tokyo story

originally published in FX corporate design magazine

a rundown district of tokyo is being transformed thanks to a multimillion pound building programme. but will the plans sit happily against the city’s bustling backdrop or stick out like a sore sarariman thumb? 

ask any expe­ri­enced ex-pat in tokyo where to go for a night on the tiles, and you’ll as like­ly as not be direct­ed towards a scruffy and traf­fic fume choked cross­roads, cramped under the con­crete stilts of an over­head express­way, bear­ing the leg­end rop­pon­gi cross­ing. tra­di­tion­al­ly the stomp­ing ground for for­eign vis­i­tors, notably hordes of eng­lish teach­ers and amer­i­can gis, this small quar­ter con­tains pos­si­bly the dens­est con­cen­tra­tion of restau­rants, dive bars and dodgy nightspots of any major city in the world. peo­ple come here to drink, dance, and score. rop­pon­gi is def­i­nite­ly not a byword for respectabil­i­ty or gen­til­i­ty. but that may be about to change.

the new mori cor­po­ra­tion build­ing project in tokyo’s rop­pon­gi roku­chome dis­trict is the most ambi­tious piece of urban devel­op­ment ever to be under­tak­en in japan. it cov­ers approx­i­mate­ly 11 ha, and when ful­ly com­plete will com­prise a total of near­ly 800,000 sq m in floor space for mixed com­mer­cial, retail, enter­tain­ment, and res­i­den­tial use. soar­ing impe­ri­ous­ly above the sky­line, at 54 storeys, the mas­sive rop­pon­gi 6chome tow­er can be seen from just about every cor­ner of cen­tral tokyo. and is the show­piece of the rop­pon­gi hills devel­op­ment. it is home to the mori arts cen­tre, perched on the 52nd and 53rd floors. which will afford vis­i­tors unpar­al­leled views of tokyo togeth­er with access to one of the world’s pre­mier art spaces.

along­side is a small for­est of only slight­ly less­er tow­ers, hous­ing a lux­u­ry hotel, mul­ti­plex cin­e­ma. tv sta­tion and four apart­ment blocks. this devel­op­ment is the lat­est and most con­spic­u­ous in an ongo­ing series of ambi­tious endeav­ours to trans­form the archi­tec­tur­al land­scape of tokyo.

despite the grim real­i­ties and con­tin­u­ing woes of japan’s econ­o­my in the after­math of the prop­er­ty and land spec­u­la­tion bub­ble­burst of the ear­ly nineties, the city is set on push­ing for­ward a bold and expen­sive, ever­ex­pand­ing pro­gramme of urban devel­op­ment and regen­er­a­tion. this may be arro­gant and short­sight­ed over­con­fi­dence, or it may be a brave and sober com­mit­ment to the longer view. in any event, giv­en the lev­el of invest­ment, if the strat­e­gy fails it will do so spectacularly.

even after the ear­ly nineties’ crash and the recent reces­sions, japan still boasts the third high­est gnp in the world. built on the back of huge eco­nom­ic expan­sion in the fifties and six­ties in engi­neer­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing, and, in the sev­en­ties and eight­ies in elec­tron­ics, much of japan’s great­est suc­cess has come only recent­ly. this has been accom­pa­nied by increas­ing cen­tral­i­sa­tion and pop­u­la­tion growth around japan’s urban cen­tres, and par­tic­u­lar­ly the capital.

japan’s megac­i­ties; tokyo-yoko­hama, and osa­ka have become objects of fas­ci­na­tion for the west in the past cou­ple of decades. tokyo’s vibrant­ly lurid and neon­sat­u­rat­ed cityscape, its wan­der­ing tribes of exot­i­cal­ly clad youth, and blue­suit­ed ranks of ‘sarari man’ work­er drones, have inspired a new lit­er­ary genre, the tokyo cyber nov­el. william gibson’s neu­ro­mancer was set in chi­ba and tokyo. more recent­ly. the mag­i­cal real­ist nov­el num­ber 9 dream by david mitchell was 5hortlisted for the book­er prize.

osa­ka was the inspi­ra­tion for the back­drop of rid­ley scott’s bladerun­ner, a film which sin­gle­hand­ed­ly inau­gu­rat­ed a sub­genre of sci­fi film, the near­future elec­tron­ic dystopia. the blaz­ing lights and giant tv screens in the city are amaz­ing, and must have been among the first things to impress the vis­it­ing foot­ball fans last sum­mer. it is very easy for vis­i­tors to see osa­ka only as spec­ta­cle, as a hyper­re­al mon­tage of sur­faces, signs and images.

in fact the sparkle and glitz of the vast shop­ping areas of tokyo shin­juku, shibuya, and gin­za is a very thin pati­na on what is often lit­tle more than a patch­work of short­lease. sys­tems­built, four and five­storey plas­ter­board tat. prop­er­ty is so cost­ly here that it has been much more prof­itable to build and demol­ish every five years or so. the small irreg­u­lar plots of land and short leas­es have giv­en rise to ‘pen­cil build­ings’ irreg­u­lar­ly shaped, nar­row and tall struc­tures, poor­ly designed and cheap­ly engineered.

in a city sub­ject to reg­u­lar earth tremors, and all but destroyed by a major quake in 1923, then flat­tened by allied bomb­ing dur­ing the sec­ond world war, the sense of imper­ma­nence in tokyo is pal­pa­ble. all of these fac­tors have con­tributed to the lack of solid­i­ty in build­ing in the city; the impres­sion that it is more like the back lot of a film stu­dio than a city of any real sub­stance. to the vis­i­tor, urban plan­ning here seems expe­di­ent and prag­mat­ic at best, but more often dom­i­nat­ed by dis­or­gan­ised short-ter­mism, and a breed­ing ground for cor­po­rate oppor­tunism and polit­i­cal corruption.

merg­ing indis­cernibly with its neigh­bour, yoko­hama, japan’s cap­i­tal is a superci­ty, a hyper­me­trop­o­lis. the offi­cial esti­mates of pop­u­la­tion for tokyo seem opti­misti­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive. the fig­ure of 10 to 15 mil­lion doesn’t take account of the huge num­bers of work­ers who com­mute into tokyo from the out­ly­ing dor­mi­to­ry pre­fec­tures of saita­ma, chi­ba, and tochi­gi. the day­time pop­u­la­tion of cen­tral tokyo is much high­er than this, dou­bling or tre­bling to 25 or 30 mil­lion. there are areas of tokyo the finan­cial, and shop­ping dis­tricts such as gin­za which are almost unin­hab­it­ed once the pubs and restau­rants close at night. unlike new york, tokyo is a city that does sleep, when its day­time inhab­i­tants com­mute back to the sub­urbs. this has come to be known as the dough­nut effect tokyo has a hole in the mid­dle, at least in its pop­u­la­tion density.

in a dri­ve to rein­vig­o­rate cen­tral tokyo. the met­ro­pol­i­tan gov­ern­ment has, in con­cert with pri­vate invest­ment, embarked on an ongo­ing pro­gramme of rede­vel­op­ment. at the fore­front of this has been the mori cor­po­ra­tion. its first major work was the ark hills project in the ear­ly eight­ies. this was one of the first attempts in post­war tokyo to con­struct a coher­ent piece of urban plan­ning, and has been a mixed suc­cess. walk around its windswept precincts when there isn’t a major con­cert at the sun­to­ry hall, and you won’t find a soul. the white tiling and chrome trim­mings of this col­lec­tion of tow­er blocks are pret­ty much ortho­dox inter­na­tion­al style. there are. nev­er­the­less, indi­ca­tions to be seen here of an emerg­ing inter­est in envi­ron­men­tal impact, how­ev­er token. in between the build­ings there are well tend­ed and charm­ing gar­dens (per­haps a lit­tle too well tend­ed, a lit­tle too charm­ing) which do man­age to human­ise and soft­en the bru­tal straight lines of the towers.

in all of the mori devel­op­ments since then there has been an increas­ing empha­sis on the inte­gra­tion of ver­ti­cal build­ing with ground lev­el green spaces. the pres­i­dent of the cor­po­ra­tion, minoru mori, sees his strat­e­gy as offer­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to blend liv­ing and work­ing space with wellde­signed leisure and cul­tur­al ameni­ties, inte­grat­ed with safe, well­main­tained parks and green areas between the build­ings. this is his grand vision for tokyo. a sort of baron haus­mann for the 21 st cen­tu­ry, he believes that by demol­ish­ing large tracts of cen­tral tokyo, a ‘ver­ti­cal­ly inte­grat­ed city with parks’ can be achieved with­in the next 30 years. rop­pon­gi hills will be the prov­ing ground for what he calls ‘the urban new deal’. at a cost of 70bn yen (£369m). it’s a high risk ven­ture, and mori has recruit­ed assis­tance of the high­est prestige.

for the tow­er, kohn ped­er­sen fox asso­ciates was cho­sen. this worl­drenowned archi­tec­tur­al prac­tice car­ries a port­fo­lio which includes the fed­er­al reserve bank of dal­las, the suy­ong bay land­mark tow­er, and the muse­um of amer­i­can folk art. in its design of the tow­er, it has pro­duced an asym­met­ri­cal com­po­si­tion, derived, it says, from cubist paint­ings, and reflect­ing, pre­sum­ably, the mul­ti­fac­eted view­points afford­ed by the building’s posi­tion. the top and base of the tow­er reflect tra­di­tion­al forms found in japan­ese arts, includ­ing samu­rai armour and origami.

sched­uled for open­ing in octo­ber, the mori arts cen­tre is a glis­ten­ing airy vast­ness of glass, aer­i­al ter­races. and walk­ways, designed by richard gluck­man, whose oth­er projects have includ­ed the geor­gia 0′ keefe and andy warhol muse­ums. the appoint­ment of david elliott as the direc­tor of the muse­um, togeth­er with its asso­ci­a­tion with the muse­um of mod­ern art under­scores the cul­tur­al inter­na­tion­al­ism of the venture.

mori’s devel­op­ments, despite the corporation’s hazy, feel­go­od blan­d­ish­ments about fos­ter­ing ‘har­mo­ny with nature’, have not been with­out crit­ics. they have been accused of tear­ing up impor­tant urban wildlife enclaves in order to erect high­rise blocks, and putting impres­sive engi­neer­ing achieve­ments before the real needs of com­mu­ni­ty. their green spaces, mori’s crit­ics assert, are only so much win­dow dress­ing, and are not backed up by any seri­ous envi­ron­men­tal research or eco­log­i­cal method. more far­reach­ing is the argu­ment that until there is a prop­er­ly coor­di­nat­ed urban plan­ning pol­i­cy in japan, the dreams of one indi­vid­ual may remain just that. what is need­ed is a gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tive which will rec­on­cile and inte­grate the plan­ning needs of all inter­est­ed sec­tions of the city’s com­mu­ni­ty. in a coun­try where con­struc­tion com­pa­nies have been allowed to build what­ev­er they want, how­ev­er they want, this may be very dif­fi­cult to achieve.

the rop­pon­gi hills tow­er is a glit­ter­ing and daz­zling land­mark, and the inter­na­tion­al­ism sym­bol­i­cal­ly pro­claimed by the mori art muse­um at its sum­mit will be great­ly wel­comed. whether minoru mori’s neat­ly ordered vision of a sky­scraper and green spaces utopia will be able to sit with the cheer­ful and ener­getic chaos which has been tokyo’s great strength in the past cen­tu­ry is anoth­er mat­ter FX

(com­par­a­tive­ly) recent — 2008 — pho­tographs on sis­ter site avail­able here.

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