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On the Town:
Midtown Tokyo, That Is

Landscape Architecture by EDAW. Editor's note: EDAW has subsequently became part of AECOM, and is now designated as Design + Planning practice at AECOM

The Midtown Tokyo project is part park, part plaza. These active water jets are a metaphor for a mountain top spring. The park pathways and paving (left) are permeable concrete. The stones in the water feature are black and buff colored granite to match the central plaza hardcape, and the seat walls are granite. The site's custom designed lighting is all LED fixtures. The project also employs green roofs and solar paneling.

Tokyo Midtown is a 25-acre mixed-use project of Mitsui Fudosan Co. in the bustling Roppongi District of Minato, Tokyo. Roppongi itself is a fairly new mixed-use urban center for Minato, developed by Japan's preeminent building tycoon Minoru Mori.

Minato, pop. 217,335 (2008 census), is one of 23 Tokyo "wards." Minato means "port," and it indeed is a port on Tokyo Bay. Minato is all about business. Japanese companies making their corporate headquarters in Minato include Air Nippon, Fujifilm, Fuji Xerox, Fujitsu, Honda, Mitsubishi Motors, Mitsui Oil Exploration Co., NEC, Pokemon Co., Sega Sammy Holdings, Sony, Toshiba and TV Tokyo. Minato is also home to at least 31 foreign embassies, with another 42 embassies nearby. When Japan's Defense Agency relocated its headquarters out of central Tokyo, the agency's site was auctioned, achieving headlines as one of the city's most expensive real estate transactions. A consortium of six companies led by Mitsui Fudosan won the auction in Sept. 2001.

Tokyo Midtown is a 25-acre mixed-use project "on the green," a reference to half the site being devoted to open space and landscaping. The project has reconnected and revitalized the Roppongi ("six trees") neighborhood, part of which was a former military site and off limits to the public.

For Fudosan, this was a rare inner-city redevelopment opportunity. Tokyo mostly comprises a patchwork of small irregular parcels of lands, but this piece of land is a long square-shaped contiguous plot with an interesting history.

During the 17th and 18th centuries it was the residence for the Mori feudal lord. From 1868-1912 the land served as an army post. When World War II ended, the U.S. erected military housing here, an era when Roppongi became known for its night life. Mitsui Fudosan, looking for a nontraditional design decided on a Western design team: architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and landscape architects of EDAW, Inc. The major nontraditional element for Midtown Tokyo was dedicating half of the mixed-use space to open public land.

There once was a stream on site. Water jets, terraced pools and weirs simulate the mountain stream's descent to valley lowlands -- a 30-meter grade change -- to meandering pathways and the "Great Lawn." The stream hardscape is all granite. The noncherry trees here are 'Musashino' Columnar Zelkova.

The largest public open space in Tokyo is the gardens and parklands just outside the Imperial Palace walls. The palace and gardens cover 2.86 square miles. However, except on Jan. 2 of each year and the emperor's birthday, the palace grounds (inside the walls) are closed to the public. The public does have access to the East Gardens, Kitanomaru Park to the north and to the south gardens, however these spaces do now have associated development adjacent to them. Thus, allotting public space within the urban developmental framework is virtually unknown in Tokyo, explains Steve Hanson, EDAW's principal-in-charge of the project.

To support the client's vision, the Midtown Tokyo design includes 50 percent open space, blending the rarity of large green lawns and parks intertwined with contemplative intervals that are more traditionally Japanese.

A 10-story glass "forest" canopy rises above the bamboo to offer some protection from the elements at the inner half of the plaza.

The public spaces at Midtown Tokyo celebrate nature over night life, with amenities-rich parks, a "Great Lawn," dramatic plazas, promenades and streetscapes that complement the specialty retail, restaurants, offices, hotels (including a Ritz Carlton), museums and a convention center. The open space reconnects a neighborhood that was a fenced-off enclave, off limits to the public for generations, bringing new life and energy to a district suffering from a sluggish economy. It's estimated that more than 35 million people visited this new well-connected and pedestrian-friendly development in its first year.

The green space is not the only anomaly for this urban Tokyo development. While recent large urban Tokyo developments sit atop "podiums," the main entry plaza and retail frontage for Midtown Tokyo connects at-grade directly to the street and the tree-lined sidewalks that circumscribe the site.

The paving, bamboo-filled planters, ipe benches, recycled plastic decking and custom LED lighting infuse the plaza with a feeling of contemporary wa (Japanese-ness) without becoming literal recreations of Japanese garden elements.

Pedestrian traffic is high and hectic here, with people busily heading to and from offices, shops, homes, galleries and subway stations across the large main plaza. The plaza hardscape is finished in cream stone paving with an attractive, decorative black banding. The pattern, coloring and proportions of the hardscape are based on tatami mats, the traditional Japanese woven rice straw floor coverings.

The black bands represent the cloth hems of tatami mats, as well as reflect elements of the building facades.
Tokyo Midtown fuses Western and Japanese culture in the landscape. Certain forms, relationships and materials in the park are familiar to Japanese sensibilities, but are romanticized and abstracted. The concept of wa (Ta) "the essence of Japaneseness" was captured in a modern way in the landscape and the architecture.

The plaza paving is in granite, a subtle reinterpretation of the rice straw Tatami mat, with 2:1 proportions of buff color and black borders. The black bands reflect the cloth hems of tatami mats and also elements of the building facades.

Traditional landscape forms and the Japanese love of seasonal color were reinterpreted in the space with a contemporary look marked by a design of clarity and openness.

Unlike traditional Japanese gardens, which invoke contemplation, this park invites you to walk, to play on the large grass area. Contemporary styled elements include the two-tone granite plaza hardscaping, the 10-story glass "forest" canopy, the custom LED lighting fixtures, the two large, glazed skylight covers over the subterranean retail and subway spaces that double as water features and the modern sweeping look of the ipe benches. Still, there are serene elements to the site, the flowing waters, the cherry trees, the graceful bamboo and intimate areas for relaxation.

Pedestrian bridges access the park spaces. One hundred and forty mature trees were preserved on site, including 25 transplanted cherry trees. The cherry blossom (sakura) season, beginning in early April in Tokyo, has been celebrated for centuries and holds a special prominence in Japanese culture. The Japanese enjoy this colorful time of the year with cherry blossom viewing parties (hanami). The pinkish flower shrubs are bell heather.

Reinterpreting a Stream
A central feature of the park is the romanticized reinterpretation of a stream that once existed on site. From a "mountain spring" water cascades to valley pools, which becomes a stream running alongside meandering pathways that lead people to the 21_21 Design Sight Building/Museum, the Great Lawn and the revitalized traditional Japanese garden.

Smaller gardens in the park contrast with the larger open areas, transitioning from a landscape evocative of mountains to "lowlands" over the site's 30-meter grade change. The Great Lawn is an extension of the interior space of the Galleria retail complex. Such a large lawn is not a typical feature of Japanese public space, but has quickly become a highly desirable venue for events and day-to-day use.

The plaza is the primary urban entry into the project directly from the street and subway. Two large glazed skylights filter sunlight into the retail and subway spaces below ground. The skylights double as water features. Ipe benches and bamboo create intimate gathering areas.

Pedestrian bridges connect to park spaces. Twenty-five mature cherry trees were preserved and transplanted on site, creating a colorful promenade for park goers to enjoy the blossoming of the cherry trees in April.

Adding to that splendor is more than 115 other mature trees preserved and replanted on site twice, once during construction, then to their final locations, indicative of Japanese reverence for landscape. Ninety percent of the transplanted trees survived. These older, large trees belie the youthful age of the park.

The Great Lawn is an outdoor extension of the five-story Galleria retail complex, designed by Colorado-based CommArts. Such expanses of turfgrass are not typical of Japanese public spaces. During construction of the Midtown Tower four different types of turf were placed under shade structures to determine which fared the best. A shade and cold weather-tolerant turf (Snow Ecoturf 'Tifton Riviera') was specified, a rolled-turf that required no soil.

Green Elements
All park pathways are constructed of poured-in-place permeable paving, reducing runoff and pollution to the local water table. Rainwater is harvested and stored in cisterns for irrigation.

"On site archaeological exploration uncovered more than 50,000 pieces of pottery, two Edo period gold coins valued at over $40,000, plus various utensils. The Edo period (1603 to 1868) was ruled by the shoguns of the Tokugawa family."

Besides the four hectares (40,000 sq. meteres) of greenery, building roofs have a diverse range of foliage, reducing runoff and the heat island effect. Solar panels were also installed, and all outdoor lighting is LED.

Project Team

  • Client: Mitsui Fudosan Co., Ltd., Urban Planning Group / Katsuya Amemiya
  • Project cost: $3.2 billion U.S.
  • EDAW Team: Todd Kohli, Project Manager; Joe Brown, Principal Director; Aki Omi, Designer
  • Architect of Record: Nikken Sekkei, Ltd., Tokyo
  • Master Architect: SOM, NYC
  • Residential Architecture: Sakakura Associates, Tokyo, and Jun Aoki and Associates, Tokyo
  • Retail and Museum Architecture: Kengo Kuma, Tokyo
  • 21_21 Museum Architect: Tadao Ando and Associates, Osaka, Japan
  • Canopy Design and Engineering: Buro Happold, NYC
  • Construction: Takenaka Corp. and Taisei Corp., Tokyo
  • Lighting Design: Fisher Marantz Stone, NYC
  • Retail Design: Communication Arts, Inc., Boulder, Colo.
  • Photography: (C) EDAW/David Lloyd

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October 18, 2019, 10:37 pm PDT

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