The new Mori JP Tower at Azabudai Hills by Pelli Clarke & Partners, Image: Jason O’Rear, Pelli Clarke & Partners

Is Tokyo’s New Skyscraper a Turning Point in Japan’s Real Estate?

The new Mori JP Tower at Azabudai Hills in Tokyo, was designed as a “modern urban village” in the center of the Japanese capital.

You can see a lot from the top floor of Tokyo’s new 1,067-foot-tall Azabudai Hills Mori JP tower. Now the tallest skyscraper in Japan, the mixed-use building—designed by international firm Pelli Clarke & Partners as part of a larger, multi-structure development master-planned by the office—affords a view clear out to the horizon, which in Tokyo means only somewhat further than the physical extent of the city: for nearly 850 square miles, clear to the foot of Mount Fuji, the landscape is one gigantic mat of urbanism, extending even into the waters of the sparkling bay atop thin rafts of landfill. In his 1954 novel The Sound of Waves, Yukio Mishima wrote of his hometown as a place where “almost all nature had been put into uniform, and the little power of nature that remained was an enemy.” Seventy years later, that holds up. 

But there are some things you can’t quite see from that height that tell a slightly different story. In July of last year, one prominent Japanese academic called for an “urgent discussion” about the country’s social policies following a government study that suggested an imminent dropoff in the already-low national birth rate. A report in Business Insider from earlier this year claimed that as many as 8 million houses now stand empty in Japan. At the same time, the country’s economy remains in a decades-long slump. Of course, if all this looks relatively remote from the pinnacle of the Azabudai Hills project, there’s a reason for that: while the rest of the country stagnates, Tokyo is still growing apace; indeed, its growth is one of the reasons for all those empty houses, as more and more people migrate to the capital from the provinces. “In a shrinking country, centrality is more and more important,” says Jorge Almazán, a Spanish-born architect and scholar now based in Japan and the author of the recently published Emergent Tokyo, an examination of the city’s unique built environment. “What we have here is a process of concentration, not of growth.” 


At street level, a robust mix of public space, parks, green spaces, pedestrian walking paths, retail, and an expansive market hall was created.

An inverted design pattern

That’s part of what the new Mori JP Tower is responding to—and attempting to influence. “Most of the buyers here are Japanese,” says Masakatsu Yamamoto. “I’d say more than 85%.” As a senior manager at the Mori Building Company, Yamamoto has helped guide what is perhaps the most ambitious endeavor yet from the storied development firm, the latest in a string of enormous mixed-use projects that have transformed Tokyo over the last two decades. The Roppongi Hills complex, completed in 2003, with a high-rise by KPF; Toranomon Hills, with its OMA-designed Toranomon Station Tower just opened last year; and now, Azabudai Hills, three towers in all, plus a whopper of a landscape scheme from British celebrity architect Thomas Heatherwick: as resources and population continue to flow into Tokyo from rural and suburban prefectures, the Mori brand is giving them all somewhere to go.

It’s also giving them, crucially, a new direction to go in: up. “People here usually want to live closer to the earth,” says Pelli Clarke partner Mitch Hirsch. Illustrating the point, the Mori Company has created an impressive, 1:1000-scale diorama of the city at their corporate headquarters: the detailed mockup shows a metropolis more horizontal than vertical, a sea of tiny single-family homes and modest commercial holdings interrupted by small islands of newer high-rise development. Mori and Pelli’s developments represent a noticeable break with that pattern, even as they have attempted to respect its logic — in a previous project, the Ark Hills Sengokuyama Mori Tower fro 2012, Pelli Clarke was obliged by their client to place the apartments on the tower’s lower floors and the workspaces above, a total reversal of the Western norm. “You’re not going to totally change the culture here,” Hirsch’s colleague (and firm cofounder) Fred Clarke says. “You have to let the culture change you.”

As part of the development, Heatherwick Studio has designed its first school, The British School in Tokyo. At 15,000 sqm, this is the largest international school in the heart of the city.

A tower as a gentle giant

Changes, however, are afoot. Assembled from about 300 of those former small holdings, the broader Azabudai campus sprawls across 20 acres in the city’s bustling Toranomon neighborhood on an elongated butterfly-shaped site whose irregular terrain gives it its title. Yet most of the visible “hills” are synthetic: Heatherwick’s landscape creates an artificial ground level through which portions of the surrounding service roads pass through deep, valley-like depressions; up top, visitors wind their way through a pedestrian-friendly landscape of pristine lawns and flower beds, interspersed with impressive pavilion structures—great loops of glass and concrete, with plantings continuing over their mountain-ish humps—that operate as entryways to the vast warren of retail in the base. The underground passages also connect the two pendant towers (containing hotels, restaurants, and more residences) to their larger sibling, standing like a big punctuation mark at the complex’s southern perimeter. 

“It’s got this beautiful, very soft curve,” Clarke explains. “There are actually names for it.” Dating back centuries, the mikori and sorri are delicate, arching lines frequently seen in traditional Japanese gabled roofs; the Mori JP tower intimates the same form in profile, fattening about one-third of the way up before narrowing again towards the top. The effect is to make it seem a bit of a gentle giant—a Totoro of sorts, familiar and benevolent—not a bad impression to make on a citizenry that remains somewhat wary of tall buildings. The whole Azabudai project, in fact, seems remarkably eager for approval: from the social media-friendly shopping concourse belowdecks, to the verdant Sou Fujimoto-designed street entrance to the main tower, to the Brutalist-but-glam school building (also from Heatherwick) tucked discreetly behind one of the ersatz hills, the plan appears to have been geared to present Tokyoites with an attractive vision of a greener, denser future. 

Azabudai Hills has received preliminary Platinum LEED certification in the Neighborhood Development category, the highest rating available, and the first property in Tokyo to receive the rating. Mori JP Tower is expected to become the world’s first skyscraper to achieve WELL, LEED-ND and LEED BD+C (CS)certification

Privately-owned oases in the middle of the streetscape

To judge from the crowds that coursed along the pathways on a recent afternoon, the locals certainly seem to be buying what Mori and Pelli are selling. Since Mishima’s day and earlier, Tokyo has been a city with a surprisingly meager quantity of open, shady, amenity-rich public space: only 7% of the capital’s total area is parkland, compared to 14% in New York and 20% in London. As Tokyo continues to swell in size (a dynamic now being redoubled by a recent spike in foreign immigrants, unprecedented in famously insular Japan), Azabudai might offer a foretaste of a new, more livable urban model—albeit one that comes with a troubling asterisk. “It’s inorganic, top-down,” says Jorge Almazán: as he points out, Mori’s public spaces are more Mori’s than the public’s, privately-owned oases in the middle of the streetscape. With every new project, every new high-end retailer, and every luxury condominium, the slow-motion crisis of the country at large continues to arise. “When you build something new here,” says Almazán,  “somewhere else is simply going to empty out.”

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]