For traditional architecture, it is best to head to Kyoto, but for contemporary architecture, Tokyo is your best bet. Travelers come to Tokyo for many different reasons; to see famous highlights like the Skytree and the Shibuya scramble crossing, the many shopping opportunities, to experience the diverse nightlife or the endless choice in very high-quality restaurants in this gourmet capital of the world. Another great reason to visit Tokyo is to see many beautiful or sometimes just fascinating buildings.
Tokyo is not necessarily a beautiful city at a glance, unfortunately, it lost many cultural treasures in the fires that raged after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the firebombings of 1945. It was very quickly rebuilt in the late 1940s and 1950s, and the result was a mishmash of buildings that didn’t seem to adhere to any kind of plan. Add to that the tendency of the Japanese to build for a shorter term than in the West due to proneness to earthquakes and other disasters and Tokyo looks nothing like a truly beautiful city like Florence or Paris.
This does, however, not mean that there is nothing to see for architecture lovers. In fact, it is a paradise for those who are willing to look past the seemingly concrete jungle and hunt for architectural treasures all over the city. Whether you would like to see traditional Japanese architecture, modern Western designs, or a fusion piece of art; Tokyo has them all.
A Short Overview of Contemporary Architecture in Japan
The architectural world, which had been severely damaged by WW2, found its place in post-war reconstruction and rapid economic growth. The use of reinforced concrete became commonplace, and modernist public buildings were built throughout the country. One of the challenges facing Japan was the high incidence of earthquakes, but with the advancement of quake-resistant construction technology, regulations that had once limited the height of buildings to 31 meters were relaxed, and super-skyscrapers started to be built.
The first large skyscraper district was built in Shinjuku because the ground in that area is rock-hard and therefore more steady compared to eastern Tokyo where a lot of the land is reclaimed land. Nowadays, newer technology made it possible to build high buildings on reclaimed land as well, so Tokyo’s landscape gradually changed to resemble other metropolises if seen from a distance.
Acclaimed Japanese Architects
The number of internationally acclaimed architects such as Kenzo Tange, Fumihiko Maki, and Tadao Ando has increased, and the level of contemporary Japanese architecture has risen. On the other hand, the idea of urban aesthetics was seen by some architects in the Taisho and early Showa eras but was largely overshadowed by the wartime system and post-war reconstruction.
Many of the traditional townscapes and excellent buildings of the past were lost in the war and economic development, and cheap buildings that prioritized being economic. Rationality became the norm, and the scrap-and-build process was repeated.
While some people positively appreciate the cluttered Japanese townscape that resulted from this process, there are also many voices of regret about the loss of much of Japan’s traditional character, and interest in the beauty of our cities and country is growing, with the designation of important traditional building preservation areas and the enactment of the Landscape Law.
7 Examples of Contemporary Architecture in Tokyo
Let us give you 7 examples of buildings that are worth a visit when you are in Tokyo during your Japan tour and want to see the best and most cutting edge contemporary (Japanese) architecture. To make it easier for you to make a route, the sights are put in the same order as you can see on the map.
Spiral is a cultural complex located in the expensive Minami Aoyama neighborhood with nine floors above ground and two floors below ground designed by architect Fumihiko Maki. It is similar in style to the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, but the façade is probably the most “complex” among Maki’s works. However, the proportions of the windows are similar to Maki’s other works. There is a spiral ramp in the atrium at the back of the first floor, which is the reason why the building was named “Spiral”.
Along with Akihabadai Gymnasium and Makuhari Messe, Spiral is internationally known as one of Japan’s most representative postmodern buildings. The first three floors of the building have a unique structure unlike any other in the world, with a café overlooking the gallery, a shop, and a multi-purpose spiral hall. Concerts and symposiums are held in Aoyama CAY on the basement floor.
Tokyu Plaza (Omotesando)
Ornamental zelkova trees line the main street of fancy shopping street Omotesando where the building of Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku and space beneath the trees are integrated is the unique feature of Omotesando. In order to incorporate this characteristic, volume was created in which the building and the trees are integrated into one volume above the streetscape, and made the space of sunlight filtering through the trees into the top.
This not only helps birds and butterflies to come up to the rooftop forest but commercially, the rooftop garden provides an incentive for people to visit which creates a shower effect, a flow of visitors from the top floor to the bottom floor. Trees were laid out before the design of the perimeter and rooftop were made, to stand where they get the most sunlight and are visible from all corners of the intersection.
As a result, the interior of the building has been hollowed out by leaves and branches, and the rooftop plaza has been uplifted by the roots of the trees. However, we believe that the users and tenants should love this inconvenience and use it positively to create a close relationship between trees and people.
One issue was attracting customers to the third and higher floors. This is actually quite difficult to achieve, partly because of the long escalator ride up. In order to mitigate this, an experience-oriented traffic flow space with polyhedral mirrors was made. The repeated, dazzling reflections of people dressed in their best clothes, like the colorful parts of a kaleidoscope, create a sense of exuberance and liveliness characteristic of fashion. Commercially, the mirrors make the frontage of the building appear wider than it really is, and the reflections double the number of people as they climb, creating a queue effect.
The rooftop is a mortar-shaped plaza, with polygonal steps that level out the difference in levels in the center. It is a multifaceted form that can be used as a staircase, a chair, or a table, and it becomes an opportunity for the users to physically engage with the architecture. The fact that people naturally turn their bodies toward the bottom of the mortar space and gaze at the center makes the space extra attractive.
People would be stuck in countless small corners under the sunshine through the trees and meet their gaze. The tension of being face to face with the people next to you melted away, and you suddenly found yourself in a circle with everyone else. This loose sense of togetherness, felt in a comfortable environment full of physicality and place, is what is needed for commercial facilities of the future.
Nikolas K Hayek Center (Ginza)
The design concept of the Nikolas K Hayek Center was developed by solving architectural problems of a uniquely Ginza context. Ginza boasts some of the most expensive real estate in Tokyo, and plots of land are highly sought after. With a frontage of 14 meters and a depth of 33 meters, this 14-meter-wide and 33-meter-long site required a store configuration on three or more levels to meet the requirements of the Swatch Group to house seven different brand stores as separate boutiques: two shops on the first floor and three shops on the second floor.
This means that people passing by will only see the first floor shops and the rest of the shops will not be commercially viable. The architects wondered if they could somehow make all seven stores visible on the first floor. What makes Ginza unique and enjoyable are the many narrow shops crammed into its back streets rather than the main Ginza-dori Avenue.
Reflecting this uniqueness of Ginza, the front and back of the site were covered with three layers of glass shutters and opened up to create a “street” that you can walk through. When the shutters are opened, the area becomes like a “street” through which people can walk. Seven glass-walled kiosk-like showrooms are scattered along the “street”. In the showroom, people who enter the “street” can see all seven brands and enter the showroom if they are interested.
If they want to see more products, the showroom itself is an elevator that leads them to each of the main stores from the first to the fourth basement floors. This “Swatch Street” is a lively and moving place for people to relax, with seven showrooms and a pleasant mix of nature and sculpture.
Nakagin Capsule Tower (Shinbashi)
The Nakagin Capsule Tower Building was designed by Kisho Kurokawa and was the world’s first capsule-style apartment building in 1972. It is not only one of Kurokawa’s early masterpieces, but also one of his most famous works of the Metabolism movement in architecture. This movement was popular from the 1950s until the early 1970s, and its core principle was that buildings should be organic and grow with the city and what people need.
Each room is remarkably independent, and although it is technically possible to replace each room (capsule), in practice it is difficult to replace only some of the capsules, and so to this day, the capsules have never been replaced. The peculiar exterior of the building, which looks like a stack of bird’s nesting boxes (visitors from outside Japan describe it as a drum-type “stack of washing machines”), directly expresses the function of being a unit condominium, and the design is highly regarded for its clear expression of the Metabolism design concept.
The interior, intended as a second home and office for businessmen, is fully equipped with a bed, air-conditioning, a refrigerator, a TV, and storage built in, but without daily necessities such as a washing machine. In 2006, the building was selected by DOCOMOMO JAPAN as a great example of the architecture of the contemporary movement in Japan. It has been proposed that the building should be demolished or rebuilt due to its age, but as of 2020, no policy has been decided yet.
Sumida Hokusai Museum (Ryogoku)
The Sumida Hokusai Museum’s building in Ryogoku is integrated with the park and the local community, where visitors can easily drop by. The building is not large but is gently divided by slits to harmonize with the scale of the surrounding downtown area. The slit that divides the entire building serves as an approaching space on the ground floor and is connected to the outside passage. There is no “back” in the building, and access is possible from anywhere in the surrounding area.
In consideration of the preservation and exhibition of Ukiyo-e works, the building is closed as a whole, but the slit provides a view of the interior of the building, making the Sumida Hokusai Museum of Art accessible to local residents. From the top floor of the building, one can see the Skytree, a unique feature of Sumida, as well as the park and the surrounding area.
The outer walls of the building are made of light, mirror-like aluminum panels. The exterior walls reflect the scenery of the downtown area softly and blend in with the landscape of the surrounding area. In addition, the volume of the building’s exterior will change its expression depending on the angle from which it is viewed, as the reflection of the landscape changes.
National Art Center (Roppongi)
The National Art Center, Tokyo is located in Roppongi, Tokyo, and is the fifth national art museum in Japan, having opened in January 2007. It was built on the site of the former Institute of Industrial Science, University of Tokyo. With one basement level and four floors above ground, the museum is the largest in Japan, with a site area of 30,000 square meters and a total floor area of 47,960 square meters, making it about 1.5 times larger than the Otsuka Museum of Art, which was previously considered the largest.
Since it is the only museum that does not have a collection of artworks in the National Museum of Art, the museum was named “The National Art Center Tokyo” instead of “museum”, which is the usual term for a museum with a collection of artworks.
The concept of the museum is “a museum in the forest”, and the purpose of the center is to hold exhibitions, collect information, and make them available to the public and for educational purposes. There is also a museum shop, a restaurant, and a café inside the museum. It was the last museum designed by Kisho Kurokawa.
Tourist Information Center (Asakusa)
The Tourist Information Center in Asakusa is a good example of modern Japanese architecture with traditional elements. On a site of only 326 m2 on a corner lot opposite Kaminarimon, a variety of amenities were required, including a tourist information center, a conference room, a multi-purpose hall, and an exhibition hall.
The building that was decided on to house all of these amenities became a complex cultural center that resembles seven traditional wooden houses stacked on top of each other in front of the Kaminarimon gate, which conveys the culture of the Edo period.
A three-dimensional, vertical design was created to reflect the residual neighborhood character of the Asakusa area. Each floor has a sloped roof and ceiling and wooden louvers, which provide a sense of comfort and relaxation as if you were in a traditional wooden house. The roof and louvers provide protection from the sun, while the space between the roof and the upper floors is used to maximize the height of the ceilings and to provide space for equipment.
Your Japan Tour
As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour including in-depth explorations of the architecture in Tokyo. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!