Tokyo, City of Cities

Blog — 10 Jul 2024

On seeing the Sydney Opera House for the first time I was surprised by how brown it is, the roof gleams white like the boats in a Brett Whiteley painting, but the base, ground plane and windows betray their 1970’s origin. The same could be said about Thomas Heatherwick’s recent Tokyo project at Azabudai Hills, it is very brown. The concrete frame, the bronze windows and the architectural metalwork hark back to the palette of the Barbican.

Azabudai Hills, Heatherwick Studio

Nevertheless the development, essentially a high-end shopping centre, succeeds on many levels. The form of the building responds to the geography of its site, it is a ground hugger not a skyscraper. The integration of planting is really successful as is the hard landscape and public realm. The building is split across two sites and linked with a deep subterranean basement of shops and galleries. This can be difficult to navigate and is easy to get lost in.

It is not just retail, the development contains residential, educational and two temples, and as I write (July 2024) there is a very good Alexander Calder exhibition in the Azabudai Gallery, and Sou Fujimoto has created a beautiful interior for the Pace Gallery. The Market Hall reflects the quality of its location, a wealthy foodies paradise.

Pace Gallery, Sou Fujimoto

Azabudai is adjacent to Roppongi, one of the wealthiest areas in the city, and one that seems to continually attract the attention of developers. Recent schemes show a far greater attention to the quality of the spaces between buildings which are lushly planted and adorned with sculpture. But for a city as characterful and quirky as Tokyo the buildings are surprisingly anonymous and North American in character. At least Heatherwick addressed this with his buildings.

It is in the smaller projects that a contemporary Japanese architectural style and language emerges, in the shops and cafes of Ginza and Ometesando, the one-off houses and the galleries that are sprinkled through this vast metropolis. Two contrasting Kengo Kuma projects are noteworthy in this respect. The Nezu Museum interprets traditional Japanese architecture to create a building that sits comfortably in the rolling landscape of the original Japanese garden. Sunny Hills is a Taiwanese tea house that showcases the pineapple cake it is known for, but the real star is the building, a lattice of jointed cedar timber forms a structural exoskeleton that supports the floor slabs, it is a joy to be in.

Nezu Museum, Kengo Kuma
Sunny Hills, Kengo Kuma & Associates

Tokyo is an extraordinary city of contrasts, dense and crowded but with moments of tranquil beauty around the corner. With a population of 37 million, it is the world’s most populous city. It is not immediately attractive, it tends to grow on you, and unlike European cities it is a three dimensional conurbation that surprises and delights the deeper you venture into it. If London is a city of villages, then Tokyo is a city of cities, each with its own unique personality.