In projects the world over, the architect has defined theretofore unseen urban axes. We had the opportunity to speak with him at the OMA New York office he directs to learn what he hopes to achieve, for Tokyo and for Japan, with his design for the new Toranomon Hills Station Tower.
PHOTO BY NICHOLAS CALCOTT
TEXT BY MIKA YOSHIDA
ADAPTED FOR ENGLISH BY DAVID G. IMBER
EDIT BY KAZUMI YAMAMOTO
illustration by Adrian Johnson
What strikes one first when peering up at the Station Tower is its torqued body, but that gentle twist doesn’t just serve, in its dynamism, to dazzle the eye.
In designing the Station Tower one thought persisted for architect Shohei Shigematsu: don’t all the world’s skyscrapers tend to look the same from every direction?
Envisioning an urban axis.
“I’ve always wondered if there were a form that would allow for a dynamic engagement with the city, such that it would appear differently depending upon the direction from which it’s viewed,” the architect explained. “The playfully twisted surface of the Toranomon Hills Station Tower connects a trapezoidal face that tapers at the top with an identical trapezoid, but rotated 180 degrees to taper at the bottom. The twist also allows the building’s central axis, a band of activity running from top to bottom, to be regarded from multiple directions.”
Shigematsu points out that while Japanese urban topology supports the idea of “approach roads” oriented to shrines, retail byways and other significant destinations, Japan frequently lacks the application of straight axis lines that characterize many Western cities. Shintora-dori, a boulevard connecting the neighborhoods of Shinbashi and Toranomon, serves as such an axis, leading to important sites such as Tsukiji and Akasaka. Toranomon Hills, he says, will play a role in activating this new axial connection as a hub for a broad range of enterprises, including business, governmental, cultural, and commercial. Shigematsu proposed a “tower dedicated to connections”, with Toranomon Hills at the junction, a “nodal point” connecting area to area, old Tokyo to new Tokyo, greenways to gathering places, public to private, and thus, revitalizing the urban layout.
What Shigematsu suggested was that the activities associated with Shintora-dori be extended through the Toranomon site via an elevated pedestrian bridge adjoining the Station Tower where, sandwiched between its trapezoidal north-south faces, would be a vertical “activity band”. This vertical space would be a point of gathering with special areas generated for tenants throughout the tower. The activity band, the axis line of the building, which is about as wide as the bridge leading to it, rises to the building’s top floor, turns, and descends the western side to the base in a wrapping manner. There are many buildings based upon an axis line through their center, but rarely are they able to express that axis outwardly in multiple dimensions. The tower’s torqued form allows this axis/activity band to be viewed directly from numerous places and vantages.
A community amid the towers
The Toranomon Hills Station Tower opens up to and connects seamlessly to the ground level on which it’s situated, just as it stands, as well as to the Toranomon Business and Residential towers, the Mori Tower, and their environs. Additionally, the highly public base is balanced with a new public amenity atop the tower. The new “TOKYO NODE” includes active gallery spaces, a media hall, and gathering forum with huge windows through which users can view the entire city. There is, therefore, a connection between the tower and neighborhood, business and creative networks, the inside and outside, that makes those public areas very different from the “observation decks” with few practical functions so often found at the top floor of like buildings elsewhere, explains the architect.
“In addition to being connected at the ground level by the bridge,” Shigematsu continues, “the Station Tower is connected to the greater metropolitan area by its own subway station. Until now the Tokyo Metro hasn’t been able to maintain a station plaza here, due to the fact that upon exiting the station, users would step out onto a privately owned plot of land. In the case of Toranomon Hills we were able to develop the lots adjacent to the station. On the lot situated at the heart and center of Toranomon Hills is the Glass Rock building, an additional hub for public activity. The station can now open onto the grand atria of the Glass Rock to the south, and the Station Tower to the north. Both provide an exciting sense of arrival at the grand concourse, from which passengers can view their destination. The light-filled atrium and plaza set out before it is rare for any Tokyo subway station, given it does not feel underground, and the fact that commuters can look out over the surrounding area is also a major feature.”
Shigematsu is advocating for a three-dimensional urban environment that steers people through layers of places and activities. He deems Japanese city residents, especially those in Tokyo, better versed in their understanding of this experience than residents of a city with the density pattern of, for example, Hong Kong.
At the head and the foot of the structure, the space is for the public.
Shigematsu allows that he often likens a mixed-use building to a bento box. “The contents are, needless to say, decided upon by the developer. If the contents are predetermined, no matter how much ‘design’ you apply to the box, the experience within remains the same. I wanted the design approach to embody the maximum potential of the mixed contents, so I devised a new type of program I thought symbolized the future Toranomon Hills area. It’s geographically close to the centers of business and government and so I suggested we build an interactive communication facility suitable for innovative and creative networks and events, such as a TED Talk or the like, in Tokyo.”
That became the basis for the TOKYO NODE complex located in the upper section of the building. A platform for the dissemination of information, it transcends the boundaries of business, art, technology, entertainment, and other categorizations.
“The tower is ‘private’,” the architect continues, “in the sense that most of its tenants are corporate offices. But the thought was to vitalize the tower by introducing a public character at the top with TOKYO NODE and at the bottom with a “T-Deck”, Station Plaza, retail, and food amenities.
“The tower is wrapped in gathering and green spaces, including a garden at the rooftop and an infinity pool overlooking the Imperial Palace. Chef Kobayashi, who’s received three stars in the French edition of the Michelin Guide, will have a restaurant in the tower. The atmosphere may be quite different, but the structure is reminiscent of Japan’s department stores of an earlier era. When my generation was growing up, going to the department store was a source of joy. Kids could watch a re-enactment of TV’s ‘Masked Rider’ on the top floor, while the grownups amused themselves at the beer garden. The fun of the department store rooftop is no more nowadays, but I’d like to see it revived. I feel that the potential of rooftops in Tokyo is not yet well-enough explored.”
The challenge of opening the core of the tower to the public.
One other thing that remained of primary importance to Shigematsu was the attempt to make the most important space in the tower public.
“The history of the skyscraper goes back only around 120 years. I think we should expect that technology will continue to evolve rapidly, along with changes in our work and life styles. We should be questioning preconceived notions of which programs and architecture elements should go where to the fullest extent possible. Take, as an example, the core of the Station Tower. The central core runs up to the Sky Lobby. Beneath that, the core is divided in two. That positions the park as running through the central core of the tower, which opens to become part of the public space.
“Skyscrapers inevitably place the elevator core at the center of the tower. To counteract the typical horizontal spread over designated floors, it was very important to me to split this building’s core, its nucleus, in two, and open its most important infrastructural area to the public. It’s a gesture that liberates the foot of the tower to the highest degree. I frankly find it amazing that that the Mori Building Co. went along with this quite daring design,” Shigematsu admits, laughing.
As a student he yearned to direct films.
What made him then set out to become an architect?
“My father was a chemist, so it was decided that I’d follow the course of science in high school. It’s sort of a the ‘Japanese way’,” he says with a laugh. “Actually, I didn’t dislike math and physics.”
The “bubble economy” developed in Japan just as he was entering high school. Television was filled with trendy dramas portraying characters living in luxurious apartments, driving expensive cars, and wearing fashionable apparel. Shigematsu’s father, however, emerged from an earlier generation. His rebellious spirit, which went against the contemporary dictate that the bigger the company, the better the living, was deeply ingrained in his son’s thinking. Through his high school years he sought a career in science that would give him independence. But he also loved music and drawing, and for a time aimed at directing films, following the path of a Kurosawa or Kubrick. What scientific profession, he wondered, also had a comprehensive artistic aspect? What he arrived at was becoming an architect. He laughs again when he explains, “I knew nothing about architecture. But I figured that becoming an architect I’d be able to make things that brought it all together.”
Study followed, with the engineering faculty of Kyushu University’s department of architecture. A professor of Shigematsu’s specialized in Dutch architecture, and on graduation he continued his studies in the Netherlands. Born in 1973, he’s a member of what is referred to in Japan as second-generation or “junior baby boomers”. He entered professional life during what is known there as the “employment ice age”.
“At the time there were many ‘junior baby boomers’ studying abroad. Every university had a number of Japanese students, quite the opposite of how it is now. But most, if not all students went on the assumption that they’d be returning to Japan.” He expressed his concern at the time that, coming from a relatively rural university and competing with students coming from Tokyo, upon returning to Japan whether he’d find himself on the same footing. If that were not the case he’d make the decision to stay put, despite whatever hardships that may invite.
In 1998 he joined the Rotterdam office of OMA, the firm founded by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas. We wondered about the veracity of the story that after being interviewed by the OMA team, Shigematsu asked to interview with Koolhaas himself. It shouldn’t, he believed, strictly be up to the office to decide whether the fit was right, but an assessment that he had to make as well.
“That’s true. At the time OMA’s office was small, and I’d heard from many people that if you didn’t ‘click’ with Rem, your overall performance would be diminished. So when I happened to see him that day I asked for an interview.”
Following ten years in Europe, Shigematsu began heading the OMA New York office in 2006. In the ensuing 17 years this is the largest project the office has undertaken in Japan. “I think we were able to enter the Japanese market, which is relatively difficult for foreign architects, by conveying the sort of work we do here to that environment. After all, doing the same things that everybody else is doing creates difficult constraints on the work. In my case it would appear that by being conscious of the elements that make my work different from others you end up with results like this tower — which I suppose isn’t the most nuanced example,” Shigematsu muses with a laugh. “Simply put, there’s a difference between living abroad where you work and operating abroad.”
The workplace ideal, where different cultures coexist and are shared.
We asked the architect, who’s been part of this scene for so many years, what he’d consider to be his “ideal workplace environment”.
“An idea we share with Mori is the belief that no one wants to work in the ‘office building’ as the old world knew it. There are, of course, typical offices, but if you go downstairs you can work in a garden-like environment, and there are cafés. Go to the upper floors and you’ll find cultural spaces, other cafés and restaurants suitable for meeting. I think a workplace with a diversity of environments existing together in multiple dimensions has become a necessity.
I also want to work in a place that plays a role in creating content that shapes culture. For example, here in Soho, which began as a warehouse district, artists and like-minded people in various fields gathered and created a distinctive area. There are many such areas in New York City; I feel this is the ultimate form of urban development.
I want to work in such a place, where artists, office workers, startups, and tourists all converge; and I want to be a part of that exchange. Toranomon’s walkability is a good gauge for me; it’s exciting to have so many neighborhoods within a 15-minute walk of Akasaka and Shiodome,” he says, speaking of two Tokyo districts known for their mix of residential, commercial, and governmental interests.
Architecture that continues to be used by people is sustainable.
How does Shigematsu define environmentally conscious architecture?
“Tokyo maintains very strict standards regarding a building’s environmental index, and the Station Tower, naturally, meets all of them,” the architect explains. “However, building any building is inherently harmful to the environment.
“The sustainability of a building doesn’t just rest on the performance of its glass, of its facilities, or the amount of green space it supports, but also upon the building not being destroyed or discarded; by being loved, which I feel makes it sustainable in the long run. We hope that people will continue to use the building’s public-oriented lower floors; and the child who is taken to see an exhibition today in the galleries of TOKYO NODE will hopefully return to view another exhibition there 30 years from now. Our ambition is for a building that is socially sustainable by carefully linking its soft and hard elements, architecture, and activity extracted from its context; one that will continue to be used for as long a time as possible.”
Toward an era of commitment to community.
Prior to the pandemic, Shigematsu was constantly traveling worldwide, spending a scant third of his month in New York. He now limits his international travel to places like Tokyo and Paris, and the ratio of time in the city to time on the road is about six to four.
“Up until now I’ve kept what I believed to be a healthy distance between myself and New York City. But having been given the opportunity of building here, places such as Sotheby’s New York, the New Museum, and Tiffany Landmark, I now feel it was a bit unfair of me to maintain an ‘other-oriented’ posture toward it. So I want to be more committed to the New York community going forward and, in essence, stay connected to the local culture. Having taken a professorship at Kyushu University in my hometown of Fukuoka is another form of participating in local culture to the greatest degree. The world is moving away from glorifying globalism, and I feel I should change as well.”
Born 1973, Fukuoka prefecture. Partner, OMA, and Director, OMA New York. Joined OMA 1998, led New York office from 2006, was made partner in 2008. Representative projects include the new building for China Central Television (CCTV), Cornell University School of Art, Architecture and Planning (NY), Faena Forum (Miami), Sotheby’s HQ (NY), Buffalo AKG Art Museum (NY), New Museum (NY), Pierre Lassonde Pavilion for Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (Canada), Tenjin Business Center (Fukuoka), and others. The exhibition design “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo has lately been receiving wide acclaim.