Tokyo is known for its density and spanning size, which has given rise to apartment buildings with shoebox like living arrangements, as well as towering glass behemoths. Let’s take a look at the architecture of the city, and some of its most striking buildings.
The architecture of Tokyo has largely been shaped by the city’s history. Twice in recent history has the metropolis been left in ruins: first in the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake and later after extensive firebombing in World War II. Because of this and other factors, Tokyo’s current urban landscape is mostly modern and contemporary architecture, and older buildings are scarce. Tokyo once was a city with low buildings and packed with single family homes, today the city has a larger focus on high rise residential homes and urbanization. Tokyo’s culture is changing as well as increased risk of natural catastrophes, because of this architecture has had to make dramatic changes since the 1990s. Located off of Tokyo Bay which makes typhoons and rising sea levels a current risk, along with volcanoes and large earthquakes. As a result of this, a new focus has been placed on waterborne risks such as rising sea levels and seismic events.
Tokyo in recent years has been growing at a steady rate. As a result, new buildings have been built at increased heights in order to make the most out of the land they occupy. In recent years new tunnels for a hyperloop have been added between the two main shores of Kanagawa and Chiba Prefecture, in order to make commuting more efficient. Tokyo continues to advance in technology and grow, which will continue to change its architecture for years to come.
The History of Tokyo Architecture
The modern Japanese period, in their system of dating encompasses the Meiji period (1868–1912), the Taisho period (1912–26), the Showa period(1926–89), and the Heisei period (1989– ). Let’s take a look at some of the guiding principles and forces in Japanese architecture in the Modern period.
Modernity for Japan has been a process of seeking definition in its cultural and political relationships with other nations, both Asian and Western. Japan’s official intentions toward the West during the Meiji period can be described as a calculated attempt to achieve Western industrial standards and to absorb Western culture at every possible level. In the mid-1870s a wide variety of Western experts, including military strategists, railroad engineers, architects, philosophers, and artists, were invited to teach in Japanese universities or to in some other way assist in Japan’s process of growth and change. Also during this time Japan was directly involved in two international conflicts: a war with China (1894–95) and a war with Russia(1904–05). Victorious in both these conflicts, Japan proved its ability to gear its newly established industrial base to the achievement of foreign expansionist goals. In 1910 Japan officially annexed Korea, a process it had begun in 1905 when it assumed a protectorate status over the peninsular nation. Japan’s pretext was to establish a strong buffer zone against possible Western incursion, but Korea was essentially colonized as a source of labour and natural resources.
The Taishō period was characterized politically by a strengthening of popularly elected representative bodies, an interest in universal suffrage, and a comparatively liberal mood in the arts. In retrospect it has been sometimes viewed as a romantic, euphoric period of cultural creativity following the more conservative Meiji era and preceding the militaristic mood of the 1930s. During this same period, as the Western powers with colonial and mercantile interests in Asia were forced to focus their attention on Europe during World War I (1914–18), Japan moved in to fill the vacuum, especially in China. The 1930s were characterized by a rise in militarism and further expansion on the Asian continent. This process culminated in World War II and in Japan’s defeat by Western powers in 1945. The postwar period began with the Allied—almost exclusively American—occupation of Japan and was characterized by rebuilding, rapid growth and development, and increasing internationalism.
Japanese architecture created from the last quarter of the 19th century is remarkable in its rapid assimilation of Western architectural forms and the structural technology necessary to achieve results quite foreign to traditional Japanese sensibilities. Large-scale official and public buildings were no longer constructed of wood but of reinforced brick, sometimes faced with stone, in European styles. Steel-reinforced concrete was introduced in the Taishō period, allowing for larger interior spaces.
As part of the Meiji government’s general thrust to quickly import Western specialists to function both as practitioners and instructors, the two main influences notable in the field of architecture are English and German. The English architect and designer Josiah Conder (1852–1920) arrived in Japan in 1877. His eclectic tastes included adaptations of a number of European styles, and the work of his Japanese students was significant through the second decade of the 20th century. The Bank of Japan (1890–96) and Tokyo Station (1914), designed by Tatsuno Kingo (1854–1919), and the Hyōkeikan (1901–09), now an archaeological museum within the complex of buildings at the Tokyo National Museum, and the Akasaka Detached Palace (1909), both by Katayama Tōkuma (1853–1917), are but a few of the best-known examples of Japanese attempts at stately monumentality in a Western mode.
The German architects Hermann Ende and Wilhelm Böckmann were active in Japan from the late 1880s. Their expertise in the construction of government ministry buildings was applied to the growing complex of such structures in the Kasumigaseki area of Tokyo. The now much-altered Ministry of Justice building (1895) is a major monument to their work. The Germans also trained a group of protégés, including Tsumaki Yorinaka (1859–1916). His design of the Nippon Kangyō Bank (1899; no longer extant) and Okada Shinichirō’s (1883–1932) Kabuki Theatre (1924) in Tokyo are representative of attempts to combine the grand scale of Western buildings with such traditional elements of Japanese architecture as tiled hip-gabled roofs, curved Chinese gables, and curved, overhanging eaves.
The striving for monumentality reached its most awkward form in the highly nationalistic period of the 1930s. The Tokyo National Museum (1937) by Watanabe Hitoshi and the Diet Building (1936), Tokyo, designed by Watanabe Fukuzo are examples of massive, blocky scale without grandeur. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (1915–22; dismantled in 1967) seemed to have had little lasting influence, although Wright’s creations in the West revealed his indebtedness to his perceptions of the Japanese aesthetic. Similarly, the Bauhaus movement stirred interest in Japan, but Walter Gropius was even more thoroughly impressed and influenced by such Japanese classics as the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyōto.
Postwar architecture, while widely eclectic and international in scope, has seen its most dramatic achievements in contemporary interpretations of traditional forms. The structures created for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by Tange Kenzō evoke early agricultural and Shintō architectural forms while retaining refreshing abstraction. The residential and institutional projects of Andō Tadao (born 1941) are marked by stark, natural materials and a careful integration of building with nature. In general, Japanese architects of the 20th century were fully conversant in Western styles and active in developing a meaningful modern style appropriate to Japanese sites.
Japanese architects have designed a way to build temples, furniture, and homes without using screws or nails. To keep the piece together joints are constructed to hold everything in place. However, more time consuming, joints tend to hold up to natural disasters better than nails and screws, which is how some temples in Japan are still standing despite recent natural events. There are two main categories of Japanese buildings, craftsman-like and industrial. Industrial tends to be made by machines while the craftsman style is handmade and tends to take up more time than the industrial style. Japanese homes were influenced from China greatly until 57 BC, when Japanese homes started to grow to be more distinct from other cultures. Until 660 AD homes and building constructed in Japan were made from stone and timber. Even though all buildings from this era are long gone there are documents showing traditional structures. Contrary to this however, wood still remains the most important material in Japanese architecture.
10 of the Most Striking Buildings in Tokyo
1. Yoyogi National Gymnasium
Built for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium has become an architectural icon for its distinctive design. Designed by one of Japan’s most famous modernist architects, Kenzo Tange, the gymnasium is a hybridization of western modernist aesthetics and traditional Japanese architecture. Tange’s innovative structural design creates dramatic sweeping curves that appear to effortlessly drape from two large, central supporting cables. It’s dynamically suspended roof and rough materials form one of the most iconic building profiles in the world. Sitting within one of the largest parks in the metropolitan region of Tokyo, Tange uses the context as a way in which to integrate his building into the landscape. The subtle curves of the structural cables, the sweeping roof plane, and the curving concrete base seem to emerge from the site appearing as one integrated entity.
Influenced by Le Corbusier’s Philip’s Pavilion and Eero Saarinen’s hockey stadium at Yale University, Tange became intrigued with structure and its tensile and geometric potential. Similar to Saarinen’s design for Yale’s hockey stadium, Tange employs a central structural spine from where the structure and roof originates. Two large steel cables are supported between two structural towers in addition to being anchored into concrete supports on the ground. The suspended cables form a tensile tent-like roofing structure; a series of pre-stressed cables are suspended off of the two main cables that drape toward the concrete structure that creates the base of the gymnasium as well as providing the necessary structure for the seating within the stadium.
2. Nakagin Capsule Tower
The Nakagin Capsule Tower is a wonderfully bizarre structure, an architectural oddity born out of the post-war Metabolist movement and its most lauded achievement. Guided in equal measure by Marxist theory and natural philosophy, the Japanese Metabolists worked around one core principle: that the built environment should mirror natural organisms; buildings should be able to grow as plants do, to constantly develop according to the needs of their inhabitants.
The tower’s revolutionary form is centered around two pillars, into which square concrete pods can be ‘plugged in’ at will. The pods are prefabricated and identical, each with a single porthole window and cutting edge 70s space-saving technology. The idea was that as times changed, new, updated pods could be attached, or as a family grew, they could take over two or three pods. The building would develop as people did and usher in a new way of living. Tokyo’s urban landscape is alive with some of the world’s most exciting buildings. From contemporary glass and steel high-rises to revolutionary experiments in design, the city has long invited architectural innovation, the products of which are clear to see today. Below, we walk you through nine particularly stunning examples.
3. Prada Building
Herzog & de Neuron, the architects behind Omotesando’s Prada Building, stated their mission with this project was “to reshape both the concept and function of shopping, pleasure and communication, to encourage the meshing of consumption and culture”. Capitalist-dystopian undertones aside, it’s clear that the intention here wasn’t to build just any store, but a store that would reinvent the very way stores are used.
Has it achieved its goal? Well, simply put, no. On a street of intimidatingly high-end stores, the Prada Building takes the gold, meaning most are put off ever breaching the doors. The building’s facade is nevertheless impressive: a glass tower checked with convex, bubble-like diamonds, which lend the building an almost porous appearance. After dark, the warm interior lights transform it into a giant honeycomb, presumably reserved for only the most affluent of bees.
4. Reiyukai Shakaden Temple
This modern temple, belonging to Inner Trip Reiyukai (ITR)—an off-shoot of Buddhism, “in the field of mental, physical and spiritual well-being and education” as they claim on their site—is one of the most strikingly imposing temples you’ll find in the city. Somewhere between an Aztec temple and a supersize woodlouse, it’s a building that defies precedent but doesn’t feel overwrought or silly; it’s perfectly at ease with itself and seamlessly slips into its central Tokyo surroundings, which, for a building of this size, is no easy feat.
Head inside and the crushed velvet decor will make you feel as if you’ve wandered into a David Lynch dream sequence, though the amiable monks will soon put you at ease. Intriguingly, a 400-ton reservoir sits beneath the temple, earmarked for an unspecified future emergency.
5. Fuji Television Building
Architect Kenzo Tange completed work on the Fuji Television Building in 1997. Although associated with the Metabolists early in his career, Tange nurtured a unique style over his long career, designing some of Japan’s most iconic structures, including the aforementioned Tokyo Metropolitan Building, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Yoyogi National Stadium.
Perched on the Odaiba waterfront, unmatched in size by anything surrounding it, the Fuji Television Building is another of the city’s most striking—an innovative, future-facing structure straight out of the pages of some pulpy sci-fi thriller. The 25-storey building consists of two main towers, connected by crisscrossing walkways, or ‘streets in the sky’, and the building’s defining feature, a giant titanium sphere, 32 meters in diameter and 1,350 tons in weight. The giant metal ball gives the building a playfulness that makes the building difficult not to be charmed by.
6. Shizouka Press and Broadcasting Centre
Built in 1967, the building was the first spatial realization of Tange’s Metabolist ideas of organically-inspired structural growth, developed in the late 1950s. The Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center is far more significant than its relatively small size would suggest, encapsulating the concepts of the new Metabolistic order in architecture and urban planning that prevailed in post-World War II Japan. Built in the Ginza district of Tokyo, the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center gave Tange a chance to materialize his Metabolist ideals, which called for a new urban typology that could self perpetuate in an organic, vernacular, “metabolic” manner. The narrow, 189 square-meter, triangular site inspired Tange to design a vertical structure, consisting of a main infrastructural core, which could develop into an urban megastructure (a term coined by a fellow Metabolist, Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki), into which an ever-growing number of prefabricated capsules could be “plugged-in.” The infrastructural core was a 7.7 meter diameter cylinder, reaching a height of 57 meters, containing stairs, two elevators, and a kitchen and sanitary facilities on each floor. The core served as an access shaft to the modular office units: cantilever glass and steel boxes of 3.5 meters which punctuated the main core on alternating sides.
7. Tokyo International Forum
The Tokyo International Forum is a multi-purpose exhibition center in Tokyo, Japan. The complex is generally considered to be in the Yūrakuchō business district, being adjacent to Yūrakuchō Station, but it is administratively in the Marunouchi district. One of its halls seats 5,000. In addition to seven other halls, it includes exhibition space, a lobby, restaurants, shops, and other facilities. Designed by architect Rafael Viñoly and completed in 1996, it features swooping curves of steel truss and glass; the outside is shaped like an elongated boat.The intent of the design was to create a precinct fully accessible to the public and protected from the impacts of the surroundings. A granite perimeter wall encloses a landscaped urban plaza that extends under four major performing arts spaces suspended above and aligning in diminishing volume along the western edge of the site. The theater lobbies afford continuous views of the plaza below which serves as civic space for multiple public uses. Along the eastern edge of the site the plaza visually filters into the Glass Hall, a large glass enclosure with a dramatic 228-meter-long (750-foot-long) truss that hovers above. At night, light reflecting off the surface of the roof truss ribs transforms the structure into a monolithic floating light source illuminating the Glass Hall and profiling it in the Tokyo skyline.
8. Spiral Building
Spiral, also known as the Wacoal Art Center, is a multi-use building in Aoyama, Tokyo, Japan, that was designed by architect Fumihiko Maki. It was commissioned by lingerie company Wacoal and completed in 1985. Spiral includes exhibition spaces, a multipurpose hall, cafes, restaurants and bars, beauty salons, and select shops. The defining feature of the building is a seemingly-floating spiral ramp (15 m in diameter) that encircles the rear gallery space and climbs to the second floor. The exterior facade of aluminum and glass reflects the jumbled nature of the surrounding streetscape.
The building was selected by the American Institute of Architects for the R.S. Reynolds Memorial Award in 1987. In 2012, the building received the JIA 25 Years Award from the Japan Institute of Architects. Spiral is a nexus of cultural life in Aoyama, presenting music, art, film, fashion and theater events. Fumihiko Maki defined the concept of Spiral Building as follows: “In this building I wanted to represent the chaos of the city and for that purpose I took the typical elements of modern architecture, such as cube, cone and the hemisphere and combined them in an integral way.” At first glance the building looks inspired by the architecture of Richard Meier: the color white, the use of overlapping patterns and geometric shapes, the aluminum finish panels among others and even the use of an undulating volume in the facade. Yet here the rigorous geometric and rationality of the American architect is not perceived. There is also a reference to Peter Eisenman, the deconstruction and re-composition of the design elements. But inside the building, the spatial complexity that other deconstructive works convey is also not perceived, but rather an orderly succession of spaces.
9. St. Mary Cathedral
St. Mary’s Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Tokyo. It is located in the Sekiguchi neighborhood of Bunkyo, Tokyo, Japan. The layout of the building is in the form of a cross, from which eight hyperbolic parabolas open upwards to form a cross of light, which continues vertically along the length of the four facades. This Tange design inspired the later similar design of the landmark cathedral in San Francisco, also referred to as St. Mary’s Cathedral. To this rhomboid volume other secondary constructions are added, including the baptistry and the baptismal font. The rectangular shapes contrast with the symbolic character of the cathedral. The bell tower is 61.6 m (202 ft) high, standing a short distance away from the main building. The exterior cladding is made of stainless steel. In 2004 a large organ built by Italian firm Mascioni was installed
The original wooden structure, constructed in 1899 in the Gothic style, was destroyed during the air raids on Tokyo during World War II. The present church, designed by Kenzo Tange, was inaugurated in December 1964. His funeral was held there in March 2005.
10. Za Koenji Public Theatre
An impressive black volume in the middle of the city of Suginami in Tokyo, the Theatre is managed by Creative Theatre Network (CTN), a non-profit organization led by president Ren Saito. The Za-Koenji Public Theater replaces the old Koenji Hall with a space that is closed off from its surrounding context, with height restrictions informing the facets of its roof, as well as the program. Only one of the three performance spaces is on the ground floor, along with offices; the other two are below grade the basement levels, with supporting spaces for props and costume production. The theater employs separate structural systems for the exterior, and for each floor. The facade and volume of the Za Koenji Public Theatre, located in Suginami, Tokyo, Japan, are unabashedly singular and dualistic. Designed by Toyo Ito (who was recently named the 2013 Pritzker Prize Laureate) & Associates, the Theatre offers pointed summits which exist in elevation as well as on the theatre’s roof, drawing a set of circumstances where the walls blend with the irregular roof without truly doing so- there is no chamfering or blended cuts. And throughout the building’s exterior and interior, portholes give light in and out- whether artificial or natural- adding a second element that offers counterpoint to the pointed tent-arches, while softening the dominance of the lacquered black walls against their light-coloured neighbors. One detracting quality is the building’s colour and its addition to the urban heat island effect of the city.
Tokyo is home to some of the most incredible and experimental architecture in the world, in part due to its rapid growth and need for inventive solutions for housing and public spaces in such a tightly packed area of land. I hope you enjoyed learning about the history of modern architecture in Tokyo, and looking at some of the most striking buildings the city has to offer.