On an Architecture of Laundry in Tokyo

by Ryan Sayre

SentakumonoA few months back, a friend and I were in the underwear
section of a Tokyo area UNIQLO disagreeing over what kind of drawers she ought to buy for her imaginary husband. Boxers seemed the obvious choice to me. She was leaning toward briefs. I was in favor of solids. She was of the opinion that stripes would better suit him.

This friend of mine is among the not insignificant number of women in Tokyo who hang men’s clothes out to dry with their own undergarments to ward off would-be panty thieves, stalkers and/or peeping Toms. So here we were, scarecrow shopping at UNIQLO.

In the end, my gender wasn’t enough to dissuade her from what I thought was a fashion misdemeanor. But what could I say? She had, after all, been shopping for this imaginary man for a decade. The poor guy ended up with a pair of Size M briefs, blue with light grey stripes.

Hanging laundry out to dry on the veranda might seem a strange departure from the techno-domesticity that we like to imagine governs all aspects of Japanese urban life. Nevertheless, the obsession for washing clothes in Japan is matched only by an equally obsessional aversion to the use of clothes dryers. The Japan Soap and Detergent Association conducted a survey in 2010 that found as many as seventy percent of women do laundry seven days a week. When passing through a residential peri-urban neighborhood, overcrowded geometries of stripes, plaid, argyle and polka-dot come at the eye from all angles. Before the 1964 Olympics the government called on Japanese citizens to temporarily reel in these clotheslines. While Japan is supposed to be the seat of architectural austerity, cleanliness and orderliness rarely keep such distant company as they do on the exterior of a Japanese apartment block. The more an apartment dweller gives herself over to cleanliness, the more she throws her building’s facade into a savagery of colorful disarray.

Laundry becomes an important architectural form in Tokyo, a fixture in the blueprint of city life. Ask a child to draw the apartment building she lives in and I'd wager she’d pull every crayon out of the box to capture the mess of bedding pouring out the windows and draped over the balcony’s edge. She’d no doubt wear all the pastels in the box down to little nubs trying to draw enough powdery blue and pink clothes pins to keep all her pretty clothes from being blown away by a gust of wind.

Hygiene provides a rationale to do more laundry, laundry in turn allows one to take a direct role in the architectural project of city life. Architects in Japan draft buildings under the assumption that the structure will stand for no longer than thirty years. Only 13% of homes there last long enough to have a second owner cook in their kitchen or bathe in their bathtub. Urban structures are taken down almost as quickly as they are put up. A well-known and likely apocryphal legend has an American couple purchasing a home in a Tokyo neighborhood. The couple returns a month later with a moving truck only to find an empty plot of land where their house had stood. The kindly man next door comes rushing over to greet his new neighbors. “You see?” he says with a sweeping gesture, “They took the trouble to remove that old house for you. No charge!”

If buildings are transient entities for draftsmen and homeowners, for housewives, the architects of Tokyo’s ever-changing facade, architecture is downright fleeting. But for that, it is no less solid in each of its daily instantiations. Sport uniforms and school gear, socks and aprons all act as the fluttering tiles of a nearly sentient mosaic. After peeling away from the exterior of a building and enjoying a brief sojourn in a drawer, laundry hitches a ride through the subway tubes and out to all corners of the city. It rides on the backs of mother, father and child as a moving architecture, miniature murals which, after a day on the town, are returned the following morning to their post among the cotton swatches that together constitute the the colorfully embellished curtain wall of Tokyo's buildings.

Architecture_of_laundryIn the 1960s, the avant-garde architectural group, the Metabolists, put their energies into refashioning Tokyo with organic and articulated architecture. It never occurred to them that Tokyo was already exactly this. With Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin-capsule hotel, purportedly the world’s first modular skyscraper, the Metabolists saw a radical vision of a flexible and organic future. But how much less transportable these concrete cubes were than the architecture of laundry that already prevailed in the city around them! Can it be an accident that Kurokawa’s detachable living modules looked uncannily like oversized laundry machines, stacked one atop the next thirteen stories into the air? A fully articulated urban city was not just the stuff of Kurokawa's active Deleuze-inspired imagination. A modular, moble architecture was part and parcel of the urban housewife’s daily routine, a routine set on spin-cycle.


Taro, we can see, had little league practice yesterday. Sayako had ballet. Father’s dress shirt is nowhere to be seen. A business trip, perhaps? If postmodern buildings are designed, as Fredric Jameson says, for photographs, then the Japanese balcony is a family portrait conceived for architecture. The whole family is there, backs held straight. The only thing missing is that little patch of flesh between the neckline of Taro’s uniform and the brim of his baseball cap. All that’s unaccounted for is the sheepish smile half-way between the embroidered collar of Sayako’s leotard and her sequin bedecked tiara. In a laundry-centric world — why not?— it is not people, but clothes that toil away at the office, that go out for drinks, that get called up to bat. It’s clothes that look forward to a good hot bath the morning after a hard day's work. It’s dirty clothes that refuse to wear us around town for a second day in a row, not we them.

Screen shot 2011-10-31 at 4.20.40 AMAs my friend and I inched forward in the UNIQLO checkout line, we made small-talk about her imaginary husband. He's athletic, “Hence the briefs,” she reminded me. That said, he's been developing a bit of a paunch lately, “From staying out till all hours drinking with his workmates, ya know?” His favorite T-shirt, an accidental hand-me down from one of her real boyfriends, had a yellowish stain on the chest. We decided it would be a musturd stain. By the time we got to the register, her imaginary companion felt more or less at home in his blue size M briefs with light grey stripes. They suited him as much as the plaid pajamas we bought him on my previous visit to Japan. The fantasy wasn’t mine. It wasn't hers either. It belonged to the would-be peeping Toms, to the clothes themselves, and ultimately it belonged to Tokyo. It was the ever-so slight alteration in the fabric of the city, the small change in the total composition of Tokyo's architecture of laundry that she would effect the following morning when she put the laundry out on the veranda to dry.

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