Omotesando Hills is by Tokyo standards a boutique shopping mall, but its stylish design and fashionable location makes it one of the city’s better shopping experiences. The center on Omotesando is also a case study in the city’s approach to urban renewal.

Omotesando dori is perhaps Tokyo’s most elegant thoroughfare and it’s sometimes referred to as the city’s Champs-Élysées, connecting the funky fashion district of Harajuku with the refined shopping area that is Aoyama. It was created in 1920 to serve as a route to Harajuku’s Meiji Jingu and is distinguished by the rows of leafy zelkova trees that flank the wide avenue. The Omotesando Hills complex, which opened in 2005, straddles the informal boundary between Harajuku and Aoyama, its six levels evenly divided above and below ground level.

Detail of original photo : : Andrew McLucas [tokyogoat]; CC license (flickr)

The center comprises a main central building with two wings, the long narrow West Wing and the smaller box-like Dojun Wing. Its facade is a simple glass, concrete and steel construction that is restrained in comparison with the architecture of neighboring designer stores; it belies a dramatic skylit interior that features a wedge shaped spiralling 6-story gallery space with a vaulted ceiling whose levels are lined with boutiques and traversed by a single gently sloping pathway balcony – its 3° angle echoing the gradient of the street outside – a geometric version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiralling Guggenheim Museum in New York. At its lowest level, a grand central staircase leads to a large event space, Space O, and of course escalators are also in place to facilitate movement between levels.

The shopping is a mix of lifestyle and beauty products, fashion and food and the emphasis is on international brands, from the furniture at Scandinavian Design House, the Harry Winston jewelry, the fashions of Ann Demeulemeester and Yves Saint Laurent to the shu uemura beauty boutique, the Jean Paul Hèvin chocolates or the Hasegawa Sakè Shop. The ambience of the center is refined, helped in part by the modestly sized stores, careful placing of the atmospheric lighting and ambient music piped through the speakers. Unlike most shopping centers, on entering the complex, you find yourself in a calming space that is quite beautiful.

The center presents a more theatrical persona at night; its façade lit up with colored LED lighting that acts as a strong counterpoint to the silhouetted zelkova trees outside, while the darkened internal space is made atmospheric by projected light.

Architect Tadao Ando (安藤 忠雄) has, depending on your point of view, either arrogantly turned his back on the street and created a private Omotesando enclave or he’s designed a building whose modest scale is respectful of the character of the street and the history of the slice of land it sits on.

Omotesando Hills has become an essential part of the street’s character, but its development was controversial. To make space for the complex, the government tore down a low lying, ivy covered, somewhat dilapidated modernist concrete complex that had also come to be identified with Omotesando. The Dōjunkai Aoyama Apartments complex had been built in 1926-27 as part of a government response to the housing shortage arising from the Great Kantō Earthquake and ensuing Tokyo fire of 1923. It, together with another 15 complexes built throughout Tokyo and Yokohama, was named after the corporation established by Japan’s Ministry of Construction in 1924 to take charge of their construction. The 137 Dōjunkai Aoyama apartments were the first of their kind in Tokyo, their design influenced by Bauhaus architecture, they were the first Japanese experiments in multi-dwelling living and also introduced modern amenities such as electricity and gas to residential design.

Given their location, the Aoyama apartments became the most well known of the Dōjunkai projects as the area became popular during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. By the end of the 20th Century the apartments, which were quite small even by Tokyo standards, had aged to a state beyond repair and were mostly uninhabited, but they had morphed into a kind of creative zone for a loose collective of artists and designers, housing tiny galleries and boutiques that created a bohemian environment and added to the character of the street. When they were demolished in 2003, it was amidst resistance from local residents.

The Prtizker prize winning architect, Ando, was heavily criticised for his decision to become involved in the Omotesando Regeneration Project as it was known. This is surprising, given that in Tokyo there is little regard for preservation of old architecture and urban renewal occurs at almost fibre-optic speed. In fact, the Japanese culture has of necessity rebuilt many of its cities throughout its history, more recently following the Hakodate fires of 1879 and 1934, after the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 and in the aftermath of World War II. Ando has said defensively that it wasn’t his decision to demolish the original apartments; it was his job to create the replacement development in the best way.

In a nod to the Dōjunkai Aoyama apartments, Ando not only incorporated some of the original materials from the demolished apartments, he also designed his own residential units: 38 minimalist concrete and glass modules in two wings (Zelkova Terraces East & West) that sit in grids atop the retail complex together with a rooftop garden that echoes the greenery of the Dōjunkai apartments. The new apartments are sparse in their finishes, feature pale natural tones and look out over the treetops of the zelkovas. They are the Dōjunkai apartments reborn and the last of the Dōjunkai Aoyama tenants were rehoused in these new units upon their completion.

Whether or not the demolition of the historic Dōjunkai Aoyama apartments was a good decision is debatable; however, the Omotesando Hills complex as conceived by Tadao Ando is a finely judged design that turns a trip to the mall into a designer experience.

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