There are myriad structures and objects in the built environment that many of us rarely give a second thought to, like the materials that make sidewalks and streets, the pipe systems below the pavement, or the manhole covers that keep those networks secure and provide essential access. In Japan, though, form follows function in a recent tradition of creating manhole covers that feature bold and colorful designs.
Video creators Process X visited the Hinode factory to document the manufacture of the ubiquitous lids from start to finish. Workers first melt metal and stamp the molten material into a form that produces a distinctive raised outline. The covers are then cooled and transported to a station where others hand-paint the details, heat the pigments to create a durable finish, and ready them for installation.
Japan’s aesthetic solution to an otherwise banal infrastructural object is thought to have originated back in the mid-1980s when municipalities were invited to design their own manhole covers, making costly sewerage updates more palatable. Following a handful of local contests and documentation by photographers and publications, the phenomenon continues to add vivid, unexpected designs to everyday surfaces.
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Japan is a country full of amazing art. Some of it is housed within museums and galleries while others are right underneath our feet. I’m talking, of course, about Japan’s peculiar obsession with manhole covers. Just about anywhere in the country you can find stylized manhole covers, each more beautiful and intricate than the next. For the past several years photographer S. Morita has traveled around Japan photographing artistic manhole covers.
As to why this phenomenon developed, signs point to a high-ranking bureaucrat in the construction ministry who, in 1985, came up with the idea of allowing municipalities to design their own manhole covers. His objective was to raise awareness for costly sewage projects and make them more palatable for taxpayers.
Thanks to a few design contests and subsequent publications, the manhole craze took off and municipalities were soon competing with each other to see who could come up with the best designs. According to the Japan Society of Manhole Covers (yes, that’s a thing) today there are almost 6000 artistic manhole covers throughout Japan. And according to their latest findings, the largest single category are trees, followed by landscapes, floral designs and birds – all symbols that could, and surely did, boost local appeal.
Update: Remo Camerota has an entire book on the design of Japanese manhole covers, aptly titled Drainspotting.
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