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By Julian Worrall

The Gray Zone

In Tokyo, vibrant colors are most noticeable by their absence

Julian Worrall is an Australian architect and writer living in Tokyo

When returning to Tokyo from abroad,
I am always struck by the colors of Narita Airport. Or rather, by the lack of colors. Narita is a gray zone. Nearly every surface, every material is gray. Carpets, doors, waiting-room seating, baggage trolleys—no matter what the question, gray is always the answer. And not just any gray. Matching grays. This is not the arbitrary result of a mere inattentiveness to color. This level of coordination bespeaks deliberation, premeditation—“intelligent design.” I wonder (usually while I’m waiting in line at passport control) if it could perhaps be suggesting an ideology. Something “Oriental,” perhaps, such as, “Ten thousand things, one color.”

Narita is the international gateway to Tokyo. Gateways in Japan, at least traditionally, are highly symbolic things. Doubtless symbolism takes a back seat to function at Narita, but in this aspect at least, it manages to convey something of the cityscape of contemporary Tokyo. If Tokyo had a color, what else would it be?

To see Narita writ large, you need go no farther than West Shinjuku. An infinite variety of grays—what decorators euphemistically call “neutrals”—are on display here. Gray in all its shades, from the off-white of the Keio Plaza Hotel to the almost-black of the Mitsui Tower; and in all its tones, from the earthy to the icy. Gray as applied (as paint), and gray as inherent in material, in the form of metallic panels, tiled surfaces, off-form concrete, polished granite. This all culminates in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building—the ultimate éminence grise of Tokyo’s architecture. West Shinjuku may not be color-coordinated by a guiding intelligence, but nonetheless this cityscape, like all cityscapes, serves to reveal the ethos that permeates the society of its builders.

Are these “gray zones” of Tokyo any different from the contemporary built environments of other metropolises? As I survey the city I am writing from—Vienna—the ochres, terracottas, and even acid greens and oranges around me suggest the answer is yes. Yet certainly the stuff out of which much contemporary architecture is made—concrete, steel, aluminium, even glass—tends naturally toward a state of gray. All around the world, newly minted gray zones can be found, formed from these materials. In this sense, gray is contemporary.

But so too are sharp, chemical colors, examples of which can be found anodized into the aluminium shells of the iPod mini. Not to mention the infinite array of color possibilities enabled by modern paint and dye technologies. And there are always the more natural palettes inherent to traditional materials such as timber, stone and brick. The point is, color always involves a choice—a choice that in Japan, at least for exteriors and public spaces, seems to favor the achromatic.

Perhaps there is something distinctively “Japanese” about gray. In the ’70s, well-known architect Kisho Kurokawa sang the praises of something he called “Rikyu Gray”—in reference to the great tea-master of the 16th century—saying that it embodied the ambiguity and sophistication of tea aesthetics. The even better-known architect Tadao Ando is famed for rebranding off-form concrete as a luxury material, using its subtle variations and soft reflectivity to create oases of gray calm as an antidote to what he regards as the visual anarchy of the contemporary Japanese city.

So there may be good aesthetic reasons for choosing gray in Japan. The trouble is, gray is also the most common result of an absence of aesthetic decision-making. Distinguishing the two can be tricky. As a visit to any ward office, bank or university in Tokyo will confirm, the spaces where most urbanites work, conduct business, or study are most often the drab consequence of the utter relinquishment of environmental attention, exacerbated by an apparent lack of choice. Flip through the catalogue of the biggest supplier of office furniture in Japan, Kokuyo, and see what the dominant color is. No prizes for guessing the answer.

Beyond aesthetics, gray suggests a specific set of attitudes, even values. Sobriety. Reliability. Discretion. The qualities that are connoted by the gray business suit. These are positive associations, and are maybe why gray is such a common color choice by banks and money men. But gray also implies modesty, inconspicuousness, inoffensiveness. Here, the neutrality of gray seems to connect to the particularly Japanese sensitivity to meiwaku, the word for imposition upon others, both real and imagined. Since gray is seen as neutral, so the reasoning presumably goes, no one could possibly be troubled by it. In this way, the profusion of gray zones in Japan can be seen as the environmental manifestation of a studied, if misguided, consideration for others, and as such deeply “Japanese.”

Gray is to sight what silence is to hearing. Silence may indeed be preferable to cacophony, as Ando argues. But how about a little music for a change?

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