In understanding Japanese cities, we carry Western preconceptions of how cities are shaped and read. Barrie Shelton explores changing perceptions of cities like Tokyo through Western eyes over the course of the twentieth century.
We see a shift, both in Western and Japanese planners and architects, from condemnation of the "chaos" of Japanese cities to a more subtle understanding of how these cities function.
In particular, there are key distinctions in the way space is organized. Gunther Nitschke, in 1966, noted that space in Japan is not formed by compositional elements, as in the West, but more often through signs and symbols, and the current human use of the space.
This leads towards a more flexible urban space. Kisho Kurakawa uses the metaphor of tree versus rhizome when comparing Western and Japanese cities. Fumihiko Maki creates the useful dichotomy of 'clock' versus 'cloud.' The clock may be represented by a traditional Western city: the relation of parts to the whole are systematic - the buildings relate to the street which relates to the neighborhood which relates to local landmarks - and so on. The cloud may be represented by cities like Tokyo (Maki simply defines them as modern cities) where individual pieces of the city find an unstable equilibrium. For Maki, the cloud city is extremely adaptable and constantly changing. The clock city, while perhaps more beautiful, will be locked in stasis and have much more difficulty adapting to changes demanded of a modern city.