Travel

Top 10: The best of Tokyo's concrete architecture

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

There are myriad lenses through which it’s possible to explore Tokyo. From a gourmand tour of the capital’s 229 Michelin-starred restaurants to its wide range of museums and galleries, Tokyo is a treasure trove for the avid explorer. Architecture, however, is one avenue that grants both first-time visitors and lifelong Tokyo residents an equally intimate view of the metropolis’ nooks and crannies.

But in a city of this size, even narrowing your focus to architecture can feel overwhelming — where to begin? “Concrete Tokyo Map” (Blue Crow Media, 2017), edited by American architect Naomi Pollock, is an elegant solution to this quandary. Pollock, a longtime Tokyo resident who writes extensively about Japanese design, has selected 50 of Tokyo’s most “unique and influential” concrete buildings and laid them out strikingly: a detailed map locating all the buildings within the city on one side, a bilingual introduction and addresses on the other. Concrete may bring to mind bleak and blocky Soviet-esque structures, but in the hands of Japanese architects — who often use it as a signature building material — it can be in turns whimsical, fluid and even delicate.

Some of the buildings mentioned in “Concrete Tokyo” are private residences and can, therefore, only be viewed from the outside. However, many are easily accessible public buildings, and here are 10 particularly worth visiting.

Artist's residence: The Asakura Museum of Sculpture is located in the shitamachi (old-town) neighborhood of Yanaka. | GETTY IMAGES
Artist’s residence: The Asakura Museum of Sculpture is located in the shitamachi (old-town) neighborhood of Yanaka. | GETTY IMAGES

Museums

Asakura Museum of Sculpture — Fumio Asakura, 1935

After graduating from the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (now Tokyo University of the Arts), sculptor Fumio Asakura designed and built his combined residence-studio in the shitamachi (old-town) neighborhood of Yanaka. Although the residence portion of the building is Japanese-style, the three-story, Western-style studio is built of ferroconcrete, with high ceilings and skylights to let in natural light. Preserved as a museum, the Asakura Museum of Sculpture (Yanaka 7-18-10, Taito-ku; bit.ly/asakuramuseum) escaped damage during World War II and currently displays many of Asakura’s bronze sculptures, extensive library and other collectibles.

The museum is also known for its two gardens — a Japanese-style courtyard garden in the residence portion and Tokyo’s oldest surviving rooftop garden — which were both recognized as National Places of Scenic Beauty in 2008. In the rooftop garden you can wander among the small plots and scattered outdoor statues, and enjoy lovely panoramic views of the shitamachi streets below.

Gallery TOM — Naito Architect & Associates, 1984

Gallery TOM (Shoto 2-11-1, Shibuya-ku; gallerytom.co.jp) is not your typical bougie art gallery. High-set windows allow sharp beams of light into the room, slanting across the walls and floor, belying the unassuming exterior.

The three-story concrete building has a private residence on the ground floor, but the upper floors house an art museum dedicated to helping blind and visually impaired people experience art (TOM stands for “Touch Our Museum”). Harue Murayama commissioned the building for her blind son, and visitors are allowed to touch the works.

MOMAT: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi in 1969 and renewed by Sakakura Associates in 2002. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
MOMAT: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi in 1969 and renewed by Sakakura Associates in 2002. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo Yoshiro Taniguchi, 1969; renewed by Sakakura Associates, 2002

Japan’s first national art museum, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (Kitanomaru Park 3-1, Chiyoda-ku; bit.ly/momattky), aka the MOMAT, is also one of the country’s largest.

In 1952, the MOMAT was originally housed in the former headquarters of Nikkatsu Corporation, a film company, but as its collection grew it moved to its current, larger location in Chiyoda Ward. Sakakura Associates renovated the building again in the early 2000s, making it more earthquake-resistant, enlarging the gallery space to 4,500 square meters, and adding a museum shop and library. At any one time, the MOMAT displays around 200 items from its 13,000-item-strong collection, as well as a special temporary exhibition.

21_21 Design SightTadao Ando Architect & Associates, 2007

It would be impossible to curate a list of Tokyo’s best concrete buildings without including at least one by the master of manipulating concrete forms and natural light, Tadao Ando.

Like many of Ando’s buildings, 21_21 Design Sight (Tokyo Midtown Garden, Akasaka 9-7-6, Minato-ku; 2121designsight.jp/en) is unassuming at first glance. Eighty percent of the museum’s floor space is underground, allowing the building to blend into the greenery of the public Midtown Garden while concealing its true expanse below. The roof is made of a single, 54-meter-long plate of folded steel inspired by the “a piece of cloth” design concept of museum founder Issey Miyake, and the triangular fold allows light to gently illuminate a sunken courtyard between galleries 1 and 2.

Designed to a 'T': Daikanyama T-Site, home to bookseller Tsutaya's fanciest branch. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Designed to a ‘T’: Daikanyama T-Site, home to bookseller Tsutaya’s fanciest branch. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Shops

Daikanyama T-SiteKlein Dytham Architecture, 2011

Daikanyama T-Site (Sarugakucho 16-15, Shibuya-ku; bit.ly/tsitedai) is the crown jewel for bookseller Tsutaya. At nearly 6,000 square meters, the facade of the three interconnected Tsutaya buildings is made of hundreds of interlocking white “Ts,” for a complex that’s “branded in a nonbranded way.”

This “Tsutaya for grownups” has an unparalleled selection of books, movies, music, stationary and more. The second-floor Anjin Library & Lounge also has a collection of over 30,000 vintage magazines, which you can browse at a table over a cup of coffee or tea.

Shop in style: Hillside Terrace Building C is home to a variety of upscale shops, cafes and art galleries. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Shop in style: Hillside Terrace Building C is home to a variety of upscale shops, cafes and art galleries. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Hillside Terrace Complex Maki and Associates, 1969-92

Just down the street from T-Site is the seven-building Hillside Terrace (Sarugakucho 29-10, Shibuya-ku; hillsideterrace.com), a multiuse retail, office and residential “collective form” that seamlessly blends into the surrounding neighborhood. Although the buildings share a reinforced concrete structural system, each one is slightly different in design, and you could easily spend an afternoon wandering in and out of Hillside’s various upscale shops, cafes and art galleries, such as Mina Perhonen, Art Front Gallery and the Nordic furniture shop Greeniche Daikanyama.

One for the books: The facade of Nanyodo Bookshop, designed by Shin Toki in 1980, is an understated classic. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
One for the books: The facade of Nanyodo Bookshop, designed by Shin Toki in 1980, is an understated classic. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Nanyodo BookshopShin Toki, 1980

The exterior of Nanyodo Bookshop (Kanda-Jinbocho 1-21, Chiyoda-ku; nanyodo.co.jp) is so understated that, even if you’re looking for it, it’s easy to accidentally miss it on the street. Specializing in both new and old English- and Japanese-language books on architecture and design, the building’s square concrete panels appropriately bring to mind neat stacks of books.

Nanyodo doesn’t allow photography inside the building, but take your time exploring the shop’s three small — but full! — floors. The building’s original architects also left behind some quirky details, so see if you can spot the penciled construction notes on the walls.

Miscellaneous

Harajuku Protestant ChurchCiel Rouge Creation, 2005

Designed by a French-Japanese architecture firm, Harajuku Protestant Church (Jingumae 3-42-1, Shibuya-ku; harajuku-church.com) is an elegant space with six arches and a bell tower that together represent various significant “sevens”: days of creation, churches of the Orient et cetera. Its interior is completely white, broken only by the occasional primary-colored chair and stray beam of light, and there are services every Sunday from 10:30 a.m.

Symbolic design: The Harajuku Protestant Church has six arches and a bell that together represent the seven days of creation. | JIMMY COHRSSEN FOR BLUE CROW MEDIA
Symbolic design: The Harajuku Protestant Church has six arches and a bell that together represent the seven days of creation. | JIMMY COHRSSEN FOR BLUE CROW MEDIA

21st Century Christ ChurchTadao Ando Architect & Associates, 2014

Located in the center of Tokyo, Tadao Ando based his design of the 21st Century Christ Church (Hiroo 5-9-7, Shibuya-ku; 21ccc.jp) off the isosceles triangle, the symbol of the Christian Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The walls of the main worship space converge to a narrow vertical window, and its focused beam of light reflects off the polished floor and ceiling to form a continuous line.

A fully functioning church, there are various services on Wednesday and Sunday you can attend, but if you don’t want to sit through a service just to get a taste of the architecture, you can reserve a spot online in advance to join a short architecture tour held on occasional Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Za-Koenji Public TheatreToyo Ito & Associates, Architects, 2008

Za-Koenji Public Theatre (Koenji-Kita 2-1-2, Suginami-ku; bit.ly/zakoenji) is a center for the contemporary performing arts, funded by Suginami Ward and managed by Creative Theatre Network, a Suginami-based nonprofit. Working within strict height requirements, Toyo Ito designed a “closed,” circus tent-like black building of steel plate-reinforced concrete; a scattered dot motif is carried throughout the complex.

Only the Za-Koenji 1 Main Auditorium, Cafe Henri Fabre and offices are aboveground; the Awaodori Hall Studio Theatre, Za-Koenji 2 Civil Hall, archives and other behind-the-scenes spaces are all located in one of the three basement levels. Billing itself as “a meeting point where the communities of Suginami can come together with local, national and international artists,” Za-Koenji has a frequently rotating playbill of innovative productions for both adults and children.

The complete “Concrete Tokyo Map” is available at bluecrowmedia.com.

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