The ivy-covered Dojyunkai Apartments in Tokyo’s Aoyama district have long been a popular landmark along Omote-sando boulevard. Although the antiquated buildings add a serene touch to the fashionable, bustling district, efforts to protect the site from redevelopment into a shopping complex have so far gotten nowhere.

The 75-year-old buildings are expected to be razed by year’s end, and a shopping complex — no different from those on the opposite side of the street — is slated to be built by 2005 by major developer Mori Building Co. and architect Tadao Ando.

Masaki Onishi, 24, and Motoko Tanaka, 26, students of architecture in Tokyo, held a photo exhibition in March in a gallery in the apartment complex, titled “Is It True That It Will Be Gone?”

Of the roughly 500 people who visited the exhibit, many left comments in support of keeping the site intact. “Omote-sando has a unique atmosphere compared with Shibuya or Shinjuku, because of the apartment buildings,” one visitor wrote. A British man wrote: “If you destroy all of the past, what hope or point is there to the future?”

Building conservation experts say architectural planning in Japan is often the product of a “scrap and build” mentality.

Maki Hosoi, 36, an animator and member of a group of artists and architects who are trying to preserve city buildings, said that although a Tokyo Metropolitan Government survey found that 65 percent of Tokyo residents polled want the metropolis to keep its historic buildings, plans to demolish private structures are not widely publicized in advance. “People are shocked to hear it on TV, after it’s all decided,” he said.

Hiroshi Tashiro, a 42-year-old architect and also a member of the group, said: “There is no concept in Japan that your house can be an asset for others. People and companies do not renovate or preserve properties for the pleasure of passersby, while in the U.S. and Europe there is a concept that the facade belongs to everyone. But in Japan, people feel free to knock down their own homes.”

The Aoyama complex is one of 16 Dojyunkai apartment communities built in Tokyo between 1926 and 1934, mainly in an effort to supply housing after the Great Kanto Earthquake in September 1923. Only six of the complexes remain.

One of the most recent to be razed was the Daikanyama Apartment complex, which was replaced by the Daikanyama Address residence-and-shopping center in August 2000.

The buildings and the land for the Aoyama apartments first belonged to a housing corporation affiliated with the metropolitan government, but the residents purchased the dwellings after the war. Tokyo later sold the land to Mori Building.

Now, 40 out of the 138 apartments in the complex, consisting of 10 apartment buildings, belong to individual owners, and 20 families still live in them. Many other units have been converted into trendy shops targeting young people. All 20 families have agreed to sell their property rights to Mori.

No-win situation

Toshio Otsuki, 34, a lecturer at the department of architecture at Science University of Tokyo, said that although many outsiders may want the complex preserved, neither the developer nor the residents have anything to gain under the current legal and market situation.

While in the West buildings often develop more value as they age, in Japan newer buildings are generally considered more valuable, he said, noting the Aoyama structures are valued at zero or even have a negative worth, due to the cost of tearing them down.

“On the other hand, the land they stand on — an excellent location in the Aoyama district — will fetch a lot of money,” Otsuki said.

“We could have asked Mori to keep the buildings as a legacy for the community, but companies do not deliberately engage in money-losing activities. In the West, governments take the action to preserve. But in the case of Aoyama, the fact that Tokyo sold the land to Mori in 1998 was a clear indication that it had no plan to save the site.”

Preserving the structures would also be a burden to the individual owners. The buildings are considered too outdated for convenient living. Many residents have lived in the complex for decades and are now old and lack the money to renovate.

“The average apartment is 40 sq. meters,” Otsuki said. “They initially had shared baths on the roofs, but they’re now dilapidated. Most units have no bath or washing machines, unless living space is sacrificed.”

If not for the location, the complex would have become a slum, or the residents would have been forced out with nothing. But because of the advantages for Mori, they got incentives to leave.

“Although I cannot say exactly how much, and the amount may vary, residents will receive quite a large sum of money for moving out,” Otsuki said. “If residents pay back that amount and add some extra, they can also live in the new complex.”

According to Osamu Goto, 41, an associate professor at Kogakuin University, the complex could have been registered as a cultural asset. But Mori declined this option.

“There is a much greater financial incentive in demolishing a building than in preserving one,” he said.

Keinosuke Ozaki, a 33-year-old art director also in Hosoi’s group, said it is impossible for citizens’ voices to be heard.

“The way the public announcement of the demolition plan was made, nobody noticed it at the ward office. We believe this was intended to prevent people from voicing opposition,” Ozaki said.

Although the group handed in a statement to the ward, no feedback can be expected, he said, noting that citizens have the right to state their opinions but the ward has no obligation to respond.

Builder fuels rumor mill?

General contractors have become very wary of opposition to a project of this scale.

When the students held the exhibition, a false rumor circulated in the apartment complex that a leftwing group was behind them. It is not known who started the rumor.

According to Otsuki, one of the least pleasant things that occur during a large redevelopment project is that communities are broken apart.

“In general, contractors try to get residents to grow suspicious of each other,” he said. “What builders fear the most is residents who unite in protest or who negotiate as a group.”

One opponent to the redevelopment, who declined to be named, said that in the case of the Aoyama complex, the terms for moving out were negotiated separately with each resident, making them wonder if their neighbors were paid more.

“The developer even made it a condition for residents not to say goodbye to the remaining residents when leaving, so they would not discuss the matter,” he said. “These things are obviously not good for a community where some residents have lived for 60 years.”

Mori commissioned world famous architect Ando to design a building to replace the complex. Ando, who has promoted the preservation of historic buildings, would normally be the one who fights redevelopment, architect Tashiro said.

The official in charge of the redevelopment project at Ando’s office said: “The residents wish the reconstruction to occur as soon as possible. It is more the residents, rather than us, who are pushing it forward.”

He added that Ando has declined comment on the project.

Tashiro regrets that such an important figure as Ando did not dissuade Mori, saying, “He was probably the only one who could have done it.”

Otsuki of Science University said that though the apartments cannot be saved, the way society looks at the issue is slowly changing.

“Young people are recognizing value in old things. Some create cafes out of old houses, not only because they have no money, but because they see new values. When younger generations have control in society, we will be able to save more buildings,” he said.

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