A Delicate Tower in Tokyo’s Red-Light District

Ulf Meyer
11. January 2023
Photo © Yuko Nagayama & Associates

Ulf Meyer: With your Japan Pavilion at EXPO 2020 Dubai you managed to combine the Arabesque with the Japanese Monyo culture of folding paper, or origami. The pavilion was very popular and successful. The inner part was surrounded by an outer loggia, whose facade acted like a filter — mainly against the sun. But for your design of the new Kabukicho Tower, the facade cannot be so delicate, semi-open. It has to be all closed, correct?
Yuko Nagayama: In Dubai I had to design a black box for the inner part. It is a hot country, so it had to be air conditioned. The surrounding area needed to be naturally ventilated in order to save energy. In Japan buildings taller than 60 meters in height need to follow a certain regulation.

Because of the wind pressure in upper floors, skyscrapers typically need to have closed facades. Did you design the facade alone or did the client, Tokyu Corp., determine it?
I was the design architect but had to consult with Kume Sekkei as architects and with Arup as engineers and facade consultants.

Do you wish that you could have done more with the design?
We used high-quality glasses with printed patterns. I had to discuss the gradation; I wanted more gradation, but the client wanted less.

The tower stands in the dense Kabukicho red-light district. (Photo © Yuko Nagayama & Associates)

The design theme is “water” and “fountain.” Is that because the tower stands near where the Kani-gawa used to run before it was covered up?
Yes, Shinjuku was a swamp with many fountains, but they were all lost. There is a Buddhist “goddess of water” called Benzai Ten. In Kabukicho there were many stories related to water. That is why I chose that theme.

The top, or crown, of the tower resembles the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, a little bit. Did you design it?
Yes, but a heliport had to be incorporated so I had to accommodate that.

Towards the sky the top is all white and looks like it wants to resolve into the sky. Jean Nouvel’s Dentsu Tower in Tokyo-Shiodome is based on his unbuilt Tour Sans Fins in Paris, a tower “without end,” because it also visually wants to blend into the sky. Was this your inspiration?
Normal skyscrapers are glass boxes and their mirroring effect can be problematic, so I avoided a boxy tower shape with a standard glass facade.

Photo © Yuko Nagayama & Associates

In the United States Jeanne Gang and her Studio Gang are also successful in designing tall skyscrapers; she designed the Aqua Tower and Wanda Vista Tower (now St. Regis Chicago) in Chicago, for example. In the US, high-rise design used to be a male domain. Do you compare yourself with Jeanne Gang in that regard? Does it matter to the design, if a male or female architect designs a tower?
I am not so aware of Jeanne Gang. Gender does not matter to me. The personality of the designer is more important. But outside people may think that because I am a woman I will design differently. I won the competition for the design of the Kabukicho Tower in which only female architects participated. The exact number of women architects who were asked to submit a proposal remains secret, however, unfortunately.

The Japanese architectural scene is male-dominated. Was it difficult for you to establish your firm?
When I was younger, I had to collaborate with men and give them instructions. That was sometimes hard, but I am not sure whether or not that was because I was young or a woman.

Are there more female architects in Japan today compared to 20 years ago?
Yes. I teach at university and half of my students are female. And in my office, too.

Did you have a role model in architecture, when you were young?
Yes, I admired Kazuyo Sejima. She achieved a lot.

How about Toshiko Mori?
Yes, she was successful abroad. I was also inspired by Itsuko Hasegawa and Masako Hayashi, who were also role models. I have two children, but the earlier pioneers of female architecture in Japan did not have any children. Also, in my office, two female architects have children.

Photo © Yuko Nagayama & Associates

Traditionally Western Shinjuku was the skyscraper district with office towers, while Eastern Shinjuku was a big, low-rise entertainment district. Now, it seems as if tall towers also rise in Eastern Shinjuku. Can entertainment functions be stacked into towers as easily as office floors?
The Kabukicho Tower is 225 meters tall but does not contain any offices; this is the first time in Japan. Office towers can be seen as symbols of power, but this tower is more fragile, dissolving visually into the sky.

With big theaters and cinemas, is there not a need to bring hundreds of people up and down before and after events, is vertical circulation key to the design?
No, because the upper part of the tower is a hotel. The building is composed of a deeper plinth and slender tower. The complex is 48 stories tall. The mid-level floors have shops, cinemas and theaters, and the basements will house clubs and concert venues.

Photo © Yuko Nagayama & Associates

What are you working on these days? Do you have some new projects on the boards?
Yes, we are working on around 30 projects simultaneously, including product design and events.

Even though the pavilion in Dubai was just a small, temporary building, will you be developing the idea of “filter” further?
Yes, I designed a house where the roof is designed like a filter. Also, I work on two new pavilions for the next World Expo in Osaka in 2025. One is the Panasonic Pavilion, which will get a dynamic filter. It will be called “nomo no kuni” (Land of Things).

Thank you very much for the interview.

Yuko Nagayama (Photo © Kazumi Kiuchi)

Interview conducted by Ulf Meyer with Paulina Minet, translated by Ulf Meyer with Mao Meyer.

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