Tokyo-based photographer Cody Ellingham’s DANCHI Dreams exhibition is a journey into a declining ultramodern Japanese cityscape.
Ellingham’s latest exhibition, which will launch on May 12 at Takiguchi Ateliera, a former factory turned gallery in Tokyo’s Koto-ku district, is the result of an extensive year-long photographic survey of large-scale Japanese housing projects known as ‘Dachi’ (‘group land’).
Once the pride of Japanese housing, today Dachi are decaying architectural giants. This housing typology is often built in clusters, present in so-called ‘sleeper towns’ of up to 70 buildings, each numbered rather than named, with each apartment the same as its neighbours from the outside.
Ellingham’s interest in Danchi started as an aesthetic fascination. The photographer said he initially saw Danchis as “mountains of steel and concrete”. This fascination with form quickly turned into a curiosity towards the history and social significance of these residences.
“The exhibition was inspired by places. It started as an interest in form, but it’s evolved into an interest in why – the way place influences lives. In a way it’s quite Kafka-esque – you have the same life as the person next door to you.
“The personality is superficial. You feel like it could be cleaned away in a moment. Sometimes there were flowers or decorations outside the doors, but you can imagine someone is going to come and clean them away, and then it will be gone.”
Danchi apartment buildings replaced wooden dwellings destroyed during World War II and were built to cope with rapidly growing urban populations in Japan. Initially, they were a vision of a harmonious new life. In 1960, Hibarigaoka danchi even attracted an unprecedented visit from Japan’s Crown Prince. The building is now a carpark.
“Talking to older people, danchi were a dream for them. Something to aspire to,” explains Ellingham. “The old houses were little villages made from earth and wood. Danchi represented a new and modern way of life. If you go back to the 1960s, this was how people saw the future.”
However, the Danchi dream has faded since their construction. The demographics of danchi-dwellers too has changed since the 1960s. The apartments are today primarily inhabited by immigrants and the elderly. Although he visited at a time where most residents were home, Ellingham rarely saw anyone and was never approached for conversation.
Ellingham said danchi are today seen as archaic and sterile. Even the most desirable often have tiny rooms and no elevators. A lot of Danchi aren’t up to modern earthquake or fire standards. In 15-20 years, many are likely to be demolished to make way for the latest ultramodern building boom.
But despite the anonymous, ‘carbon-copy’ lifestyle of the fading monoliths, Ellingham sees beauty rather than despair in the buildings, which for many people are the only home they know.
“There’s a certain kind of nostalgia in these places. The look of it is cold concrete, but deep down, you find glimmers of hope, playgrounds, mural art, community facilities, and the original dream: that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.”
Around 40 Danchi have been explored and photographed at dusk and early evening by Ellingham with the goal of recording part of Japanese history before it is lost.
Mr Ellingham is currently seeking gallery space to take his vision of Danchi to the international stage following the Tokyo exhibition.
(Photo Credits: Cody Ellingham)