January 7th, 2006



Level 1: One day last week Hisae and I were in the subway at Namba, in Osaka, when we saw the entrance to department store Takashimaya, and next to it a poster for an exhibition in their 7th floor museum about Expo 70, the World's Fair held in Osaka in 1970 (and, incidentally, referred to in my song with Kreidler, "Mnemorex"). Most big department stores here seem to have museums attached, and the shows are often excellent. So we took the lift directly from the subway to the top floor of the building. The show was pretty good, a very exhaustive collection of ephemera, models, films and songs from the world's fair that, more than any other, changed Japan's self-image, giving it the confidence to see itself as not just a modern but a futuristic society. I particularly liked three things in the show: a photo of a "relaxation globe" in orange and green, a film of a robot bath (the girl demonstrating it had the most amazingly blank, orgasmic expression on her face as what was basically a pod-shaped human car-wash soaped, bathed and dried her) and a photo of an elevated expressway literally travelling across the roofs of a series of identical office buildings. I'm sure this expressway really exists in Osaka somewhere, one of Japan's many elevated urban motorways, but somehow this photo emphasised how radically strange it is to put roads on top of your buildings rather than at the base. It induced what we might call "level shock".

Level 2: When I first became aware of Google Earth I spent a while looking at a satellite photo of Tokyo, a city I lived in for over a year. It was surprisingly difficult to reconcile the image of the city from above with the Tokyo I knew from cycling and taking trains. I think there are several reasons for my "level shock"; Tokyo's completely haphazard, apparently random street structure, the fact that the streets I knew best were some of the narrowest, and the fact that many of my trips through the city took place in trains, often underground. But the main reason, I think, is that I lived in Meguro completely oblivious to the elevated highways that snaked through the area, defining it for satellites but not for me.

Level 3: Within a stone's throw of the house where I'm sitting right now, Hisae's family house in Osaka, runs a major expressway. Despite coming here now for three years, I've only just noticed this. I was aware that there was a pillared structure on the way to the post office, but it didn't really occur to me that it was a major expressway. Last night, as we walked down the pillared structure towards a public bath-house, I asked Hisae, who lived here for at least twenty years, what road it was. She didn't know, but thought it was part of the Hanshin Expressway, a system of roads linking Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. In fact, it's Route 25, which isn't part of the Hanshin system (although since October the freeway companies in Japan have been semi-privatised, and Hanshin is the name of the new body in charge of all Kansai Expressways). The main reason I hadn't even noticed the expressway is that it's incredibly well soundproofed, thanks to high cladding walls and low-noise pavement. Thirty meters up in the air, the traffic flicks by silently on stilts. It might as well be on another planet. Route 25 occupies the same space as the quiet little road beneath it, but somehow affects it almost as little as a tunnel would. At street level hardly a car goes by, the area feels quiet and neglected.

Level 4: I'm in a plane, flying from Haneda in Tokyo to KIX in Osaka, the airport built on an artificial island. It's dusk, and from the plane you see very clearly the characteristic layout of a Japanese city: broad arterial avenues brightly lit, the dormitory suburbs on either side almost completely dark. What you can't see from the plane is that pedestrians almost never have to negotiate these traffic conduits; either they're elevated expressways allowing life to go on underneath, or there are pedestrian bridges crossing them or subways under them, freeing people from the need to stand waiting for a pedestrian crossing light to change to green.

Level 5: Most Japanese expressways were constructed in the 1960s. The two events which focused expressway building were the 1964 Olympic Games (when Tokyo's Shuto expressway was built) and Expo 70 (which saw most of the Hanshin system in Kansai constructed). Japan was one of the first countries to use computerised traffic control systems. Seen from above, the control centre for the Hanshin expressway is laid out in the form of a mandala. "The Hanshin Expressway is, in a way, a Buddhist freeway," I wrote, half-jestingly, in 2004, "elevated (detached if not enlightened), soundproofed with big barriers, designed for minimal impact on the life around it."

Level 6: In "A Personal View of Japanese Culture" ("Nihon bunka shikan", 1942) Ango Sakaguchi writes "I wouldn’t mind if the temples of Kyoto and the Buddhist sculptures of Nara were destroyed just as long as the trains keep running."

Level 7: "That stretch of [Tokyo's Shuto Expressway]," wrote The Guardian's Jonathan Watts in June 2001, "completed in time for the 1964 Olympics, represents the same rush for growth that prompted Japan to put its electricity and telephone cables above ground, leaving the sky tangled with wires... The Shuto is a demon of a road. There are terrifying hairpin bends, sharp dips and sudden ascents that would not be out of place on a rollercoaster. On the Bayside route, just past Tokyo Disneyland, the road suddenly curves and rises to the height of an eight-storey building. The barriers are so low you feel you could plunge off at any second. Elsewhere, claustrophobia sets in as the road squeezes between residential tower blocks and high sound barriers curl up on either side. It would be better still, of course, to bury the whole thing, or at least certain stretches of it such as that above the Nihonbashi bridge, as Tokyo's governor and construction minister suggest. Given Japan's economic pinch, expensive tunnelling projects are not likely soon. But even a call to condemn the Shuto to the bowels of Tokyo indicates a long-overdue shift in the transport hierarchy. In that case, Ridley Scott's model for the future may yet become an image of the past."

Level 8: I've said before that I consider it barbaric that our cities force cars and pedestrians -- natural enemies -- to share the same space. I think the best solution is for private cars to be phased out, or failing that, put underground. I also like Ken Livingstone's congestion charging scheme in London. But the elevated expressway solution isn't a bad one either. If we must have roads, put them up on the roof! And soundproof and enclose them as much as possible. Sure, dangling up there in the sky will induce "level shock" in drivers, who'll feel they're stuck in some kind of rollercoaster tube. Sure, it would probably be against planning regulations in most Western cities. But what if, by protecting our cities from big roads, we're condemning them to death by big traffic?

Level 9: Am I glad that the dreaded Lomex, or Lower Manhattan Expressway (which had both elevated and underground sections, and was due to be built in 1978) was defeated, and the wrought-iron district of SoHo saved? Of course I am. Jane Jacobs is a much more sympathetic figure than Robert Moses, and I'm glad her citizens' activism won the day (well, actually it was declining economic activity in Lower Manhattan, and especially the docks, that changed the minds of the municipal authorities). Then again, SoHo now is just another retail area. What made SoHo special (its twenty-year period as an arts area) wouldn't have existed without the Lomex, or its ghostly shadow.

As NYC Roads says: "Since the late 1940's, the specter of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway discouraged landlords from either tearing down or improving buildings in a 30-square block south of Houston Street. Built as one of the first industrial districts in the United States, tenants left the aging cast-iron buildings for more spacious and easily accessible facilities in the suburbs. By the late 1950s, artists began moving into the unimproved lofts... The artists joined the fight to kill the proposed expressway, and in the process, created a sense of community where none had existed before. In 1968, painter and engineer Aaron Roseman proposed naming the community SoHo." So what we know today as SoHo was largely created by the ghostly Lomex expressway that, shockingly, nearly levelled it.

Level 10: Exactly the same thing has happened in Shimokitazawa, where a funky arts district has been able to develop because, for almost sixty years, the spectre of a major road development has kept the property developers away, allowing a low-rent bohemian quarter to develop. Route 54 (first proposed in 1947) has created Shimokitazawa as well as destroyed it. The road giveth, and the road taketh away.