For half a century, the Sony Building in Tokyo has attracted domestic and foreign tourists to the upmarket Ginza district. The flagship building went up in 1966 – at a time when the high-rise megalopolis that would eventually provide the setting for Blade Runner and the inspiration for Akira – was still in its infancy, and displayed world-changing products such as the Walkman and Trinitron TV.
Now, the consumer electronics company plans to demolish its own flagship store and temporarily replace it with a park. The loss of Yoshinobu Ashihara’s building will be felt in a Tokyo that constantly demolishes and rebuilds, wiping out its architectural heritage. But in a city like Tokyo where public space is woefully lacking – most of it indoors and devoted to retail – an urban oasis could actually help the city, not to mention the once-mighty company’s struggling brand.
Brutal and concrete from the outside, the Sony Building’s interior is something entirely different. Typical of Ashihara’s other buildings from this period, it has multiple-level floors that defy the conventions of the common retail complex. “I made the entire interior space continuous by placing 27 floors on successive different levels,” the architect wrote of the building. The result is a store where floors spiral round, like a staircase.
It was built at a time when Japanese architects were beginning to imagine a new, stronger and more confident city in the aftermath of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Fifty years later, that city has arrived – and seems determined to wipe out all trace of its past.
“The demolition of Yoshinobu Ashihara’s iconic landmark building deals another blow to preservation efforts of important postwar modern architecture,” said Dr Christian Dimmer, professor of urban studies at Waseda University in Tokyo. “It finds itself here in the company of the Hotel Okura, or the endangered Nakagin Capsule Tower, or the Kamakura MoMA.”
Indeed, preservation in Tokyo is a rarity. Ginza itself is a constant whirl of demolition and reconstruction. A short walk up the road is the Kabukiza Theatre, torn down and rebuilt five times since its 1889 opening. Its latest incarnation, designed by Kengo Kuma, has a 145m office tower jutting out of its back. Tsukiji, near the theatre, is about to demolish its gigantic fish market, depriving the city of one of its few Bauhaus-inspired pieces of architecture. Part of the land will now be a new road.
Sony’s decision to replace its building with open space was welcomed. “The choice to temporarily replace it with an actual park rather than a car park is certainly commendable,” said architect LS Peter Philipps of Design Fresco in Osaka. The store will close on 31 March 2017 and be replaced by roughly 700 sq m of wooden decking, seating and trees.
For a city of Tokyo’s size, there are few public spaces where people can relax for free, though of course there are some major exceptions such as Yoyogi park. If you want to sit down for a while, that usually means a cafe or restaurant.
“The problem is public space in Japan has become all about retail,” said Alastair Townsend, director and architect at Bakako Architects. “It is primarily an interior experience – public space is indoors in Japan.” In Tokyo, space for public good almost always loses out to utilitarian aesthetics and construction.
“By making the Ginza Sony Park open to the public, Sony hopes to transform it into an event venue where visitors can enjoy unique Kando [emotionally moving] experiences, delivered by both Sony and others,” the company said in a statement. Today, with the influx of tourists, particularly Chinese, Ginza has become more associated with visitors who are looking to shop till they drop.
Misato Suzuki, a Sony spokeswoman, said the park was not specifically aimed at attracting crowds during the Olympics. “We are not an Olympic sponsor, but there are a lot more foreigners coming to the Ginza area now, so we felt they would appreciate the event space,” she said.
Those tourists, the company hopes, will appreciate the park and become more receptive to the Sony brand. “We are not 100% sure yet, but we envisage the space being used for concerts, movie viewing … things like that,” she said. “After that, in 2022, the new building will go up, and that will be used to showcase Sony products just as the current one is.” Plans for the new building have yet to be decided. In the meantime, Sony will open a temporary store to showcase its products at another Ginza location. The firm’s headquarters will remain in nearby Shinagawa.
Pessimists about what will come in 2022 point to Sony’s last major architectural project in central Tokyo: the 25-floor Sony City Osaki. Commissioned before the global financial crisis and completed the month of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, it was sold in 2013; the Osaki area in general is considered an unmitigated disaster. What was supposed to be a flagship business centre in the west of Tokyo has more in common with Milton Keynes than Canary Wharf. Commuters come and go, but the smaller businesses that provide Tokyo so much of its cultural capital have mostly stayed away. At weekends, the area and its myriad skyscrapers are empty.
Regardless of what happens in 2022, for now residents will get to enjoy open space in a retail area, which is a rare treat in Tokyo. “Increasingly, there is a trend to make ‘private’ public spaces in new, large-scale projects,” says Phillips. “These are often skilfully designed into the development and well maintained. But they feel slightly artificial and lack a public quality.”
Perhaps the park will be the trigger for a renaissance in public space. “Sony’s precedent might encourage reluctant local governments to finally think about temporary public space interventions,” Dimmer said. “Why not similarly experiment with vacant public plots across Tokyo, and encourage wider community regeneration? After all, all Tokyo residents should benefit from exciting, inclusive public spaces, and not only affluent shoppers in a central business district like Ginza.”