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Travel guide: Tokyo

September 22, 2014 /

Tokyo, Japan

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Shibuya crossing at night. Photo by Héctor García/CC

By Ulf Meyer

With its 32 million inhabitants, Tokyo is by far the biggest metropolis of the developed world. However, it is not necessarily its size  as much as its relentless pace and extraordinary capability to adapt to new conditions that makes the city so unique. Like Kenzo Tange and his fellow Metabolists famously noted, Tokyo has the appearance of a sophisticated organism with a highly developed metabolism, constantly modifying its own urban fabric.

Getting a grasp of this continiously expanding, all-encompassing, all-pervading Hyper-Metropolis - frightening and wonderful, as it is - would undoubtedly take much longer than a lifetime. However, precisely because the city's architecture is so completely entwined with the its ever-morphing urban design, one might also consider Tokyo a laboratory for the urbanized future of the entire Western civilization. 

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Saint Mary's Cathedral
3-16-5 Sekiguchi, Bunkyo-ku
Architect: Kenzo Tange (1964)

The site of St Mary's Cathedral was originally occupied by a Neogothic wooden church, completed in 1899 and destroyed in World War II. The new cathedral was inaugurated in 1964 to celebrate the centenary of the recognition of the Catholic faith in Japan and is the seat of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Tokyo. Tange won the architectural design competition for this building in 1961. With the help of Wilhelm Schlombs, the architect of the archdiocese of Cologne (Germany), the Zurich-based architect Max Lechner, and engineer Yoshikatsu Tsuboi, he designed a spectacular roof-only building in the shape of a hyperbolic paraboloid.

The floor plan is cruciform. The stainless-steel panels used to clad the enormous roof slabs give the cathedral a glistening appearance in direct sunlight. Contrast is provided by the matt exposed-concrete surfaces of the interiors. The eight walls create a cave-like space reminiscent of the architecture of medieval cathedrals in Europe. The shape of the floor plan could also be interpreted as a bird with metaphorically spread wings. The cruciform skylight extends vertically on all four facades down to ground level. Several artful abstract details, such as the cubic baptismal font, give the interiors their strikingly modern feel. An opening behind the altar creates interesting light effects. The rhomboid main space contains rectangular secondary rooms.

The cathedral's free-standing campanile is 60 m high and resembles a white needle. Tange has described the way he designs buildings as follows: "Architectural design is a special way of understanding reality, which it influences and transforms. The artful form mirrors reality while at the same time enriching it. For this process to happen, it is necessary to understand the anatomy of reality, its physical and spiritual structure as a whole."

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Nakagin Capsule Tower
8-16-10 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Architect: Kisho Kurokawa (1972)

As the climax of the Metabolist movement, the Nakagin Capsule Tower is one of the most important and famous 1970s buildings in Japan. Its twin cores are intended to express a vision of a dynamic, cyclical city that is always changing and growing. The tower consists of 140 prefabricated cells suspended from two vertical circulation cores. The cells were mass-produced to make them replaceable. They may be used as mini-offices or 'bases' for people living far away who wish to stay in the city centre overnight.

The capsules are the model for the many capsule hotels that are to be found in any Japanese city, offering accommodation for 'salary men' at little expense. Because of continued interest in the building from visitors from all over the globe, one of the capsules has been opened to the public. During construction the cells were transported to the site fully equipped. Lifted by crane, they were connected to the concrete core using only four bolts. Each 4 x 2.5 metre unit has a circular window and contains a built-in bed, a stereo system, a whisky bar, and a prefabricated WC and shower cell. Despite its prominence in the history of Japanese architecture, the building is slated for demolition after local residents set up an initiative to get rid of it, complaining of its poor state of maintenance (the tower has leaking water pipes and the idea of replacing some of the capsules has never been realized). The owners complain that the capsules are difficult to maintain and prefer to replace the tower with a new building. Docomomo has so far been unsuccessful in its attempts to secure support from UNESCO for the building's preservation. The Japanese government has no policy protecting early Modernist architecture.

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Shizuoka Press and Media Building
8-3-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Architect: Kenzo Tange (1968)

Situated on a small triangular corner lot at the edge of Ginza, this mini-tower houses the offices of correspondents from various media owned by Shizuoka. The site has an area of less than 190 m2. The offices cantilever out from a large circular cylinder in the centre. The voids represent potential expandability. The tower is 57 m tall and is clad in black aluminium. Its central core contains a quarter-of-a-circle spiral staircase, two elevators, and secondary spaces. The Shizuoka Media Building has become a landmark for travellers entering Tokyo by train from the west because it stands right next to a flyover and the elevated tracks of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line.

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Mikimoto Ginza 2 Building
4-5-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Architect: Toyo Ito / Taisei Design (2005)

This building on Ginza Street is the flagship store of the Mikimoto Corporation, the inventor of the cultured pearl. The nine-storey, 56-metre tower stands on a small corner lot (17 x 14 m). Its lower floors contain a large jewellery showroom and offices while the upper floors house a restaurant and offices for rent. The building's four slim steel walls form a rigid, hollow structural tube with column-free interiors. These sandwich panels contain a narrow layer of concrete between inner and outer steel plates that are only 6-12 mm thick. The plates were pre-fabricated and transported to the site, where they were then erected and welded together. The cavity between the plates was then filled with 200 mm of concrete, the steel plates serving as formwork.

This construction method produces extremely stable thin walls. Because the structure is laminar and un-directional the irregular pattern of windows could be placed on the facades in whatever way desired. The random, drop-shaped openings are reminiscent of air bubbles released during diving. Ito wanted a building that would express a "soft lightness and a fine intensity at the same time." Neither pure geometry nor tectonic expression is dominant. In order to achieve a perfectly flush facade without joints, the weld seams were sanded and covered with several layers of paint, giving the facades an abstract appearance. 

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Maison Hermès
5-4-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Architect: Renzo Piano (2001)

This building for the French luxury empire of Jean-Louis Dumas is Hermès' flagship store and headquarters in Japan. The 6000 m2 of floor space contains a large shop, workshops, offices, and exhibition spaces, crowned by a pleasant rooftop garden. A setback dividing the long elevation into two parts creates a small courtyard and access to a metro station. The building's proportions are similar to those of the nearby SONY Building, designed by Ashihara in 1966. 45 m deep, this narrow structure resembles a carefully crafted gem and is both classic and avant-garde at the same time. The facades are entirely of 45 x 45 cm custom-made glass bricks.

Piano wanted to create a 'magic lantern', inspired by traditional Japanese lanterns. During the day the facade barely reveals what goes on behind it, but at night it glows from within. On the outside, clear-glass bricks have been inserted at eyelevel to display Hermès' products. The corners of the building are rounded. The inside of the shop is characterized by a quiet atmosphere and diffuse daylight. The building's structure is a flexible steel skeleton with visco-elastic dampers for earthquake proofing. The glass-brick facades stand on cantilevering floor plates.

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Swatch Ginza / Nicolas Hayek Centre
7-9-18 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Architect: Shigeru Ban (2006)

This multi-storey watch shop was named after the founder of the Swiss Swatch Group, which in 2004 bought the site and knocked down the existing structure (the Pearl Building). At 56 m high, the new building is twice the height of its predecessor. Shigeru Ban won the architectural competition with a concept that called for an open ground floor containing only seven oval glass elevators used as small showcases for each of the company's seven brands. At a speed of 15 m/s these hydraulic lifts, which have no elevator shaft, take visitors up to the floor containing the shop for the specific brand that interests them. In this way, each of the seven brands receives the same level of attention (had the brand shops simply been stacked one on top of another, many visitors would have passed through the ground floor, but few would have reached the upper floors). The building's top floors contain the offices of Swatch Japan and a three-storey customer-service centre. The 14th floor, called 'La Cité du Temps', is used for exhibitions, concerts, and press conferences. The entire building is white in order to create a neutral background for the watches. By contrast, the firewall on the left-hand side is a green wall with vines and climbing plants.

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Tokyo International Forum
3-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku
Architect: Rafael Viñoly (1996)

The International Forum is Tokyo's most famous and architecturally most appealing conference centre. It contains four large multi-purpose, box-like buildings of various sizes on one side and a giant glass forum on the other. Leaf-shaped in plan, it huddles against the nearby elevated rail tracks connecting Tokyo Eki with Yuraku‑cho. In between the two parts of the forum lie a public plaza and north-south walkway. Born in Uruguay and achieving success as an architect first in Argentina and then in the USA, Rafael Viñoly was able to impart a clear spatial order to the functional programme for the forum. The 5000-seat Great Hall, used for exhibitions and as a foyer for all the conference spaces, has been skilfully integrated in the surrounding urban fabric.

It is reminiscent of the great arcades of 19th-century Europe such as the Milan Galleria or the Crystal Palace in London. The bridges and ramps that cut across the hall create a Piranesi-esque space. Seven smaller halls, 34 conference rooms, galleries, restaurants and shops are spread over the eleven floors. The vast glass roof rests on elegant white fish-belly steel girders. The International Forum remains Viñoly's most famous design.

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Centennial Hall of the Tokyo Institute of Technology
2-12-1 Ookayama, Meguro-ku
Architect: Kazuyo Shinohara (1987)

Commissioned to mark the centenary of Tokyo Institute of Technology, this building became an icon of the 1980s. In his design Shinohara wanted to express the 'progressive anarchy' that he saw at work in the way that Tokyo has developed. Situated at the entrance to the campus, the Centennial Hall contains a museum of technology, seminar rooms, and a conference room. The ground-floor gallery extends over two floors. What makes the building the landmark of the Tokyo Institute of Technology is a stainless-steel-clad half-cylinder on the roof that cantilevers over the facades at both ends and seems to hover. Developed by engineer Toshihiko Kimura, this iconic 44-metre-long half-cylinder looks like a kinked beam. It points from the centre of the campus to the nearby train station. Form the roof bar and lounge at the top of the cylinder patrons can see Fuji-san on clear days.

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Prada Boutique Aoyama
5-2-6 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku
Architect: Herzog & de Meuron (2003)

This shopping temple belonging to the Prada fashion label is the second 'epicentre' built by the Italian fashion house. It consists of a glass block surrounded by a fine diamond-shaped structure. The facade pattern, which contains various sheets of bent glass, works with the slim inner core and three horizontal tubes to form the building's load-bearing structure. The crystal shape is a result of the zoning regulations for the site. Right in the middle of Tokyo's dense fashion district, the architects have opted for the luxury of a free-standing building in the shape of an irregular diamond that resembles a giant sculpture. Instead of a roof, the building has a 'fifth facade'. By keeping its distance from its neighbours, the boutique allows room for a small plaza.

The interiors of the tower form a continuous space (floor area: 2800 m2) that is a floating, ivory-coloured, spatial continuum of seeing and being seen spiralling up six floors. Horizontal tubes are integrated into the building and serve a dual purpose as both structural members and 'lines of view' focusing on different views in the vicinity. The building is a "tool for cognition" (Prada). Luminous projections are cast onto the white surfaces of the tubes. All of the building's visible elements - except for the glass - serve a triple function as load-bearing structure, space, and facade. All interiors and furnishings from tables to light switches were designed by Herzog & de Meuron, who are also the authors of 'snorkels' that can transport images, sound, and light and impart different atmospheres to different parts of the building (e.g. the 'sound showers' in the hallways). The merchandise is displayed on low illuminated tables in a soft-edged aesthetic. This is the first and only stand-alone building that Prada has ever commissioned.

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International House of Japan
5-11-16 Roppongi, Minato-ku
Architect: Kunio Maekawa (1955)

The International House of Japan stands on a historically important site that was once owned by the Kyogoku clan and later by Foreign Minister Kaoru Inoue. After World War II ownership passed to the state. The International House of Japan owes its foundation to the famous journalist and academic Shigeharu Matsumoto, who was so impressed by International House in New York that he decided to establish something similar in his motherland. When John D. Rockefeller visited Japan in 1951, Matsumoto secured his financial support for the construction of International House. The Kokusai Bunka Kaikan was established in 1952 and was 2/3rds financed by the Rockefeller Foundation. Three architects - Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura, and Junzo Yoshimura - collaborated in designing the building. The motif of a structure cantilevering over a water pond is reminiscent of scroll paintings from the Heian Period (794-1185). The three-storey building contains a welcoming foyer, library, dining hall, conference room, and offices. The upper floors contain study bedrooms in the Japanese and Western styles. Two separate buildings serve the director and his deputy. The latter two buildings and the south elevation of the main building overlook a garden designed by Jihei Ogawa in a style similar to that of gardens in the Momoyama Period. In 1972 money was raised to fund an extension to the building. This was erected four years later, to a design by Maekawa. The new four-storey wing offers rooms with a greater standard of comfort. International House aims to "improve understanding between Japan, America, and other countries through intellectual and cultural exchange." The house's first guest in its Distinguished Visitors Programme was Walter Gropius, who spent more than two months here in 1954.

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Tokyo National Art Center
7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku
Architect: Kisho Kurokawa (2007)

The largest exhibition space for art in Japan, the National Art Center Tokyo (NACT) has helped turn the Roppongi district into a destination for culture. The hall's giant atrium is closed off by a glass facade that curves in both directions and has glass sunscreens. Two large concrete cones in the foyer, resembling petrified tornadoes, appear to have caused the curves in the facade. The first thing seen by visitors is a circular pavilion which has only one, rather unexpected, function: on rainy days guests can stow away their umbrellas here in lockers before proceeding to enjoy the art. The route leads them through a large cone lit by indirect light into the 22-metre high foyer - and more than 14,000 m2 of exhibition space! The column-free flexible galleries have skylights. Five of these galleries are intended for temporary exhibitions by the various Japanese artists' associations who hold their annual shows here. The two tallest galleries, however, which have ceiling heights of 8 metres, are for travelling exhibitions curated by the NACT itself.

The Japanese Ministry of Culture spent more than 30 billion yen on the building, which is situated on a site formerly owned by the University of Tokyo. The NACT is the fifth art institution to have state support - after Tokyo's museums of modern art, museums in Osaka and Kyoto, and the Museum for Western Art. It is also the first state-run art institution that does not possess a collection of its own. The Ministry of Culture had wanted to build the NACT since the 1970s. Kurokawa's design philosophy and 'theory of symbiosis' are rooted in the same era. In the case of the NACT Kurokawa found inspiration in the contrast between the East-Asian art tradition and the Western concept of public museums - as well as in contrasts between order and nature (as symbolized in an orthogonal bamboo garden) and high-tech and natural elements (automatic tilting robots, for instance, hover over floors made of wood from the rainforests of Borneo). The NACT is designed to house several presentations of two or more exhibitions. After the nearby Suntory Museum of Art by Kengo Kuma and Design Site 21 by Tadao Ando, the NACT is the third element in 'the Roppongi Art Triangle'.

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Roppongi Hills Mori Tower
6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku
Architect: Kohn Pederson Fox KPF (2003)

The Mori Tower with its broad facade of glistening silver has become the new icon for turn-of-the millennium Tokyo. In reality, this building is a mélange project containing different structures that together form Mori's biggest urban renewal project. The tower was designed by Kohn Pederson Fox of New York. Its extreme thickness can only clumsily be disguised. There are four additional residential towers on the site. These accommodate the former inhabitants of the area whose houses were demolished to make way for the new development (such re-housing is a requirement of Japanese law). The office tower has extra-large floor plates designed for banks and their large trading floors. It stands on top of a shopping mall designed by the famous Californian mall designer John Jerde in a style that is supposed to be reminiscent of the Mediterranean. With 54 storeys, the tower is the second tallest in Tokyo, just short of the twin towers of Kenzo Tange's City Hall, which sets the maximum height in Tokyo (symbolically, ambitious capitalism has here been outstripped by the civic community). 

Mori had tested this model before with his Ark Hills project and learned how, given an extensive period of time, a large number of lots may be bought up and amalgamated legally. Part of the development, and its sole architectural highlight, is the TV-Asahi Building by Fumihiko Maki. The top of the tower houses a large luxury hotel and a private art museum. The latter occupies the top five floors and was designed by Gluckman Mayner of New York. It has no art collection of its own. Its 11,000 m2 space is divided into a 2300-m2 main gallery on the 53rd floor and three flexible-use exhibition spaces (a total of 1020 m2) on level 52. The galleries are lit by the Upper Atrium, a central void that connects the galleries with the museum's club on level 51 and the administration on the floors below. The atrium is clad in sandstone and also serves as a panoramic gallery, viewing platform, museum shop, and two cafés. Access is by express elevators. The three-storey lobby on the first floor was also designed by Gluckman Mayner.

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Tokyo Tower
4-2-8 Shiba-kouen, Minato-ku
Architect: Nikken Sekkei (1958)

Tokyo Tower in Shiba Park is one of Tokyo's landmarks. 332 m tall, it is one of the highest freestanding steel towers in the world. It has two fully glazed viewing platforms - a double-storey platform at 150 m that also contains shops and restaurants and a single-storey one at 250 m. On a clear day visitors can not only see the whole city around them, but Mount Fuji as well. The steel-truss, space-frame tower is similar in design to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Although the Paris tower is not as tall, it used more than twice as much steel as its more efficient Japanese epigone. Every year Tokyo Tower, the symbol of the post-war reconstruction of Japan and the tallest tower in Tokyo, is visited by four million people. It also serves as a radio and TV tower with a row of antennas along the steel frame and a TV antenna at the top. Underneath the tower is a four-storey building containing an aquarium, a waxworks, a casino, souvenir shops, restaurants, and a small amusement park on its roof. Tokyo Tower is painted orange and white, the universal colours used to designate aviation hazards. It is currently used by 23 radio and TV broadcasting channels.

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Fuji Sankei Building (Fuji TV)
2-4-8 Daiba, Minato-ku
Architect: Kenzo Tange (1996)


This exotic/futuristic headquarters building for a private TV channel seems to be all "superstructure" (120 x 210 m). Two 25-storey towers stand on a shared seven-storey base containing large TV studios. The studios are connected by skywalks set in a rectangular superstructure. One of the voids of the skeleton contains what is apparently a floating 'sphere' - a ball-shaped viewing platform. One of the towers is used for offices and the other for smaller studios. The seven-storey base has a rooftop terrace that can be accessed either through a cascade of escalators (like those at the Pompidou Centre in Paris) or by a giant stairway that emerges from right underneath one of the elevated towers. The structure's gigantic frames are held in place by four rigid verticals and are clearly expressed on the facade. The Fuji TV Building has become an inner-city tourist destination and serves as the landmark building of this new urban district on the artificial island of Odaiba, as well as a memorial to the widespread enthusiasm for media in the 90s.

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Dentsu Headquarters Building
1-8-1 Higashi Shinbashi, Minato-ku
Architect: Jean Nouvel (2002)

This first tower designed by Jean Nouvel serves as the corporate headquarters of Japanese advertising agency Dentsu. In his design for this 213-metre-high, grey-white tower Nouvel wanted to create pleasant offices and interiors as well as play with different kinds of glass. The result is interesting facades despite some visual understatement. The entire southern facade, for example, was designed using a grid of elliptical dots: the facade surfaces of 35,000 m2 were printed with more than 2500 different patterns in twelve different shades to create a variable effect. The floors and ceilings of the offices are sound-absorbent and completely flexible. Depending on their orientation, the facades have different levels of sun protection. The crescent-shaped plan has given the tower a visually subdued silhouette on Tokyo's skyline: seen from all three of the most important viewpoints (Shinbashi Station, Ginza and Tokyo Bay, and nearby Hamarikyu Imperial Park), the building looks simple and elegant. The eastern facade consists of large vertical sunscreen elements, while the south-west facade is made up of different kinds of glass whose tone and texture vary, 'like a sundial', according to orientation. Terraces mark the atria on each 10th floor and thus the different departments of the Dentsu Corporation. 

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DesignSight 21_21
9-7-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku
Architect: Tadao Ando (2007)

This small private design museum was founded by the Design Institute of Japan and famous fashion designer Issey Miyake. It is part of the giant 'Midtown' tower-and-shopping-mall complex next door. The design centre has a ground floor and one basement floor and is exclusively used for travelling exhibitions. Seen from the outside, the first striking feature is the large, seamlessly joined, geometrically broken, steel plates that make up the roofs of both wings. The expressive triangular roofs of both parts of the building are reminiscent of Miyake's famous use of pleats in his fashion design. All walls and stairs are made of the distinctive fine exposed concrete with which Ando made his name. The galleries are all below ground and are lit through an inner courtyard. The main entrance between the two wings is reached through a small garden. Inside is a spatial sequence of open and closed volumes. From the foyer, which is lit from behind by the longest strip windows in the world, visitors descend to start their journey.

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National Gymnasium for Tokyo Olympics
2-1-1 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku
Architect: Kenzo Tange (1964)

The two Olympic stadiums in Yoyogi Park are some of Tokyo's most recognizable and acclaimed buildings. They represent a climax in Japan's post-war architecture, as well as a turning point in Tange's own oeuvre - his renunciation of Western models (especially Le Corbusier) in favour of a genuinely Japanese modern architecture. The Olympic Summer Games of 1964 in Tokyo were the first to be held in Asia and symbolized, like the Munich Games of 1972, an economic boom. Germany and Japan had both lost the Second World War, but in the 1950s had found their way back into the 'family of Western nations' as model democracies dependent on the USA. The elegance of the two Olympic stadiums in Tokyo is a matter of the expressive power of their organically curved structures. The two stadiums are similar to one another and yet very different in their construction. The larger, the former Olympic Swimming Pool (used as a multi-functional hall today), has a structure that is similar to a suspension bridge. When first built, this was the largest suspended roof in the world. Steel cables are suspended between two ferroconcrete pylons carrying the great roof. The crescent-shaped silhouette of the hall is reminiscent of Buddhist temple roofs. The stadium has 15,000 seats and can be turned into an ice-skating rink in the winter. It is also today used for judo and tennis championships and opera. The smaller, 4000-seat, stadium is used for basketball, its original purpose. Its snail-shell-shaped roof is supported by a single central pylon. Tange designed both stadiums in collaboration with civil engineer Yoshikatsu Tsuboi. The two buildings overlook a plaza with an elevated pedestrian walkway.

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Aoyama Technical College
7-9 Uguisudani-cho, Shibuya-ku
Architect: Makoto Sei Watanabe (1990)

This building transfers the principles of Japanese urban design to architecture. The Aoyama Technical College is located in Shibuya ward, which Watanabe regards as a typical example of Tokyo's lack of order and organization. According to Watanabe, buildings "should not lock themselves up, but try to influence the city around them." Just like the surrounding cityscape, the parts of this building seem disparate at first glance. But a closer look reveals the relationships between the parts - in the city as much as in this building. The overall form was created "spontaneously, by the self-organization of the parts," says the architect. The order was not imposed, but is "dynamic and flexible in nature." Thus the organic principle of urban growth was applied to a single building. While urban growth in Tokyo remains largely uncoordinated, "the design of a building is a conscious act." The manifold design is made up of a variety of architectural elements such as beams, cisterns, lightning rods, and joints of all kinds.

These parts maintain "the notion of growth despite their functionality" and stretch upwards "like sprouts with a sufficiency of water, earth, and light". If they were not to stop growing, the tension between them would become so strong that the building would collapse. This is why the parts keep a delicate balance, creating a harmonious totality like that of the organs of a body. The autonomous parts seek their own fulfilment, yet they create a common whole, without a shape being forced upon them. The architect sees this as a metaphor for schools, which are likewise made up of individuals yet constitute a whole. "Tolerance of chaos" replaces hierarchical design. This interaction of parts corresponds to the Japanese word 'ma' and is intended as an improvement on the principles of modern architecture, which tends to categorize everything. Only a powerful architecture can excite people and create physical sensations as no other art form can. Without doubt, Watanabe succeeded here, in his first executed design, in creating "mental and physical shocks within the observers of his architecture".

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Louis Vuitton Omotesando
5-7-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Architect: Jun Aoki (2002)

In his design for the Louis Vuitton Building Jum Aoki refers to the image of a loosely stacked pile of suitcases. Each 'suitcase' contains a separate space, and the spaces are connected by a labyrinth of corridors. This design also subdivides the building into smaller parts that make a better fit with the scale of the neighbourhood. The soft texture of the woven-metal facades is intended to be reminiscent of the leaves of the zelkove trees along Omotesando Boulevard. The floor plans are not based on floors, but on the different levels that the 'suitcases' create. The building is wrapped in a double layer of three different metal fabrics and two different kinds of polished stainless steel in shades of rose and gold. Glass panels with a striped pattern form the inner layer, giving the facades added depth. The bottom five floors of this ten-storey building are devoted to retail. The interiors were designed by the Louis Vuitton Malletier Architecture Department - with the exception of the multi-purpose room, which is by Aoki, Louis Vuitton's unofficial architect in Japan.

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Christian Dior Omotesando
5-9-2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Architect: SANAA (2003)

The Dior building on Omotesando Boulevard appears to be wrapped in several layers of fine wrapping paper. The double-layer translucent facade displays the interiors only dimly; it consists of clear glass on the outside and curved, acrylic panels with a white printed pattern on the inside (the latter resemble stylized curtains). When needed, patterns or decorations can be mounted on the milky inner facade. The building is 30 m tall and stands on a trapezoid lot. The basement, ground, second, and third floors serve as retail space for the French fashion label. Above are event rooms, offices, and a rooftop garden. The facade with its varying floor heights does not reveal the structure of the building at all. The interior design is by Dior's in-house designer Hedi Slimane. SANAA's architecture adopts a middle course between the timeless elegance of Christian Dior himself and the more extravagant and funky designs of the fashion house's current couturier, John Galliano. The climax of Kazuyo Sejima's elegance is a convincing new interpretation of the Japanese shoji wall and its translation into contemporary fashion architecture. A distinctive feature of the changing rooms in Dior's tower is their lack of mirrors (here replaced by video cameras, which constantly record customers and then project the images onto a screen). 

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TOD'S Omotesando
5-1-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Architect: Toyo Ito & Associates (2004)

This flagship store on Omotesando Dori, Tokyo's fashion boulevard, was commissioned by an Italian shoe and leather-ware manufacturer. The lower floors of this seven-storey building are used for retail and the upper floors for offices and multi-purpose uses. The L-shaped site has only a short section overlooking the street. The building's uniform facades have a structure reminiscent of the zelkove trees that lend this shopping street its unique atmosphere. This pattern is graphic as much as structural and consists of 300-mm-thick concrete elements and flush, frameless windows. This obviates the need for inner columns, allowing the floor slabs to span 15 m. By contrast with the ultra-light, ephemeral fashion houses nearby, here the use of exposed concrete gives the building a firmer presence.

Design studies for this building started with the question of how to get rid of conventional walls. Ito wanted to abandon the traditional arrangement by which transparent openings are placed in an otherwise opaque volume; his aim was to merge structure, surfaces, and walls into one. In this building the surface doubles as the load-bearing structure and displays the distribution of forces within the structure. The overlapping silhouettes of abstract trees are an appropriate motif since trees themselves are stable structures with a structurally sound shape. Further up in the building, where the 'branches' become thinner and more frequent, the number of openings likewise increases. Thus the structure creates different spatial impressions on different floors. The tree-like facade results in different fenestrations on each floor. From the boulevard only the smaller elevation is visible.

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Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office
2-8-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku
Architect: Kenzo Tange (1991)

As in Tange's design for the United Nations University, his Tokyo City Hall - Tokyo's most famous skyscraper and, from its construction until 2006, its tallest too - employs a reference to medieval European church architecture. The tower's Postmodernist, strictly symmetrical composition with its split into twin turrets at the top is similar to Gothic cathedrals in France (Notre Dame in Paris, in particular). Just as the great cathedrals were the spiritual centres of medieval cities, this modern civic skyscraper marks the centre of the city of Tokyo. Together with neighbouring administration towers, it forms a 'city within a city'. 13,000 municipal employees work in the building, which is the visual centre of the high-rise Nishi-Shinjuku business district, built on the site of a former wastewater-treatment plant. In front of the twin tower is a half-oval plaza, which is usually deserted but was intended to serve as a kind of agora.

The great oval hall for the city government is situated on the other side of the plaza in a separate eight-storey building, which connects with the main building via two bridges. The old city hall, also designed by Tange, was knocked down to make way for the new complex; in its place stands the International Forum, designed by Rafael Vinoly. The main building's 48-storey granite facades in grey and brown have fine geometric patterns and are intended to be reminiscent of both traditional Japanese houses and the grid-like geometries of semi-conductors. In order to withstand typhoons and earthquakes, the structure is based on a 243-metre-high 'superstructure' that manages to be both sufficiently rigid in the event of an earthquake and sufficiently flexible in the event of a typhoon: the building will not rock; instead, the destructive forces are absorbed by a slight twist. Just like a Gothic cathedral, the twin towers of Tokyo City Hall have apertures at the top, where the floor plates swivel 45 degrees and part to accommodate large 'drums'. On the 16th and 25th floors are large cross-trusses. Both towers offer panoramic viewing platforms on the 45th floor. These are free of charge and attract almost three million visitors each year.

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Yasuyo Building
3-37-11 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku
Architect: Nobumichi Akashi / Interiors by Yoshiro Taniguchi (1969)

This unusual, narrow commercial building resembling a stack of twisted bolts stands right next to the eastern entrance of Shinjuku Station and is famous for Kakiden, a long-established restaurant which occupies the 6th to the 9th floors and has interiors designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi. Kokin Salons is on the 6th floor, Yasuyo Hall on the 7th, and there are more guestrooms with Western-style tables and chairs on the floor above. The building's top floor is furnished in the traditional Japanese style: two of the three rooms are 12 and 10 tatami in size, while the third is of more intimate proportions. Part of the kaiseki restaurant on the basement floor is an art gallery. The calligraphy for the restaurant's name was executed by Yasunari Kawabata, a Nobel-prize-winner in literature. Nobumichi Akashi described his design for this building as anchored solely in the fast pace of Tokyo and in the present moment. The restaurant also offers courses in kaiseki etiquette.

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Tokyo Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower
1-7-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku
Architect: Kenzo Tange (2008)

This tower in the skyscraper district of Nishi-Shinjuku is a 'vertical campus' for 10,000 students and was built on the site formerly occupied by the Asahi Mutual Life Insurance building. With its 50 floors and a height of 203 m, the Mode Gakuen Tower is the second highest educational building in the world (after the Moscow State University Building in Moscow). It is used by three vocational schools: the eponymous fashion school Tokyo Mode Gakuen, HAL Tokyo, and Shuto Iko (schools of information technology and medicine respectively). Kenzo Tange was here constricted by an architectural competition which stipulated that the building should not be rectangular. His design is reminiscent of a cocoon and is intended as a symbol of the "academic care" that students enjoy in the building. Aluminium and glass were used for the curved facades, which have a printed pattern of intersecting white ribbons. The facades do not, however, reflect the building's load-bearing structure. Each floor contains three rectangular seminar rooms around an inner core. Every three floors, there is a three-storey lounge. In terms of urban design, the building acts as a link between Shinjuku Station and the high-rise district of Shinjuku.

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Asahi Super Dry Hall
1-23-1 Azumabashi, Sumida-ku
Architect: Philippe Starck (1989)

Situated by the bank of the River Sumida, this hall belonging to a large Japanese brewery owes its status as urban landmark to Philippe Starck's distinctive golden louver affixed to the top of the building. The building itself is shaped like the inverted segment of a pyramid and clad with polished black granite. Before the new Asahi Hall was built, there used to be a popular beer-hall with a famous neon light advertising Asahi Beer on this site; Starck's surrealistic golden sculpture is a reference to this. The 'Flame d'Or' (golden flame) is intended to resemble the head of a glass of beer as it is being blown off. The black kaba of the hall is accessed via a set of perrons made from glass brick. Just north of the hall is a high-rise building clad in golden mirror glass, which, in the manner of 'architecture parlante', resembles a glass of beer. The 'crown' on the roof of this building is a space frame made of white steel triangles and has a froth-like appearance. The hall's black granite facade is perforated with small openings containing little lights. At night these create the illusion of ascending carbonic acid in a glass. The sculpture on top of the hall has been nicknamed 'Golden Poo' (O Gon No Unko).

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National Museum of Western Art
7-7 Ueno Koen, Taito-ku
Architects: Le Corbusier in collaboration with Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura, and Takamasa Yoshizaka (1959)

The National Museum of Western Art is one of three museums in the world designed by Le Corbusier according to his principle of the 'infinitely expandable museum'. It was built in order to house the Matsukata Collection. Kojiro Matsukata, the former president of the Kawasaki Shipping Company, had amassed a wealth of paintings, prints, and sculptures on his trips to the West, but was forced to sell them during the financial crisis of 1927. After WWII many of these artworks ended up being owned by the French Government. They were returned to Japan in 1959. The museum stands in a copse in Ueno Park. Visitors enter through a landscaped plaza.

The facade, which consists of greenish pebbles set in concrete panels, is supported by pilotis. Its horizontal rhythm is interrupted only by a single large window with a balcony and by stairs in front of the building. The floor plan is a spiral within a rectangle. The upper-floor galleries have small balconies overlooking a central, two-storey courtyard, lit by a skylight. A ramp in the courtyard leads to the upper floor. The preliminary design was by Le Corbusier and was executed by his followers. In 1979 a new wing was added, creating an additional open courtyard. During a more recent renovation in 1997 space for travelling exhibitions was created underground and an auditorium was added. At the same time, the building was made earthquake-resistant.

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Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo National Museum
13-9 Ueno Koen, Taito-ku
Architect: Yoshio Taniguchi (1999)

The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures is one of the national museums in Ueno Park. The new building replaces a structure that stood on the same spot. The collection of 300 valuable objects from the 7th and 8th centuries was given to the imperial family by the Horyuji Temple in 1878. The building's minimalist architecture creates a tranquil atmosphere. This is architecture that is all about a subtle spatial play of transparency, opaqueness and reflection, verticals and horizontals, weight and lightness, interior and exterior space.

The gallery entrance is off-centre and indirect. Visitors see the entrance facade first from the other side of a shallow water basin in whose water the vertical lamellas and columns are reflected. Only when you get closer does the entrance axis open up. The entrance appears as a floating horizontal plane jutting out from the glass facade on the level of the concrete wall that stretches from the corner of the facade to the pool. On the other side, the basin is framed by vegetation. The vertical emphasis of the entrance facade and the use of reflective materials seem scale-less. A plane covered in metal panels frames the exterior, rises vertically two floors, and then turns into a horizontal roof before becoming, once again, a vertical wall supported by four slender, circular columns. Behind this layer is the glass facade of the foyer and ground-floor café and a research room on the mezzanine level. Clear glass reaches up to the height of the door; above this there are vertical aluminium lamellas. The same kind of glass surrounds a two-storey concrete cube clad in polished stone and containing the exhibition halls. 

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Zensho-ji Temple
1-4-15 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito-ku
Architect: Seiichi Shirai (1958)

This temple is a subtle synthesis of modernity and traditional Buddhist temple architecture. Situated at the end of a narrow alley, the main hall looks like an abstract, modern version of the traditional sacred buildings of Japan. The temple is slightly raised above its site and has a simple, elegant pitched roof. As is often the case with Shirai's designs, the entrance is a mere slit in the facade (see also his NOA Building). Inside there is a vestibule with low benches and a taller main hall with shoji screen walls. Shirai studied architecture in Heidelberg and Berlin. Throughout his career, he managed to maintain his independence from the large Japanese construction conglomerates but, as a result, had little commercial success. The Zensho-ji Temple is evidence of the efforts made by Japanese architects in the 50s to find harmonious ways of combining Western and Japanese traditions. 
    

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Accommodation
    

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Hotel Okura
2-10-4 Toranomo, Minato-ku
Architect: Yoshiro Taniguchi (1962)

The Hotel Okura is especially famous for its elegant lobby. Considered an early highlight of 60s architecture in Japan, this was the first large hotel in Tokyo. It has a steel-frame construction, six storeys, and 830 guestrooms, and is close to many embassies and the government district south of the Imperial Palace. The hotel's public rooms have remained unchanged since construction, but the guestrooms have been modernized. There are eight restaurants, in-house sushi and tempura bars, a shopping arcade, and even a small private art museum. Guests can sip their afternoon tea in the Orchid Bar or enjoy a cigar from the walk-in humidor at Baron Okura, named after the hotel's founder. Architecturally, the Okura is a mixture of traditional Japanese elements and Modernism that, together, give it a unique charm. The facades have cantilevered floor plates and railings decorated with namako kabe, a traditional ceramic ornament. The extension of 1973 was built in the same style.

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Park Hotel Tokyo
1-7-1 Higashi Shimbashi, Minato-ku (Shiodome Media Tower)
Interior architect: Frederic Thomas

places itself at the core of Japan's new networking generation. It is located downtown Tokyo in a futuristic area of skyscrapers and elevated pedestrian walkways that connect buildings and train stations. Occupying 10 floors of the Shiodome Media Tower the hotel is an integral element in the "city in the heart of the city," a high-rise powerhouse of international media organizations and television companies, combined with metropolitan living.

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Andon Ryokan
2-34-10 Nihonzutsumi, Taito-ku
Architect: Masayuki Irie in collaboration with Jun Ikemura and Takayo Irie (2003)

This ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) is situated in a normal residential neighbourhood, yet cleverly combines the culture of the old Japanese guesthouses with modern architecture and interior design. The rooms are only 7 m2 in size and the bathrooms are not an inch larger than necessary. The lack of space is compensated for by intelligent design. Simple materials and details and indirect lighting create a typical Japanese atmosphere. The first three floors of the five-storey steel-frame building are for guests. Above them are a jacuzzi and an apartment for the owner. 'Andon' means 'lantern' and at night the building begins to glow through a second, frameless, facade made of opaque glass and horizontal metal lamellas. A small reception box, a breakfast room, and a room for tea ceremonies with a raised wooden tatami floor are next to the entrance.

Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa
3-13-1 Takanawa, Minato-ku
Architect: Togo Murano (1982)

This late work by Murano is totally different from standard business hotels in Japan. Murano collages heterogeneous elements such as modern architectural details and quotations from the traditional Japanese sukiya (teahouse) style. The only connection in this eclectic combination of parts is the continuous use of a bright white colour. The high-rise slab with the guest rooms is distinct from the wings containing the conference rooms and the circular, mushroom-shaped, banquet hall. The latter has its own dedicated drop-off. The buildings are spread out over a 10-hectare Japanese garden. Now known as the 'Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa', the hotel has almost 1000 rooms. Each has a semicircular balcony, a feature that is very unusual in Tokyo. These used to be the grounds of a palace (in fact, there is something very palatial about the hotel itself). There are nine restaurants and bars, shops, a rooftop swimming pool, as well as traditional Japanese rooms overlooking a rock garden.

Last updated: September 22, 2014

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