Having read my previous posts (I'm going to assume you have) regarding some of Japan's most acclaimed structures, you may very well believe 1) that there is only one Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, and 2) the only thing the Japanese build with is concrete. If that was indeed reality, it wouldn't be half bad.
Actually, it'd be awful. Ando's religious structures are touching but with no other contemporaries to compare his work to, you would've never known the pleasure of denouncing Gehry's wackness. And though I love the monolithic and sometimes graceful forms concrete is eventually cast into, manufacturing the stuff takes enormous amounts of energy and there are just some designs that make metal and glass more applicable.
Outbursts of creativity is the norm here, there are many unique looking buildings saddled next to office towers and traditional Japanese buildings. Though many of the buildings would look alien if situated in conservative New York, they are so plentiful here that they easily recede into the background when you are keen on seeing the language of an entire neighborhood rather than that of a single building. Initially, the clashing visuals may be a bit overwhelming but once adjusted, you'll appreciate the buildings' ability to provide contrast yet play nicely with its neighbors. I guess in a sense the contrasting styles and materials may be one of the themes running through many neighborhoods.
There's an innate sensibility in how Japanese architects approach their work and when it comes to buildings, it starts from the very beginning in the design phase and continues through the construction phase. The buildings are never over designed (usually) and they never come in too large or too small. It's like how Goldilocks felt about the little bear's bed. It feels just right. A similar statement can also be made for the work in Japan by foreign architects. With so many great native architects, foreign architects that are able to get work here are undoubtedly good and since the architecture mindset here is pretty progressive, they probably have an easier time pushing the boundaries.
Walk by a construction site and you might not even notice. Most of them are wrapped in a plastic white modular scaffolding system unlike the rusted steel and plywood we see here in the states. And in their never ending quest to release all that bottled up creativity, artists are sometimes commissioned to liven up the white walls.
Construction worker uniforms are also something us gaijins will find interesting. In contrast to the blue jeans and Timberlands in our half of the world, most construction workers in Japan rock Tabi shoes and Tobi trousers. Aside from the women wearing Kimonos, Tobi outfits will probably be one of the most traditional looking ensembles you'll see in everyday life. If it weren't for the tool belts and modern tools hanging off of them, you'd think those workers warped over from the age of the samurai. Well... until you notice the steel plated or waterproof rubber Tabi boots.
If you find yourself in Tokyo pressed for time and wanting to expose yourself to the architectural diversity the city has to offer then Omotesando Street is the place to go. Every single building on that street is designed by a famous Japanese or foreign architect. Ironically enough, one of the most underwhelming buildings on the street is probably Ando's Omotesando Hills complex. Guess he's human after all. The public restrooms located right after it is eye catching though. Further up the street, the Prada Boutique is definitely worth a look especially if you are a fan of James Jean who teamed up with Prada for a variety of projects including the interior paintings and digital animations placed throughout the boutique. The architecture isn't bad either but definitely doesn't hold up when inspected up close. The structural component of the building is covered up in the interior which I'm not much of a fan of. Also be sure to check out the side streets. I found a number of gems on both sides of Omotesando Dori. PingMag, which I've been linking to in the previous paragraphs has an excellent write-up split into two parts (1, 2).
Back in the neighborhood Kevin lived in, the National Art Center in Roppongi can be reached very quickly by walking through the back alleys behind his building. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa who also designed the Japanese Nursing Association Building on Omotesando Dori (see the links in the preceding paragraph) and the Nakagin Capsule Tower (see the Fifth Element paragraph later in this post), the National Art Center is a nice mix of glass and concrete. Unfortunately, the three most interesting spaces which happen to be the interior of the inverted cones and the small structure outside the main entrance are devoted to such mundane tasks as umbrella storage, kitchen, and restrooms. It would have been much more interesting if those areas were themselves used as exhibition spaces... in addition, the point of the inverted cone is never revealed. Walking down into the basement level where the museum shop is, there are no signs of the point.
If you have more time to kill then PingMag has another article for you,
The 7 (lesser-known) Architectural Wonders of Tokyo, it'll take a bit of work tracking them down, but in doing so you'll come across some other interesting buildings they didn't feature.
One of the buildings on the list, the Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa reminded me so much of the movie Fift Element. Peering into the demo module on the ground floor, it reminded me of Bruce Willis' living quarters which I guess was ahead of its time and... depressing. The entire building looks depressing actually. Though at the same time there's something about it that draws me to it.
The National Center Tokyo is located across the street (across from the highway) and it was while I strolled through it that I realized one could probably construct an entire building utilizing only National products. Or should we say Panasonic products since the National brand as well as the Matsushita name will no longer exist when October rolls around. Panasonic seems to manufacture EVERYTHING. A hundred different types of lightbulbs, wall panels, roof tiles, toilets, storage cabinets, anything you can think of, they manufacture. I'm surprised they didn't have a demo home located there. But back to the toilets, probably some of the most advanced units I've ever seen. Cost a pretty penny too at around $2,500. They raise the lid / seat automatically when you walk near, warm the seat, have deoderizers, bidet functions, nice indirect lighting and can even play music. SICK. But apparently they are energy hogs, though the electricity used is probably negligible compared to the electricity we Americans use.
The Embassy of Sweden and the Billboard Building, which are located on opposite sides of Roppongi Hills will give you a good overview of embassies and residential areas in Tokyo. Reflecting the overall international attitude towards their respective country you'll find that the Embassy of Sweden is a graceful structure open to the public. While there is an exterior wall, the gates are wide open with no security guards to be found. You can walk right in and mill around the interior courtyard admiring the sloped building. Next to it is also the Tokyo Club, a very pristine and private building, I'm assuming it's the Japanese version of a country club, but located within city limits.
In contrast, the U.S. embassy is located on the other side of the highway overhead. For some reason it doesn't look like the sun shines much on this side and since the U.S. embassy looks more like a military compound, there isn't much human traffic on the sidewalk. When I walked by, all I saw was wall. From the satellite map, the complex looks to be more than six times the size of Sweden's embassy. Within it were a bunch of small buildings. Anyway, even with passport in hand, I didn't think it was worth venturing in with no official business to conduct.
China's embassy is located on the otherside of Roppongi Hills, close to the Billboard Building. You'll know when you are venturing close by due to the amount of police officers stationed at intersections four to five blocks away next to some very weak looking barricades. The embassy is located in a denser area which probably explains the barricades on public roads and all the security. When I walked by I saw two old ladies unfurling a banner so I stopped to see what they were protesting. I figured it would have something to do with Tibet since that was all over the news at the time, but surprise surprise. The banner was focused on the Falun Gong. They are EVERYWHERE!
West of Roppongi Hills (Moto Azabu)
On the way to the Chinese embassy I came across a building called c-MA3. The white ribbons / slats do a very good job of drawing people in. I had no intention of walking in but when I stopped and stared at them, I couldn't fight the urge to just follow the curves and walked into the drop off area. I wish the lines on the ground were painted to match the slats on the wall and ceiling though...
Off the main road I came across some pretty cool contemporary residential buildings. Of note was one on a corner slot that was completely white and had a tropical looking tree out front. Along with the security guard stationed on that intersection, we stared into the windows above the main entrance that offered a glimpse of the staircase that connected the three floors of the house. It must have been late in the afternoon as the child of the household was on the top floor watching cartoons. Guess American kids aren't the only ones to be glued to the television after school.
PingMag does a pretty good job describing the Billboard Building, an example of 'pet architecture', but the maps link is a few blocks off (refer to the map on Klein Dytham architecture's website instead). It took me two visits to the area to finally find the Billboard Building. It was worth it though as the building is very unique. When I first read about it, I figured it wouldn't be that different from the shops within a shipping container that have been popular recently. The shape with its gentle curve is eye catching, especially when you look at it close up. I'd love to live in a space like that, the sun light filtering through the bamboo stencil as I attempt to be creative at my drafting table.
Also noteworty about KDa, they are the founders of 'pecha kucha', a presentation style where the presenter is allowed only 20 slides and only 20 seconds per slide. Totally a fan after sitting through countless mindnumbing presentations. First read about them in Wired less than a year ago and promptly forgot about them when I got to Tokyo. Fortunately, in my quest to purchase an advance copy of Art Space Tokyo, I found out that the authors were presenting at that month's Pecha Kucha Night. Killed two birds with one stone by attending, I'll post up more info about both when I dig up my notes from that evening.
Additional photos from this series