AD Classics: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building / Kenzō Tange

The career of Japanese architect Kenzō Tange features a curious anomaly: he received the same commission twice. In 1952, during the early stages of his career, Tange designed an administrative building in Yūrakuchō, Tokyo, for the city's metropolitan government. Over thirty years later, when the government relocated to Shinjuku, Tokyo, he again won the commission to design its administrative building. Completed in 1991, this would be one of his last, and most ambitious, projects. The second incarnation now dominates the city’s skyline, its highly distinctive design guaranteeing it landmark status. Nicknamed Tochō (an abbreviation of its Japanese name Tōkyō-to Chōsha), its architectural references to both tradition and modernity act as a visual metaphor for the eclectic city over which its inhabitants govern.

AD Classics: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building / Kenzō Tange - Cityscape, FacadeAD Classics: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building / Kenzō Tange - Facade, CityscapeAD Classics: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building / Kenzō Tange - More Images+ 7

Plan of the Complex (Public Domain)

Though usually referred to as a single building, Tochō would be more accurately described as a complex comprising three structures. Though visually distinct and individually named, all three buildings within the complex are linked by pedestrian routes. No.1 Building is the tallest of the three; the main structure stands thirty-four stories high but its twin towers soar to forty-eight stories, making it the tallest building in Tokyo at the time of its construction. Clad in precast concrete panels, the façade is inset with light and dark granite to create a variety of geometric patterns.

At its base, the façade of No.1 Building forms a sheer face which becomes increasingly articulated as the two towers ascend. This irregular composition adds visual interest and prevents the building from appearing monolithic, despite its height. The articulated surfaces also perform a practical function by disrupting the strong winds which buffet the building at its highest points. Receding cutouts at the tops of the towers create a frame for a collection of satellite dishes, transforming aesthetically­ unappealing—though necessary—elements into intentionally decorative features.

AD Classics: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building / Kenzō Tange - Facade, Cityscape
No.2 Building

To the south of No.1 Building stands No.2 Building. Its structure comprises three interlocking towers of increasing height, the tallest of which stands at thirty-four stories – level with the main structure of its counterpart. Again, no attempt is made to conceal less attractive architectural elements, with many of the building's services displayed prominently on the large balconies formed by the rooftops of the lower towers; an example of the architectural honesty which typifies Tange’s work. The façade of No.2 Building features the same patterns of granite and concrete as its neighbor; by maintaining stylistic consistency across the complex Tange was able to create a visual link between its individual components.

The third building in the complex is the Assembly Building, an eight-story semicircular structure which sits at the foot of No.1. While the No.1 and No.2 Buildings primarily house government offices, the function of the Assembly Building is more specific: it serves as the meeting chamber for the councilors of Tokyo. The sweeping curve of the building encompasses an expansive courtyard which is sunk below street-level, separating it from passing road traffic to create a tranquil clearing in which open-air concerts, for example, can be held. As the building extends westward, its arms become high-level walkways raised on piloti. The southern arm intersects with a bridge spanning the gap between No.1 and No.2, binding together the three components of the complex through a system of pedestrian circulation.

AD Classics: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building / Kenzō Tange - Cityscape, Facade
No.1 Building

Tange's architecture is characterized by an interplay between tradition and modernity; he believed that “the most vital task of today is creatively to elevate both past and future.”[1] Many of his early works lean heavily on the architectural traditions of his native country of Japan – particularly evident in his design for his own home of 1953. However, while he acknowledged the influence of Japan's heritage, he repeatedly attempted to distance himself from purely historical associations. “Tradition can be compared to a catalyst;” he wrote, “it stimulates our design process, but just as a catalyst disappears after the chemical action, so tradition does not remain in the final design.”[2]

By the late stages of his career, references to architectural history in Tange’s designs had become less overt, but remained extant. At Tochō, the geometric pattern of the façades recalls the screen paneling of traditional Japanese houses. The twin towers of No.1 Building, meanwhile, can be compared to the split towers of Gothic cathedrals.

AD Classics: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building / Kenzō Tange - Image 9 of 12
Unknown Author (25 January 1955). Public Domain. ImageKenzō Tange's residence

Throughout his extensive writings, Tange frequently extolled the virtues of modern technology. This is somewhat surprising given that his first completed project, the Hiroshima Peace Park, bore witness to the destructive potential of human ingenuity. Nevertheless, Tange's design for Tochō directly invokes technology through its design; the architect cited the computer chip as the stylistic inspiration for No.1 Building.[3] This digital imagery is repeated within the building, where a circuit-board motif decorates some of the ceilings.[4]

Given the economic climate in Japan at the time, references to computing were particularly apt. Thanks to its world-leading technology industry the country was enjoying an economic boom and the computer chip had become a national symbol for modern Japan. Tange even borrowed the rhetoric of technology, quoting Norbert Wiener (the inventor of cybernetics) when describing his own architectural designs as “communication spaces” linked by “informational channels.”[5] As such, the transfer of people through the corridors and elevators of No.1 Building emulates the transfer of information through electrical signals in a computer. Not only does the building employ the iconography of a computer chip, it also functions as one.

Elevation of No.1 Building (Public Domain)

Tange's embrace of modernity did not, however, extend to the adoption of European Modernism; a style of which he was highly critical. Though he admired the work of Le Corbusier, he disdainfully noted that for most Modernist architects “the mere white box—which was no more than a starting point—was in itself a true goal.”[6] Tange also took issue with the functionalist attitude of the International Style, which he saw as overly simplistic and rigid: “criticism has often been made by people living and working in these buildings that this restricts their life and I believe their complaints are worthy of attention.”[7]

Tange’s own design process involved a “typification of function,”[8] wherein the most fundamental needs of the building's future users were prioritized and other needs, deemed arbitrary, were ignored. For instance, the massive scale (and $1billion cost) of Tochō led to public outrage during construction but, as justified by the project's construction manager, “it needed to be this size to house the ganglia of a huge computer network intended to make the Tokyo government the most sophisticated in the world.”[9]

AD Classics: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building / Kenzō Tange - Windows
Satellite dishes on No.1 Building

While Tange may not have subscribed to the European model of Modernism, he did share the movement's aim to (ostensibly) sweep away the old and build anew. Tochō's new site in Shinjuku—the historic red-light district of Tokyo and a notorious center for Yakuza activity—afforded Tange the perfect opportunity to do so. The area had been targeted for regeneration by city councilors in the 1980s, and the construction of Tochō signalled the beginning of the redevelopment of Shinjuku as a modern financial district. Though the neighborhood still retains some aspects of its insalubrious past, its transformation into a thriving economic hub has been hugely successful. Twenty-five years after completion of Tochō, the area is now strewn with skyscrapers which house the headquarters of national and multinational corporations.

It has been suggested that Tange's belief in the regenerative power of architecture has its roots in the cycles of growth and decay described by Buddhist teachings.[10] The demolition of Tange’s original Metropolitan Government Building shortly after the opening of Tochō completed this cyclical process. Though Tochō is often overlooked within the architect's oeuvre, in many respects the complex exemplifies his style through its harmony of tradition and modernity, its typified functionalism, and its capacity to reflect a national identity.

AD Classics: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building / Kenzō Tange - Windows, Facade
The Assembly Building and Public Square

Tange, Kenzō. “Creation in Present Day Architecture and the Japanese Tradition”. In Robin Boyd. Kenzō Tange. New York: George Braziller, 1962. p.113
[2] Tange, Kenzō. “In Search of a New Architecture”. Japan Quarterly, 31:4, 1984. p.407
[3] Weisman, Steven R. “A Plush City Hall, but Please, No Marble Bathtub!”. New York Times, 20 August, 1990
[4] Žaknić, Ivan. 100 of the World’s Tallest Buildings. Victoria: Images Publishing, 1998. p.104
[5] Ibid. Tange. “In Search of a New Architecture”. p.408
[6] Ibid. p.406
[7] Ibid. Tange. “Creation in Present Day Architecture and the Japanese Tradition”. p.116
[8] Ibid. Tange. “In Search of a New Architecture.” p.407
[9] Ibid. Weisman.
[10] “Tange, Kenzō”. Oxford Art Online. Accessed 13 July, 2016. [access]

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Address:Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, 2 Chome Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō-to 160-0023, Japan

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Cite: Bart Bryant-Mole. "AD Classics: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building / Kenzō Tange" 27 Sep 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

No.1 Building

AD Classics: 东京都厅/ 丹下健三

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