Tokyo Midtown, a very recent major urban development, is located in Azabu, part of the Yamanote district situated west of the Imperial Palace near the Roppongi hills. The area stretches into the hilly districts of Yamanote, part of the ancient city of Edo, the former Tokyo that dates back to 1600. It was home to the Daimyo, or feudal lords, who were obliged by the shogun to take up residence in Edo, in the gardens and parks of these hills.
With the Maiji restoration, their huge estates became public property and were turned into university and ministerial sites. Until the 90s, the Roppongi district was best known for its vibrant nightlife and coffee shops. The Asahi TV building was a neighbourhood landmark, along with a major site of Tokyo University, the Institute for Industrial Research and Technology and a complex belonging to the Ministry of Defence. In 2003, the television headquarters departed, leaving the area to be occupied by the Mori Art Museum, some of the university area became the National Art Centre and the military zone was turned into the urban development called Tokyo Midtown. This approximately 10 hectare site, has six buildings surrounded by a garden and a park on the eastern side. The garden is planted with 140 cherry trees and is a focal venue for the annual hanami, or “vision of flowers”, the annual cherry blossom period beloved of the Japanese.
The park on the eastern perimeter was the former Shimizu garden annexed to Villa Azabu owned by the Mori family during the Edo Period (1603-1868). The house was also known as the “Cypress Villa” for its numerous cypresses and their typical fragrance, of key significance in Japanese cultural traditions.
Tokyo Midtown also boasts the city’s highest building, the 53-storey Midtown Tower that includes stores, restaurants and art treasures. Set amid greenery, the new Midtown district provides a medley of working, living and relaxation environments in the metropolitan setting. Several architects were involved in the various projects: Kengo Kuma for the Suntory Museum, SOM for the office blocks and Tadao Ando per the new Design 21_21 Centre.
The 21_21 Design Sight complex is on the north side of Tokyo Midtown. It is an origami lying in a park, a work of art in itself. Basically, it is a single long building that has been folded inward to create two below-level volumes. Ando declares he took his inspiration from Issey Miyake’s A-POC (A Piece of Cloth) concept, completing it with a steel leaf that serves as the roof and part of the opaque façade overlooking the garden. The other façades comprise exquisitely wrought fair-face reinforced concrete and glazed walls.
The design centre starts on the ground floor and continues to a much larger below-level space. One wing of the ground floor contains the restaurant and coffee shop while the other houses the museum entrance that gives access to the lower floor where two exhibition spaces host the best the metropolis has to offer in design and creativity.
Design Sight 21_21’s raison d’être is very much in tune with Tadao Ando’s architecture, which, in the opinion of Masao Furuyama, architecture critic, is marked by two features: idealism and ambition. The idealism is about creating a reference model for architecture; the ambition, to reawaken human sensitivities.
Ando has always sought to create his model with the aid of pure, geometrical forms and univocal spaces. The materials he uses concur with this search. For Ando, however, architecture is only possible if there is movement. Spaces have to be lived, sought out and reached. Only in this way will space be comprehended and yield its sensations. Consequently, the origami folds of the Design Sight 21_21 building are only glimpsed as one walks through the garden of Tokyo Midtown on a path that will eventually lead to the entrance in the middle of the two gently sloping wings.
The view from the approach intimates there is much more than immediately meets the eye. Inside uncluttered spaces form a discreet backdrop to work exhibited.