As Dezeen reports, 2015 saw a record number of skyscrapers built around the world. I’m not a complete fan of skyscrapers. They do serve a purpose and they have their merits. However, architecturally speaking, I have seen more creativity in medium and short-rise buildings than skyscrapers. In terms of urban design, tall buildings tend to take away from city life more than they add. There are rare projects with tall buildings like Tokyo Midtown that can actually add life to the city by combining many uses and features to attract a consistent crowd. However, even Tokyo Midtown is successful not because of its largest tower, the second tallest building in Tokyo, but because of a synergy of sorts created by the city within a city concept, a connection to three major train lines, and its location within the Roppongi district.
When it comes to quality of life in a city there are two factors where skyscrapers receive big red marks in my book: sunlight and spatial reasoning. Skyscrapers themselves may receive an abundance of sunlight, but they act as giant sundials that cast shadows on the surrounding areas of the city.
Humans are reasoning animals; we have certain sensibilities that allows us to comfortably function in this world. One of those sensibilities is spatial reasoning. We need certain spatial qualities from our surroundings to freely enjoy and understand a place. Skyscrapers defy our sense of human scale, and make us feel dwarfed.
Another problem with skyscrapers is that they can create downforce winds that gush onto the street. OK I don’t want to rag on skyscrapers all day. Some of them are pretty cool like the Walkie Talkie in London. I love how the building looks like it’s falling over. Also in London, the Gherkin (the British word for "pickle") is quite beautiful. However, when dozens or even hundreds of skyscrapers congregate in one area it takes away from the quality of life in an urban area. Up until the present day, Tokyo hasn't been completely taken over by skyscrapers, and that's a good thing. Tokyo is still one of the densest cities in the world. Let's take a look at how Tokyo accommodates so many people, and still provides a high quality of life for residents.
The Magnitude of Tokyo
Tokyo is the largest city in the world with a metropolitan area population of 37 million people. And what makes Tokyo great is that it's a dense city with relatively few skyscrapers for the size of the city. Many first-time visitors to Tokyo remark that they were expecting something more along the lines of New York with a cluster of skyscrapers forming an impressive skyline. And I'd say that their expectations are pleasantly unmet in this case. That's what makes Tokyo great. The buildings are mostly mid to low-rise. Yet the city is packed full of buildings. Tokyo is quite dense, and quite expansive. Here are two comparative maps to give you an idea of the magnitude of Tokyo.
We can see that Tokyo is roughly ten times the size of London in land area, and one tenth the size of the entire UK.
The second map compares the population of different areas in Tokyo to U.S. cities. The equivalent populations of Los Angeles and New York sit next to each other in the middle of Tokyo. Surrounding the "core" of Tokyo are 3o other major U.S. cities. I put "core" in quotation marks because Tokyo doesn't have a distinct core like New York or London. Because of this geography one might surmise that Tokyo is a conglomerate of cities within a region, but this isn't the case. Tokyo, including Yokohama, and Chiba prefecture functions as one megapolis.
One other way to understand the scope of Tokyo is to imagine having one tenth the population of the United States concentrated in one city. For comparison's sake let's look at New York, and we know the influence that New York has on not just the U.S. but on global affairs. New York's population stands at 8 million, while the metro area's population is 20 million. That's 6 percent of the U.S. population spread over 6,720 square miles (17,405 sq. km). Tokyo is roughly half the area of the New York metro area coming in at 3,300 square miles (8,547 sq. km).
Tokyo is home to the same amount as around 11% of the U.S. population concentrated in one city, but in terms of Japan's population it accounts for almost one third, or 30% of the country's population. Imagine if New York had the same share of the U.S. population with 100 million people living in one city. New York would have to build massive skyscrapers on par with the tallest megastructures in the world to accommodate such a large influx of people. Or would it?
Despite having almost double the population of New York, Tokyo has fewer skyscrapers than New York while having a higher population density and half the land area. The list below from Wikipedia shows cities with the most skyscrapers, and Tokyo ranks sixth in the world behind Hong Kong, New York, Dubai, Shanghai and Chicago. Tokyo is home to almost 1/3 the number of skyscrapers in Hong Kong, and less than half that of New York. Chicago has 25% the population of Tokyo with just as many skyscrapers. Dubai is an even more drastic case with just over 2 million people and 40% more skyscrapers than Tokyo. These examples prove that the skyscraper is not necessarily an efficient building typology in cities. The presence of skyscrapers has more to do with the accumulation of capital, and other regulatory and cultural factors.
ingMultiple Core Urban Design
Tokyo has multiple "downtown" areas instead of having one central downtown core. Each core serves one primary function. For example, Shinjuku is home to Tokyo's metropolitan government with large, bulky, government-y buildings towering over the street. The financial district surrounds Tokyo station (Otemachi/Marunouchi/Yurakucho district), and leads up to the entrance to the Imperial Palace. Other areas are less business focused. For instance, Shibuya is a central entertainment and shopping district, while Akihabara is a haven for the electronics and anime enthusiasts.
The skyscraper is a building typology that is formed by, and quintessential of capitalism. It makes sense that the two areas in Tokyo that are capital intensive, government and finance, contain the highest concentration of skyscrapers. The map below shows the location, name and height of tall buildings (over 70m) in Tokyo.
If you zoom into the Shibuya area, a popular destination for shopping and entertainment, you can see that there are few skyscrapers in the area compared to Shinjuku and Tokyo station. The areas surrounding Shibuya in the Daikanyama, Meguro, Yoyogi, and Aoyama areas are also free of skyscrapers. Tokyo is a city of villages, it's always been that way. And some areas have many different names because the boundaries simply overlap. On my walks my clients ask me, "what area are we in?"
And I say, "The Harajuku, Omotesando, Aoyama area." I bet they think to themselves, "does this guy know what he's talking about?" Or "OK, that's confusing."
It's just the way things are, and the way they have been. Internationally, people associate with the name Harajuku more because of the JR station, and the popularity of distinct fashion along Takeshita street. The main street that everyone walks down from Harajuku is called Omotesando, which is intersected by Aoyoma-dori. You see? That's Tokyo. One village blends into another, and the fabric of the city changes over time, but often the names stay the same.
Without that cultural legacy, and the resistance of residents to certain mega projects maybe Tokyo would be full of skyscrapers. Maybe capitalism would have eaten up all that was left of the old villages. It took Mori Building, Japan's largest developer, 17 years to plan, negotiate, and build the epochal Roppongi Hills development. Land owners in the neighborhood were reluctant to sell even in the face of decline.
On the horizon for Tokyo, there's a major redevelopment of Shibuya planned for completion in 2027 by Tokyu Corporation. Tokyu's plan calls for at least five new skyscrapers. I won't get into a review of that plan, but at least it does mention improvements to the urban design of hard to navigate areas around Shibuya station. My biggest concerns are the amount of shadow cast on the surrounding areas, the wind effects from the buildings, and the feel of the place with more towers and less sky access. Another concern is the cool factor. Will Shibuya still be a cool place to visit? And perhaps most importantly for me, will Halloween still be a big event in Shibuya?
Skyscrapers aren't all bad. Some skyscrapers like Marina Bay Sands in Singapore by Moshe Sadie can serve as attractors, and make way for improvements to the public realm by taking pedestrian circulation into account. However, what makes Tokyo great is not an impressive skyline that can be enjoyed at a distance, and printed on a postcard as a symbol of capitalistic prowess. What makes Tokyo great is that it has held onto its tradition, as best it could and with certain improvements, as a city of villages teeming with public life, design and character. If Tokyo's politicians, planners and architects continue to value the assets found in these smaller scale areas, the city will continue to provide a high quality of life for residents while attracting international visitors looking for a unique experience.
Just to prove that I'm not anti-skyscraper here's a video of Moshe Sadie discussing the design of Marina Bay Sands. He was able to convince the developer to build three towers instead of one for urban design reasons.