Tokyo's new 'artelligent city': a giant - and global - vision

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Toyko is the New York and Paris of Asia - a Japanese Gershwin tune of style and sophistication. Yet when the $4 billion 54-story Mori Tower, a state-of-the-art paean to Japanese design and engineering, opened this year in the neon-drenched Roppongi Hills district, critics pounced.

The last thing Tokyo needs, they said, is another high-end office complex with shops that sell $500 bedroom slippers. With office space already abundant, real estate values dropping, and a "throw out the bottom line" approach to financing the tower as Japan's economy sputters, the property is in a risky market position.

But to Minoru Mori, a billionaire whose family name is synonymous with Tokyo real estate, the new tower and its unusual environs is a 17-year pursuit of a vision: a city within a city that expresses a Tokyo concept of globalization and culture. He calls it an "artelligent city" - a center of art, intellectual pursuit, high technology, dazzling textures, and shopping.

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The Mori property is nothing ordinary: The tubular tower, inspired by Le Corbusier, anchors a 29-acre space that is the largest private development, ever, in Tokyo. It combines apartment towers, 200 shops and restaurants, goldfish ponds, a cinema, clubs, an observatory tower, conference center, and a Grand Hyatt Hotel.

Waterfalls trace a multiterraced public space that includes an amphitheater for concerts and public lectures. Huge fine-art installations, including a signature 33-foot-tall bronze-and-steel spider by Louise Bourgeois, appear along walkways lined by billowy trees. A 12-story circular complex with gigantic illuminated digital panels at street level houses the new headquarters for TV Asahi.

There is little to match the new tower for sheer design and effect anywhere in Asia. And this fall, Mr. Mori inaugurated the last element of his vision - one of the most unusual contemporary art galleries in the world, which floats above Tokyo on the 52nd and 53rd floors of the tower.

Employing Japan's first foreign curator, the Mori Art Museum opened with a thematic show titled "Happiness: A Survival Guide for Art and Life" that runs until Jan. 18. Mori is aiming to jump instantly into the big leagues of art as a Guggenheim or Tate of Asia, says curator David Elliott, an Englishman. Mr. Elliott has kept the museum open till 10 on weeknights and midnight on weekends.

"Why 'happiness'?" asked Mr. Elliott, explaining his exhibition's theme, which chronicles cultural concepts of bliss, harmony, and desire using 150 works dating from 6th century China to the present. "[Because] while people might not be happy themselves, everyone dreams of happiness."

Indeed, that comment might apply to the public's reaction to the Mori Tower. Contrary to or despite the critics, 5 million Japanese have visited the tower complex since it opened in April. On Sundays, the public waits patiently in long lines outside restaurants and for a trip to the top of the tower for a stunning city panorama.

Analysts say the changing context of Japan's strategic position in Asia, as well as a lackluster 1990s, offers at least one explanation for tower's popularity. Ironically, it Japan's difficult adjustment to globalization that has caused the long-running funk. In the early '90s, the oft-told quip in the United States, facing huge trade deficits, was, "The cold war is over. Japan won."

Yet in terms of information technology, banking, and finance, Japan lost competitive advantage during that time. Japan got into the personal-computer game only in recent years. China, the regional behemoth, appears capable of seizing more market share in the midterm. While globalization stresses new language skills and international movement, Japan continued to focus inwardly.

"The 1990s were a lost decade for us," says Eisuke Sakakibara, a former finance minister. "Now the Japanese people are really frustrated. We didn't pay enough attention to what globalization meant."

What Mori Tower represents is the other side of the story. It is a symbol - in glass, steel, stone, and microchip - of Japanese exceptionalism. As one local sociologist put it, "If the Japanese want to remind themselves that they can still beat the world, can build a center far ahead of anything comparable in Asia, they can take a subway ride to Roppongi Hills and enjoy the tower."

"The entire tower is a piece of art," says curator Elliott. "There are all sorts of wonderful little discoveries to be made in the complex. You can't take it in during one visit."

The 54-story question is whether Tokyo and the market can sustain the initial enthusiasm for "artelligence." Goldman Sachs Group, described by Bloomberg News as an "anchor tenant" of the tower, considered pulling out of its rental contract. Mori himself reportedly intervened and dropped the price. Tokyo has some 27 million new square feet of office space this year - at a time when vacancy rates are at 8 percent downtown.

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