Strolling through Tokyo's hothouse of architectural wonders
Checking out the goodies
Okay. Enough of this self-righteous rant. What about the architecture? There is some marvelous work. Herzog & de Meuron’s Prada is striking at the scale of the cityscape, jutting appealingly just above its roofline context. The diamond-gridded structural wall, with its mix of bubbled and flush glass panels, is a lovely thing, and the interior is luminous and dramatic. Circulation is suave, carpet is white, clerks are impeccable in gray. At Tod’s down the row, Ito claims inspiration from the angularity of the branches of the trees out front and creates a facade of big, irregular openings that play against the rectilinear form of the building. The interior is less successful, with too much action and too little resolution in the overbusy details. Part of the problem—which also occurs at Prada—is that exterior walls that depend on the play of nonorthogonal openings must resolve the crisis of intersection with floor slabs that are perforce horizontal. Herzog & de Meuron simply allow the slabs to butt against the building’s skin, which doesn’t look too bad. Ito fusses away on the interior, using surface details to try to resolve the meeting of the irregular openings with the right-angled floors and walls. This dissipates what I think would be the greater potential of a more direct approach.
The building that most impressed me was Ando’s big Omotesando Hills complex, which combines a shopping mall on its lower floors with two levels of apartments on top. The facades—in a lovely green glass—are expressed rectilinearly but complexly and embody several rhythms in deft syncopation. The mall is particularly successful. Part of the reason is Ando’s usual impeccable detailing. Another part of the reason (and this is true of the city as a whole) is that the shops themselves are small and establish a continuity of interest and through-the-wall interactivity that enlivens the whole. But the best move—brilliant, really—was creating circulation that’s continuous, up a gently inclined ramp that rises along the long sides of the space. The incline derives from the slope of the street outside, so the first long run can be accessed from the sidewalk at both its high and low ends. The rest of the spiral continues, in effect, the rise of the street up through the building. This is both extremely urbane in and of itself, and also solves one of the big formal problems of shopping malls: the dull stacking of space with point circulation strapped on at key spots. It’s a great section as well as an homage to Maki’s well-known Spiral Building down the street.
I was also quite taken by Kengo Kuma’s One Omotesando building (which has a truly elegant projecting cantilever on its upper floor), by several other Ando buildings sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, and by Sejima and Nishizawa’s straightforward but thoroughly crisp glass box for Dior. And, lurking not far away is what is, for my money, the finest Modern building in Tokyo, Kenzo Tange’s sublime stadium for the 1964 Olympics. Here is architecture with chops, and spotting it down streets from the midst of boutique-land is a good reminder of the power of building when it goes beyond the endless buffing and fuss that comes from thinking of architecture as a species of jewelry.
Where more is more
When I was in school, we were often pompously taught that buildings were to be divided into “foreground” and “background” types and that the former always depended on the presence of the latter for their meaning. Omotesando—and Tokyo more generally—gives the lie to this particular piece of pat convention. Indeed, the street—which is lined not simply with one Modern gem after another but also more conventional kitsch and everyday mediocrity, from Ralph Lauren’s usual dopey ersatz classical drag to the goofy green mansardic item next to Tod’s—has no “background” at all. It works both because it is simply dense with interest and because the environment—charged up by both the wonderful street itself and the forgiving labyrinth of lanes that run off from it—is easy with variety, excess, and density.
So, can an architectural tourist of good conscience have a good time on Omotesando? Of course! I am not trying to argue that Prada must immediately be converted to an AIDS clinic or glassy Dior to permaculture greenhouses. I am simply raising a question: Why must fashion be the most fashionable thing we create?