From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Japanese manhole covers was broadcast on the 26th March 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
While many visitors to Japan might get a crick in their neck gazing up at towering pagodas and Tori gates, there’s one item that is much more down-to-earth but equally unmissable: manhole covers, or manhorukaba. Not all of them but there are certainly hundreds throughout the land which are as beautiful as porcelain plates. These simple circles of iron are often enamelled in bright colours and cast in a wide variety of designs that resemble Japanese woodcuts, portraying images of everything from local landmarks to popular comic figures. Finding one embedded in the footpath is like discovering a jewel, and can become addictive: they are, quite simply, tiny treasures waiting to be found.
Decorating manhole covers so deliciously was the idea of a civil servant called Yasutake Kameda in the 1980s. He thought artfully decorated manhole covers would alert people to the wonder of the drainage system that lay below their feet. It was a sort of mindful action, drawing a daily consciousness to a whole world of subterranean pipework. He figured their popularity would also create an impetus for rural communities to invest in new sewer systems. It’s a typically Japanese solution to a problem, bringing beauty and focus to something that is ordinary in the extreme. And yet it also tapped into an older way of thinking, to a time when sewer systems first revolutionised urban living in the nineteenth century.
You need only visit one of the great pumping stations of Victorian London to appreciate the beauty of the new sewerage system that Joseph Bazalgette engineered for the city in the 1860s, with a network of nearly 2000 kilometres of sewers, some of them hidden in a new embankment alongside the Thames. The buildings are splendid Romanesque fantasies that elevate the banal into something almost hallowed. Inside, the pumps and pipes that power the system are a symphony of polished and enamelled iron and brass. These are temples to the glory of sophisticated living, where the retrieving and relieving of the city’s waste is given an importance we often overlook. Until it fails. It’s no wonder that guided tours of the sewer systems of great cities around the world have become major attractions. In Japan, the craze for manhole covers is mirrored by the country’s celebration of other everyday essentials, like the golden domes atop Osaka’s waste plant, decorated by Viennese artist Hundertwasser or the astonishing crispness of Hiroshima’s, as clinical as a laboratory, with both designed in the early years of this century. Perhaps we should always promote these mundane services. We think nothing of creating a beautiful bridge but seldom accord the same dignity to service buildings that do more basic things. Although when Walter Burley Griffin designed waste incinerators for Sydney and elsewhere in the 1920s, they showed a pride that surpassed their basic utility. Today we can spend more on a new bathroom than we might on any other room, which surely demonstrates an acceptance of our body’s most basic needs. Japanese culture has always focussed on the micro, including complicated toilet seats that perform all manner of intimacies. As one walks the long straight streets of Japan’s modern towns and cities, the manhole covers shine like sunbeams of art and engineering. Reminders that greatness often lies in hidden things.