The country’s postwar housing complexes were intended to represent a bold new era. Cody Ellingham’s eerie photographs emphasize their fading might.
What happens to modern architecture when it ceases to stand for progress—when it ceases, effectively, to be modern?
New Zealand* photographer Cody Ellingham started to wonder this when he encountered Japan’s government housing complexes, or “danchi” (the term means “group land” in Japanese). Danchi construction started in the late ‘50s, as part of Japan’s postwar boom. They were intended to represent a new era in Japan: they were created in a Western style, foregoing traditional, multi-generational Japanese homes made of wood for concrete towers built for nuclear families. With their refrigerators, televisions, and washing machines, danchi were seen as a way for Japanese families to become part of the nation’s upward trajectory towards modernity.
But times changed. Families wanted homes instead of apartments, the economy stagnated, and Japan’s birth rate declined. As a result, the communities within these Modernist complexes shrank as the buildings themselves stood still. Ellingham’s photos look like something out of the latest Blade Runner movie; they depict an ultra-modern landscape both technicolor and eerie. The density, platte, and concrete all look futuristic, but an element of decay is pervasive throughout. Ellingham photographed each danchi at night in part because it was the time the buildings would be most inhabited, yet they still appear to be deserted.
Though danchi may look hulking and monolithic, they are intricately designed. Windows in each housing tower are set opposite each other to provide natural light, buildings are arranged carefully to ensure that even ground floor apartments can receive sunlight, and each danchi has communal gardens and parks.
“I would not describe them as particularly beautiful buildings,” Ellingham wrote in an email to CityLab, “however the concept they embody—the slow decay of the Japanese dream of modernity—embodies a kind of transience, impermanence, that I think is one aspect of what we call beauty. More than that, there is a sense of awe and sentimentalism looking at row upon row of these buildings lit up on a cold winter's night.”
In recent years, danchi have had a limited resurgence. In 2015, Quartz reported that the Japanese retail company Muji was turning old danchi into studio apartments by tearing down walls and updating the kitchens and bathrooms. Ellingham recalls a similar project that developed co-working spaces and and cafes inside a danchi complex.
But he believes these are exceptions. “The fate of most danchi is sealed,” Ellingham wrote. “Earthquake regulations and development costs mean whole sections are being torn down. I do not think danchi will disappear immediately, but just like the wooden structures that they replaced, the gradual decline of these buildings will happen slowly at first, and then before long there will be none left. Japan, and particularly Tokyo, has been destroyed and rebuilt several times and I think the only thing left for danchi is to let them be lived in and well used while they still stand.”
Cody Ellingham’s “DANCHI Dreams” will be exhibited on May 12 in Tokyo at the Takiguchi Atelier in Koto-ku.
*Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Ellingham’s country of origin. He is from New Zealand.