December 24, 2008

The Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza: a monument to democracy

by Lucas Gray - McGill University

“…We will get the inspiration and spiritual rewards out of our buildings that we put in them…What we are recognizing in these buildings is that we have an aesthetic nature - that we have cultural values, and that these values are what lifts us up above the scurrying ant heap of those absorbed only in survival, and make us a society touched with Divine Grace.”
- Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller at the dedication of the Empire State Plaza, November 21, 1973 (Halicarnassus 106)

Originally called the Empire State Plaza but later renamed for the governor who initiated the project, this complex is one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in modern United States history. It took over fourteen years to complete and cost almost 2 billion dollars as it was constructed from 1965 to 1979 (Corgliano 7). Nelson A. Rockefeller’s goal was to create a massive group of buildings that would centralize all of the government agencies in Albany, as well as beautify the downtown area. With this goal he hired architect Wallace K. Harrison to make his idea a reality. As part of the new complex he wanted to create a vast public space for large gatherings. This idea first struck the governor when he hosted Crown Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands who was on a state visit to the USA (Halicarnassus 106). Rockefeller was embarrassed when their limousine drove through the squalid red-light district of the decaying city to reach the Governor’s Mansion and the capitol building (106). With the construction of this new urban centre the downtown took on the appearance of a modern and attractive city - fit to be the capital of New York State.

However, this design, said to be in the international style, also brought on vast criticism. Many critics believed that the architecture had symbolic links to fascist and centralized powerful governments (…). Rockefeller approved the plans of this complex in order to show the world that he was a powerful leader and that New York State is one of the most important and dominant states in the United States. In a way these critics were correct; Rockefeller was indeed looking for architecture that demonstrated the power of his government. In the Empire Plaza, Rockefeller created a monument to democracy much like in Washington D.C.

There was great effort put into to the decision of where to build the Empire State Plaza. Rockefeller had several ulterior motives for building such a large complex of new buildings for the state government. The expanding government needed new office space, but this was secondary to the goal of slum clearance in Rockefeller’s mind. He cared about the appearance of the downtown area more than anything else and that is why the plan of the plaza was designed to stretch out directly south of the state capitol (“The Empire State Plaza” 3). There was a committee in charge of the site location and they chose a number of more practical sites than the one eventually used, but Rockefeller wouldn’t accept any of them. Rockefeller wanted a stunning approach to the capitol and the Governor’s Mansion for diplomatic visitors. When he looked south out of the capital he saw acres upon acres of low-income housing and felt it was a black eye for the capital of the state.

At first this location seemed to be ideal for beautifying the decaying downtown. However, this decision soon turned out to be disastrous. The location was a shallow valley that leads towards the river and is filled with sedimentary clays (Halicarnassus 106). This was terrible for the structure needed for such a massive complex. The supports had to be sunk over 80 feet deep in order to reach bedrock strong enough to support the massive weight of the concrete and steel structures. The procedure of sinking the supports was one of the primary reasons this project went over the estimated budget by such a large margin (106) – almost 4 times the initial allowance.

As well as the terrible land conditions, this location was unfavorable for social reasons. The plaza displaced thousands of lower income families living in these alleged slums (Newhouse 245). At first Rockefeller included low-cost housing as part of his plans for the renewal of the downtown area. This housing project would have only been a small relief to the growing need. Unfortunately he only planned to build enough housing for less then half of the amount of citizens being forced to move. However, this is a moot point as Rockefeller scrapped the housing plan, complaining that it was too expensive (246). His argument was offensively weak. The housing was estimated to cost $20 million, only one percent of the final cost of the plaza, which ended up costing almost two billion dollars - approximately one and a half billion dollars over the original estimated cost.

The more likely reason he scrapped the housing plan is that the new apartment buildings were going to be built in the underdeveloped part of Albany on the east of the plaza. This would have blocked some of the view of his plaza from the Hudson River, which would have taken away from the grandeur of the elevation (248) – and the east façade is incredibly grand with a giant 5 story stone wall looking like a colossal dam holding back flood waters. Although this new plaza was being built as a public space to revitalize the downtown area, Rockefeller was so caught up in the monumentality of the whole formation that he disregarded the practicality and usefulness of it. Pedestrian access is surprisingly difficult from the surrounding neighborhoods and buildings.

The main axis of the plaza runs north south, directly through the state capitol and parallel to the Hudson River. The river was significant because it must be crossed in order to reach Albany from the east. To reach Albany from the north or south you had to exit off of route 87, which also runs along side the river. This means most travelers approaching or passing through Albany were presented with a stunning view of Rockefeller’s plaza. Ships that navigated up and down the river would also gaze upon the dazzling complex.

The capitol building in itself was a highly regarded work of architecture and Rockefeller wanted to use this to his advantage. By situating his plaza so the capitol closed off the north side he placed this historical building at the apex of the plan. Everyone walking along the plaza would have a view of it if they looked along the main axis. The whole plaza was created in order to glorify the government of New York State and there is no better way to celebrate democracy than to create a public complex that places the capital at the head.

To close out the southern end of the plaza Harrison originally designed a memorial arch, much like the one in St. Louis, Missouri. However, as different government agencies pushed for new upgraded office space the plans were altered to include the Cultural Education Center. This futuristic looking 8-story structure is home to the New York State Library, the State Archives, and the State Museum. It also has a theater and a large events room overlooking the plaza to the north and a large park to the south.

The Cultural Education Center actually rests on the opposite side of the street than the remainder of the plaza. However, there is a large, extremely broad set of steps that form a bridge over the road and descend to the south side of the plaza (“Empire State Plaza: Design for the Future.” 9). These steps also act as seating for public concerts and other cultural events held on the plaza. There is a raised marble stage at the foot of these stairs, aligned with the north south axis. This set up shows off the magnificence and monumentality of the entire plaza as it provides a backdrop for the performances.

The entire complex consists of ten buildings set up on a 5-story platform, whose roof becomes the plaza. The plaza is highlighted by three reflecting pools along the axis and is bounded on the west by the four Agency buildings, and on the east by the soaring Corning Tower and the so-called “Egg” - a performing arts theater. Behind the agency buildings is an incredibly long building called the Swan Street Building. This structure acts as a wall separating the Plaza from the surrounding neighborhood. The Cultural Education Centre, raised on its own platform, is at the south end while the 19th century State Capitol, in the French Renaissance Revival style, closes off the north end. Two additional buildings frame the capitol on north end - the Justice Building and the Legislative Building.

The three reflecting pools with a solitary line of fountains marking the center accentuate the main axis. In the center of the third reflecting pool, the closest to the cultural education center, there is a large black metal sculpture by Alexander Calder that ends the line of fountains. This sculpture is one of many that Rockefeller commissioned to beautify his plaza. Throughout the entire complex there are various works of contemporary art, including a portrait of governor Rockefeller by Andy Warhol. One of the primary uses of the unused space in the concourse on the second level of the plaza is for art exhibits and shows. These exhibits and showcases are important because they bring art of the modern era into the eyes of the public. Most people don’t go out of their way to go to art galleries but by bringing art into the place they work or visit gets them to see things they normally neglect. This is another way Rockefeller made this into an important public space as far as the city’s culture was concerned. A large permanent collection graces the walls and is one of the largest collections of modern art outside museums.

Besides the obvious, large structures that outline the plaza there are many other particulars that Rockefeller insisted on including, all of which he designed himself. Most of these details had the common goal of making the plaza more enjoyable for the masses. Running parallel to the reflecting pools are raised platforms on which rest carefully trimmed trees, and grassy areas. Built-in to these platforms are benches for citizens to sit comfortably in the shade to observe the plaza, eat lunch, or read a book. He also insisted on including sculpture gardens, a playground for children, a place for senior citizens, a restaurant with glass walls, and many large installation artworks (“The Empire State Plaza” 6). He was passionately obsessed with the appearance of the plaza. He wanted it to be a beautiful place that would bear his name for numerous years to come. Like Rockefeller Center in New York City, he wanted to leave his mark permanently on the state capital of New York State.

Every aspect of the plaza was designed for use by large numbers of people. Rockefeller wanted this to revitalize the downtown by drawing people there. He wanted large gatherings to assemble at the plaza and designed it in such a way that this was possible (“The Empire State Plaza” 4). The broad steps below the museum doubling as seating is a perfect example to demonstrate this. By turning a simple staircase into a theater proves that every part of the plaza was thought out carefully with the public in mind. The benches built into the sides of the platforms holding the trees are another example, while the broad walkways on either side of the reflecting pools is designed to allow many people to congregate and walk around. This was most likely modeled after the mall in Washington D.C. where many large rallies and protests have taken place to lobby the national government. Rockefeller was very successful in achieving this goal, as there are dozens of festivals, live concerts, and cultural events that take place in the plaza every year. They even opened the plaza for camping when the Grateful Dead passed through town in the 70s and 80s.

Entertainment was only one reason to make the plaza comfortably accommodating to large groups of people. By building this complex and thus centralizing all of the government offices in Albany, Rockefeller successfully created a place that makes it easier for the public to take an active roll in the government. Instead of having different agencies spread throughout the city in rented buildings these new government owned structures allowed people to come to one place and argue their point more efficiently to many government officials. This reinforces the ideals held true to democratic societies.

Furthermore, all of the structures in this complex are connected to each other by means of an underground concourse, which also connects them to the Capitol, the Education Building, and the other state offices in the Alfred E. Smith Building. The concourse contains shops, cafeterias, and meeting rooms that make the entire complex more efficient. It also allows people to be more active during the cold winter months by being able to move around comfortably between offices. This once again allows the public to become more involved and active in government proceedings. Another notable aspect of the concourse is that it is sheathed in marble imported from Italy (Fickies 20). This makes it glamorous and noble but also caused the cost of the plaza to skyrocket.

This compound isn’t only immense in plan. All of the towers and other structures are resting on a 5-story pedestal that creates a colossal wall across the valley when viewed from the east (“A Working Capital” 3, 4). Rockefeller was inspired by the palaces of the Dalai Lama in Tibet with their walls that would close off valleys between vast mountains (Newhouse 245). He wanted something similar to demonstrate the great power of his democratic state (247). The pedestal appears to be a vast wall constructed of large rocks out of which emerge five soaring rectangular towers, one eccentric “flying saucer” looking theater, and a futuristic looking square building. All of these structures seem to loom over and are detached from the rest of the downtown buildings situated on the north and south of the complex. It almost appears as if a giant alien city landed in the midst of a small American town. This demonstrates that Rockefeller’s government over powered the rest of the downtown of Albany.

After examining this plan as a whole we get a feeling of the vastness of the entire plaza. Narrowing our vision to the plan of the four agency buildings and the Erastus Corning Tower we get another perception of the design. From most angles the Corning Tower appears to be two rectangular boxes one being a few floors higher. After closer observation it becomes apparent that rather than being two rectangles they are actually two wedges expanding out towards each other. The Corning Tower’s diamond shaped plan accommodates the requirement for large conference spaces and a number of uniform offices on each. Around the utility core are spaces for individual offices with larger conference areas at the left center (Newhouse 251). The agency buildings mimicked this idea but approximately by a half. In the back of each, Harrison placed a triangular, marble clad utility core. Off of these supporting towers the glass and steel clad offices are cantilevered. The offices begin two stories above the plaza level, to leave the plaza open for pedestrians. By utilizing a cantilevered floor slab Harrison allowed for maximum flexibility in the office layouts. These buildings didn’t have the larger conference areas that the taller tower boasted, but were more flexible when it came to individual offices (251). The fact that the four agency buildings were cantilevered over the plaza to allow easy flow of pedestrian traffic below once again demonstrated the primary function of this as a public space.

The arts center - commonly known as “The Egg” because of oblong curved form - is the most unique and recognizable feature of the plaza. Rockefeller approached Harrison with the idea of the shape of the egg, took a half a grapefruit and placed it over a cup and said, what the plaza needs is something like this (255). Harrison liked the idea because it allowed him to steer away from the typical rectangular elevation most theaters had. He wanted to design something that could reveal the structure of the theater. The cross section reveals two auditoriums, one on each side with the stages in the center, as well as how the entire structure is lifted off the ground by a pedestal to allow people to easily move around it from the outside (256). It also protrudes far under the plaza level to allow access from the concourse, which is beneficial for the winter months. Since this building expands upward it leaves the plaza feeling very open and free.

The Plaza was controversial for a number of reasons: the dislodgement of thousands of inhabitants and businesses, the cost, and the inefficient use of space. While these practical criticisms have mostly dissipated, chiefly since the plaza is a giant tourist attraction as well as essential for local use, still the complex is often criticized on aesthetic grounds. The structural design is described as unfashionable and the buildings as pretentious. Others, however, praise the complex of buildings for not being trendy and predict this architecture will stand the test of time. For all its shortcomings, economic problems, and disconnect from its surroundings the plaza is an efficient space that is truly monumental. Visiting it and wandering around the plaza and concourse is an amazing experience and shows the true power of architecture. At times it makes you feel small and insignificant and a moment later you feel like you are standing on the edge of the world overlooking the city flowing towards the Hudson River. The interiors are grand, impeccably well maintained and filled with fantastic art. About 30 years after it was completed the entire project is in fantastic shape, feels new and the architecture truly has stood up to the test of time in both durability and style. Having worked in an office there for a few months over a summer I can testify that it was a joy showing up to work every morning, lunching near the fountains and perusing the art collections during breaks. Architecture is ultimately designed for its users and in this case the design seamlessly integrates bold aesthetics with incredible functionality.

Works Cited
• Corgliano, Linda J. “Two Changed, But Strikingly Similar Skylines: A capitalistic report on the architecture of Brazil and New York State.” O.G.S. Visitor’s Assistance (August 1990).
• Fickies, Robert H. and Dinnen, Robert J. “The Use of Industrial Materials in Construction of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza”.
• Newhouse, Victoria. Wallace K. Harrison, Architect. Rizzoli, New York, NY. 1989
• “A Working Capital For New York State.” Office of General Services: A. C. O’Hara, Commissioner.
• “Empire State Plaza: Design for the Future.” Office of General Services: James C. O’Shea, Commissioner
• “Halicarnassus on the Hudson” Progressive architecture (May 1979): 106-109
• “The Empire State Plaza” Office of General Services: A. C. O’Hara, Commissioner.

December 7, 2008

What Makes a City Beautiful?

by Lucas Gray

This is a question I ponder as I visit cities throughout the world. Is it the surrounding landscape - like the snow capped mountains, rivers, lakes, and oceans? Is it the awe inspiring skyscrapers or beautiful old churches? Or could it be something else - perhaps a more human scale built environment, or widespread parks, trees and other green spaces?

On a recent trip around the world I visited a vast range of urban conditions that were often disheartening, sometimes stunning and yet often enough too similar. From Japan to Russia and on to Europe cities tended to blend from one to another losing the unique qualities of regional architecture. Landscapes were too often obscured by towers or tucked away below roads, bridges, buildings and other concrete monstrosities. Skyscrapers are all too familiar, boasting smooth glass facades while towering over adjacent concrete apartment blocks. Whether in Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney or Toronto the buildings didn't reveal the uniqueness of the local climate.

I look at cities that celebrate their unique conditions and that is where I find the beauty. Berlin celebrating the river Spree and its many canals lined with parks and grand public buildings pops into my mind as a beautiful urban environment. Hong Kong with its stunning architectural skyline backed by a beautiful mountain and stunning views of the harbor is another example of a city that is complementing the grandeur of its environment.

Too often in America, cities turn their back on their environment. Elevated roads and rail yards separate downtown districts from adjacent lakes, rivers, or coastlines. Buildings rely on air conditioning and other mechanical systems to ignore the influence of the climate. Other cities blessed with an abundance of stunning landscapes lack great architecture - Portland and Vancouver pop into mind. Montreal turns it back to the St Lawrence River. Bangkok has replaced the majority of its hundreds of canals with roads. At least Sydney has embraced its water front and historic harbors.

I know there is not an easy answer to this question. Cities are huge complex entities that grow and morph over hundreds of years. I believe that urban planning and architecture that celebrates the local climate, landscape, materiality and culture is a step in the right direction.

November 16, 2008

Kansai, Japan Architecture Tour

Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kanazawa

By Tom Heneghan and Lucas Gray

Summer 2008


We picked up a Wallpaper Design Guide to Kyoto. It is a great book that fits in your pocket and highlights interesting contemporary design in the area. A Lonely Planet guide was also useful but any guidebook would do. The information office in the station was also very helpful upon arrival.

Kyoto Station

The main atrium space is grand but poorly executed. The concourse is interesting in a way, in a fairly ludicrous kind of way. This building has the ambitions of the Tokyo International Forum but without the elegance, lightness, or intrigue. The most interesting part is the exposed fire escapes on the backside facing the tracks. The interior is often confusing and crowded although the crowds thin as you move up into the mall. It's strange to see such a high profile building fall short in so many ways. An architect given this commission has a responsibility to the public and in this case has really dropped the ball. There are too many horrendous buildings in our word and it is truly disappointing when the public gateway to a city joins the list.

Temples and Gardens

You’ll probably do the usual things - the stone garden at Ryoanji, Kinkakuji (golden temple), Kiyomizudera (wood temple on a hill). It doesn’t matter what you do - everything in Kyoto wonderful. Fantastic. But, I also recommend a visit to the Imperial Palace, in the centre of the city. It’s FAR more interesting than I expected. You must make a reservation to go there and you need to show them your passports. Inside the main walls of the imperial palace, near the north west gate is a reservation office. It is free to get into all of the sites run by this company, which is nice. You can also make a reservation there (with passports) to visit the legendary Katsura Imperial Villa Garden (at the edge of the city).

I liked the Imperial Palace because you learned about the architecture of the buildings – which were quite impressive. The guide was very informative. However, I felt the grounds, mostly just horrendously wide gravel roads, were poorly maintained and not very romantic.

Katsura was the opposite in my opinion. You were held back from truly experiencing the buildings. You got close to a couple of the small teahouses but the main buildings were always a little distant. However, the landscape design more than made up for this shortcoming. The grounds were truly stunning – this was probably my favorite garden in Kyoto.

Ideally, you should stay in a ‘ryokan’ (traditional inn) in the Gion district - which is the geisha district. These are, however, all a bit spartan and musty/dusty, and often full of German/Australian backpackers. I very much enjoy staying in the Sawai Ryokan, PROVIDING I can get the room at the front, on the second floor. You are kept awake by the noise of the bells in the hair of the geisha’s walking in the street below - which is an atmospheric way to be kept awake. (Address: 4-320 Miyagawa-suji, Higashiyama-ku, phone number: +81 75 561 2179 - The owner speaks some English.).

Another option is Iohari Ryokan, which was definitely not an architectural highlight although it was in a great location, on a metro line, next to a large bus station, and rather cheap (only 52,000 yen for two of us about 50 USD). Ask for a room that faces the courtyard garden. They also have free internet. Its right next to the Sanjo-Keihan Bus and Metro Station. You can book a room here at the Information Center at the Kyoto Station.

Contemporary Design

Ando designed an outdoor art gallery somewhere near Kyoto University but we didn’t go see it for some reason. It is probably worth the trip though.

The shops and cafes along Sanjo Dori were worth visiting. Many had great design. The Paul Smith Store was particularly interesting with a courtyard garden. Café Independants is in the basement of an old concrete building and was a cozy space to relax with a coffee, a light meal, or a beer. Nicely designed, especially the plants growing out of the old light wells around the walls. Located on Sanjo Dori a block after the covered arcade ends. Tel: 075 255 4312

Comme des Garcons has a store in Kyoto worth a visit. If you face Kyoto City hall turn left and go down two blocks. Make a right up the narrow road and it will be on your left about 75 meters up from the corner. It’s a big black façade with a curvy entrance. On the 5th floor of the same building is Yusoshi Café - a stylish place with a great Tuna, Rice and Wasabi Sauce dish. One of the Chefs, Futoshi, is a great guy who let us stay at his apartment for a week.

Down the street from Kinkakuji is the Insho-Domoto Museum of Fine Art. The building looks sort of like a Corbusier design but was actually designed by the Artist. I believe the art on display changes periodically.

I suggest you visit Tadao Ando’s ‘Church of the Light’, and also his ‘Temple in Lotus’ and ‘Yumebutai’, the latter two both being on Awaji Island. You may also want to go to his Church on Mount Rokko - the famous one with the glass tunnel - but I think it’s not as essential to see as the ones I mention above. You could see his ‘Church of the Light’, ‘Temple in Lotus’, and ‘Yumebutai’ in one day.

Tadao Ando’s ‘Church of the Light’

Ideally, get there around 10.00am on a sunny morning, since it’s designed to work best during the Sunday morning services that begin at that time. We actually attended the service, which was a pleasant surprise. The people were all friendly and welcoming and were rather knowledgeable about the building. There were also many other architect pilgrims in attendance and we made a bunch of friends who we later met up with when we arrived in Tokyo. The service starts at 10:30 sharp. Please phone the priest first, and say some simple English like “I am an architect, please can I visit the church today at ..... am/pm” (Whatever he then says, go anyway...we didn’t say that!). Phone number: 0726 27 0071

Go from Kyoto station to Ibaraki station (Train journey = 25 minutes)
Exit the station on the northeast side - the right hand side of the track if coming from Kyoto - into the main bus-terminal plaza. Take bus number 2. Ask bus driver for: “KASUGAOKA KYOKAI” (kah-soo-ga-oh-kah kyo-kai) and/or “KASUGAOKA KOEN” (kah-soo-ga-oh-kah ko-en), or you could try “Church of the Light”, since they’ve had tens of thousands of foreign architect visitors traveling the same route. If all else fails, try “Ando Tadao” (honestly - that should be enough). Bus journey = 15 minutes. You get off the bus when it turns sharp left, after it has traveled in a generally straight line from the station. (Stay close to the driver - he’ll help you.) From the bus-stop walk back to the corner where the bus turned left, and look left - you should see the church, about 50 meters down the road. After visiting the church, go back to the same bus stop, and take the next bus - the bus route is a loop, with the church at it’s furthest point, so any bus will take you back to the station. The address of the church is: 3-50 Kitakasugaoka 4-chome Ibaraki, Osaka

Tadao Ando’s ‘Temple in Lotus’ and ‘Yumebutai’

Both are on Awaji Island, which is connected to the mainland by one of the longest bridges in the world. You should ask tourist information how to get a bus to ‘Yumebutai’, which is fairly famous.

Yumebutai is a huge development, every part (except the hotel interiors) designed by Tadao Ando. It is essentially a huge parkland, (planted gardens and water gardens), in which Ando intends his buildings to be less dominant than the planting. From the hotel, you can probably get a taxi to Tadao Ando’s ‘Temple in Lotus’, which is nearby. You should first telephone the temple and ask if you can visit. Tel number: 0799 74 3624.

If you decide to go to Ando’s ‘Church on Mount Rokko’, take a JR (Japan Railways) train to JR Rokko-michi station (maybe 45 mins from Kyoto), and from there take a bus for 20 mins to ‘Rokko Cablecar Station’. Take the cablecar up to the top of the mountain (15 minutes), and walk 20 minutes to Rokko Oriental Hotel. The church (which is not a real church but a wedding chapel) is in the back garden of the hotel. Phone the hotel first: tel: 078 891 0333.


Visit Arata Isozaki’s new Convention Centre, next to JR Nara station - one of his best works, a black elipse with black roof tiles that echo the roofs of historic Nara. Try to get into any interior spaces. The trashy hotel next to the convention centre, which looks like a very bad Aldo Rossi, is, in fact, one of Rossi’s last works. The apartment buildings also adjacent are by Kisho Kurokawa.


One of the largest wood structures in the world - and absolutely amazing! One of the most awe-inspiring buildings I have ever visited. It is a truly impressive structure housing a massive Buddha. I thought I had seen all the Buddha’s I’d ever want to see after spending a year in Thailand but this was a pleasant surprise. Also of note, there is a gate you pass through before you get to the pay area. Make sure to look to your right and left as you pass through – there are two gigantic guardian sculptures carved out of wood. They are immaculately detailed and truly stunning. Definitely a “must see”

The deer populating the areas on this side of town are also enchanting for a little while. They are docile enough to pet. They do get annoying if you are trying to snack outside though.

I would suggest doing Nara as a day trip from Osaka. It’s only about a 30 minute train ride and there isn’t that much to see other than Todaiji and the temples that dot the surrounding park. There are supposed to be some nice walks in the hills around the city if you do spend the night.


Osaka is a very gritty, and therefore very exciting city. Probably a city to be lived in rather than just visited. The easiest way to get a feeling for its style is to head for the Nanba district, at night, and just follow the crowd. Of course, the impression you get depends on which crowd you follow. Follow the most interesting-looking people.

You could go up the Umeda Sky building, near to JR Umeda station, designed by Hiroshi Hara - a very ‘fluffy’ derivative of The Grand Arch in Paris. Umeda station is also called Osaka Station. That’s where all the usual JR trains run to/from. The ‘Bullet Train’ (Shinkansen) runs to/from Shin-Osaka station, which is near the edge of the city. (Similarly, near Tokyo there is JR Yokohama station, and JR Shin-Yokohama station, where the Shinkansen stops).

You can visit Renzo Piano’s Kansai Airport - get JR train from JR Umeda station - or go by a kind of ‘Batman-style’ private railway train - from near to Umeda, I think. Or, there must be busses, or hotel courtesy busses. Remember - there is ALSO an airport called ‘Osaka Airport’. Renzo Piano’s is called ‘Kansai Airport’.

Suntory Museum and Aquarium

In Osaka, take the Midosuji subway line and change at Honmachi station, onto the Tyuoh Line (could also be written Chuo Line), heading to Osaka Port station, and get off there, at the terminus. Follow the crowd, or ask directions to the Suntory Museum (by Tadao Ando - an un-typical work by him - the interiors are not all by him). Next to the Suntory Museum is a foul-looking box building with red corners, which is the Osaka Aquarium by Cambridge Seven Architects of USA. Absolutely foul building, but a really very excellent aquarium inside.

See also: feature article

There is a district in Osaka that used to be an area for antique furniture, or so we were told. Now most of the shops have been converted into trendy clothing stores and small cafes. A lot of the interior design was great and some of the new structures were fantastic. The “Hysteric Glamour” shop was an interesting design - the men’s section is a metal box floating over the concrete women’s section. The entry sequence is rather fun as you are climbing up the folding concrete and catch glimpses of the interior. I’m not sure who the architect was for this building.

Another fun building is called the Organic Building. If you are facing the corner of the Apple store walk down the side street 1 block and make a right. Walk up about 2 or 3 blocks and you will see it on the right. It is a rust red colored building with large “ducts” coming out of each panel – the ducts are flowerpots with all sorts of plants growing out. Again, not sure who the architect was for this project but it was perhaps my favorite building in Osaka.


Another nice city to visit if you have a rail pass – it’s a few hours from Osaka/Kyoto on the high speed trains. The main reason to visit is the Museum of 21st Century Art designed by Tokyo based SANAA. It is a fantastic building with a great concept and intriguing exhibits. The plan consists of a large circle containing boxes that become the galleries and courtyards. The left over space becomes circulation and most of it is open to the public even when the museum is closed. It’s a fun building to wander through. The galleries are interestingly laid out, varying in size and height to create a fascinating circulation sequence in the negative spaces. It’s hard to describe but definitely one of my favorite buildings in Japan.

Across the street from the museum to the north is the Old castle with its sprawling grounds and a large traditional garden. It is worth spending a couple hours at each on a sunny afternoon. A few blocks to the west is a great town market selling all sorts of fresh produce and seafood. There are a bunch of great and cheap sushi restaurants there for lunch/dinner.


I was pleasantly surprised how affordable the trip was. You often hear that Japan is ridiculously expensive. There were parts of Tokyo where the price was prohibitive but in general I never felt like something was priced out of my budget – which was small. We lucked out by finding hosts through that opened their homes to us for one week in Kyoto and 5 days in Tokyo. This saved hundreds of dollars and gave us an insider’s view of the cities. I would highly recommend going this route. Otherwise, the food was fantastic and affordable and our biggest expense was train rides.

Japan is a fascinating place with an amazing blend of contemporary design and historic sites. I was there for three weeks and felt I could easily have spent another month or so without seeing everything I wanted to. I can’t wait to return and see more of the stunning landscapes and interact with a vibrant and beautiful culture.

November 15, 2008

Tokyo, Japan Architecture Tour

Started by Tom Heneghan Updated by Lucas Gray - summer of 2008
Expanded by Lucas Gray - fall of 2017

I tend to not rely on guidbooks anymore considering all of the online travel information. However, it has been suggested to get hold of the small pocket guidebook to Tokyo architecture, written by Noriyuki Tajima - available here on Amazon. There is a very useful map that goes with it, however the map is not included in the book although the map publisher is mentioned. It is a bit dated but still is a great resource to see some contemporary architecture. The Wallpaper Tokyo Design Guide published by Phaidon is also a worthy investment. It was a nice little book that has good tips on places to see, shop and sleep – especially if you have a large budget. I now question whether you really need a guidebook at all. With ample internet access and google maps you can probably find anything you need on your phone. There are plenty of online resources for architecture worth visiting and reviews of restaurants across the city. Google maps is actually really great in Tokyo and can offer everything from directions, train schedules, recommendations for restaurants, and more.

When you arrive, buy a copy of the English-language magazine 'Tokyo Journal', which lists festivals, events, parties, etc. It is most likely only available in districts where foreigners are. There were also a couple of free English language weekly magazines with events, concerts, gallery openings, etc. These can be found in many bars/cafes and probably at the information centers.

Rail Pass
I always purchase a JR rail pass ahead of each trip to Japan. It is a bit pricey (approximately $415 for two weeks or $535 for three) but definitely worth the investment. It gets you on almost all of the JR trains, including the high-speed Shinkansen lines. It makes moving around the country fast, convenient, and affordable. You have to purchase the pass ahead of time online. I've used in the past and have been satisfied. It will ship to your address by FedEx and then you take it with you and exchange it for the actual pass on arrival. If you land in Narita, follow the signs to the trains and there is a JR East ticket center. Bring your receipt there and they will get you the pass. You can exchange it at an JR Ticket center in almost any train station.

The train from Narita to Tokyo is around $28 each way. Just getting to and from the airport will cover a large percentage of the purchase price of the JR Pass. I also find that the JR Yamanote line is one of the most convenient ways to get around Tokyo and your JR pass will get you on there for free as well (a one-way ticket will be around $2). On a recent trip I spent about $30 on subway tickets over the course of 4 days. You can probably get almost anywhere you want to go using the Yamanote line and then a short walk if you are willing to take a bit longer to get to your destination. A Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Osaka will run around $140 so you can see that the pass can save money if you travel beyond Tokyo. 

Most flights land in Narita, about an hour by train outside the city center. There are two trains that can easily get you into Tokyo - the Narita Express, which is run by JR Japan Railways, and which goes to Tokyo Station, and the Skyliner, which goes to Ueno Station. I usually take the Narita express and then transfer to a subway or the Yamanote JR line once I get to Tokyo station. The Narita Express is covered by the JR Pass the Skyliner is not. 

You can buy tickets for both trains either in the arrivals hall, or downstairs in the station.

One tip: if possible, avoid getting the Narita Express to Shibuya station, unless you have been advised to do that by someone. The location of the Narita Express Shibuya Station is very distant from the regular Shibuya Station - a real pain when you're hauling a bag. If you need to transfer to a regular JR line, or to the private Metro subway system, or to get a taxi, I suggest changing at a different station, such as Shinjuku or Tokyo Station.


Somewhat surprisingly, hotels in Tokyo are very affordable. Of course you could get super expensive luxury places but you can still find lots of nice options in the $100 range. Business hotels are no frills but offer everything you need for a pleasant stay. If you want a unique experience you could try a capsule hotel. There is a nicely designed chain called 9 Hours ( They have a few locations around Tokyo, and in other cities. They also have some locations for women only. It is a cool experience and the interiors are elegantly designed with great infographics. They are also under $30 per night per person. So if you are traveling alone it would be a great affordable place to spend a few nights.

If you are looking for a more unique, Japanese experience, I highly recommend a place called Andon Ryoken. It is near Minowa, two stops north of Ueno Park, on the Hibya line. It’s in a quiet neighborhood about a five to ten minute walk from the station. Also I found that the Hibya line connects almost all of the sites you want to see. It was definitely the subway line we used the most. Andon Ryoken was featured in a 2005 Japan Architecture Guide. It is a small boutique hotel, very elegantly designed and very affordable - about 80 dollars a night. As with all Ryoken, it had Japanese style rooms with tatami mats and futon mattresses and shared bathrooms. The rooms are very small but nice. They had very a nice Japanese bath on the top floor, free Internet, and a good cheap breakfast. They have an easy to use website and usually fill up quickly so reserve well in advance. This is a perfect place to stay if you want to experience a Japanese style room (futom mattress on tatami mats) although I have to stress the rooms are very compact. 

The neighborhood around Andon Ryoken is relatively quiet and residential. If you head south of the guesthouse towards Asakusa there are commercial streets with lots of restaurants and cool local bars. The whole area around Asakusa has tons of restaurants, shops and activity. 

Otherwise, there are a huge range of hotels throughout the city. I would suggest booking a hotel that is a close walk to as many metro lines as possible to make moving around the city easy. If you can book one near one of the Yamanote line stations that would be even better. I like the small alleyways filled with bars and restaurants close to Shimbashi Station and there are many affordable business hotels in this area for around $100 per night. There are also affordable hotels just east of Okachimachi station. This area is also lively at night with bars, restaurants, shops, and pedestrianized streets. 

I found that it took me a long time to realize that Tokyo and most of the larger cities in Japan, are stacked vertically with cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels, shops, etc. located on random floors in high-rise buildings. As you wander the streets keep your eyes moving up buildings to see signs revealing the plethora of business inside. This is quite a change from most western cities were usually only the ground and second floor are reserved for public functions with the higher floors usually being private businesses or residents. Most buildings will have a series of signs at their entrance also advertising the businesses within. It is a little daunting to take the plunge and head up these buildings, but there can be some great restaurants and cafes you would otherwise miss out on. 


Ok, now onto the architecture and districts of the city you should explore!

Ueno Park (northeast of the central city)
Visit the Museum of Western Art by Le Corbusier, a simple and elegant building. The new basement galleries, however, are not by him and he must be spinning in his grave. Opposite Corbusier’s building is the Metropolitan Theatre, designed by Kunio Miyakawa, who worked for Le Corbusier. The Miyakawa looks like a Chandigargh design. Many people mistakenly think this is the Le Corbusier building. The Corbusier building looks dull on the outside, but is fascinating internally. Usually it is horrifically crowded, so avoid weekends. The new museum by Yoshi Taniguchi (who subsequently re-designed MOMA in New York), on the north side of the park - The Museum of Horiuji Treasures - is a ‘must see’, mainly for the fantastically arranged exhibition. The building, which is a very elegant design, shows the plusses and minuses of current Japanese architecture. It is sometimes very careful, yet sometimes bafflingly careless. Nearby is the National Children’s Library, which is Tadao Ando’s conversion of an old building, and worth a look. The garden design is simple, but surprisingly effective.

There is a new building that connects the elevated park to the street below. It is a shopping center with Bamboo in the title. I’m not sure who designed it but it was a nice building. It utilized an interesting juxtaposition of wood and concrete. The wood has aged to become a similar gray as the concrete while the concrete was made with wood board formwork, at points it was difficult to tell them apart.

I found the park itself to be a nice break from the hectic city. The large trees provided much needed cool shade and there were nice benches to sit and relax and a local amateur baseball game going on. I would recommend this as an itinerary for your third or fourth day in Tokyo when you are a bit tired from walking miles upon miles.

After visiting the park, you could walk through the nearby Nezu district, which is old, towards Nezu station. Together, this should take you most of a day, if you walk slowly and relax in the park.

The Shibuya and Harajuku District (soutwest of the central city)
Start by visiting the Meiji Shrine (next to JR Harajuku Station). It’s not very old - built in the 1920’s, but its setting and the approach are superb. Then go to Kenzo Tange's nearby Olympic stadium. This can become a full day trip - spending the afternoon in Yoyogi park watching the groups of young people play games, practice dancing, play guitars, paint, do tug-of-war, and all sorts of other interesting things. It’s best experienced on a weekend.

Return to this area another day and down up Omote-Sando street heading away from the park. Head into the Oriental Bazaar building to buy souvenirs, foreigner-sized yukata’s and kimonos, and old – and very beautiful – bits of kimono cloth, especially from the section on floor 2, and wood-block prints from the stall next to the kimono stall. The Oriental Bazaar is not a rip-off as everything is at a reasonable price.

Continue up Omote Sando street and look at the new Dior building by Kazuyo Sejima from Sanaa. Go back down the hill about 20 meters and turn left into a small pedestrian street - informally called ‘Cat Street.’ On the right hand side of the street you will see shop called Kiddyland (originally it was the hhStyle furniture showroom) by Sanna, and a strange folded-steel annex building by Tadao Ando next door - now it sells artistically designed underpants. Yes....underpants. Both the Sejima and the Ando building are temporary structures, which anticipate the continuing massive increase in land value of the Cat Street area, and their eventual demolition for replacement by a bigger structure. When you are standing in the Sejima building, remind yourself that this is a 3-storey building built in the most seismically-active country in the world, and note the glass walls of both long walls and the tiny-diameter steel columns. The engineering is by Sasaki, who was also engineer for Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque. The Kiddyland building is a very clever structure, depending on a big concrete structure hidden behind a house on its Omote-Sando side. Being very lightweight so that earthquakes don’t have a lot of mass to shake around, consequently the structure doesn’t have to resist much earthquake thrust. Also notable are the ‘fire-escapes’ from the top floor, which are a kind of belt that lowers you to ground level.

Continue exploring this street for a while. There are lots of interesting designs – especially interior design – for the shops lining the alleys off Omote Sando. We took two full days exploring this district of Tokyo. Part of this is because I was working on a retail design project at the time but it is still worthwhile. There is a large green glass “Iceberg Building” a block west of this alley on a busy street. It is an Audi dealership and definitely an interesting design, with crazy angular glass planes, although the interior wasn’t spectacular and the building must be an air conditioning nightmare – the antithesis of sustainable design.

Return to Omote Sando and turn right and go up the hill to the new Louis Vuiton shop by Jun Aoki, and near the top of the hill you’ll find Toyo Ito’s new Tod’s shoe shop, which is a concrete box with the pattern of trees cut into it. He recently completed a new version on this theme, in Ginza, for the Mikimoto pearls company. I find the Ginza version far less interesting, however, and the gloss paint on the surface reveals it to be not as well built as one would expect.

The Tod’s and Dior stores were personal highlights, although the interior of Dior is a bit of a disappointment. They blocked almost all views of the façade and out onto the street with their typical gaudy baroque displays. The Tod’s interior was much more integrated into the architecture of the building.

An Interval to Talk About Food:
There’s a very, very, good ramen noodle shop, about 50 metres down the hill from Kiddyland (on same side as Kiddyland). Turn down the side-street called Onden Shopping Streer, just after the ‘Peltier’ shop, and the ramen shop is about 30 meters down this street on the left hand side. It’s not a very ‘traditional’ place, as it’s a bit styled-up, but the ramen is really very good. Just pick any one.

The next recommendation is one of my favorite places in the world. It will surely be demolished some day soon – maybe even before you read this! The route is a bit complicated, so bear with me. Walk about 50 meters down the hill from Kiddyland. Stand with your back to the ‘Peltier’ shop. If you look across Omote Sando main-street you will see a small side-street directly opposite you. That is the street you want to go to. Cross Omote Sando by the footbridge, or some other safe way, and walk into that street. Keep going until the street ends at a small cross street. You then walk a few steps left and turn right, almost immediately, into another small street. Walk along that street until you get to a weird, multi-colored building covered in scaffolding. That is a collection of ‘rental galleries’ where kids of questionable artistic talent display their works. There’s no need, and no pressure, to buy anything. Just nod appreciatively. The place to eat is behind the gallery building. You can get to it by walking around the ends of the gallery building, or through some of the bottom-floor galleries. It’s a small, traditional-ish building where you can only buy ‘Okono-miyake’. It’s a kind of Japanese-pizza, that you cook on a hot plate built into your table. You can get meat style or squid style, etc. It’s good – not great but definitely interesting – in taste, but the place and other clientele are great. You can also get to this place by walking along the street that runs parallel to the one that took you to the galleries building. But, it’s more fun to enter through the galleries route. You can return to civilization by walking from the restaurant to the parallel street.

Back to Architecture:
On the left (north) side of Omote-Sando, while you have been walking up, you will have noticed a shopping building of extraordinary length. It replaced historic government-owned low-income housing that stood on this site until about 2002. The design of the old housing is said to have been influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright…and the rumor was elaborated by reference to FLW’s many visits to Japan. The claim is doubtful, I think. Anyway, the old housing was much admired for its romantic squalor. It did not meet any earthquake regulations, or modern functional requirements, but its replacement was a ‘hot potato’ project, which not all would have had the guts to take on. Tadao Ando had the guts.

The vast building is elegant, but not a show-stopper on the outside, and my hunch is that that is the way Ando wished it to be. Omote-Sando is already a zoo of architectural exhibitionism, and something restrained is necessary as a ‘visual anchor’, or to enable your eyes to draw breath. This is a very important street – one of the most important in Tokyo - and Ando’s project gives it some of the ‘gravitas’ such a street needs. The ‘spiral street’ inside Ando’s building is incredibly successful. It’s a bit like a long, thin New York Guggenheim building, but with the ramp lined by commercial businesses (and – anyway – isn’t the NY Guggenheim a commercial business?). The Ando spiral street really works. It’s worth a look, just to see how it re-invents the commercial building-type. It also is a good example of the exquisite use of concrete that Ando’s reputation is built on.

At the top of Omote-Sando, on the left hand side, is a building by Kengo Kuma which is also restrained, and which interestingly exploits the fact that on its eastern side is the territory of a small shrine and a police-box, and consequently the Kuma building will never be enclosed on that side - or not for very many years. Kuma exploits this by some gymnastics facing towards Route 246. From here, go to the top of Omote Sando, cross the road, turn right, and visit Fumihiko Maki's Spiral on Aoyama street (Aoyama-dori). Go up the spiral at the back of the building to see the good selection of ‘designer-toys’ in the market on floor 2. Exit the market at the front of the building, opposite end from the ramp, and find one of the finest internal public spaces in Tokyo – a series of bench seats on stepped landings, overlooking the street outside, usually occupied by sleeping shoppers.

Turn right as you exit the Spiral building and go back to Omote-sando crossing, and turn right - walk up this street, which has all the major designer fashion shops. Check out Comme de Garcons - exterior by Future Systems, interior by Rei Kawakubo, which is very brilliant, I think. However, she changes the interior every few years, so it’s anyone’s guess what you’ll see. But, it’s certain to be brilliant. She has repeatedly destroyed brilliant interiors, only to replace them with brilliant interiors). Go into the various Issey Miyake shops, and the Yohji Yamamoto shop, which he apparently designed himself..

As you walk along you’ll find Herzog & de Meuron’s Prada store. I feel it is the most successful integration of interior and exterior design of all the shops in this area. Go into the change rooms and check out the button on the floor that runs an electric current through the glass and turns the transparent wall into an opaque surface to create privacy. I even found the landscape design around the store to be great. Also, the entrance/exit from the basement of the building through an underground stair to the “secret cave” entrance is playful and fun.

It is also worth exploring the alleys around this part of Omote Sando. Go behind the Prada store and you get to a nice little complex of well-designed shops. The “A Bathing Ape” shop in particular is worth visiting for the sushi-style conveyor belt of shoes and a glimpse of Tokyo youth fashion style – the whole store is an example of great retail design. The Kate Spade NY store across the street fro “A Bathing Ape” was still under renovation when I was there but the metal mesh wrap over a more traditional house was interesting – and it should only get better as more vines creep up the mesh. Continue up Omote Sando from the Prada shop and stop in at Tadao Ando's 'Collezione' (not his best work).

The way to end the Omotesando tour, after seeing Ando's Collezione, is to go to the nearby Nezu Museum. This is a massive re-working, by Kengo Kuma, of an old building. The re-worked buildings are excellent, and the old, traditioal garden is superb, but....the small cafe, standing in the garden, is brilliant. One of the most lovely buildings I've seen. One of Kuma's finest works. After the blizzard of form-making excess that is Omote-sando, this simple building gets its effect from its materials, it's simple form and its superb detailing (although I say that nervously, knowing that contemporary Japanese architecture is rarely detailed to endure. My fingers are crossed, though, that this work will retain its pristine beauty). And, the food and coffee is nice, and not too expensive.

Return to the Omote-sando crossing, and turn right, along Aoyama street, and turn left at the Bell-Commons corner – perhaps a 5 minute walk up Aoyama. Bell-Commons was designed by Kisho Kurokawa, but is not worth more than a glance. The street that you turn into at Bell-Commons - like most streets in Tokyo - has no name. But, it has a nickname, which is ‘Killer Street’ - referring to the prices in the shops that lined the street when it was first built as a route to the stadiums used for the Tokyo Olympics in 1963. It’s gone a bit downhill since then. Go along Killer Street and look at Mario Botta's Watarium museum and the FANTASTIC tiny rough-concrete Asusa House opposite. There is also an interestingly designed colored concrete school across from the Watarium Museum and if you can talk your way inside – or visit on a Sunday – there is a fantastic concrete church hidden behind.

Cut North through the backstreets - walk away from the face of the Watarium building - and try to find your way to Fumihiko Maki's Tepia museum, which has amazing detailing, and sometimes an interesting computer exhibition. If you stand with your back to Tepia, cross the road and walk left until the last (small) street on the right before the big Route 246. Turn down that small street and keep looking down the small streets that lead off it on the right-hand side. Soon you will see Sejima’s ‘Small House’ down one side street. If you go further along the small street (not the side street) you will find a Temple-approach gateway on the right. Go in and walk to the right side of the Temple. From there you will get a good view of the private side of Sejima’s ‘Small House’. There are some problems, I think - such as a fully glazed exterior facing the afternoon sun, and little insulation for hot or cold, and the problems of hanging curtains, which tend to fall vertically when the glass walls lean in and out, and the curtains are the only apparent means of privacy and insulation. Return to Tepia, and head west, downhill to Maki's Sendagaya gymnasium, which is close to Sendagaya station. This takes most of a day, and gives sore feet. It is probably worth breaking up into at least two trips.

Ginza (east central)

Go to Ginza Station (on Ginza Line, Maronouchi Line or Hibiya Line), come out of the station at the Ginza-crossing, and look for the second Dior Building, by Kumiko Inoue - she did the perforated metal exterior wall, not the interior. If you walk past Dior, about 75 meters down, you’ll find the Hermes building by Renzo Piano with an amazing Glass Block Facade. Cross the main road and walk down any street at right-angles to it. Go down 2 blocks, and look left or right and you should see Toyo Ito’s Mikimoto pearls Building.

At this point you’ll start to wonder about the legacy of ‘Modern Architecture’. Le Corbusier built for the Salvation Army and did low-income housing; the Smithsons did schools and housing, Mies and Kahn did universities. Tange did the Hiroshima memorial, etc, but today’s ‘keynote’ architecture is for Dior, Louis Vuiton, Hermes, up-market furniture shops and Mikimoto Pearls. On Sundays, the main street in Ginza is pedestrianised (or was at last time of hearing), which is quite charming.

Just southeast of Ginza is the Tsukiji Fish Market is an amazing sight. Hang around for a while and eat ridiculously fresh sushi for breakfast. I got there around 6 and felt it was already a little too late. The earlier you can make it the better. I recall hearing there is a fish auction at 5:30 when all the top restaurants in town bid for the best cuts of meat. I would recommend planning on going to the market on the morning of your first day. Due to time differences from the US, you will probably wake up very early anyway making this a great first destination.

(Note: they have been talking about relocating the market for many years now. I'm not sure when it will actually move to the new location. Also, they have been cracking down on tourists wandering through the market. I think they may not let tourists in before a certain time. However, the restaurant stalls around the market are open to visitors.)

Have a look at Kurokawa's famous Capsule Tower, nearby. Right across the street from it at Shiodome, is a new high-rise office building designed by Jean Nouvel - a very elegantly curved building with great glass facade overlooking the Hama Rikyu park.

At 10am go into nearby Hamarikyu park – there is a fee to enter but worth it in my opinion. I went into the Tea House in the park and had a lovely relaxing time sitting on the balcony overlooking a tranquil lake sipping green tea and tasting a jasmine cake. Definitely worth a stop if it is hot or you need a rest after the early morning market. From inside the park you can catch the riverboat, to Asakusa. Visit the amazing Asakusa Kannon shrine, which is a popular tourist destination. There is a long market street leading up to the shrine with hundreds of vendors selling souvinirs and snacks. Just south of this market is the Asakusa Visitor center designed by Kengo Kuma. It is a great building with a cool facade treatment with wood screens unifying the shifted geometry of each floor. To the east, across the river 
is Phillipe Starck's 'Flame d'Or' bar/restaurant with the gold ’flame’ coming out of the roof. You can see it from afar and it probably isn't work going to unless you are a huge Phillipe Starck fan. This will take you till early afternoon.

Roppongi Metro Station

Come out of the metro and walk north and check out Tokyo Midtown complex and includes the Suntory Museum by Kengo Kuma. Also check out the 2121 design site right behind it, designed by Tadao Ando and fashion designer Issey Miyaki. Keep walking up the main street and look for a gas station on the left hand side. Turn down the side street and after a 5 minute walk you will find a beautiful museum which is the last major work by Kisho Kurokawa. It's notable feature is a curvy glass façade with thousands of glass louvers – the main atrium is impressive and the museum hosts some impressive exhibits.

Go back to the main road and walk north until you get to the Toto building. On the third floor is the Gallery Ma architecture gallery with ever changing exhibits. There was a Glenn Murcutt exhibit when I visited. On the second floor is the Toto architecture bookstore with a great selection. The gallery is free and you can check out the current exhibit here:

Central Tokyo

Have a look at Tokyo International Forum, desig
ned by Rafael Viñoly Architects, which is next to Yurakucho station,

O-daiba ‘island’
You get here by ‘Yurikamome’ monorail from Shinbashi station. We went to the islands at dusk to get dinner and watch the summer fireworks festival. We also let the first train load up and leave so we could be first in line for the next train and get the seats in the very front of the first car. This gives you a spectacular view out the front window as you fly along the tracks (it is a driverless monorail).

O-daiba ‘island’ is an artificial island formed of piled up garbage. It’s the first of the artificial islands that were planned for Tokyo Bay by the late Kenzo Tange, but since the population of Tokyo is no longer increasing at the rate it was, the islands may no longer be needed. O-daiba is a very enjoyable ‘trashy, commercial kitsch’ place to go – every visitor enjoys it (even extremely distinguished architectural academics). Go to the end of the Yurikamome line, have a brief look at ‘Tokyo Big Site’, which is a huge exhibition centre that incinerated – and continues to incinerate – huge amounts of Tokyo tax-payer’s money (interestingly, it’s located close to one of Tokyo’s main garbage incineration plants – a not-badly designed building with a huge concrete object, which is its chimney.

Walk back under the Yurikamome to see the Toyota car museum (actually extremely interesting) and ‘Venus Fort’ – a huge shopping center designed for women, which looks like nothing from the outside, but is Milan inside, complete with interior lighting programmed to simulate changes in exterior daylight - totally ludicrous, but beautifully done, and very enjoyable. Then back to ‘Decks’ shopping center – which is just a shopping centre, but immense fun. From its decks you can watch the beautiful people on the artificial beach, below, all sensibly staying out of the polluted water. Next to ‘Decks’ is a large-scale model of the Statue of Liberty, given to Japan by the French government during ‘The Year of France in Japan’, some years ago. It faces inland, so photographs of groups can be taken next to it, rather than out to sea, as does the original.

Outside Tokyo

A day in Kamakura is very good - get there by ordinary train from Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station (you can use a JR rail-pass for this journey, and all journeys above ground in Tokyo). See the very, very, very, brilliant Kamakura Modern Art Museum (one of my favorite buildings in the world) designed by Junzo Sakakura, who worked for Le Corbusier in Paris, and the big temple (Kamakura is full of temples). Get the bus from the main street in front of the temple to Kita-Kamakura station and visit the temple there, which is an immersion in Japan at its most idiosyncratic. Then catch the train from there back to Yokohama, and have a look round - maybe spend evening in Yokohama's Chinatown, which is close to the International Ferry Terminal by Foreign Office Architects, which does not serve up quite the spatial experience that I hoped for.

Another good day or weekend trip is the town of Nikko, a couple hours north of Tokyo. Although it is a popular destination for Japanese tourists, it is quite beautiful and if you take a bus out of town further up into the mountains there are some amazing hikes.

West of the City center

Go to the Shindaita station on the Keio commuter train line and walk a few blocks north and then a few blocks west to visit Hanegi Forrest. This building, designed by Shigeru Ban, is an apartment complex where the building “makes way for the trees.” The building is lifted up on stilts and large holes are cut through it in order to let the existing trees continue to dominate the site. The annex building is rather odd and space-like and hasn’t aged very well. Rumor has it Shigeru Ban actually lives here.

Across the street is another Apartment complex that has a very nice elegant design. Not sure who the architect is but there is a nice use of concrete with vines growing up the sides and wood log walls. If you continue walking south and west from here to the next subway station on the same line (Higashimatsubara) you can visit Shigeru Ban’s office.


St Mary's Cathedral designed by Kenzo Tange. This is an incredible concrete structure with sculptural metal roofing that soars into the sky.

Architecture Galleries

In Tokyo there are two main architecture galleries, both with nice bookshops: The GA Gallery in the Harajuku district, and Gallery Ma in the Nogizaka district. Both do not always have exhibitions so check before going.

GA Gallery
Ga Gallery website
(03) 3404 1461

Gallery Ma
Gallery Ma website
Click 'english' and then 'information', to see the map.
(03) 3402 1010


We went to Tokyo Giants Baseball game at the Tokyo Dome. It was a great evening activity that let us get off our feet for a few hours. Also the Japanese fans have a unique and rather charming way of participating in the sporting event with non stop singing, drumming and dancing. The beer girls are reason unto themselves to visit. Hundreds of Japanese girls run up and down the bleachers for three hours with kegs strapped to their back pedaling Suntory, Asahi, and other cold Japanese beers on draft. The building itself is nothing very exciting – basically a huge concrete structure with an aging dirty roof. But the area right around the stadium is an amusement park complete with rollercoaster twisting, turning, and flying right through the mall across the street. It is kitschy but kind of fun at the same time.


There isn't as much good architecture in Tokyo as you'd expect. The 'big guys' have built very little here - Isozaki has built only one or two, Ando only a couple of big ones. Maki, however, has many good buildings in Tokyo. The best works in Japan are usually outside Tokyo. The Tokyo International Forum (by
Rafael Viñoly) is very impressive until you try to walk to a theatre door - then you find pinched, cramped, mean and frankly dangerous circulation spaces. But, the Forum is fun - so is Le Corbusier's museum at Ueno, and so is Kamakura. For enjoyable trash, see Odaiba - especially 'Venus Fort'. And (don't sneer) - Tokyo Disneyland - just at the edge of Tokyo - is really fantastic. It's a big surprise, especially to arrogant architects who despise kitsch, but end up having a great time no matter how hard they try to despise it. Tokyo Disney Sea (next to Tokyo Disneyland) is a brilliant piece of design. I mean, brilliant! Zillions of people would go, whatever it was like. Disney didn’t have to make it this well designed or this well built. They must have done it like this because of pride, which – these days – is a virtue, not a deadly sin.

Overall, what is great about Tokyo is the urban fabric itself rather than any individual building. Wandering the streets and alleys, getting lost in the metro system, finding your way to the tops of buildings (there are a few free observation decks), and squeezing into Yokocho (tiny alleys near train stations filled with bars and food stalls), is what makes this city so special.

Place To Drink

No visit to Tokyo is complete without a visit to the legendary Golden Gai near Shinjuku. ‘La Jetee’ bar iis highly recommended - it is run by a wonderful lady named Tomoyo, who speaks several languages – all with a French accent. Architect’s patronize it a lot - including Itsuko Hasegawa, Toyo Ito, and others occasionally drop in. It’s tiny. When you go there you’ll wonder why I have sent you there. Then, you’ll have a drink (ideally sitting at the ‘banquette’ seating around the tiny table), and slowly you’ll see why it’s the most perfect bar in the world. It fits like a glove. Tomoyo (or her stand-in) will serve you some bits of food. It opens at 9.00pm. If you enjoy yourself too much and stay until the early hours it can be a bit expensive. But, if you leave before you get too ecstatic it’s not too bad. And, it’s worth it for the experience. Tomoyo knows that many of her customers are artists/architects/odds-and-ends who don’t have much money, so don’t be afraid to tell her that you can only spend 5000 yen, or so, and what can you have? (but make it clear that that’s for all of you, not each). 
I believe there is a 1000 seating fee and then the cost of drinks on top of that. I suspect that you can have a nice time there for 3000 – 4000 yen each. It’s almost impossible to find – see the web-articles below:

Basically, walk along Yasukunni Dori, away from Shinjuku, and turn left down a little alley through a small park just east of Mr Donut. This leads into an area called Golden Gai with a handful of tiny alleys filled with tiny bars and restaurants. Her bar is on the second level of the third alley down, on the right hand side. Or when you get to the entrance to Golden Gai phone her and she’ll send someone. She doesn’t open on Sundays or on days of typhoon downpour. 

Golden Gai has really grown in popularity over the past 10 years and is now rather crowded and often filled with other tourists. My first trip it was mostly just locals and they were surprised to see gaijin there. Now many of the bars are filled with foreigners. However, it is still worth checking out.

Tokyo is an amazing city. You will never be at a loss for things to do and see. Just wandering the streets and lanes can occupy days while sampling the local cuisine deserves a whole article unto itself. This is just a guide to get you started exploring some of the amazing buildings in the area. Leave comments below if you have other suggestions or found any mistakes.

November 13, 2008

Fire and Police Station

Elizabeth-Abegg Straße 2, Berin, Germany – designed by Sauerbruch Hutton Architekten

by Lucas Gray

Blending the boundary between adaptive reuse and new construction, this magnificent little building clings to the firewall of an existing structure in the government district of Berlin. The extension is clad with colored glass louvers that provide a strong contrast from the heavy brick of the existing building and yet interact with the surrounding trees. The original historic building was built in 1889 and sits on the north bank of the river Spree just a stones throw from the Reichstag and other government buildings. Sauerbruch Hutton Architekten undertook the renovation and expansion from 2001-2004.
The mature trees along the river become flames of reds and yellows in the autumn. The long elevated building nestles into this canopy as the shiny glass louvers vary in shades of reds and reflect the surrounding leaves. As you follow the gently curved corners of the building you are confronted with the long elevation where the reds slowly blend to shades of green to represent the dual roles of the building – a firehouse and police station. The entire façade glistens in the afternoon sun as it pours through the trees. Sections of louvers are folded up to become sunshades for the newly revealed rows of windows behind.
The main entrance to the complex is on the north, directly off the adjacent elevated roadway. A footbridge brings the public into a reception area on the second floor of the building where an existing window has been converted into the main door. A view from the entrance bridge gives a slight glimpse of the extension as it just bends around the corner of the brick building. The new structure is lifted to create parking space for the fire and police vehicles in garages below.
The building is modest, simple and yet extremely elegant. It utilizes a simple structure and a constrained use of materials. Its complexity comes in the exploration of color and the variations created by the movable glass louvers. Creating a long thin building was an ideal form to maximize natural ventilation and day lighting, allowing the building and its users to interact with the surrounding environment while decreasing the reliance on mechanical systems. This building blends bold architecture with environmental sensitivity, while utilizing a historic building in an innovative way. The real triumph however, is creating a work of contemporary architecture that is functional, responsible, symbolic and beautiful.

November 11, 2008

Design Bridge

The Univeristy of Oregon student run Design Build Organization
Eugene, Oregon

by Lucas Gray

designBridge is a student organization linking the University of Oregon's school of Architecture and Allied Arts with the surrounding community. The focus is to bring the resources and energy of students to organizations that are in need of design services but can’t afford to hire a professional practice. The devoted group of students focuses on projects that have a mutual benefit to them as designers and to the community - seeking projects and clients that share their commitment to sustainable design and green building practices. The services offered range in scope from weekend design charrettes and conceptual design, to design development and full design-build depending on the client's needs. designBridge was recently nationally recognized by “Champions of Sustainability in Communities” and was awarded honorable mention for being an exciting new national initiative.

The organization started a few years ago with a small group of students, a professor and a commitment to growing their education and community. designBridge has rapidly grown to be the most active student group in the school of Architecture. This year there are over 50 students on four project teams as well as a number of students committed to helping the organization with administrative duties. Organized like a large firm, student Project Managers are chosen to manage the project teams. All design work is carried out in a collaborative environment while the entire organization is updated on the status of all active projects at weekly meetings. When more hands are needed additional students are pulled in to the project – often for builds, which are open to all group members.

One thing that makes designBridge unlike any other university design-build program is that it is student lead. Without students volunteering their time to go out and find projects, and then taking on the design and build of those projects, this organization would not exist. However, designBridge could not operate without the tremendous support of the architecture department and the faculty. Assistant Professor Nico Larco is the Faculty Director and Juli Brode is the Faculty Operations Director. Additional faculty members get involved as Project Advisers and help to teach designBridge classes. Recently, designBridge has been integrated into the curriculum in a program entitled “designBridge Year.” Students may choose to enroll in a year long program that consists of Pre-designBridge, a designBridge Studio, and finally a designBridge Build. Larco’s and Brode’s course, Pre-Design Bridge, discusses issues spanning from an initial client meeting up through the beginning of schematic design. Learning about issues such as contracts, financing, site surveying, code reviews, permitting, etc. provide the organization with strong leaders possessing a solid foundation in project management. designBridge Studio, taught by Melinda Nettles, will take each project through design development and have students prepared for building in the spring. designBridge Build will then offer students academic credit for building their projects and learning construction and project management skills. Most exciting is that each project team partners with a professional firm in the community to provide oversight and advice. By integrating the group within the curriculum the department supports its students by allowing them to earn credits towards their degrees.

Recent projects range from landscape design and renovations, to new design and construction. Just this past year, a studio was devoted to the design of a community garden and food preservation facility, construction was completed on a seedling house for the North West Youth Corp - a local alternative high school, and renovations were made to the Edison Elementary School bike shelter. Three new projects were launched this fall; Roosevelt Middle School Bike Shelter, Moss St. Child Care Center outdoor play structure, and a new outdoor entry sequence and sun shading for HIV Alliance. There are dozens of other projects that aren't mentioned here as the portfolio of work is growing rapidly from year to year.

The group relies on donations and grants for financing overhead costs. In the past 18 months designBridge has generously been awarded two grants by the Williams Fund and one from OTREC. These funds have been used to develop the infrastructure necessary to sustain the program including hiring the Faculty Operations Director, Juli Brode. Clients are thus only responsible for the costs of construction while the students often help raise project funds by providing presentation materials for grants.

For more information on this group, how to get involved, or how to commission them for a project visit the website or email contact

November 7, 2008

Holocaust Memorial

Berlin, Germany – designed by Peter Eisenman

By Lucas Gray

Undoubtedly this is one of the boldest and most moving public plazas I have ever visited. It is a testament to Peter Eisenman’s creativity and the risk city planners were willing to take that ultimately has made an unforgettable landscape. This 19,000 square meter city block is overrun by 2,711 concrete columns with varying heights set in a regular grid. Each column is 2.83 meters long by 0.95 meters wide and none seem to rise at precisely 90 degrees. There is always a slight angle that produces a somewhat uneasy feeling as you wander the paths and get enveloped in a sea of gray concrete.
The ground supporting the monoliths is not flat as it gently rolls like the peaks and valleys of the ocean’s surface. The columns themselves also undulate like a large wave, rising from the street edge to the center of the site. As you wander from the sidewalk into the depths of the site you find yourself feeling smaller and smaller as the columns around you rise on all sides and quickly block out the sun and views of the surroundings. As you make your way aimlessly down the rows you accidentally stumble upon other visitors, hear distant chatter, and run your hands along cool smooth concrete. It is a place that actively engages all of your senses and makes you more aware of what is going on around you. According to Eisenman’s explanation the site is meant to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason, while creating a slightly confusing atmosphere. I think he has artfully accomplished this concept in an unforgettable way.
Below the concrete forest is an underground gallery displaying the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims. This is the only direct reference to what the site is memorializing. There are no names or marks of any kind on the above ground installation. Instead it relies on the emotional response of visitors to get its point across. It is interesting to observe how this takes affect. On the outskirts the low columns act as benches and tables and some are even flush with the ground plane. People gather in small groups and sun bathe and chat or eat lunch. As the columns rise sight becomes limited and a more subdued feeling takes over with individual explorers often quietly contemplating their existence in such an overwhelming environment. It is amazing to observe how the mood changes so dramatically.
The project was first conceived in a competition in 1994. After hundreds of submissions were received and ultimately refused they ran a new competition in 1997. Peter Eisenman’s design was chosen from this round. After almost two years of debate and conflicts, Mr. Eisenman’s scheme was finally decided upon and construction began in April of 2003. It took approximately two years to complete opening to the public in May 2005. It sits one block south of the famous Brandenburg Gate and a few blocks south of the Reichstag.
Like all good public places this memorial is multi faceted. It provides its visitors with places to gather, to sit, and to be outdoors. It is place of wonderment as is seen when children, and adults for that matter, climb up and jump from column to column. It also is a place of reflection and remembrance - a symbol to the horrors of the past and the pain suffered by the Jewish people. But ultimately it is a place where each visitor is confronted with their own emotions and must look within themselves to interpret their surroundings.

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