Tokyo at dusk

The 7 (lesser-known) Architectural Wonders of Tokyo

As you would expect from a city the size of Tokyo, construction is part of this city’s daily life. Almost everywhere you look in Tokyo, there is something being built. Office blocks, apartments, shopping arcades – all squeezed in next to each other, making the most of every inch of space in this cramped metropolis. With the frequency of construction and the countless number of buildings already standing, comes an increased need to give buildings a bit more character than usual. This is why Tokyo can be a great place to look for examples of interesting architecture. However, I’m sure many of you have seen the “big favourites”…so what else does Tokyo have to offer?

Photos and text by Yongfook.

What do I mean by “big favourites”? Well, there are a handful of buildings in Tokyo that have become almost synonymous with architecture – the kind of buildings that people pass and instinctively stop to take a photo.


The Usual Suspects: Tokyo Tower

The Usual Suspects: Prada Building

For example, the Prada building in Aoyama with it’s diamond-patterned glass walls, the glittering Roppongi Hills shopping and business complex and Tokyo Tower are all places that have, frankly, been photographed to death. For this article I sought out smaller examples of interesting architecture. Sometimes off the beaten track, sometimes only one-storey high – but what they lacked in convenient placement and size, they more than made up for in terms of originality. So lets begin, in no particular order, The 7 (lesser known) Architectural Wonders of Tokyo…

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Built in the early 1970s, the Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa is not only a highly original design, but it also represented a paradigm shift in the way living spaces are thought about. Each individual 2.3m x 3.8m x 2.1m “box” is a self-contained single-room apartment, with everything one would need to sustain a normal life contained inside, such as phone, stereo system, furniture etc.

Interestingly, each capsule was actually pre-fitted with all the furniture off-site at a factory, after which it was hoisted by a crane and attached to a central strut. This kind of thinking was obviously a key catalyst behind the birth of the now-ubiquitous “capsule hotel”, a type of hotel found in Japanese urban areas, which have small, furnished “capsules” for you to sleep in, their size meaning a hotel can maximise the amount of guests they can accommodate.

Yahoo Map Link

Systemware Building

I see this building from afar almost every day on my way to work and had always assumed these twin towers of chrome were some kind of electricity generator or water-processing plant. It’s only when I started doing my research for this article that I discovered to my amazement that this is an office block. On closer inspection the chrome is actually mirrored glass, and the two towers have an interesting webbing pattern between them, making them appear stuck together. By Hiroshi Tanabe, in 1986.

Yahoo Map Link

National Noh Theatre

Noh is Japan’s oldest form of theatre but this monument to the art looks far from archaic. Built in 1983 by Hiroshi Ohe, this theatre has a highly characteristic roof which seems to embody traditional Japanese sensibilities whilst giving it a modern edge. The roof appears slightly curved and features aluminium louvres all the way down. The building itself features many exhibition rooms and educational facilities and acts as a means of promotion for the art of Noh, as opposed to being only a theatre.

Yahoo Map Link

St Mary’s Cathedral

This glimmering arrangement of metallic curves is, in fact, a Catholic church. Built in 1964 by Kenzo Tange, this extraordinary building is unfortunately situated quite far from any major train station, but is well worth seeing. The building’s grounds are generously open, allowing you to look at the striking design from as many angles as you like. Standing tall next to the main building is the cathedral’s bell tower – a monolith-like smooth pillar, holding 4 bells at it’s peak.

Yahoo Map Link

Embassy of Sweden

Whilst perhaps not as immediately striking in design as the others in this article, I find the design of the Embassy of Sweden’s building particularly interesting as it serves an actual purpose. Situated in an area with lots of parks and museums, the land this building is on has strict shadow-casting laws associated with it. The building – by Michael Granit – has been designed with a slanted roof with the purpose of minimising the amount of shadow it casts on the surrounding area and slopes from 8 stories at one end to 3 stories on the opposite end.

Yahoo Map Link

Billboard Building

The Billboard Building by Klein Dytham architecture is a good example of just how efficiently space gets used up in Tokyo. The sheer white finish of the building’s face acts as an advertisement for itself – KDa calls this an “inhabitable billboard”. The building is 2.5m wide at the bigger end, which tapers down to a point at the opposite end. A bamboo print on the front face glows softly in the night giving the effect of an urban bamboo forest.

Yahoo Map Link

Aoyama Technical College

Nestled in a quiet, residential area of Shibuya is this very abstract-looking technical college, built in 1990. The architect, Makoto Sei Watanabe, describes the look as a combination of ordinary architectural materials – water tanks, lightning rods etc, which are arranged on the top of the building to give the appearance of growth, like the building is flourishing by itself.

Yahoo Map Link

As you can see, there are a lot more examples of interesting architecture in Tokyo than is immediately obvious. One problem I found is that the density of the buildings in this city makes it very hard to see (and find) some of these places to begin with, so if you are ever building-hunting like I was, don’t be surprised if you end up walking in circles a lot! If you would like to see more photos – including some buildings that didn’t go into the final 7 – check out our flickr page, as always.

  • http://my.spinsite.com/tteroq tim t.

    thanks for the info! next time i will be sure to check out some of these buildings. of course theres tons of wild archecticture in tokyo.

  • http://www.bentong.net bentong

    interesting…

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  • Jason

    I visited Tokyo last year with a professor of mine (I’m an architecture student) and saw both the usual suspects and two of your picks.
    I love the capsule tower especially. I’m a sucker for the cyber-punk aesthetic.

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  • http://vallegiulia.blogspot.com/ Marco

    don’t forget Iidabashy subway station by Makoto Sei Watanabe!

  • Charles Becker

    thanks so much for the information;I’ll be using it when my camera takes me to Tokyo in April!
    Charles Becker
    Toronto, Canada

  • BlackWaltz3

    HEHE! I am proud to see the Swedish embassy on display on this page! I want to work there some day. Or at Mistwalker perhaps…

  • Administrator

    Marco – that was on my list! But I went there and I couldn’t find it (the cool-looking decorative entrance). I literally went out of every exit from the station looking for that thing. Why not post a map link for me, for next time!

  • http://www.hiddenartlondon.co.uk/designer-makers/ peter ayres

    If you’re looking for map links there’s an excellent set of Japan Architecture guides available- as for my top tip, after living in Tokyo for three months I was late for work one day so was finally able to both sit down AND look out of the train window- imagine my shock on seeing the Tokyo Mosque (tokyo camii) slide past the window! http://members.lycos.nl/balci/hpbimg/tokyocami.jpg

  • Hayley Hughes

    You didnt show the asahi building in Asakusa, and the really building that looks like a Christmas tree in Ueno.

  • http://andh-lab.blogspot.com/ douglas ho

    a great piece of article! was in Tokyo last november, been to Omotesando, everywhere you look up, it’s a building designed by some reknowned architect, almost like an architecture expo! the small streets are even more interesting, there’s one which housed the HH Style shops, but i forgot the name of the street.

  • Tobias Funke

    I feel shocked that you didn’t mention the stacked pyramid skyscraper that is currently being torn down opposite Ueno park from Ueno station if ever there was an unsung hero of noteworthy architecture that was it!

  • http://www.istanbulmotokurye.com kurye

    i didnt say anything because pictures ares impossible.thanks

  • ann

    i need information about the hh style store by sanaa architects!it is in omotesando!if anyone knows ANYTHING!please!!!

  • blurey

    wow! i have personally seen 4 out of the 7 buildings shown! (plus tokyo tower)how wonderful to know that by coincidence, i had the opportunity to enjoy these 1 of a kind buildings! they all deserve historical preservation.-blurey

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