the tallest building then, the Millennium Tower would house 60,000 residents and generate its own energy. Its 160-capacity elevators would operate like a 'vertical metro'. The tower pushed the possibilities of engineering, but more sensationalist plans would take engineering to fantasy levels.

In 1995, Tasei Corporation's X-Seed 4000 vision to house one million residents also had a cone frame, but four kilometres high – higher than Mount Fuji. Its location was vague. But specifically sited in Tokyo Bay, Shimizu Corporation's TRY2004 Megacity Pyramid was unveiled in 2010, conceived by architect Dante Bini.  It would house 750,000 residents in a pyramid rising two kilometres, skyscrapers within it suspended from a megaframe in which personal transportation pods would shuttle between spherical nodes. It has been compared to the Tyrrel Corporation's base in the film Blade Runner. Like Kenzo Tange's Tokyo Plan, the Megacity Pyramid was presented on television, in an Extreme Engineering documentary on the Discovery Channel.

Schemes like these are easy to dismiss, yet they clearly share much with the Metabolist visions – urban structures based on technology, addressing a need for habitable space, and not least, maintaining modernism's futuristic vision that dates back to 1914 and the Italian Futurists such as Sant'Elia. X-Seed 4000 and the Megacity Pyramid where ultimately about earning their construction companies sponsors publicity, but couldn't the same be said for Foster's more credible Millennium Tower?

Next Tokyo 2045

You may well ask, is the Next Tokyo 2045 plan any more realistic? Next Tokyo is ambitious, but builds on credible technology and the experience of a global architectural practice. It was commissioned by Japanese broadcaster NHK, who had broadcast Tange's Tokyo Plan in 1961. KPF says their Next Tokyo 2045 is 'in the spirit of Metabolist urban planning'.

Like Tange's Tokyo Plan, Next Tokyo spans the bay, but at its narrowest point, the 14km between Kanagawa (in the continuous conurbation between Tokyo and Yokohama) and Kisarazu in Chiba Prefecture. In 1997, the Aqua Line tunnel and bridge opened between them, and Next Tokyo would run parallel. Hexagonal islands would cluster, the smallest 150m across, some with mixed-use towers, larger ones holding reservoirs with beaches and low-rise housing, and the largest, 1.5km across, generating energy from algae. Breakwaters and floodgates would protect Tokyo from the ever-more erratic sea. At its centre is the Sky Mile Tower, 420 stories tall and housing 53,000 of Next Tokyo's potential half million inhabitants. It too is hexagonal in plan, the open structure tapering in sections of three 'legs' staggered at vast sky lobbies. Lifts would completely loop around in each section. Urban farming, cloud harvesting for water and heat and waste re-use promise sustainability. The whole archipelago connects with regional rail, and KPF imagine new tunnels carrying Elon Musk's Hyperloop transport system to the shores.

Frank Lloyd Wright first proposed a Mile High Tower (the Illinois) for Chicago in 1956, but only recently has it become feasible. The Adrian Smith-designed Kingdom Tower currently under construction in Riyadh will reach at least a kilometre into the sky. Structural engineer Leslie E Robertson worked with KPF on Next Tokyo, and his high-rise portfolio is impressive, from Minoru Yamasaki's tragically destroyed World Trade Center towers to OMA's CCTV HQ, Beijing. So, Next Tokyo's tower is technically possible. But there has been a shift in the perception of great towers, part of a wider disenchantment with 'starchitecture' and visionary schemes. Towers are symbols of corporate or state status, their height proportional to the power their patrons wish to project, and the architecture of spectacle is very different to the emerging agendas of the architecture of necessity, and a more community-based approach. The Venice Architecture Biennale 2016, curated by Chilean architect Alexandro Aravena, underlined that shift.

In any case, the Next Tokyo tower's closest parallel in terms of sustainability and community is Sky City in Changsha, China – it is half the height but designed to house 30,000 residents and full of features like schools and urban farms. Zhang Hue's BROAD Group broke ground for it in 2013, but authorities stopped it and its social vision was questioned.

The Scenario Demands It

KPF say its Sky Mile Tower, at the centre of their Next Tokyo Plan, 'responds to contemporary desires to realise a mile-high tower', but that moment may have passed. Next Tokyo designer David Mallott, Principal at KPF and chair of the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, admits that 'there's only a point if the scenario demands it'.

Mallott brings up Tokyo's long commute times as an incentive for Next Tokyo, although the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications found average commute was 66 minutes in 2011 – nothing on Mexico, Saõ Paulo, or Lagos, where it's four hours. And unlike developing world megacities in Africa or South Asia, Tokyo is in a country where population is declining. The city's population has almost flatlined at 13 million since 2010. Mallott reports that NHK predict it will decline after 2030.

But Mallott is right about the environmental issues. He agrees that Next Tokyo shares with Venice's MOSE project the function of defence from rising sea levels. They are 'a bit further out there, but extreme weather is already happening', he says. 'We see it in New Orleans, for example. Most resources are being spent on fringe parks or breakwaters (which) need long-term maintenance, which is paid for by taxes'. And Next Tokyo's holistic sustainability is powerful. Some renderings show green rectangles in the large hexagons – they are rice fields, he explains. 'We envision an ecology. Over time the water would desalinate'.

Integrated Visions, Step by Step

What Next Tokyo shares with the Metabolists is not the need to spread Tokyo's population, but a radical futuristic integrated big vision. It also inherits Foster's sustainable agenda. But will it be built? 'Yes', insists Mallott. 'It will happen step by step'.

And step by step is exactly how Tokyo Bay has developed for centuries, sometimes pushed forward by a big plan, but more often not. Not all Tokyo Bay plans have had the 'wow factor' of the Metabolists, Foster or Next Tokyo, but some have been huge nevertheless, such as the containerisation of the Port of Tokyo.

In the meanwhile, Tokyo has big plans for the 2020 Olympics. The Olympic Village with 11,000 apartments is currently being built on Harumi Island, which was reclaimed from the Bay around 1890. Real estate development will surge. No city on Earth is as futuristic as Tokyo, but ultimately, it is commerce in the form of industry, transportation and real estate, rather than grand futuristic visions, that drive Tokyo Bay's development.

Herbert Wright is a London based writer, contributing editor to Blueprint magazine, and author of books including London High and Instant Cities.