Perhaps because we are upright, vertical animals, towers have always held a special fascination for us. The artist Taro Okamoto expressed this attraction in anthropomorphic terms when he designed the centerpiece of the 1970 Osaka Expo, the 70-meter-tall “Tower of the Sun” with its three faces, including a golden one at the top.
Inspired by the forthcoming opening of the 634-meter-tall Tokyo Sky Tree on May 22, an exhibition has been underway at the Tokyo-Edo Museum that looks at our love affair with elevated architecture. “The Tower: The Story of Cities and Towers” uses a wide selection of materials, from baroque etchings and ukiyo-e woodblock prints to posters, plans and photographs to show that the “higher is better” concept has long been with us. Meanwhile, in the museum’s permanent exhibition, the original face from Okamoto’s great art work, measuring 11 meters across, is on display.
The typical Japanese curatorial approach has a tendency, where it can, to combine the strong local appeal of homegrown elements with the glamour of foreign ones. This can be seen in any exhibition of French Impressionism, where you are always sure to find something about the influence of Japanese art. This exhibition exemplifies this approach, with famous Western examples — the mythic Tower of Babylon and the Eiffel Tower — adding an extra dimension to a show that essentially records the history of “the tower” in Japan.
The exhibition sets the scene with a few black and white prints of the famous Tower of Babel mentioned in the Bible (Genesis, Chapter 11), which has been connected by historians with a 6th-century B.C. ziggurat dedicated to the Babylonian god Marduk, recorded as being 91 meters tall. Perhaps the most striking images here are by John Martin (1789-1854), an English artist, nicknamed “Mad” Martin, who was obsessed with the epic and sublime. His mezzotint etching “The Fall of Babylon” (1831-35) sounds an appropriate note of hubris, the idea that when humans overreach themselves they prepare their own catastrophe.
The exhibition gets into its stride with the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Tokyo’s skyline began to creep upward. One of the most interesting structures was a mini Mount Fuji, 32 meters in height, built in Asakusa Park in 1887. This quickly became a city landmark, as several ukiyo-e prints testify, including one by Utagawa Kunisada III showing it swarming with visitors. But while Tokyo was contenting itself with a comparative molehill, over in Europe the Parisian public was marveling at the Eiffel Tower, which opened two years later and was 10 times as tall as the fake Fuji.
This steel-frame structure was a defining moment in the “verticalization” of architecture, pointing the way to the skyscrapers of the future. The exhibition contains a wide variety of depictions, including a board game, but the most compelling image is a gravure print “The Eiffel Tour compared to the highest monuments in the world” (1889), which shows the Great Pyramid of Cheops, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Statue of Liberty huddled around its lower levels.
The Eiffel Tower part of the exhibition might seem a little disconnected from a show that mainly features Japanese material were it not for the ukiyo-e prints of Henri Riviere. In his “Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower” (1902), the French artist echoed Katsushika Hokusai’s famous Mount Fuji work, but replaced the mountain with the tower to mark his scenes as indisputably Parisian.
Riviere’s work reveals the extent to which a tower can become both a focus and a source of identity. The same process is seen on a smaller scale with Tokyo’s Ryounkaku, a 12-story, eight-sided tower, which reached 69 meters and was designed by the Scottish sanitary engineer William Kinnimond Burton. Until it was destroyed by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, Ryounkaku was Tokyo’s most famous landmark and served as a visual icon symbolic of Tokyo in paintings and prints.
A particularly stunning color lithograph by an unknown artist shows the chaos that accompanied its destruction, with the ruins of the tower rising above the flames as people panic and an escaped elephant runs wild. The epic level of chaos echoes Martin’s “The Fall of Babylon.”
Another tower that came to an unfortunate end was the Tsutenkaku, a 64-meter tall structure that opened in Osaka in 1912. This was damaged by fire in 1943 and then demolished for scrap metal.
The destruction of these two towers prepares the way for the postwar rebuilding that came to be symbolized by the 333-meter Tokyo Tower built in 1958. This is the less interesting part of the show because that tower is still with us, and the reality is more impressive than the advertising posters that mainly represent it here.
More intriguing is the next uncompleted chapter in this “tall story” that is ushered in by Tokyo Sky Tree. With this 634-meter, narrowly-based structure in a city that is expecting an imminent major earthquake, we get once again that the old feeling of hubris.
“The Tower: The Story of Cities and Towers” at the Edo-Tokyo Museum runs till May 6; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Sat. till 7:30 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp/english.