JIN-449 -- Cracks in the Skyline

J@pan Inc Newsletter

The 'JIN' Japan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 449 Wednesday January 23, 2008, Tokyo

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---------------
Cracks in the skyline

Eight years ago, despite much angst and heartfelt protest, the
last of Tokyo's 16 Fuji mizaka (slopes where it was possible to
command a good view of Mt. Fuji) had its view obscured by a
condominium built in Bunkyo-ku. Beyond the residential level,
the Tokyo skyline has also witnessed massive growth and change
in the last 10 years. Office and leisure complexes such as the
Izumi Garden Palace, Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown have shot
up marking economic recovery and a renewal of confidence. In
2003, 33 buildings of over 99 meters were completed, compared
with only eight a decade before.

From an architectural point of view, while in the 1980s and
'90s there were some flamboyant original designs such as
Phillippe Starck's Asahi Super Dry Hall
( http://tinyurl.com/3bwvqc ) in Asakusa and Kenzo Tange's Fuji
TV building in Odaiba (http://tinyurl.com/2ssf82), the more
recent complexes are much more sober and corporate. As Martin
van der Linden, Architect Prinicipal of Van Der Architects Japan
observes, places such as Roppongi Hills and Midtown are styled
to fit other buildings made by the real estate firms that
constructed them, Mori and Mitsui Sumitomo respectively. The
architects and designers tend to come from firms associated with
the realtor as well, such as Nikken Sekkei for Mitsui. These
impressive, phallic and more standard towers symbolized the
return of the Japanese economy and confidence but since the
opening of Midtown in spring last year, Tokyo's skyline appears
to be on hold.

There do not appear to be any new skyscraping landmarks on the
horizon and construction in the capital more generally is slowing
down. One reason behind this is the tightening of the
building-permit application process implemented by the Land
Ministry in June 2007, in part brought about by the Aneha
scandal of 2005—the construction company was found to have
falsified documents relating to earthquake-resistance
( www.bigempire.com/sake/index.html). Compounding this is the
credit crunch which has been not only affecting real estate sales
but also resulted in a dearth of funding for major projects as
investors lean towards caution. Moreover, Gordon Hatton,
Executive Officer of Bovis Lend Lease, argues that major
construction work 'is always cyclical. Buildings like Roppongi
Hills take years to plan and complete and span across cycles,
sometimes making it difficult for the developer to see far enough
ahead to time the release of such significant amounts of space
on the market effectively. People tend to over-build, there is
saturation, and then there is a lag before demand spurs more
projects again.' Certain categories have also reached saturation
as Hatton goes on to explain, 'many of the major hotels are here
now so new construction in that sector has perhaps run its
course, although several of the incumbents are renovating or
rebuilding in the face of new competition. With occupancy rates
high, there may still be room for growth in this sector, but
perhaps the focus will shift from high-end Tokyo to other class
and regional opportunities.'

And, even in Tokyo some categories are seeing sustained activity.
There is still an insatiable demand for grade A office buildings
and Mitsubishi are trying to meet some of this with their new
developments in Marunouchi. Concurrently, while are no huge
monsters on the way, there are interesting slightly smaller scale
projects under construction (http://tinyurl.com/36u67v).

[Continued below...]

------Metropolis Magazine Valentine`s Glitterball-------

Glitterball is back!
Tokyo's favorite party makes its triumphant return on
February 14, 2008-Valentine's Day.
An institution for nearly a decade, the Metropolis-hosted
Glitterball was on hiatus this year due to the closing of
Velfarre nightclub, but 2008's version promises to be better
than ever.
Roppongi hotspot Alife will host over 1,000 V-Day revelers
for a night of eating, drinking, dancing, making friends-and
who knows what else.
Prize drawings, swag bags, and Tokyo's funnest crowd will make
the reborn Glitterball the highlight of the Tokyo social
calendar.

CORPORATE SPONSORS WELCOME
www.metropolis.co.jp/glitterball
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[...Article continues]
In terms of architecture, Tokyo is still a Mecca for architects
and smaller buildings here are often groundbreaking and unique.
One trainee architect at a major global architecture firm's Tokyo
office told us that Toyko, and Japan more generally, is
fascinating in design terms: 'there are not the same restrictions
and regulations that you find in European cities making it
difficult to do something out of character with the area.' For
her, only in Tokyo could firms like Atelier Bow Wow
(www.bow-wow.jp) exist—known for their forward thinking, unusual
designs. On the other hand, Gordon Hatton points out that there
is also a growing trend for building designers to show an
appreciation of context, even if they are not compelled to do
so. For example, "inside Roppongi Hills it is quite complicated
and easy to get lost echoing the feel of the blend of busy
crossroads and intimately scaled backstreets found in Shibuya,
Harajuku and some other older sections of Tokyo. At the same
time, such buildings are functional and cater to the demands of
their corporate tenants."

Tokyo architecture on the smaller, more residential scale is
also highly influenced by the issue of limited space. This has
inspired some highly creative thinking when it comes to design
particularly notable in the 'kyosho jutaku' trend that uses all
available space in strikingly innovative ways
(www.bigempire.com/sake/kyosho_jutaku.html). In terms of the
space for foreign architects, they are nowadays considered less
of a novelty and so they compete on a more even playing field
with Japanese firms—a trade off between losing their niche and
widening their scope. Hatton notes that we are almost in an
inverse environment to the 1980s with increasing cases of local
firms 'who are building their name with foreign clients.'

For Martin van der Linden, while uninspired by the recent
skyscraper developments, he agrees that, through the cracks in
the skyline, Tokyo is a hotbed of fantastic design. Among the
reasons he lists for this is the fact that Japan has more
per-capita qualified architects in the world than any other
country (300,000 out of the world's 1.2 million) and the high
amounts of funding that can be raised to finance ambitious,
interesting projects. So, while the skyline maybe paused for the
time being, and despite the blandness induced by the
globalization of architecture, there is still some exciting
design and construction going on in Tokyo—you just have to
search for it.

Peter Harris
Editor-in-Chief

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++FEEDBACK

Want to comment? It is now even easier to voice your opinion
than ever before! Simply visit www.japaninc.com/jin449 and
post a comment below the article. Alternatively, you can email
it directly to the author at peter.harris@japaninc.com

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++EVENTS

---Entrepreneur Association of Tokyo - Tuesday, February 5th--

Title:
'Presentation Zen: How to design and deliver
great presentations in today's world'

Speaker: Garr Reynolds

Start off the year learning an essential skill for any
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Date/Time: Tuesday, February 5, 7:00 pm
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++END

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