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This page introduces columns and interviews about art and culture from various viewpoints by Arts Council Board members, professionals in the field, etc.

2016/06/16

On universality and individuality

Board member of Arts Council Tokyo / Chairman, Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co., Ltd.
Iwao Nakatani

The office where I work is on the 21st floor of a high-rise building in Tokyo. You get a sweeping view of assorted buildings from the windows. To the immediate bottom right you can see the huge red steel framework that supports Tokyo Tower, as my building is very near the tower. Just on the opposite side, you can see the lovely tiled roof of the Zojoji, the Tokugawa shogunate’s family temple. It is typical of a historic Japanese temple. What’s more, in the distance behind it you can see Rainbow Bridge. To the bottom left of the window I can see the Dutch ambassador’s residence. It is a beautiful Western-style house with large iron gates and surrounded by lush greenery. Visitors enjoy the sight of this building completed in 1928, but it gives the impression not so much of a typical Western-style house but of a period piece rooted in the land. However, in terms of numbers, the vast majority of buildings I can see from the windows is the forest of square high-rise office blocks, hotels and condominiums.

The Tokyo that I look at every day has an air of calm, with its scattering of unplanned and pleasingly-arranged buildings constructed with diverse aims, and of diverse character. Thankfully Tokyo is not an insipid town like Manhattan which is just a cluster of skyscrapers.

If you were to split these buildings into two types, one would be a group that you would find anywhere in the urban area; the high-rise buildings that are universal, so to speak. These functional buildings are meticulously designed according to rational calculation down to every corner. There is no other type of building like them in terms of surface area efficiency, and in this sense, these high-rise buildings arguably have a universal quality that means they can be built no problem in any city of the world.

As noted previously, the city of Tokyo does not solely consist of these universal skyscrapers. It has old-fashioned Western-style buildings like the Dutch ambassador’s residence which satisfy the taste for nostalgia, but on the other hand it also has 600-year old Zojoji which has been welcoming worshippers since ancient times. If the clusters of high-rises are very uniform, Zojoji is typically distinct. Zojoji stands proudly in its historic location of Shiba Park, but it would pose more of a problem in a Japanese region with a different feel to it, or in the United States or a European country. The important thing is to be integrated with the history and culture native to the land.

Of course, cities that have a mixture of buildings with universal, individual, regional and ornamental characteristics are not limited to Tokyo, and can be seen around the world. Le Corbusier formulated his Five Points of Architecture, based on which he created such conformist modern buildings as Villa Savoye. On the other hand, there are also extremely non-conformist buildings like the Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudí, abundantly decorative and curved in every direction in a way that could be called chaotic. Apart from The Alhambra and Madrid’s Prado Museum, the Sagrada Familia has become a tourist draw that right now attracts the most number of visitors in Spain. The atmospheric and elegant cities dotted across Europe more or less successfully blend the universal and the individual in their buildings.

To exaggerate, a city is created when the two opposing human orientations — the pursuit of a universality understood and accepted anywhere, and a preoccupation with individuality stemming from unique historic and cultural traditions — recoil from each other but intertwine and then repeatedly interact. On the one hand, we find generalities in miscellanies, and create a universal model by abstracting them. Yet on the other hand, we attempt to leave behind something distinct by adding on unique cultural traditions and special ornamentation. While people are attracted to universal buildings designed according to function and efficacy, they also want to create highly individual buildings with a strong emphasis on the tone of decoration and traditional culture. This collision between the opposing elements of universality and individuality carves out the history of the city landscape.

If one or the other is over-emphasized then balance is probably lost, surely giving the whole a distorted feeling. Designs have recently been finalized for the new national stadium being built for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and for its emblems. My personal feeling is that these designs strike a good balance, in the sense that they are not overly universal in emphasis but neither is Japanese traditional culture unnecessarily highlighted.

The concepts of universality and individuality can in fact apply to the world of business as well. The competitive powers of global corporations often consist of these two elements, universality and individuality. they conform to universal and global rules in a smart way, but at the same time, they enhance their unique (individual) strengths in technology and/or in the way they build relationship with their customers. It would probably be self-destructive for individual companies to pursue universality alone, the reason being that corporations would lose their differentiation from competitors. Conversely, if they stuck entirely to a strategy of individuality, they would end up standing alone globally speaking.

This is an argument that also applies to the comparison between globalization and localization. The flip side to progressive globalization is the human tendency to stand by local culture. The more that universal values and rules filter through, the more this gives rise to a local way of thinking almost in rebellion. Ideologically-speaking, people with a strongly cosmopolitan orientation stress the importance of globalization, and think little of local culture, whereas people with a nationalistic bent seek to emphasize the importance of that which is local to such an extent that conversely, they ignore the universal advantages of global standards.

However what is important is the balance between universality and individuality. There is a need for a mindset applicable to the global world which properly leverages its universal rules, but a mindset that also turns the energy of local culture into the source of personal creativity. In short, a balance between universality and individuality is vital, and if the bias is too high on one side, success is surely uncertain.

Arts Council Tokyo should be going in the direction of backing cultural and artistic development that strikes this harmony between universality and individuality. I believe a highly abstract and almost country-neutral program is necessary, but also that Arts Council Tokyo must go on supporting programs with close ties to Tokyo’s local community which show off the definitive Japan and Tokyo. If these are integrated, and if this leads to a mostly positive sense of an artistic and cultured city, it will mean success.