Tokyo and the Roppongi Hills

My last trip to Tokyo was in late December 2010, about three months before the earthquake and the leakage of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plants. I haven’t been able to return since then, and if I do, it would be interesting to compare the atmosphere of the city with what I felt during my last trip, though it is probable that I may not notice any major difference. Even if there are changes, I would expect such things in Japan would tend to be more subtle, not distinctive enough for occasional visitors like myself to notice.

In any case, at that time, I spent about four nights in Tokyo, meeting up with friends that I had missed for long. I also aimed to spend the day time to explore the city as much as possible, taking pictures of various places. Whenever I visit a new city, one of the first things that I do is to look for a tall building, if not the tallest, which may have an observation area that presents a bird’s eye view of the whole city. In Tokyo, my recommendations would go to two places. One of them is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building complex, which has twin towers that offer a free access to top-floor lounge areas.

Mori Tower

The other place, which I pay particular attention to in this posting, is the Roppongi Hills. It accommodates Mori Tower (see figure on the left), which provides an observation deck known as Tokyo City View on the 52nd floor. Mori Tower also has an outdoor roof deck on the 54th floor, which is sometimes closed at the time of severe weather conditions. According to various sources, the Roppongi district used to be home to many entertainment venues including night clubs for many years before it experienced a downturn at the time of Japan’s bubble burst in the early 1990s. After having been a rugged, rough place for years, the district has gone through a marked transformation (Roman Cybriwsky’s Roppongi Crossing seems like a good guide to the understanding of these changes). Major mix-use developments such as the Roppongi Hills (where Mori Tower occupies the centre stage) and the Tokyo Midtown have come to provide upscale residential flats and commercial and recreational facilities, catering for the needs of the affluent and tourists.

In particular, the Roppongi Hills development was spearheaded by Minoru Mori, a real estate tycoon who was ranked the 683rd richest person in the Forbe’s The World’s Billionnaires list (as of March 2012). Unfortunately, Minoru Mori passed away at the age of 77 in March 2012. His younger brother Akira Mori is another real estate tycoon, ranked 6th richest person in Japan and the 314th in the world according to the Forbes. Both brothers inherited the wealth from their father, Taikichiro Mori, who happened to be the world’s richest at the beginning of the 1990s.

The Roppongi Hills development happened to be one of the largest private-led urban redevelopment projects. The building complex stood on a 11-hectare site, which used to be owned by about 500 individual landowners. The compiled images from Google Earth attached below show the landscape of the site before and after the project (the while line indicates an approximate boundary of the site). The redevelopment plan started with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s designation of the site as ‘redevelopment inducement area’ in November 1986, and it took more than 14 years before the Ownership Transfer Plan was approved, signalling the conclusion of ownership-related negotiations (or disputes?) with individual landowners. The majority of these owners were said to have received a piece of properties, either office or a flat in the complex, in return for their land ownership rights. As the dates above show, it was under the reign of Taikichiro Mori when the redevelopment plan was initiated. It seemed that Taikichiro Mori was very tactful (=controversial?) with his acquisition of the site. Buying small parcels discreetly and moving in his own employees to become active community members was the strategy he used (see his obituary in The New York Times). Upon the death of Taikichiro Mori in January 1993, the redevelopment project continued under the leadership of Minoru Mori. The construction work commenced in April 2000, and it required full three years to complete the construction, resulting in a mix-use building complex with a total floor space of about 760000 square metres (see the company site for more details on the development history)

 

Minoru Mori was well-known for his promotion of ‘vertical garden cities’, advocating the vertical assemblage of various urban functions instead of horizontal expansion, resonating Le Corbusier’s The Radiant City. Googling also reveals another British-born architect Chris Abel as having preached the same expression, but it is not clear if the two interacted with each other, sharing the views. In any case, the web site of Mori Building Co., Ltd has a concise explanation (pasted below) of what they consider as the guiding principle of constructing a ‘vertical garden city’:

“By assembling land that has been subdivided into small parcels into a large block and then consolidating building needs in high-rise structures while exploiting man-made foundations and underground space, this approach can free a vast amount of open space at the ground level.

Through ‘vertical’ land development that makes intelligent use of ultrahigh-rise structures as well as underground space, we can create a ‘compact city’ that enhances the efficiency of urban infrastructure, such as rail transportation and road systems, while systematically integrating diverse urban functions, including work, residence/living, entertainment, education, and commercial/retail.”

Model of Roppongi Hills

The Roppongi Hills marked the revival of certain parts of Tokyo’s downtown areas, signalling the new phase of the city’s investments in real estate after the dramatic fall of the industry at the time of the 1990s bubble burst. It is nevertheless questionable if the same principle could have applied to building a similar complex with diverse functions but accommodating not as wealthy clients as the Roppongi Hills have come to possess. No matter how the site is packaged as providing art, culture and entertainment with a rich array of shopping facilities and office functions, it nonetheless presents an aura of an ‘gated residential enclave’ for the Japan’s rich and professional expats, if not the richest (Goldman Sachs is one of the major business occupants in Mori Tower), and of a highly commodified, luxurious space for the middle- and upper-class consumers.

 

I only had enough time to wander around the indoor Tokyo City View to take some pictures of Tokyo downtown in one late afternoon. While Tokyo is a dense (both population- and building-wise) metropolitan place, some districts do stand out with a concentration of skyscrapers as seen in the first picture below, which shows Shibuya and Shinjuku districts viewed from Mori Tower. The views from the Tokyo City View are quite stunning, including the view of Mountain Fuji in the distance. If my memory is correct, the access to the Tokyo City View requires one to pay for admissions to the Mori Art Museum. It is definitely worth a visit if you would like to grasp the urban scale of Tokyo.

View from Mori Tower towards Shibuya and Shinjuku Districts
View of Tokyo downtown and Mountain Fuji in the distant