Looking at the small things: Japanese Manhole Covers / by Seth Amman

Japanese Manhole Covers - Photo by Seth Amman

Digging deep and going back to some photos I had taken in Japan almost a decade ago, I wanted the first entry to show something small but with a big design and city impact. I saw many amazing things which may be teased out in future log entries, but one unique element that caught my eye throughout Japan were the highly artistic manhole covers.

In the nineteen-eighties Japan needed to begin replacing the ancient sewer systems that still existed in many towns outside the major urban centers. While this may have been a necessary interruption to improve life, there was nation-wide resistance until one government official appealed to individuals with a new tactic. The official suggested that rather than mass producing the typical manhole cover, each municipality could customize the manhole to best represent their location. Surprisingly, this was a huge success. The sewer infrastructure was updated and municipalities across japan created cultural icons and place-specific identity with the most unlikely of objects.

Just Google Japanese manhole covers to get a wider view of some of these pieces of infrastructural art. There are thousands of designs in Japan now and at least one book devoted to the topic.

 Yokohama, Japan - Photo by Seth Amman

Yokohama, Japan - Photo by Seth Amman

 Kumamoto, Japan - Photo by Seth Amman

Kumamoto, Japan - Photo by Seth Amman

 Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan- Photo by Seth Amman

Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan- Photo by Seth Amman

While this is a great idea, it doesn't need to be replicated everywhere. It is important to think about what is special, ...memorable about the places we live, work, and play in. Here in Buffalo, New York Community Canvases, a public art initiative, organizes local artisans to paint the otherwise blank signal and transformer boxes, as well as it pioneers many other creative projects. This type of gumption is needed to energize the public places we love, or want to love. Art causes intrigue, awe, wonderment or disgust, but it touches us one way or another and is as unique to our communities as a fingerprint is to us.

These cultural entrepreneurs, the non-profit organizations, are significant economic catalysts to Buffalo's urban areas. Most important, this evolutionary approach results in authentic diversity based on the efforts of multiple actors over time, and this produces real city character. We must innovate past assumptions to revitalize our urban experience. The Japanese manhole covers and Buffalo's utility paintings do just that.                   

 Elmwood Avenue Signal Box, Buffalo, NY - Courtesy of Community Canvases

Elmwood Avenue Signal Box, Buffalo, NY - Courtesy of Community Canvases

 Hertel Avenue Signal Box, Buffalo, NY - Courtesy of Community Canvases

Hertel Avenue Signal Box, Buffalo, NY - Courtesy of Community Canvases

 Another example seen in Calgary, Canada - Photo by Seth Amman

Another example seen in Calgary, Canada - Photo by Seth Amman