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Tokyo Design Center

The site of this center for interior design presented Italian architect Mario Bellini with an interesting problem. The facade is interrupted by the presence of a pre-existing office building from the seventies. The property is one continuous piece of land which surrounds the building on three sides. The TDC is actually one building although it may appear to the casual passerby as two.

Although the southern facade is considerably wider than the northern, the similar unusual detailing makes the two facades closely related if not quite twins. Identical white pyramids sit atop both facades to emphasize their unity. Travertine joists are used between the concrete panels in an interesting reversal of standard architectural surfaces, which usually feature stone panels separated by concrete joists. Rectangular window openings are bisected by concrete panels which extend beyond the surface of the facade. These panels create dramatic shadows which punctuate the otherwise flat surface.

The southern facade is pierced by a large rectangular opening which rises four stories and leads into a passage which bisects the entire building from front to rear. Several sets of stairs raise the floor level of the passage as it progresses towards the rear of the building. Although one can enter the building at several locations on the left and right sides, one's eyes naturally focus on the lush garden behind the building and the large sculpture of a horse placed directly in the line of sight. The walls are covered with travertine and square deep-set windows are placed with geometric regularity. At the end of the passage the travertine disappears to reveal the steel structure beneath. The exposed steel frame extends rearward into the garden, merging with it as it provides a surface for vines to grow on. Several bridges cross the passage on the third and fourth floors. This quietly dramatic space is a strong contrast to the coolness of the facade and makes the visitor feel that he has entered a private world.

A steel and glass cylindrical form with a domed roof lies at the center of the building. It houses the elevator shaft and a small lobby on each floor. The architect envisioned this as a modern form breaking through and rising out of the classically inspired stone and concrete sections of the building. When seen from the garden behind the building, the cylinder does indeed seem to be busting out of the building.

The rear facade of the building sets back progressively as it gets higher, an effect dictated by local zoning regulations. The use of cement on the rear facade mirrors the use of the same material on the street facade. A row of columns on every floor supports a terrace above it, which in turn supports another row of columns set further back. Each column is capped by a large circular planter above it. Although the design of the back of the building clearly harks back to classical Mediterranean forms, there are no superficial decorative elements here, as is so often the case with post-modern reinterpretations of previous styles. One can wander around the porticos and terraces without actually entering the building, since each level is connected to the next by an outdoor staircase. The planters overflowing with roses create a harmonious blending of architecture and nature.

The garden behind the design center occupies a steep hill which slopes away from the building, a mirror image of the rear facade which slopes in the opposite direction. Several years after the planting of the garden, it has reached a certain level of maturity. Several paths wind their way up the hill through the dense foliage, offering a good vantage point to take in the back of the building with its own lush greenery.

The building's interior is given focus by the cylindrical form at its center. The elevators on every floor open onto a central hallway within the cylinder where the circular walls are articulated in steel and glass. Automatic sliding glass doors open onto design display areas or one of the bridges that cross the passage that cuts through the building.

The Galleria is an open-form multi-purpose space on the two below-ground levels of the building; it can be used for art exhibits, trade fairs and concerts. The main area features a two-story high ceiling and it is bounded by a travertine wall on one side and a curving plaster wall on the other, repeating the theme of interacting circular and rectangular forms that is expressed above ground. A steel bridge crosses the space on the second level, connecting smaller exhibition spaces behind the walls of the main area. The space is visually stimulating in its own right, while neutral enough to serve as an effective display area for any art exhibit.

Perhaps because of its location away from the active centers of Tokyo's urban life, this architectural gem remains unknown to most Tokyoites. On almost any day of the week it is visited only by the few architects and designers whose business brings them here. The positive side of this, however, is that most visitors will be left to wander its garden, porticos and display rooms in peaceful solitude.


Architect: Mario Bellini
Location: 5-25-19 Higashi-Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku

Copyright (c) 1998, Max Bolstad


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