LUXURYCULTURE.COM - The Rise of Roppongi


A cultural heart beats in Tokyo's former twilight zone, as Japan's property giants breath new life into Roppongi.

Japan's development titans have transformed Roppongi's daytime ghost town into a burgeoning cultural community.

Once the all-night party central of Tokyo's "work hard, play hard" nocturnal urbanites, Minato Ward's Roppongi district has undergone a serious transformation over the past five years. The gentrification of the notorious nightclub neighborhood began in 2003 with the unveiling of property magnate Minoru Mori's behemoth complex Roppongi Hills. The $2.25 billion development brought daytime traffic to the former twilight zone. Created around the 54-story Mori Tower, the 29-acre micro-city leaves its white collar residents wanting for nothing. Serviced apartments designed by D&D Design (formerly Conran & Partners), hotels, restaurants and the luxury brands that line Keyakizaka Dori Avenue - recurrently compared to Rodeo Drive - add cachet, making Roppongi Hills one of the most exclusive areas in the city.

However, while the development offers a retail balm, Mori's vision extends far beyond just filling a commercial void. Mori's master plan was to create a new community, within which beats a cultural heart, as Michiho Kishi of Mori Building Co. Ltd. Explains. "The cultural heart in Tokyo is the main concept of Roppongi Hills. As a symbol of our commitment to art and culture, we have the Mori Arts Center," he says. The Mori Art Museum, a center for contemporary international art, the jewel in Roppongi Hills' crown, occupies the 52nd and 53rd floors of Mori Tower, while the remaining three floors at the building's apex are also dedicated to artistic and cultural pursuits.

Another symbol of the corporation's commitment to social stimulus is the public art, which plays an interactive role within the community. 'Maman,' a giant 33-foot spider by French artist Louise Bourgeois has become a local landmark, while designers Ron Arad, Jasper Morrison and Ettore Sottsass are just some of the names behind the star seating, offering respite for Roppongi Hills' weary visitors.

Mori plans to take the successful business template to China next year, with the launch of Shanghai Hills, the future home of the Shanghai World Financial Center, boasting the world's highest observatory. However, the proof of Roppongi Hills' success lies not only in the company's plans, but in the success of the mile-wide region.

Tokyo Midtown, the 2.3 billion euro hotspot, is the new kid on Minato Ward's block. When the 25-acre former site of Japan's defense agency went on sale in 2001, the consortium including Mitsui Fudosan, Japan's biggest property company, was first up to join in the regeneration of the region. Although Roppongi Hills was still under construction, the Midtown site did not come cheap. "As Japan was in serious economic recession when we started the project five and a half years ago - especially because of the negative effect of the burst of the bubble economy - there were objections inside and outside the firm toward the decision to take on this mega-project, which cost over 300 billion yen. However, if we look at the result, we could say that we made a right and effective decision," says Tetsuya Matsufuji, Tokyo Midtown's Project Manager. Mitsui Fudosan's day of judgment arrives on March 30, when Tokyo Midtown opens its doors to the public. Boasting Tokyo's tallest tower - an 800-foot monument designed by the Chicago architects SOM - housing luxury offices and apartments, as well as the first Ritz-Carlton in the capital, it offers residents and visitors a 500-foot long four-story shopping arcade, housing a unique mix of marks.

While Roppongi Hills serves up more ubiquitous favorites, such as Louis Vuitton, Versace and Tiffany, Tokyo Midtown seeks names that fly below the mainstream label radar, enticing red carpet jeweler Harry Winston, and the debut of international stores for Italian fashion label hLam and Richard James of London's Savile Row. "In Tokyo, the market is saturated with facilities with luxury brands, such as department stores and so forth. Mitsui wanted to establish a complex with shops and restaurants that could offer a lifestyle and services required by cosmopolitans who enjoy a 'high-quality urban lifestyle,'" explains Matsufuji. Mitsui's 'edited choice' ethos was a major appeal to quality labels looking to remain niche names, as Sean Dixon of Richard James explains. "We were planning on opening a Tokyo store for a while, as we've been doing business there for the past 11 or 12 years. The way things work in Japan is very different - there are lots of different areas - but the area appealed to us because it's not the usual brands, plus it's very central. Also, Roppongi is a very popular area for expats and wealthy foreigners. We just found the whole project very interesting," he says.

Even the gourmet choices are refined and exceptionally cosmopolitan, another nod to the region's international expat community. Rebecca Holsheimer's 57 offers upscale New York-style dining, while the three Michelin-star award-winner Patissiere Toshihiko Yoroizuka is one of the stable of gourmet outposts that promise to make Midtown a heaven for dessert devotees.

Like Mori's manifesto to create Tokyo's new cultural capital, Mitsui Fudosan also believes that retail therapy is not enough to stimulate its erudite new community. The corporation enlisted architectural heavyweights Kengo Kuma and Tadao Ando to design the new Suntory Museum and 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, respectively, while Japan's most prolific creative masterminds, Issey Miyake, Naoto Fukasawa and Taku Satoh are the directors behind 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, a research facility founded with the aim of technological and artistic betterment. "Mitsui Fudosan thought that one of the keys to the new creative society is design. Roppongi was the ideal area to seek a design-oriented project in terms of the area's potential, nature and environment. For instance, there are already design- and art-oriented facilities within Roppongi Hills and the National Art Center. In addition, Roppongi is attracting many professionals within the fields of design and art, or those who are interested in those fields. Tokyo Midtown aims to grow with the aforementioned facilities, to make Roppongi an area where design and art information will be disseminated," explains Matsufuji.

In addition to commercial and artistic activities, Tokyo Midtown has taken on weightier social and environmental concerns. The verdant landscape of Hinokicho Park and lush greenery on the site dominate nearly 40% of the 25-acre site, with extra vegetation interspersed among rooftops and patios, easing the "heat island phenomenon" that turns cities into urban ovens during the summer. Rainwater is recycled for the local sewage systems, and sunlight-triggered window blinds help regulate temperatures within the complex. Could this be the template for 21st-century living? Although Mitsui Fudosan is confident this is just what Roppongi needs, Tetsuya Matsufuji stresses that Mitsui's future feats, such as a huge complex in Akasaka, slated for opening in 2008, will not be carbon copies of Midtown. "Although we plan to utilize the scheme and process of this project in various ways for other future projects, an entirely similar concept could not be applied to other projects, as Mitsui thinks that the Midtown concept is apposite only to Roppongi, in terms of the area's potential and the size of the project."

From the sidelines, forecasters have watched Japan's largest property titans take on Roppongi, poised for a bloody battle. However, both sides quell any rumors of rivalry. As Michiho Kishi of Mori puts it, "The Roppongi district is definitely starting to be recognized as Tokyo's heart of art activities. This means that we welcome Tokyo Midtown as our partner to enhance the value of Roppongi district. The competition is not within this district, but with other commercial districts in Tokyo, such as Ginza, Shibuya or Aoyama." A ceremonial cup of sugar if ever there was, to Roppongi's new neighbor.

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