What is there to be observed on the road? The concept of “roadway observation,” a localized set of the techniques of the f lâneur, can be traced to the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Tokyo was dilapidated when artist and architect Wajiro Kon began to work on two projects in the city: first, he formed the Barrack Decoration Company with friends from art school, utilizing readymade materials to provide temporary housing decoration to citizens in need. He also “observed how people started life anew amid houses burned down by fire … and documented everything in sight by sketching, from wooden signboards to clothes worn by refugees on the street.”
With this kogen-gaku—Modernologio, or modernology—came into being. Terunobu Fujimori and his friends Shinbo Minami, Tetsuo Matsuda, and Joji Hayashi established the Roadway Observation Society, or ROJO, to develop this idea in 1986. Together with housewives, pink-collar workers, and community residents, they roamed the streets of Tokyo observing and documenting living conditions and environments. Pedestrians’ clothing, garbage left on the roadside, tin sheds, manhole covers, and plants in front of houses all became subjects of inquiry. They observed the city from the standpoint of the commoner, and sorted out the social fabric of urban architecture through everyday objects.
Terunobu Fujimori and the group published An Introduction to Roadway Observation the same year, emphasizing a way of thinking based on objects and reality. The book criticizes commercially motivated postwar architectural styles, instead assigning value to history, tradition, and the commonplace. The authors positioned themselves between sophistication and naïveté, between the individual and the city—they subtly criticize and offer corrections to modernist style. They also challenge the top-down tendency in urban planning to think from the perspective of those in power—politicians and capitalists—and reject the idea of residents as urban subjects. Fujimori proposes a bottom-up value system, condemning the professional elite far removed from the realities of ordinary people.
Roadway Observation emphasizes the inseparable relationship between observation and knowledge acquisition, noting that anthropology and museology harvest results by categorizing and organizing their observations in the field, a method that those studying modern cities could emulate. In the meantime, it cautions against the excessive emphasis on the division of labor in science and technology, which leads to a narrow field of vision. Even when observation yields results, it can be too fragmented to inform the bigger picture.
Terunobu Fujimori asks whether the attention of the observer should be turned to space or object, and what the difference between the two might be:
If one is interested in the object itself, its particularities in turn leave an impression on him, and he ignores the overall order. We can call this special acuity towards physical things ‘a sense of the object.’ In this regard, people in the premodern age valued the overall order and considered the general situation. As a result, individual things were buried in the whole, neither interesting nor exciting. Only when a thing is freed from the overall order will it exhibit its individuality. Only when a thing is outside ‘space’ (another name for the overall order), will it truly become a so-called ‘object.’
This paragraph repeatedly notes the “overall order” that is inseparable from the city. Members of the Roadway Observation Society resist the “intent to control” embedded in systems of order, and actively champion individual subjectivity.
Regarding urban order, Japanese architect Yoshinobu Ashihara reconsiders the difference between cultural and social perspectives in The Hidden Order (1986):
The first impression of Tokyo is chaos. The city feels incongruous and its architecture uncoordinated. … Buildings are lacking in order, consistency, and traditional appearance. … But, without doubt, Tokyo thrives functionally as an efficient, diligent. and orderly metropolis. … This unique character is an ability to survive, compete, and adapt, an ambiguous and bizarre character permitting the coexistence of insignificance and grandeur, concealment and exposure, which are not to be found in western orders.
Ashihara suggests that Tokyo—the east Asian metropolis—established its order based on practical needs instead of the control of visual appearance emphasized in the west. This echoes the views of An Introduction to Roadway Observation, an attitude that finds the positive in the reality of the street that has become a Japanese heritage. Yoshiharu Tsukamoto’s 2001 Made in Tokyo is an extension and development of the same mode of metropolitan thinking.
Terunobu Fujimori believes that the street consists of events and objects, and that there are “even gods are hidden on the road.” It is a slap in the face of contemporary cities and the narcissistic state of architecture, an earnest plea worth contemplating.
Text by Roan Ching-yueh
Translated by Yao Wu