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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Kyoto to Dim the Neon, Limit Building Height, and Ban Billboards


Taishogun, KyotoKyoto, which is arguably the world’s ugliest beautiful city, announced on November 24th that blinking neon and billboard advertisements placed on rooftops would be banned throughout the city. In addition, building restrictions concerning height are to be further strengthened in order to “preserve Kyoto’s skyline.” Both will be put into effect beginning 2007.

According to the City, there are hundreds of pachinko parlors and restaurants that place garish ads on the sidewalks in front of their premises. On top of that, ancient Kyoto has some 400 rooftop ads, particularly in the Shijo downtown area. Once the law goes into effect, the signs have to come down and blinking signs will be prohibited. Offenders will face fines and or possible revocation of their license to do business.

Concerning building heights, the new law will drop the top limit from 45 meters down to 31. For existing structures - roughly 570 buildings in the downtown area taller than the new limit - the law will come into effect when they are rebuilt. Moreover, further restrictions will be placed on the design and height of buildings that get in the way of the scenery near, for example, temples.

With most of Kyoto’s beautiful machiya townhouses having met the wrecking ball - only to be replaced by the ubiquitous black top 20-car parking lots and, recently, 15-story “mansion” cooperatives - the cynic would argue that the law is 20 years late in coming.

Massive Electronics storeDowntown Kyoto is by almost any definition a complete mess. It is a jungle of telephone poles and wires overhead (see above for any Kyoto shopping street, in Taishogun; and right for a shot of any Kyoto corner, a large electronics chain store in Enmachi), a mix of pachinko and karaoke parlors on the ground; sex shops close to elegant boutiques; ever present traffic jams; few sidewalks, which force people, bicycles, and cars to vie for the same tiny space; mini-parking lots throughout the city; street trees “trimmed” down to the nub; yes, the occasional beautiful and traditional store; and neon, everywhere neon.

While the City is to be lauded for the intent of the restrictions, one can only wonder: are the officials blind? One was quoted as saying: “The number of buildings that do not harmonize with the traditional Kyoto cityscape is increasing, and is in the process of ruining the look of Kyoto.” In the process of? The idea of “protecting” Kyoto is almost a bad joke. Though Kyoto is perhaps less horrific than it was several years ago - thanks in part to a revival in interest, both architectural and financial, in the machiya - it is still chaotic and unattractive when compared to more restrained and elegant cities that it likes to be compared with: Boston, Florence, Edinburgh, and others.

And yet, predictably, groups are gathering to oppose the revisions. First are the billboard companies. No surprise there. “It is too sudden!” yelled one. Residents of the downtown mansions have been screaming on television: “You won’t be able to live in downtown anymore!”

If past is prelude, however, they may not have to fear much. The City is big on proclamation but fairly lax on enforcement. Wabi sabi restraint and design sense are not a hallmark of the City's administrators and builders. Besides, there are already many laws on the books - many of which are ignored at the building site. The city though is also famous for ignoring public opinion - past city projects detested by a majority of Kyotoites include Kyoto Tower, in the 1960s, and the Kyoto Station Building in the 1990s - so there may yet be hope.

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