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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Globalization made manifest at Midtown


Special to The Japan Times

Hooray. Another high-rise office tower. Another five-star hotel. Another premium shopping mall. Another Starbucks. And don't forget culture. With this new development, Tokyo will show the world the richness of Japan's civilization and society.

News photo
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Such is the tone of the promotion for Mitsui Fudosan's new flagship development in Roppongi, Tokyo Midtown, which will have its public opening Friday. Most people will go along with the hype. After all, the mixed-use development is impressive: a tall tower dressed in shimmering glass, a four-level, top-lit shopping arcade, a high-end hotel and exclusive condomin- iums, an art museum and a design venue, a medical center and a even pet hairdressing salon -- a complete haven for the well-groomed urbanite. Materials are expensive and carefully coordinated; richly veined marble, brushed metal and laminated hardwood is spread about with such lavish abandon that even as a visitor you feel positively regal. Lighting is subtle and layered, orchestrated with a photographer's eye. It all looks and sounds and smells like the epitome of urban luxury. But can it, as is claimed in its promotional literature, "show the future model of a city that creates new values"?

The effort and expense have not gone unnoticed by arbiters of global taste. Tyler Bru^le, founder of influential style magazine Wallpaper*, recently opined in the International Herald Tribune that "among workers and residents in similar developments in London and New York, Midtown is likely to become an object of some envy." It may also cause concern, if not exactly envy, at nearby Roppongi Hills, until now the most ambitious and internationally visible such development in Japan this decade. What exactly does Midtown offer, and what does it mean for Roppongi, Tokyo and beyond?

Despite clinching the transient glory of having Tokyo's tallest tower (at 248 meters, all of 10 meters higher than the nearby Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills), architecturally there is little that is particularly striking or fresh about the development -- the exception being the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT museum by Tadao Ando, which, conscious of its own severe beauty, stands apart from the pack with elegant disdain.

Despite the tower's height and its combination of office and hotel functions, the large floor areas preferred by major corporate tenants who anchor the development result in a building of rather stocky volume, displaying little attempt to generate a distinctive or iconic character. Like a tailor who, faced with the brick-like physique of a wealthy client, abandons the cut and focuses their efforts on the quality of the cloth, the design architects, American firm SOM, appear to have contented themselves with dressing the tower's exterior surfaces in finely detailed glass curtain walling.

The emphasis on surfaces continues in the interiors. All is luxury and polish in the lobbies of the offices and the arcades of the shopping mall, with stone and timber floors amplifying the click-clack of high heels, and glazed walls and show-windows revealing views of well-dressed diners and artful arrangements of product. Illumination here is a tasteful mix of washes and spotlights, comforting the eye while relentlessly drawing it to the next consumer artifact. With 132 shops and restaurants organized along a four-story high, top-lit void, the shopping mall is devoted largely to premium fashion, design and gourmet concerns, some of which are entering the Japanese market for the first time. A 24-hour supermarket completes the retail mix.

While it is the carefully conditioned public interiors of the shopping areas that are expected to soak up a predicted 30 million visitors a year, it is the open public spaces on the site that form the all-important connective tissue stitching the project's component buildings to each other and the broader urban fabric. Comprising 40 percent of the site area, these are divided between the Plaza, located between the main office buildings, and the Midtown Garden, which embraces the side and rear of the complex. A grandiose canopy supported by six steel columns (in reference to the six trees of Roppongi) forms a somewhat overwhelming but nevertheless effective centerpiece to the Plaza, providing shelter while Starbucks provides the coffee. However the Plaza is a one-way cul-de-sac of luxury, funneling people from the street into the development, limiting its openness to the human diversity of the street. The Midtown Garden looks to be more successful as a truly public space. Offering the rare treat of a large grassy lawn in the middle of the city, on fine days it could encourage a genuine mix of people to relax in its expanse (so long as it is not roped off).

The main cultural components of Tokyo Midtown are the Suntory Museum of Art, showing traditional Japanese works of art and design, and 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, a museum and interaction venue devoted to "showing how to see the world through design," conceived by Issey Miyake and designed by Tadao Ando. In addition, a cluster of design-industry and educational organizations has created "Design Hub," a shared space in the Midtown Tower for exhibitions, collaborations and discussions by designers. Together these facilities make up less than 3 percent of the floor area of the development, but they serve an important role in its promotion. In his opening speech, the president of Mitsui Fudosan, Hiromichi Iwasa, emphasized the potential of design and art to "create new values, nurture talent and bring the power and vitality of Tokyo and Japan's culture to the world." The scope of this ambition, however, seems hobbled by the limited size and capability of these facilities' collections and missions.

Linking Tokyo, and by extension Japan, to the world is a philosophy shared by other large private developers such as Minoru Mori. As with his Roppongi Hills, the facilities and spaces of Tokyo Midtown are primarily geared to a particular type of customer -- the well-heeled business elite and their dependents. This population is globally mobile, inhabiting small enclaves of highly expensive but surprisingly homogeneous real estate in the cores of a number of global cities, such as London, New York and Tokyo. Globalization has increased their number, extended their reach and reaped them higher rewards, and cities are transforming to accommo- date their needs. It is largely these people that Mitsui Fudosan are trying to appeal to with Tokyo Midtown, and who Bru^le is addressing when he says how envious they will be of it. Meanwhile, the rest of us are invited to model our aspirations upon them, while quietly abandoning the authenticity and complexity of the city we currently inhabit.

Tokyo Midtown is but one prominent example of the privately driven, large-scale integrated developments that are transforming Tokyo. Created in the name of urban regeneration, they are replete with devices both subtle and explicit for excluding the essence of city life. Overall, Tokyo Midtown is an environment of high-end, good-taste design, luxuriously appointed and fastidiously executed, but it is devoid of the urban diversity that it boasts as its guiding principle. It is best experienced while wearing good shoes and expensive clothes, as it is then that you will most feel that you belong there.

Related stories:
A haven of hedonism's days are numbered
Third point of Roppongi

Julian Worrall is an Australian architect and writer based in Tokyo and Rotterdam.


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