Sunday 18 August 2013

Photo Journal: Tokyo 8.2013 (part 1)

The city prefecture, inhabited by tens of millions and sprawling endlessly on the horizon, is often associated with clashes of extremes.  From overbearing concrete blocks towering above intricate timber structures at close proximity to fashionista crossing path with kimono cladded youngsters on the streets, Tokyo though seems to be in perfect harmony with antithesis.

Series of Torii (lit. birds’ habitat) through narrow passage to Hanazono Jinja Shrine in urban Shinjuku.

It may be argued that nowhere has city dwellers more attached to their traditional costumes than kimonos worn by men and women in Japan.  Many of them especially young people wear the national robe for hanging-out and dating.  This photo of a kimono shop for gentlemen at Aoyama marks a sharp contrast with fancy boutiques nearby.

The unfailing restraint of the people can be mercilessly interspersed with moments of forthrightness – this time in your face, a parade with gaudy anime dolls.

Unique bar district of Shinjuku Golden Gai  (新宿ゴールデン街 where timber buildings still exist and most watering holes are less than 80m².  Lives only get started after dark.

Alternative doorkeeper to chill out with.

Shopping Galore

There are simply too many shops, malls or clusters of streets to visit. If you cannot find what you want, it is only probable that your sore feet drag behind your pocket.

The symbolically shaped castle-in-the-air of Tokyu Plaza (東急廣場), by Hiroshi Nakamura and opened in 2012, is the latest landmark at Harajuku.

With no guilt attached, shopping is a pastime for most.  Living in an average family unit of 60m², people here even rent a booth to watch DVD or just to be alone for a few hours. 

Spiral by Fumihiko Maki was completed for the lingerie company Wacoal in 1985.  It is a multi-purpose complex of arts and retail spaces.  Well composed with platonic shapes on the façade, Spiral might score high along photogenic parameters but definitely below par on architectural merits.

Fantastic view out and air-conditioned comfort for all casual visitors, this space is a disaster as far as electricity bill is concerned.   Expressive on the exterior and in the middle of the shopping route, the over-designed landing is practically beyond rectification to cut down on volume.

The semi-circular ramp, inspired the name of the building, sculpts a huge space which is tugged at the back behind a café and shop above.  Its location and inherent acoustic problem render most activities unfeasible.  I attended a talk by the architect years ago, the memory of his vacuous ramblings on design still haunts me up to present.

Gallery showing photographic works by David Sylvian – former singer-song writer of the cult band “Japan”, which made it big in this country.

Opposite to Spiral is Ao.  Realized in 2009, the contemporary development of retailers, restaurants and offices was designed by another local practice - Sakakura Associates.  It is a more efficient design with designer chairs to recuperate tired shoppers.

By carving out segments of the rectangular volumes, the high and low blocks are posed to create visual tension.  But that is about the entirety of the concept.

The office lift lobby at ground floor appears as if the stonework was pixelated.

Prada Aoyama is still awe-inspiring as it was completed in 2003.  With the simplest task of planning a shop, the crystalline blotch is an ideal project for most architects – thoroughly vain and almost budget-free to play with.

The shop was embarrassingly quiet on the day of visit.  There were evidently more sales assistants staring out than shoppers looking in.

Distorted view of reality from either side of the bubble-like glass.

(imagegray malin)

If Prada’s Tokyo store is celebrated as the high priest of retail architecture, Prada Marfa might be a sharp joker on global consumerism and regional identity.

Open in March, 2013, Kengo Kuma remodelled the former Central Post Office into a multi-purpose arcade and office tower called Kitte.

The exterior (right) was renovated but a restraint of decoration was enforced despite the retail nature of the project.  This conservation approach was adopted owing to the Victorian-styled Tokyo Station (left) situated across the road and 17 years older than the post office building of 1931. 

A detailed report of the interior design will be made later.

Tiffany & Co. in Ginza, also by Kuma, at first glance does not owe any design affiliation with the nature-inspired architect.

Upon close inspection, the sandwiched curtain wall reveals his preoccupation with natural elements and subtle oriental influences.

Skewed look of the glass wall (left) and entrance to lift lobby (right).

Nicolas G Hayek Center is a showcase of hydraulic lifts more than that of luxurious time-pieces.  Shoppers take one of the many glass lifts surrounded by watches before landed to respective shop floors.

If this is not impressive enough, the dark glass enclosure at the right is a hydraulic car lift that completes an overkill.  Shigeru Ban (坂茂) realized this building in 2007 amidst his more eco-friendly experimentation of cardboard tubing structures.

To end a shopping day, there could also be serious spending just above your average grocery store.

Thrifty Appeal

Scarcity of land in this populous city has led to the widespread adaptation of space under flyovers and bridges. Note the filling of shops beneath the bridge to the right.  

Some are better presented than the others depending on location.

So far, none is better conceived than 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan.  The awkward-sounding name derived from the railway nomenclature of its distance from Tokyo Station (東京駅 Tokyo-eki), which is 2.54 kilometres between Akihabara and Okachimachi.

Floor plan and directory of shops.  Note the bicycle parking lot at upper right hand side.

From December 2010, the space was remodelled to gather style-conscious artisans from around the country to produce and sell their crafts on the premises.  

This new shopping experience is well-equipped with bicycle parking and ample seating spaces.  No air-conditioning is required in this summer heat thanks to the high headroom and cross ventilation.  Can’t tell what it is like in winter.  For intended visitors, most shops are closed at 7 pm.

The densely packed concrete columns remind one of peristyle architecture in Roman times.  The white shade on them is a beauty to look at.  But observed the few shoppers on the this Saturday afternoon, it is worrying how long the shops can survive.

Casual seating outside café unlike any average mall setting.

From Distant Modern to Bravely Experimental

Although not a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, the discovery of the girls’ school - Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan (1921-27), the “House of Tomorrow” (自由學園 明日館)was a surprise while researching for this trip.  

The building was restored in 2001 and listed as a national cultural property.  A wedding ceremony with photo session was taking place on this glorious Saturday morning. 

The floor plan of Jiyu Gakuen, not found in books, shows a symmetrical layout with the assembly hall at the centre.

Famous buildings often affect its neighbourhood just as powerful people do in their circle.  A posh residential building with deep overhangs reminiscent of the prairie style is found nearby.

High on anticipation, the National Museum of Western Art (1957-59) by Le Corbusier was a disappointment.  It was not the restriction to photography but the fact that this poorly preserved building is downright mutilation.  Much of the original layout was altered; as a missed opportunity, the extension gallery wings are poorly designed and executed.  Rarely is a nominated building turned down to become a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site, it is a justified decision by the International Council on Monuments and Sites in 2011.

Terrible fittings of glass and metalworks are added.  The current exhibition “Le Corbusier and 20th Century Art” could not save from resentment from true fans of Corbu including myself.

The original Modular inspired concrete fins at ground floor were completely gutted.

Once open and airy, the gallery looking down at the entrance portico was walled to the ceiling.

Ground floor, first floor plan and section. The building section illustrates the dramatic space and lighting at the interior.

(above four imagesLe Corbusier, 1887-1965; Zurich:Éd.d’Architecture)

Mezzanine floor and roof plan.  The former, once open to the public, was barred from access. 


The interesting exhibition space is located above ground.  However, the mezzanine level to the right has been extended with floor slab that makes the space dark and oppressive. The blockade of the walk-up gallery is particularly regrettable.  

Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center (靜岡新聞) by Kenzo Tange of 1967, playing a tree with branches, is exemplary of plug-in ideas of the Metabolism movement.  This one is in better state of preservation.  However the row of the more recent buildings to the right, butt-jointed with the ‘tree’, would not relent on the architect’s lofty ideals.

Nakagin Capsule Tower (中銀カプセルタワー) by Kisho Kurokawa of 1972 is another core representative of the movement that may be quietly awaiting the wrecking ball.

The dilapidated towers are completely wrapped up in ugly netting.  It seems that the brave new world envisioned here has lost all momentum of life.  Unconfirmed reports suggest that most capsule owners are lobbying to demolish the buildings despite oppositions from architects’ circles.

Plug-in-City, Peter Cook, 1964. 

Metabolism was the mainstay of Japanese architectural influence to the modern world.  Its polemics paved the way for Archigram of the mid 1960’s, which in turn inspired the Hi-Tech fad in the 1980s.  It may be suggested that Centre Pompidou is a distant cousin of this Japanese creation.


Meet the willing tenants to tell you what it is like to live in an architect’s dream at below.