October 25th, 2005


From Omote to Ura: the Omotesando Hills development

The Last Word page of English-language Tokyo magazine Metropolis is all about opinion, controversy and debate. I wrote a piece for the page last year about the pleasures of staying foreign, a pean to resisting integration. Well, now the magazine's publisher, the notoriously crotchety Mark Devlin, has used the platform of his own magazine to attack Omotesando Hills, a building taking shape on Omotesando, designed by Tadao Ando for Tokyo's most powerful real estate mogul, Minoru Mori (who also happens to be the uncle of artist Mariko Mori). Devlin calls the development "a monstrosity" and "architectural fascism".

"Omotesando Hills occupies the site of the former Dojunkai Apartments," Devlin tells us in an article entited Mori and Ando scar Omotesando. "Built in 1927, these dilapidated flats were latterly the home of a ragtag selection of galleries and boutiques. Their Bauhaus-inspired, ivy-covered facades oozed charm, and their cracked and overgrown aura imbued Omotesando with a village feel that seemed resistant to the changes in the rest of the city. But charm is a rare commodity, and the space was approved for a redevelopment that includes 50 shops and 38 apartments."

I gave my opinion on this in my Tokyo podcast while walking past the site in February. Yes, the Dojunki Apartments were quite charming with their ivy facades, and yes, they were dilapidated and contained a ragtag selection of art galleries. I never once saw a single exhibition of any note in those galleries, and the apartments, despite the fact they stood incongruously on Tokyo's most chic boulevard, were the kind of place you wouldn't want your granny to live for fear she'd die of TB, hypothermia, or some sort of weird lung fungus.

Devlin attacks Mori and Ando for bringing the same mentality that fuelled "the windswept rattrap known as Roppongi Hills" to a street that "purports to be Tokyo's Champs Elysees". Tadao Ando, he tells us, "could have created a green space that interacts with the neighborhood. Instead, he has built an unbroken opaque flat glass wall stretching down the entire road and up to the Zelkova treetops... the natural light that has been lost will be replaced by garish illuminated panels, creating what in effect will be a 250-meter-long television screen. They took away the natural light and replaced it with TV. They destroyed the real experience of strolling outdoors to provide an indoor "sensation." They took away the trees and the ivy and replaced them with concrete. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Devlin fails to point out that Roppongi Hills (also deplored by Rem Koolhaas, by the way) brought a major art museum (not to mention what's quickly become the definitive view of the city) to a district of Tokyo that was previously an ugly wilderness dominated by an elevated freeway. Mori Museum exhibitions like Archilab and Osawa Tsuyoshi's 'Answer with Yes and No!' have already given me vastly more stimulation than anything I ever saw in the sad little galleries in the Dojunki Apartments.

It's not as if giant TV screens and Mori buildings are a recent intrusion in Omotesando. When I first visited the leafy avenue in 1992 the things that excited me were the giant TV screens on the corner of Meiji Dori, and the crazy shopping Babel of Laforet, five floors of teen retail topped by a surprising and well-programmed art space, the Laforet Museum. Built and owned by... yes, the very same Minoru Mori. It was at Laforet Museum that I saw the brilliant Toshio Iwai demonstrating his Sound Lens, for instance. I owe Mr Mori some of my most exciting Tokyo experiences. (In fact, if I think about it, even the flat I'm sitting in right here in Berlin would never have come my way if Kaori hadn't met Mika when she worked in Onsa, my favourite Tokyo record store, when Mori put a branch of it into his Roppongi Think Zone...)

Mariko Mori and Tadao Ando have both made recent appearances in Click Opera, Mariko for her spacepod installation at the Venice Biennale and Ando for Fabrica, his art school at Treviso. I also linked to his Grand European Tour in Brutus magazine the other day, a feature in which he declares that his favourite building is the Pantheon at Rome.

Devlin isn't against iconic buildings like Herzog and Demeuron's Prada store or Toyo Ito's Tod store. But he seems to conceive of Omotesando as a kind of failed Champs Elysees rather than a street in Japan. He laments the fact that Anniversaire is the only cafe on the street where you can sit outside (Les Baccanales, another Paris-style cafe in the area, closed a year or so ago), calls the street "a Who's Who of international architecture", but mocks Ando's promise to turn the inside of his building into an artificial outside.

But if we look at Omotesando Hills (which, despite its name, is a low-rise building, not comparable to the tower at Roppongi) as a part of the specific part of Tokyo it's in rather than a failed bit of Paris, we might find that it fits its site rather well. The building sits on Omotesando, a European-style avenue, but leads into Ura-Harajuku, a warren of narrow winding streets which many would say is the real soul of the area. And there you have it: omote and ura. In his book The Anatomy of the Self Takeo Doi calls the omote/ura distinction "a way of looking at things that is unique to the Japanese language. As we shall see, it is possible to approximate these terms in English: Recto-verso, heads and tails, outside-inside, facade-interior, and so on, all give an impression of the meaning of omote and ura. Similarly, facade and truth, mask and real face, outward appearance and inner reality, all hint at the meaning of tatemae and honne. But none of these correspondences between the Japanese terms and English is precisely correct. For one thing, the English expressions make of these dyadic pairs hierarchical oppositions: facade (omote) versus inner truth (ura), outside versus inside, appearance versus reality, and, ultimately, evil versus good. In every case, the term corresponding to omote is seen as a negation, as a complication of the more "authentic" half of the pair." Instead, we should see the binary as "a constant traversing between behavior based on two simultaneously held, mutually contradictory modes of perception".

It's always upsetting when one's favourite ivy-clad building is demolished — I was dismayed when my beloved Scala-Za in Shinjuku suddenly became a green glass box. But to equate dilapidation with authenticity, or shoddy half-baked galleries with cutting edge culture, would be a mistake. Anyone who's experienced Tokyo knows that the constant transition from wide, monumental tooris to narrow, rambling, shambolic michis is what the city is all about. To privilege one over the other would be to miss the omote/ura point. And, who knows, maybe one day we'll wake up and there'll be a sprig of ivy growing across those giant light panels.