As an architect, one of my favorite activities when traveling is to check out buildings by leading figures in my field. That sometimes means long journeys to remote neighborhoods, to see housing developments off the beaten path or even single suburban homes in areas where other travelers never venture. While those excursions can be adventures, in Tokyo you can see stellar examples by some of the world’s most famous starchitects right in the heart of two of the city’s most popular neighborhoods, the Ginza and Aoyama, namely near Omotesando, the city’s high-end shopping boulevard.
Mikimoto, Ginza. Photo by author.
Pritzker Prize winner Toyo Ito is one of Japan’s most celebrated, and cerebral, architects. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze is often cited in critical appreciations of Ito, with both of them concerned about distinctions between the virtual and the real. In Ito’s work this is often expressed in a concern with reimagining living spaces as well as surfaces that are transparent or at least translucent. You don’t need a degree in philosophy, however, to appreciate the beauty of his Mikimoto showroom (2 Chome-4-12 Ginza; 81/3-3535-4611), constructed in 2005 for the Japanese pearl company. The building has the pale glimmer of a pink pearl, with irregular windows piercing the skin of the building. Inside, the showrooms have an elegant opulence befitting Mikimoto and demonstrating that contemporary architecture need not be severe and cold.
Architect Peter Marino is known as the rebel of the design world, often dressed in daring leather outfits straight out of Tom of Finland. It is perhaps surprising, then, that one of his principal clients is Chanel, noted more for its understated classic style. The company’s showroom in the Ginza (3 Chome−5−3 Ginza; 81/3-5159-5555) is best seen at night, when its translucent walls are illuminated by LED lights shining through the building’s glass surface. By day it may look like an elegant, if somewhat conventional, glass box. After dark, it’s a dazzling display of moving patterns inspired by Chanel tweeds and other motifs.
Dear Ginza building, photo by author.
The Amano Design Office, a Tokyo-based firm, may not be as well known as Ito or Marino, but they are the firm behind one of my favorite buildings in the neighborhood. The nine-story Dear Ginza office building (1 Chome Ginza) constructed in 2013, is tucked on a quieter side street, and covered in a pierced aluminum skin, decorated with floral motifs and crumbled like a large sheet of paper. It’s both grand and playful at once. Unfortunately as it is an office building and not a retail space you can only admire its unusual façade.
J.P. Tod's. Photo by Naoya Fujii, https://flic.kr/p/4U8C2m
Over on Omotesando, another prime shopping street in Tokyo’s Aoyoma district, Ito was also responsible for the J.P. Tod’s showroom (5-1-5 Jingumae; 81/3-6419-2055). Once again, the architect’s fascination with transparent and translucent surfaces is apparent. Instead of the glowing skin of Mikimoto, the surface of the J.P. Tod’s building is a web of concrete beams at all angles, with the widest gaps at the street level and the space between them becoming gradually smaller towards the top of the seven-story structure. The inspiration is said to be the branching pattern of the trees that line the shopping boulevard, with large trunks and a denser network of smaller branches at its higher points.
Prada. Photo by Yen-Chi Chen, https://flic.kr/p/kfjxFZ
The Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron is responsible for a pair of magnificent buildings near Omotesando. The Prada showroom (5-2-6 Minami-Aoyama; 81/3-6418-0400) looks like a large green glass net. With many of the window panels bowed out, the effect is like a carved gem, and the building feels as much sculptural as architectural. The six-story store sits on its own small park, adding to its impact in a city where every square meter of real estate is typically developed. The architects opted instead, however, to provide an open setting for this jewel.
The Prada store opened in 2003; in 2014, it was joined by a sister building by the same architects across the street, the Miu Miu store (3-17-8 Minami-Aoyama; 81/3-6434-8591). While the Prada store is impossible to miss, Miu Miu is more discreet, at least at first. It would be easy to walk by the copper façade of this two-story retail box. Step inside, however, and the backside of the copper walls reflects sunlight into the store and gives the space a golden glow. If Prada looks like a glowing gem, Miu Miu feels like entering a jeweled box. The staff is used to guests who come in more to admire the architecture than to purchase a designer piece. Ask them for a copy of a free guide to the building that highlights all the various elements personally designed by the architects.