Cutting-edge design in the Japanese capital
As a tourist in the ultra-cool backstreets of Tokyo’s Aoyama district, it’s impossible not to feel deeply unfashionable. A string of chic boutiques sits between swanky jazz clubs and bank balance-bashing restaurants. Prada and Miu Miu bags hang from arms. Security guards stand sentinel outside the fanciest shops.
But seeing as Aoyama’s most stylish stores also double as stunning examples of the best of modern Japanese architecture, thankfully there’s no need to linger inadequately over the designer goods.
Instead, a walk around the area presents a free and revealing way of exploring a city that can rapidly drain even the healthiest travel budget. Because here in Aoyama, the world’s top-end clothing brands appear locked in a battle of one-upmanship. The likes of Miu Miu, Gucci and Dior have teamed up with world-class designers to transform the area into a living architecture museum. But perhaps you could also say it highlights Japan’s tendency to create the exemplary out of the ordinary. Due to earthquake fears and a culture of disposability, buildings are torn down and rebuilt every 30 years on average, the country constantly in thrall to the new.
“There are so many beautiful buildings here,” says Tsutomu Matsuda (or Mazda, as he prefers). “The area changes every year. It’s hard to keep up.” Mazda is spending his Saturday afternoon showing me around Aoyama’s most notable buildings. He runs his own design agency and has written two architecture walking guides, so there’s probably nobody better suited to the job.
The professor stops in front of the From First Building, its Lego-esque blocks nothing like the prefab high-rises the world associates with the Japanese capital. A masterpiece of deconstructed architecture, the split levels and staircases give the feeling of being inside an MC Escher drawing. Mazda instructs me to peer up at its skywalks and open structure, the blue skies of this Tokyo afternoon brightening the building’s corners.
“This is what started it all,” he says. “It’s like being inside when in fact you’re outside.” Mazda says the building’s kooky looks inspired the other wild and wacky creations that in the past decade have sprung up around Aoyama’s highly fashionable Omotesando-dori, often referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees. These include Fumihiko Maki’s Spiral, a gallery and stationery store that gives more than a passing nod to New York’s Guggenheim, and the all-glass Dior building, created by the SANAA agency, where the ceiling heights vary and the glass walls throb with white light.
All-glass Dior building in the fashionable Aoyama district, above; Spiral, a gallery and stationery store, below