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.