Below the Atago Mountain in Tokyo

Ulf Meyer
14. January 2021
Photo: Webershandwick for Mori Co.

OMA – Office for Metropolitan Architecture and Ingenhoven Architects are building a vertical city in Tokyo for Mori Building Co., Ltd. All that's missing are the Olympic Games.

Winter skies in Tokyo are blue, cool, and sunny. From the top of Toranomon Hills Mori Tower, you can see far above the “sea of houses” of the Japanese capital to the actual sea and Mount Fuji. With a height of 255 meters, the skyscraper is the tallest in the city. The notorious real estate magnate Minoru Mori built it directly above Ring Road 2, which will bring athletes, journalists, officials — and hopefully tourists — from Shinbashi to the city during the Summer Olympics later this year.

The plan to complete the ring road had existed since 1946, when the city was still a smoking ruin and the street was named "MacArthur Road" after the American general who went in and out of the US embassy in the neighboring district of Roppongi. The eviction of hundreds of families whose land was needed to build the road could not be accomplished for a long time. It was the tycoon Mori who untied the Gordian knot. He hired Nihon Sekkei build a high-rise tower where those who were ready to sell but wanted to stay in the neighborhood could move.

Toranomon Hills Mori Tower by Nihon Sekkei. (Photo: Webershandwick for Mori Co.)

Since 2014, the giant Toranomon Hills Mori Tower has been a testament to Mori's negotiating skills when it comes to “rounding off” properties, an essential aspect of every building project in Japan. Typical parcels of land in Tokyo are super-tiny, "roughly the size of a beach-towel," so dozens need to be amalgamated into a larger whole to build anything. Mori perfected this urban development pattern with his Ark Hills and Roppongi Hills complexes, but the Toranomon-Azabudai project will be Mori’s largest urban development. Fully equipped with a hotel, school and sports area, residents and tenants should be able to live, work, shop and play in the complex, much as in the large, multifunctional buildings modernist dreamed of, like Le Corbusier's Unité d‘habitation. In the Toranomon complex, with a pinch of luck, you live close to your work place and thus save hundreds of commuting time over a lifetime.

The Tiger Gate (“Torano-mon” in Japanese) was once the southernmost gate to what would become the Imperial Palace, back when the city was still called Edo. With the demolition of the gate in the 1870s, at the beginning of the Meiji period, the neighborhood developed into one of the densest business districts in the Minato district. It became famous for the "Toranomon Jiken" incident, the attempted assassination of the Prince Regent (and later Tenno) Hirohito by a communist in 1923. Today the headquarters of TV Tokyo, Japan Tobacco and the national print works of Japan, and the Okura Museum of Art, Japan's oldest private museum, crowd the area.

The residential tower designed by ingenhoven architects. (Photo: Webershandwick for Mori Co.)

The central Toranomon Hills Mori Tower, completed in 2014, is now flanked by two smaller but still sizable skyscrapers —one office, one residential — which the firm of Düsseldorf-based architect Christoph Ingenhoven designed together with Kume Sekkei. The new high-rise district will be inaugurated in time for the start of the Summer Olympics, almost a hundred years after the Jiken incident. The two elegant towers will be supplemented by a third, Toranomon Hills Station Tower, designed by OMA partner Shohei Shigematsu.

That the development includes a new subway station along the Hibiya line and a bus station for connecting to both intercontinental airports proves Mori knows real estate demand depends on accessibility. New streets and a landscaped green plateau above them should keep pedestrians in the neighborhood, serve as a green break-room, and entice affluent passersby into the shopping streets. Masamichi Katayama designed the shops with a tasteful Japanese touch. “As early as the Edo period,” he says, “Toranomon had fine shops for the shoguns and samurai because of its proximity to the castle.”

Rendering of Toranomon Hills Station Tower (Visualization: OMA) 

The 56-story Station Tower will contain serviced apartments with access to the spa and pool, beauty salon, party lounge and guest rooms, fitness center, child care, and bilingual concierge service 24 hours a day. Tony Chi is designing the interiors of the 550 apartments. In front of each will be a plant trough and a balcony, although the latter is typically a utilitarian space the Japanese would never dream of sitting on, lest the skin get a complexion (noble paleness is appreciated). Even during the coronavirus pandemic, no culture of sitting on balconies has existed; in Japan you venture inside to have fun, eat, or drink.

The idea of surrounding a skyscraper with angular gardens was demonstrated in Tokyo by the aptly named Tokyo Square Garden from 2013. It was also designed by Nihon Sekkei and is very similar to the new "twin" towers from Ingenhoven. The task for ingenhoven architects was to design the horizontal louver facade in such a way that it visually connects the two giant slabs harmoniously with the nearby Mount Atago. This highest hill in the capital bears a Shinto shrine where the Kami spirit to which it is dedicated should, if possible, be kept at ease.

On the lower floors, the panels extend like a Japanese fan to create the illusion of a “vertical garden city” with planted terraces. The mini gardens should reduce the urban heat island effect — something that will make athletes sweat during the Olympics in hot Tokyo — a little bit. The multi-level green spaces also reduce air pollutants and improve the microclimate. The slats and roof overhangs provide shade and protection for the raised deck that connects the Mori buildings for pedestrians; green spaces like this, no matter how tiny, are very popular in the land of bonsai culture.

The office tower designed by ingenhoven architects. (Photo: Webershandwick for Mori Co.)

Relative to the residential tower’s height of 220 meters, the 185-meter office tower looks almost modest. Chic “salons for venture capitalists” will be set up in the 36-story tower to inject more money into start-ups. Should they grow out of the tower, they will find more space next door for their expansion in the Station Tower, which should open in 2023.

Half a million residents in Tokyo now live in high-rises, twice as many as ten years ago. The population of the capital's central districts is expected to grow by upwards of two million people in the coming years. This growth, fueled by the politics of cheap money, drives demand for high-rise apartments, even in a shrinking society. The miniature single-family home in a distant suburb is no longer desirable for many younger Japanese people. The new residential towers are close to train stations, offer good thermal insulation, comfort, and earthquake protection, as well as localized shopping and leisure opportunities. When the Toranomon residential tower is inaugurated in April, it will be by far the tallest residential tower in Japan with 54 floors and a city-within-a-city — in one of the world’s greatest cities.  

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