Designer Thomas Heatherwick injects green relief into Tokyo’s concrete jungle with new Mori project


Construction of a sprawling new property development for Mori Building Co. in central Tokyo, which will house Japan’s tallest skyscraper at around 330 meters when completed in 2023, finally kicked off earlier this month after three decades of negotiations with landlords.

A key figure behind the project, the blueprint for which was revealed Thursday, is Thomas Heatherwick, a British designer who some have dubbed the “Leonardo da Vinci of our times” for his wide variety of imaginative creations.

This time around, together with the Japanese urban developer known for such projects as Roppongi Hills and Toranomon Hills, Heatherwick is proposing an infusion of nature into the middle of Tokyo’s concrete jungle to enrich the quality of people’s lives in the busy urban space.

In cities, he said, there are few public places where people feel connected with nature, which he believes “acts as a counterpoint to hard buildings and creates social space that is so precious.”

“Many cities don’t have places where you feel good to just be in,” he told The Japan Times in an interview in early August at Mori Building’s headquarters in Tokyo.

For that reason, Heatherwick and Mori Building took an unconventional approach to designing the ¥580 billion redevelopment of the Toranomon-Azabudai area in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

In a typical urban development project, offices apartments and other buildings are placed first and only then are the empty spaces filled with greenery. But with this venture that order was reversed, with the priority instead being placed on a square, filled with greenery, at the center of the development, according to Mori Building.

Thomas Heatherwick presents a model of a plant-adorned building he designed. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Mori calls the latest endeavor the “future style of ‘Hills’ complex developments.”

The development, on an 8.1-hectare plot between the subway stations of Kamiyacho and Roppongi-itchome, would comprise three high-rise towers, an international school, a food market, cultural facilities and the greenery-filled central square, which will be open to the public. The high-rise towers were designed by Argentine-American architect Cesar Pelli, who passed away in July.

Greenery will cover 24,000 square meters of space, including the 6,000-square-meter central square, with seasonal trees being planted around and on the complex’s buildings.

Heatherwick, who created the 2012 London Olympic cauldron and redesigned London’s iconic double-decker bus, is in charge of designing the low-rise buildings and the overall landscape for the project.

Urban architecture that feels unique and touches people emotionally is becoming rarer, the designer says.

Cities look “more and more similar to each other,” he said, as they develop. “An office building near the Arctic Circle looks the same as an office building near the equator.”

The integration of nature — as well as fine details that people can appreciate up close, like carved glass — is essential to create a more unique city that appeals more to people, he added.

He maintained that plants are a “powerful” material that gives variety, sound and the feeling of changing seasons to a space, and hence are more mentally healthy for people in comparison to fixed environments. He stressed how different “emotions are [compared to places that have] no planted trees.”

The public green square is for people to come and relax and find relief in the middle of the city, he said.

British designer Thomas Heatherwick, dubbed by some as the 'Leonardo da Vinci of our times' | SATOKO KAWASAKI
British designer Thomas Heatherwick, dubbed by some as the ‘Leonardo da Vinci of our times’ | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Heatherwick’s views are in line with the Toranomon-Azabudai project’s concept of a “Modern Urban Village,” where people enjoy the cultural sophistication and convenience of living in Tokyo while closing the distance between one another and with nature as in village communities.

The focus on quality of life is not only in the interests of residents but also those of companies from around the world that are vying for the best talent, he said.

Mori Building is trying to boost Tokyo’s international competitiveness and its appeal as a city as Japan’s population continues to fall, according to Masa Yamamoto, senior manager in charge of the firm’s public relations. The developer believes enticing enterprises from overseas to Tokyo will help revitalize the national economy and, via the capital, transmit the attractions of regional cities to the world as well.

Heatherwick contended that there is great competition between companies for the best talent in the world and, more than ever, “companies want their employees to want to be there.” He said that he, Mori Building and other collaborators want to make a place in Tokyo that people will “really value.”

“If you make a good place,” Heatherwick said, “then someone will say ‘I’d like to work there,’ or ‘I’d like to live there.’ “



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