In 1960, Tokyo started looking like the megalopolis it is today, quickly reaching 11 million people by the end of the decade. It was a time of hope after a dreadful war, and the city was in dire need of homes for its growing population. The government’s solution was the danchi—and photographer Cody Ellingham is fascinated by them.
Danchi are public housing apartments: “Row upon row of identical numbered buildings reach into the distance,” as Ellingham describes them, “their fluorescent lights flicker to life illuminating the stark concrete.” Tokyo is full of these gigantic complexes, and Ellingham shoots many of them at night, when they become glowing, surreal studies in geometry. His photos are the subject of new exhibition at Tokyo’s Koto-ku gallery and a stand-alone online site, Danchi Dreams.
These public housing projects came to be after two critical changes in Japan’s capital municipality. The first came in a night of March 1945. The dark sky turned into a bright inferno when 279 B-29 Superfortress bombers from the United States Army Air Force dropped 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs over Tokyo. A firestorm consumed 16 square miles of civil urban blocks, killing 100,000 people and destroying an estimated 286,000 buildings and homes. About 1 million human beings lost their homes in what it is considered the worst conventional bombing raid in human history.
The second factor was the population surge after the end of World War II. After dropping from 7.35 million in 1940 to 3.49 million in 1945, the city quickly grew–reaching 10 million people around 1960. This surge in population and shortage of housing forced the government to implement public housing complexes. These buildings followed what was considered a futuristic architecture at the time–even hopeful, in the sense that Japan was replacing the ashes of the war with new shiny homes for new families. As Ellingham describes them, these building “were a vision of a new harmonious life.”
Through email, Ellingham tells me that danchi was an imported concept from post-war Western housing projects–like those that populate London, Brooklyn, the Bronx, or some parts of Manhattan. But in Japan, they are “not just a solution to overpopulation, but something to aspire to–a middle-class dream.” These Tokyo blocks represent, according to him, “the dream of a bright future and the Japanese Economic Miracle” that replaced the densely packed wooden homes that had been the city’s fabric for hundreds of years. Danchi were created to turn the old Japan into a modern nation of machines and possibility.
Today they don’t look hopeful and modern anymore–the aging buildings are decaying. But at night they become intriguing. The fluorescent lighting turns their organizational rhythm into its own universe. Indeed, that’s the time when Ellingham gets hooked by their retro-futuristic atmosphere and decay, their repetitive geometry and overwhelming size, and the occasional signs of human life that shine within these hypnotic structures. “There is a certain kind of nostalgia to these places,” he tells me, “you can see cats wandering around or children playing on the weekends, but I cannot help but feel that it is a prescribed kind of life.”
For him, loneliness permeates these beehives. The people who live here, he says, “often have little to do with their neighbors.” And everything seems to remain the same through eternity. It is as if these human beings were living in a self-imposed exile–stuck in these parallel dimensions of cement and glowing greenish lights.
His work reflects this perfectly. They do feel like the future–a slightly dystopian one, but a future nonetheless. I keep waiting for the figure of a solitary Tetsuo, lighting a cigarette in a corner, sitting on his bike and waiting for Kaneda.