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  • Cardboard Houses and Miyamoto Ryūji’s Visualization of Alternative Urban Realities in Heisei Japan
  • Carrie Cushman (bio)

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Miyamoto Ryūji, Tokyo 1983, from the series Cardboard Houses, 2003.

© Miyamoto Ryūji. Courtesy of the artist.

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If asked to select one photograph to encompass the history of the built environment in modern Japan, I might settle on one created by Miyamoto Ryūji in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo in 1983 (fig. 9.1). Miyamoto made this photograph while standing in the middle of the Tokiwa Bridge, a site laden with the history of the city’s transition from feudal castle town to modern metropolis.1 The edifice of the Bank of Japan dominates the entire upper half of the image. Completed in 1896 as an explicit expression of the Meiji government’s push toward westernization, the recessed pediments and ionic pilasters of the original building signal the power and monumentality of the institution contained within, while the imposing wall of the new annex to the left (built in the 1970s) reiterates a decidedly unwelcoming atmosphere. Nowhere in Miyamoto’s composition do we find an access point to either building. The institution appears closed off and indifferent, especially to those responsible for the structure at the center of the image—a makeshift residence of the urban homeless. Failing to participate in the “circulatory system of capital,” while reformulating its material output, the cardboard house emerges as a counterpoint—and an existential threat—to the financial institution above.2

In the upper right corner of the photograph, the one area nearly unencumbered by architecture or infrastructure, a swath of open sky is bisected by a telephone pole and three wires, drawing our attention to a crane and partially incomplete building in the distance. Is the building in the midst of construction or demolition? No matter: the cycle of creative destruction will continue its relentless churn, generating an urban environment as transient and vulnerable as the handmade shelter in the foreground. This faint evidence of redevelopment is the most unassuming aspect of the image, and, yet, it is the most telling in terms of the conditions that led to its creation. Miyamoto first noticed the abundance of so-called “cardboard houses” in Tokyo while searching the city for demolition sites. 1983 was the same year that he began his serial documentation [End Page 119] of buildings undergoing dismantlement, resulting in the award-winning photobook, Architectural Apocalypse (Kenchiku no mokushiroku), first published in 1988. He recalls, “Just around the time that run down [sic] cinemas and dysfunctional old buildings were being demolished one after the next to make way for ranks of towering glass skyscrapers, in the shadows of these major changes there appeared pockets of these makeshift dwellings.”3

Miyamoto’s documentation of cardboard houses continued well into the Heisei era. Tracking the significant rise in the homeless population that began with the bursting of the economic real-estate “bubble” in 1991, Miyamoto captured the reality of homelessness amidst a larger urban fabric characterized by excess and waste. He found the houses in abundance near important centers of commercial transportation and product distribution, such as the Tsukiji fish market, Shiodome, and the old Akihabara produce market, where cardboard packaging is discarded daily as products are unloaded and sent to their final destinations. Miyamoto also began to notice cardboard houses in what he calls “the gaps of the city” (machi no sukima)—“the areas in between buildings and under bridges […] in the places that are unplanned and unintentional in the city, the places that are out of the public gaze.”4 Like the cardboard houses themselves, Miyamoto kept his documentation of them “in the shadows” for nearly a decade. He began to exhibit and publish the photographs only in step with growing media attention and a greater public awareness of the homelessness problem during the prolonged economic recession of the Heisei period.

This essay situates the cardboard house project within Miyamoto’s larger oeuvre, exploring how these photographs are key to understanding the evolution of a visual argument against patterns of unchecked megabuilding and monumentalism in the contemporary Japanese city. Building...