The Slow Decay of Japan’s Modernist Dreams

What happens to modern architecture when it ceases to stand for progress—when it ceases, effectively, to be modern?

Australian photographer Cody Ellingham started to wonder this when he encountered Japan’s government housing complexes, or “danchi” (the term means “group land” in Japanese). Danchi construction started in the late ‘50s, as part of Japan’s postwar boom. They were intended to represent a new era in Japan: they were created in a Western style, foregoing traditional, multi-generational Japanese homes made of wood for concrete towers built for nuclear families. With their refrigerators, televisions, and washing machines, danchi were seen as a way for Japanese families to become part of the nation’s upward trajectory towards modernity.

Cody Ellingham

But times changed. Families wanted homes instead of apartments, the economy stagnated, and Japan’s birth rate declined. As a result, the communities within these Modernist complexes shrank as the buildings themselves stood still. Ellingham’s photos look like something out of the latest Blade Runner movie; they depict an ultra-modern landscape both technicolor and eerie. The density, platte, and concrete all look futuristic, but an element of decay is pervasive throughout. Ellingham photographed each danchi at night in part because it was the time the buildings would be most inhabited, yet they still appear to be deserted.

Though danchi may look hulking and monolithic, they are intricately designed. Windows in each housing tower are set opposite each other to provide natural light, buildings are arranged carefully to ensure that even ground floor apartments can receive sunlight, and each danchi has communal gardens and parks.

Cody Ellingham

“I would not describe them as particularly beautiful buildings,” Ellingham wrote in an email to CityLab, “however the concept they embody—the slow decay of the Japanese dream of modernity—embodies a kind of transience, impermanence, that I think is one aspect of what we call beauty. More than that, there is a sense of awe and sentimentalism looking at row upon row of these buildings lit up on a cold winter’s night.”

Cody Ellingham

In recent years, danchi have had a limited resurgence. In 2015, Quartz reported that the Japanese retail company Muji was turning old danchi into studio apartments by tearing down walls and updating the kitchens and bathrooms. Ellingham recalls a similar project that developed co-working spaces and and cafes inside a danchi complex.

Cody Ellingham

But he believes these are exceptions. “The fate of most danchi is sealed,” Ellingham wrote. “Earthquake regulations and development costs mean whole sections are being torn down. I do not think danchi will disappear immediately, but just like the wooden structures that they replaced, the gradual decline of these buildings will happen slowly at first, and then before long there will be none left. Japan, and particularly Tokyo, has been destroyed and rebuilt several times and I think the only thing left for danchi is to let them be lived in and well used while they still stand.”

Cody Ellingham’s “DANCHI Dreams” will be exhibited on May 12 in Tokyo at the Takiguchi Atelier in Koto-ku.

Can Detroit’s Suburbs Survive a Downtown Revival?

Throughout the 20th century, as American metro areas sprawled ever outward, Detroit—the city that arguably made the modern suburbs possible—led the way. It began with developments in the auto industry; while early plants were multi-story, like 19th-century mills, the continuous assembly line required cavernous single-story buildings on larger plots of land than were available in the city. Between World War II and 1960, automakers built some 20 new facilities in Southeast Michigan, but not one in Detroit city limits.

“That drove the employment structure, and as the economy shifted all types of employment went to the suburbs,” says Avis C. Vidal, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Detroit’s Wayne State University. “Since the postwar period, there’s been a great deal of suburban housing built on the fringes—in excess of the number of households in the region.”

White flight, overly rosy demographic projections, and car-based planning continued to encourage patchy, rambling growth. And even as Detroit itself became a symbol for everything that was going wrong in America’s inner cities in the late 20th century, the sprawl prospered. Seven Fortune 500 companies now call the Detroit suburbs home, compared to three inside the city. By 2000, Oakland County, which borders Detroit to the north, was one of the richest in the nation. Meanwhile, Detroit was headed toward the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.

In recent years, however, buzz around Detroit—or, at least, the 7.2-square-mile area known as Greater Downtown, if not the city’s predominantly black residential neighborhoods—has been growing. The new Detroit has been earning a reputation as a hipster haven, but urban farms and bike shops aren’t what’s fueling its growth. In 2011, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert consolidated the mortgage giant’s entire Michigan workforce—today, some 15,000 employees—in downtown Detroit, abandoning office space in the suburbs. Gilbert’s real estate company, Bedrock, is now Detroit’s largest landlord, and it just broke ground on a new 800-foot skyscraper, the centerpiece of a $2.1 billion investment that comes with the promise of 24,000 new jobs. According to real estate services firm Cushman and Wakefield, office vacancy rates in Detroit’s central business district and Midtown neighborhood are now just 10.9 percent and 8.8 percent, respectively, compared to 13.5 percent in the region as a whole—and down nearly two-thirds since to 2010.

Meanwhile, Ford, which pulled out of the city completely in 1996, will move its electric and autonomous vehicle divisions from neighboring Dearborn into Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood later this year. It’s a deliberate effort, executive chairman Bill Ford Jr. has said, to appeal to young workers who want to live and work in urban neighborhoods. And although a spokeswoman said the company was not ready to make any announcements, Ford’s plans for a Corktown campus are rumored to include Michigan Central Station, the abandoned Beaux Arts train station that has long been a dramatic symbol of Detroit’s decline.

It’s all exciting news for Detroit. Some in the suburbs, however, are watching these developments warily. As Detroit belatedly joins the nationwide urban resurgence, will its suburbs ride the city’s coattails, or will they struggle to compete? If Ford’s sought-after millennial tech workers want to be downtown, can the outlying, auto-centric communities that were so long synonymous with the region’s prosperity reinvent themselves in time to stay relevant?

Built in 1975 as the new home for the NFL’s Detroit Lions, the Pontiac Silverdome, with its state-of-the-art inflatable roof, would go on to host Superbowl XVI and appearances by Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Pope John Paul II. But the Lions moved back to Detroit in 2002, and after years of neglect the Silverdome was imploded in December. Crews are continuing to deconstruct the remains, and city officials say they are exploring options to redevelop the site, which should be cleared by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the vast parking lot has found a less illustrious second life, as a graveyard for Volkswagen’s recalled “cheating diesels.”

The Silverdome, about 30 miles from downtown Detroit, is not the region’s only ill-fated suburban landmark. Long-abandoned Summit Place Mall, in nearby Waterford Township, is under a demolition order, after a scheme to turn it into a “sports and entertainment complex” never came to fruition. The NBA’s Pistons’ former home, the Palace of Auburn Hills, was renovated in 2015 but doomed to obsolescence when Little Caesar’s Arena opened in Detroit last September. While the now-shuttered Palace is surrounded by parking, Little Caesar’s sits at the center of a new, 50-block mixed-use development called “The District Detroit,” a so-far successful effort to tap into the modern mania for walkability.

The failure of a few landmarks does not mean Detroit’s suburbs are doomed, but some local leaders see writing on the wall. Oakland County’s famously abrasive county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, has long taken a vocal pro-sprawl position, but even his government is making an effort to invest in the county’s handful of historic downtowns, via what’s touted as the “nation’s first and only county-wide Main Street program.” Archetypal suburbs like Troy are also getting in on the act. While it may be hard now to imagine walking along Troy’s main drag, a busy six-lane thoroughfare called Big Beaver Road, the city recently installed wider sidewalks, revised zoning to encourage taller buildings and multifamily housing, and took a stab at transit with a trolley-style shuttle bus.

“Everybody’s trying to create places in Southeast Michigan, which didn’t really have places before,” says Barry Murray, director of economic and community development for Dearborn, which borders Detroit to the southwest. “And there’s a lot of interest in diversified housing options, from young people who want to be in the hearts of downtowns.”

Dearborn, with a bustling commercial center of its own less than seven miles from Detroit’s, is in a better position to adapt to the changing times than most of its suburban peers. The city has been Ford’s hometown for the past century, and while a few thousand Ford workers might be moving down Michigan Avenue, the automaker is also spending more than $1 billion to reimagine its Dearborn headquarters along the lines of a Silicon Valley Tech Campus, and to create a new mixed-use development around Dearborn’s historic Wagner Hotel. Murray expects at least 1,000 new apartments to come online over the next few years—at present, he estimates, 90 percent of the city’s 38,000 housing units are detached single-family homes. Meanwhile, a declining mall where 1,800 Ford employees are temporarily occupying an old Lord & Taylor is “an active planning area,” Murray says. “We know these retailers are not going to be there forever.”

Southfield, just across Eight Mile Road from Detroit, could tell Dearborn a thing or two about disappearing retail—last year, it began tearing down Northland Center, the first shopping mall in America. Since Amazon turned down the city’s offer of the site for its second headquarters, Southfield is moving forward with a plan to crisscross the property with through streets and make way for offices, restaurants, apartments and a park—an effort to create a downtown in a city built without one. Says Mayor Kenson Siver, “We have a lot of plans here.”

Southfield is also home to the region’s largest office complex outside Detroit, but Southfield Town Center—as the cluster of five golden glass towers is known—has recently been forced to compete with Detroit for tenants. This year, it will lose Microsoft’s Michigan Technology Center, which is following Fifth Third Bancorp’s regional headquarters to Detroit. Still, Siver remains sanguine, noting that other large employers have recently moved in, and Southfield saw more than $200 million in investment over the past year.

A Southfield resident of more than 50 years, Siver argues that the suburban idea—single-family homes, big yards, good schools, and highway access—will always appeal to a certain segment of the population. So while the community is working to add density where it can, he believes Southfield’s future lies not in imitating Detroit, but in emphasizing its differences.  

“You would never hear me bash Detroit—I think we’re all in this together, and I’m glad to see Detroit thriving,” Siver says. “But clearly, not everybody wants to be downtown. The workforce is still in the suburbs. They have their kids in school here. And I’ve heard from employers who have considered Detroit but decide on Southfield because of parking.”

“Southfield has tons of free parking—convenient parking,” Siver adds. “And if people want to go to Detroit, they can get in their cars and drive 15 minutes.”

CityLab Daily: Opportunity Knocks

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What We’re Following

Opportunity knocking? A little-known item in the recent tax overhaul features a new incentive designed to lure investment to the nation’s poorest urban, suburban, and rural communities. These so-called opportunity zones would target systemic problems in distressed areas for the greater social good. Could they actually undo America’s geographic inequality? As CityLab’s Kriston Capps writes, that depends on how well cities and states pick the right places for investment. Read the full story here.

Return of DACA: A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, terminated by the Trump administration, must continue and accept new applications. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio called the ruling “a victory for justice” and urged DACA recipients or potentially eligible city residents to apply for assistance under the program. Also: The Supreme Court heard arguments today about the administration’s immigration ban for eight countries, six of which are majority-Muslim countries.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Where Commuting Is the Worst

Lack of affordable housing and sub-par mass transit are boosting the ranks of “super commuters” in some regions outside of pricey metros.

Sarah Holder

What Manhattan’s Land Is Worth

A new study traces the astonishing increase in the value of Manhattan’s land since 1950.

Richard Florida

Taxing Uber and Lyft to Fund Transit Isn’t Fair to Transit

Roads improvements are part of the regular budgeting process. Why not transit?

Eric Goldwyn

How Much Are You ‘Smoking’ by Breathing Urban Air?

A new app can tell you (and it’s not pretty).  

Martín Echenique

New ‘Mutant Enzymes’ Could Solve Earth’s Plastics Problem

Scientists accidentally created an enzyme that can break down plastic. But is it any better than recycling?

Linda Poon


Just a (Transpo) Bill

(JoAnne Savio/Blue Note via bobdorough.com)

With the news of jazz pianist songwriter Bob Dorough’s passing yesterday at age of 94, we remember that his work at “Schoolhouse Rock” could sometimes be, dare we say, transit-oriented. The iconic “I’m Just A Bill” is technically about a transportation bill, regulating school buses stopping at railroads, and “Conjunction Junction” is all train track work once you get beyond “hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” (For the ultimate “Schoolhouse Rock” transit song, listen to “Too Long in L.A.” by Dorough’s longtime collaborator Dave Frishberg about Los Angeles’s evergreen congestion problems.)

We also got a chuckle from this description of the New York jazz musician’s cheery disposition: “Lou Reed’s idea of hell would be to sit in heaven with Bob Dorough.”


What We’re Reading

A new national memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery confronts America’s past (Curbed)

Should New York reserve parking for residents only? (The New York Times)

San Francisco will get over the “scooterpocalypse” (Bloomberg)

Op-ed: Cars are ruining our cities (The New York Times)

Why all companies fear “death by Amazon” (The Guardian)


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Where Commuting Is Out of Control

In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau found that it took the average commuter more than 26 minutes to get to work. That figure might sound less than much—26 minutes is about enough time to finish a podcast, after all, and some historians argue that a roughly half-hour commute has been

“The super commuters in areas where the housing isn’t necessarily super-expensive and there just isn’t transit infrastructure are concentrated more in the middle of the country,” said Sydney Bennet, a senior research associate at ApartmentList and the author of the report. “There’s a lot more people super commuting for economic reasons in those places.”

The media has a curious fascination with feats of extreme commuting. Readers seem to take pleasure in marveling at the “astonishing human potential wasted” by other Americans whose commutes are literally “killing them.” City Observatory’s Joe Cortright has long been a critic of this fixation, pointing out that the last decade’s growth in super commuters mostly reflects economic growth, and that the number of car commuters engaged in these grim daily rituals has stayed largely flat. Many super-commute stories are also tales of privilege—people determined to take on high-powered jobs in cities without uprooting their families. There’s the chief medical officer choosing to commute from her Boston-adjacent hometown to Manhattan, or the chief operating officer who flies from Toronto to Vancouver every week. And, indeed, super commuters overall do represent a more affluent subset of Americans, according to Bennet: About 2.5 million of the 4 million (or 62.5 percent) of super commuters nationwide make above the median income.

But the report also highlights the fact that many super commuters now look more like Sheila James, the health and human services worker whose epic schlep (she wakes up at 2:15 each weekday to travel by bus and train from Stockton to San Francisco) was the focus of a much-discussed New York Times piece in August. Super commuters like her are more likely to be using public transit, and that transit is not always serving them well.

The Miami Herald, for example, recently profiled hotel housekeeper Odelie Paret’s two-bus slog, for example, to draw attention to the affordable housing challenges facing Miami-Dade’s service workers, but it’s also an indictment of the area’s transit access: Her afternoon commute takes about two hours door-to-door, though she lives only 13.5 miles away.

Nationally, the vast majority (91.4 percent) of workers with shorter, “regular” commutes drive to work, ApartmentList estimates, compared to only 69.7 percent of super commuters. But the gap can vary widely from city to city. In Las Vegas, 95 percent of regular commuters drive, versus only 47.9 percent of super commuters. And in many such cities, it’s the state of public transit itself that is contributing to the conditions that create the painful super commute, says Bennet. “It’s really a lot of lower-income super commuters in areas like Las Vegas or Cleveland that are taking transit,” she said. “Not necessarily of choice, but out of necessity.”

Among those Cleveland super commuters, for example, 55 percent are earning below the metro area’s median income. (It’s worth noting, however, that super-commuting Clevelanders represent an extremely small community: A mere 1.3 percent of the Ohio city’s metro qualify.)

So how do we make super commutes less onerous? Boosting transit-accessible workforce housing seems like the easy answer—but, as the recent failure of a California bill designed to increase housing density near mass transit stops demonstrates, it’s not as easy as it sounds. To address ballooning drive times, congestion pricing has been proposed as a fix for New York City’s traffic-clogged roads; programs to reduce single-occupancy vehicles have shows some success in Washington State.

But ultimately, the report emphasizes the importance of improving public transit: “As more households are priced out of expensive cities and inner suburbs, without major investment in public transit, the growth in the share of super commuters is likely to continue,” it concludes. As fixes go, that’s neither quick nor easy, especially given the current political climate. But it’s also a solution that would improve the lives of all commuters, not just the super ones.