Tokyo, the Roppongi Hills, and Vertical Urbanism

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

Morning dance in an inner-city square, Xining, China

Xining is the provincial capital of Qinghai province in western China. Located at an high altitude (about 2,200 metres above sea level), the city is one of the most populous cities in the western region, having about 2.2 million residents by 2010. I had a chance to stay there for about one week as part of my field research in September 2008.

P1060270Among the many aspects of the city that caught my eyes during my stay, it was very interesting to see people of all ages and gender doing what appears to be a routine morning dancing exercise. Rotating a series of gestures and going around slowly in a circle, they all seemed to be quite well accustomed to the beats and melody, while not a single persons seemed to be hesistant about their moves.

I understand Chinese people are often seen early in the morning or (if in summer) late in the evening, indulging themselves in various group exercises such as Tai Chi and quite often, classic waltz, and I have seen many with my own eyes, but not to this scale. The entire plaza was filled with a number of small circles, repeating the same dance moves, and this was at around 8.30 am in the morning. It was actually quite enjoyable watching them, and made me feel like dancing (though didn’t have the nerve to join in…).

The plaza was one of the results of the city’s urban redevelopment projects in order to change the look of the city and attract more tourists, and apparently, the local citizens were ready to ‘occupy’ the space and spell out their own way of appropriating urban space.

Location: Xining, Qinghai Province, China (

Date: 20 September 2008

Urbanised Village and its Struggle to Survive



Urbanised villages in China refer to former rural villages that have been engulfed by urban expansion. Having lost farmlands, villagers invest heavily in dwellings to gain rental income from migrant tenants. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in China’s Pearl River Delta region. These villages struggle to resist impending threats of demolition, though they give in eventually one after another, as is the case seen in this picture.

(originally submitted to LSE Photo Prize 2012 competition and shortlisted)

Location: Xian Village, Guangzhou, China

Date: December 2011

Absorbed in her Study, Xining, China


While families in China struggle to provide education for their children, girls are more likely to fall behind boys in terms of receiving fair opportunities. While roadworks were going on in the entire section of this busy street located in the central district of Qinghai’s provincial capital Xining, this girl show how much she was determined and willing to commit to her study.

(originally submitted to LSE Photo Prize 2012)

Location: Xining, China
Date: September 2008

Child and Bamboo Stick



In this neighbourhood located in central Guangzhou, China, tensions are heightened due to impending demolition and residents’ displacement. For most local residents, continuing their lives after displacement becomes a real struggle, but for now, the child’s major concern is to get the paper-roll back on the ground.

(originally submitted to LSE Photo Prize 2012)

Location: Liwan District, Guangzhou, China

Date: September 2009

Charlton House, London

여름방학기간이라 학교에 가지 않을 때 가끔 오후 시간을 보내는 곳. 옛날 지역영주가 거처하던, 자코뱅 Jacobean (제임스 6세 통치 당시, 16세기말 – 17세기 초) 스타일 건축물이다. 19세기 중반에 발간된 것으로 보이는 어느 책에 소개된 스케치와 오늘날 사진을 대비해 보면 약간의 차이를 보이지만 잘 보존된 것을 알 수 있다. 좀 더 최근에 지어진 것으로 보이는 건물 오른쪽 부속건물에는 도서관이 있는데, 종종 무료 음악회가 열리곤 한다. 낮1시라 동네 노인들이 주로 오는 듯한데, 지역주민들에게 의미있는 문화행사인 듯 하다. 본 건물에는 까페가 있으며, 일본어를 가르치는 학교가 자리잡고 있기도 하다. 

Charlton House 1858 - 2012

Charlton House in London as shown in a book published in 1858, and how it looks today. It’s a lovely local gem. The bottom image from 1858 comes from 

Winter Landscape at Greenwich Park, London


On 5 February 2012, we had the first snow in this winter, and couldn’t help but stroll around the snow-covered Greenwich Park to make the most out of the day. Not surprisingly, the park was full of couples holding each other in arms and quite naturally, families with kids whose parents towed a sledge, eagerly approaching slopes for the snow-ride. Approaching the Royal Observatory from a distance, we came across with this magnificent scene with people dotted around in all forms and posture, enjoying this snowy Sunday afternoon with their loved ones. It reminded me of a scene from a painting that I must have seen in the past – I couldn’t figure out which one it was, but later, I realise this sense of ‘deja vu’ would have originated from having come across with one of Brueghel’s winter landscape paintings. In any case, it was one of the most beautiful days that will be engrained in my heart for many years to come.

ps. Another friend of mine pointed out Lowry’s paintings, which also presented some striking resemblance to how the people are pictured.

Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong


Last month in December 2011, I paid another research trip to Hong Kong. Due to my short stay, I was not able to visit many places nor meet  friends as much as I hoped for. One place that I happened to pass by was Chungking Mansions, which is one of the unique landmarks in Hong Kong. First opened in 1961 as a trendy living place for the relatively affluent at the time, it is located on Nathan Road, Kowloon, not too far from the waterfront. The following note was actually prepared when I paid an earlier visit back in May 2011, accompanied by a colleague of mine Surajit who now teaches in Abu Dhabi University. (Hence, my thanks to him for the informative discussion at the time)

View Larger Map on Google Map for the location of Chungking Mansions

Its first two storeys are used as malls accommodating various stores (currently dominated by south asian restaurants, electronics/gadget shops and DVDs), and other upper floors are residential. The building complex has five towers, and I hear each tower has 18 floors: other than the ground floor, lifts take people up to the 16th floor, and there is yet another 17th floor which is not reached by the lift system. The rooftop has connection to other towers so that people in the tower’s middle section can be evacuated more easily in case of fire. Continue reading

Beijing in November 2002

오래전 찍었던 사진 정리하다 올린다. 베이징 4환 순환도로, Xiaoying 근처. 2002년 11월 겨울 초입

The picture below was taken near the northern section of the 4th ring road. Somewhere around Xiaoying in Beijing, China. Taken in November 2002.

Beijing, China, 2002

Beijing, China, 2002

2002년 겨울 초 베이징에 머물렀었다. 그 당시에도 빠른 속도로 변해 가는 중국 베이징… 그 변화폭은 마치 88년 올림픽을 앞둔 서울을 연상케 했다… 아니 그 보다 더 압축적이다… 늘어가는 자가용 보유율 따라 마차도 점점 사라져 간다. 그래도 처음 볼 때는 마냥 신기 @.@

당시, 마차의 사용이 줄면 이 말의 (당나귀인가…?) 지친 삶도 좀 편해질까 의문스러웠다. 결론은, ‘아니다. 마차 사용 안하면 말은 생을 마감한다… 중국 말도 예외는 아니다’ 지금도 이 생각은 유효하다.