After the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony (tradition) and the 1964 and 2020 buildings (modernism) this last article in the trilogy looks at objects. Again, the designs for the Olympics seem less than a gold medal standard, particularly measured against an all-time great industrial design from Japan.
Much has been made of the sustainability ambitions for buildings and objects at these Olympics, and equally how they fall short. Not only was Kengo Kuma’s main stadium rather ho-hum, it has been alleged that the spatial planning derived from Zaha Hadid’s rejected scheme and that the timber so widely used came from Shin Yang, a Malaysian logging giant accused of illegal logging and rainforest destruction.
Prominent objects in the Olympics were designed from recycled materials: the torch (and the uniforms the bearers wore), the medals and the podiums that they were awarded on; recycled polyester in some basketball, skateboarding and soccer kit. The athletes’ beds were made from recycled cardboard, with recyclable polyester ‘linen’. You can find more about these objects in Dezeen magazine.
But it all seemed a little superficial and trite, even accused of ‘greenwashing’. But in two areas this Olympics drew on the strength of Japan’s industrial design, vehicles and electronics, often represented by two business titans: Toyota and Sony.
Toyota created an electric people mover to transport athletes around the village though, sadly, not to the timber village center featured last week, as it was COVID off limits. The design was Japanese functional: essential, simple but somehow sensual. Similar in origins to part-electric Prius vehicle and the earlier Crown vehicles discussed in this column, along with the way Toyota re-wrote automobile manufacture, as analysed by MIT and described in the book The Machine that Changed the World.
It is not sufficient to be environmentally conscious, in this case fully electric, it has to be done in a way that is socially and economically sustainable. This looks like the prototype of the next big thing in transport innovation: the ‘inner-city microbus ride-share-on-demand’.
Contrast this with the bellicose designs of Tesla cars: the corny retro oversized fashioning, intended for US IT executives on freeways, but more often being ‘fanged off the lights’ in crowded suburban streets. No wonder the Biden administration excluded Tesla from the recent announcement that 50% of all vehicles sold in the US must be electric by 2030. Would that they were the Toyota ‘curvy box on wheels’.
In many ways this was the electronic Olympics; no-one in the stands, the locals joined the rest of the world in watching on screens, even the athletes watched it on phones on the bus to the stadium. And how many of those screens were by Sony, the doyenne of Japanese, if not world, electronics.
Founded by Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita after WW2, the firm launched the world’s first portable radio, based on transistors, in 1957. They intended to call it Sonny from the Latin Sonus for sound, and the popular American nickname but, told that it was slightly pejorative, they dropped an ‘N’.
Sony quickly developed a wide range of technologically advanced and highly-designed goods: when the Nakagin Capsule Tower, designed by Kisho Kurakawa, was prefab built in 30 days in 1972, each module had a Sony TV, a radio tuner (for the new FM stations) and a reel-to-reel tape recorder inside its 4m x 3m space.
Sony made ‘boom-box music-blasters’ using the newly developed cassette tapes, and the story goes that when Morita saw his CFO in the corridors carrying one with large headphones he inquired why. Told that he liked his own taste in music and didn't want to disturb others (so Japanese), Morita saw an opportunity. He gathered his executives together and described a design he thought the youth would love. To a ‘salaryman’ they said it was unmakeable, unmarketable and unrealistic. Morita insisted, and six months later the Walkman was on the market.
I count this as the most important industrial design object post WW2, revolutionary in five ways.
First, was the electronic miniaturization, being barely larger than the music cassette that it enclosed, speeding a trend started by the transistor radio. Second, was its physicality: exquisite industrial design, a robust case with stylish buttons, nothing in excess, the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ in which Japan excels. Third was making the technology affordable. The early prices were expensive, but not in comparison to bulky Hi-Fi systems of the time. In 20 years, Sony sold 186 million cassette Walkmans.
In the fourth innovation it physically changed the way music was heard, from large speakers to individual micro headphones, and the fifth, and most important of all, was social: it changed what music was heard: rather than listen to a DJ's selection of music on the transistor radio, the user could listen to a cassette ‘mix tape’ made by them, or increasingly the gift of a friend. It transferred control from the broadcaster to the individual user.
Sony, already big, became a towering giant of Japanese electronics. Not long after the Discman is released, playing CD, compact discs: an invention by Sony (and Dutch firm Philips). There were setbacks: Sony develops Betamax video recording tape but is beaten by Panasonic’s smaller and lesser quality VHS, introduced a year later. By 2019 the Walkman had transmogrified into digital music and a giant one is erected to celebrate 40 years.
Sony had a vexed relationship to the USA; born in the post-war poverty, it flourished by buying the rights to transistors; in thirty years its business practices outstrip its original benefactors; it becomes so large that it can buy the entire US Columbia organization, music and films. Morita co-wrote a book about the differences in business approaches in Japan and the USA, although he later repudiates his chapters and has them removed from the book as he didn't want to be seen as anti-American.
One last observation on the Walkman: in design studios. In the 60s and 70s design schools had open studios such as the Canberra CAE School of Environmental Design, which was designed to be like the John Andrews’ Harvard architecture school with stacked open studios, such that the music played on one boom-box reverberated through the whole building.
The Walkman, with its innovation of privatized noise, changed all that, allowing several hundred students to work in harmony in school provided studios. Those were the days (and the all-nighters). In 1982, when I returned from the USA to NZ to study my masters, I needed my Walkman to listen to Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead, there not being many fellow architectural ‘Dead-Heads’ (hello Geoff Warn).
The Walkman opened up the way music could be experienced personally, often with better clarity: it was the radical precursor to the iPod, podcasts, and the now ubiquitous smartphones. It was the most common way the Tokyo Olympics were experienced, and just for that, was the key object of the games.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]