From Metabolism to Mori

By Jeremy B. Altman Assoc. AIA posted 11-22-2011 23:20


“Group Form” – an approach by Maki Fumiko, Otaka Masato and other Metabolists for urban planning on a city scale that groups buildings like a village.  With linkages and urban relationships further accommodated, the village of a group form evolved into the idea of mega-structures or cities within a city.  Perhaps it is architectural karma then, that a museum exhibit about Metabolism and group form would be held in the mixed use development of Mori Corporation’s Roppongi Hills (in the Mori Art museum of the Mori Tower) precisely when the AIA Crafting the Future conference met in Tokyo. 

The first mixed-use mega project by Mori Corporation was the Ark Hills project in Roppongi. “Ark” in this case is an acronym for Akasaka Roppongi Knot and was placed in a location that would help tie the two districts together.  It was a government conceived project, privately executed.  By working with the community and with government support – the private entity was entitled to a larger FAR as an incentive.  The ownership of the project is now a Kumiyai, a community ownership organization, with Mori Corporation holding the majority interest.

The model of Tokyo has seen numerous iterations according to Mike Madigan who led a discussion at the AIA session on the Tokyo model; in its current form it is about the 5th iteration.  This model has taken a group of 20 people 15 months to build and was used as part of Tokyo’s bid for the Olympics which they made in 2006.  Now it is can be made accessible to anyone.  Some of the future changes will be the inclusion of the Haneda International terminal which is taking a long time because security concerns limit their ability to get information.  Another large area to be changed will be MacArthur lane, the plan for which dates back to the American occupation.  Since that time, all new development has had to take the future development into account and allow for a Champs Elysees style street running east to west.  Buildings in that area have been set back for decades to allow for a wider axis.

Some of Mori Corporations competitors prefer development in the Marunochi district close to the Imperial Palace.  That area is especially popular with financial institutions as a symbol of prestige based on their address.  However, the eastern side of the palace represents the historical edge of bedrock (one used to be able to approach the palace by boat) so depth to bedrock in the Marunochi area is around 40 meters while in Roppongi it is only around 5 meters.  Besides this advantage, the Mori Tower in Roppongi is equipped to generate all electricity on site.  Tri-gen/Co-gen (recovery of both steam and heat) generators power the facility.  They have incorporated lessons learned from the Kobe quake and placed all the gas lines in soft/flexible tubing. There building is connected to the city utility as a backup.  It did not suffer inconveniences from the power disruption due to the nuclear crisis in Fukushima and as a result, the building is almost completely rented.

 Mori projects and ones like Tokyo Midtown (a Mitsui project) attempt to “greenify” the area.  Many roofs are green to help mitigate the urban heat island effect and a noticeable temperature difference from the surrounding area has been measured.  The company is also proud of the amount of green-space created between buildings. While improving on what they feel Tokyo does well already, namely vertical integration of uses below-ground, such mega-structures begin to do alleviate what Tokyo does poorly (and cities like New York do well) such as horizontal integration of uses. 

One can easily appreciate the problems that the Metabolists were trying to solve with architecture around mid-century.  They saw the problems of modern cities in general as originating from cycles of disorderly construction and demolition.  Japan by 1960 had only just begun to recover from unprecedented destruction due to the Second World War.  Their concept of bringing order thru mega-structures to a chaotic urban fabric is slowly being realized by mixed use projects like Roppongi Hills, Tokyo Midtown and even Sky Tree.  While the Metabolists envisioned a future where the technological, industrially-driven designs grew organically on a city scale; at a human scale they appear to lack a heart and soul.  Is it an example of Modernism’s flaw of a meta-story; that an entire city should be designed by a single mind or were the Metabolists just ahead of their time?  Has it been left to Mori Corporation (Roppongi and Ark Hills), Mitsui Fudosan (Tokyo Midtown) and Obayashi (Sky Tree) to craft the future set out by the Metabolists in the 1960’s?