In a formerly shabby area of downtown Tokyo, a tourist information tower, with traditional wooden elements referring to a local temple, offers visitors new perspectives over the city
Rising eight storeys above the heart of Tokyo’s downtown Shitamachi area, the Asakusa Tourist Information Tower marks architect Kengo Kuma’s continued efforts to revitalise and reinvent traditional Japanese culture and urban space. This year, the Shitamachi area has witnessed a rebirth following years of economic decline, with the development of western Tokyo and the recovery operation in the wake of the devastating Tohoku Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.
Following the opening earlier this year of the 634-metre Tokyo Skytree as the tallest tower in the world, Kuma’s Asakusa Tower stands as the new symbol of the revitalised Taito Ward fronting the landmark Kaminarimon Gate to the famous Asakusa Sensō-ji temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo.
Bridging centuries of sacred and profane worlds, the Asakusa Tower’s multi-canted roof structure is a conscious counterpoint to the dynamic evolution of the surrounding urban space. While the Asakusa Sensō-ji dates back to 645, the vibrant Nakamise-dōri street leading to it is said to have come about in the early 18th century when souvenir shops were permitted to line the approach.
The precincts also include the Nishinomiya Inari Shinto Shrine dating to 1727, a five-storey pagoda and the dominating Kaminarimon ‘Thunder Gate’ at the entrance. Although the temple was bombed and destroyed for the most part during the Second World War, it remains one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist destinations and is seen as a symbol of the city and nation’s post-war rebirth, and of peace.
Kuma’s competition-winning scheme for Asakusa is one of many of his efforts to rebuild aging buildings in Japan. He also has an ongoing preoccupation with the revival of Japanese industries and craft skills, now in decline since their peak decades ago. In his Chokkura Plaza project and Stone Museum he made use of traditional stone cutting techniques and promoted the appreciation of Ukiyo-e wood-block prints in his Museum of Hiroshige Ando through the use of slim wooden louvres (AR October 2001). For the Nezu Museum (AR April 2010), he reconceived the traditional oversailing roof to appear razor thin and situated the famed Kabukiza theatre in Ginza within a high-rise complex.
The Asakusa Tower stands as a beacon to welcome tourists from abroad and within Japan. While Asakusa is a top destination for Japan Tourist Bureau tours for foreign visitors, such traditional culture can remain equally foreign to a younger Japanese generation. The particular character of this district is sensed immediately upon arrival at the subway station through multiple images of the area’s festivals and historic structures illustrated on subterranean walls, which then continue up to the street. In this mileu, Kuma’s 38.9-metre tower serves both as a landmark and three-dimensional urban sign. Actual signage is limited to a discreet question mark at ground-level to entice those in search of further information.
The double height information lobby contains a tableau of maps, brochures, a large model of the Taito Ward, and large video screen with announcements and images of the district. In presenting Asakusa old and new, the centre provides wi-fi links to its web page and dynamic views of the busy urban crossing that subtly change as you ascend the winding stair to the upper mezzanine level. Along the way, you can view a model of a mikoshi portable shrine (originally a feature of the crossing that would emerge behind the opening face of a clock), and then look out to elevated views framed by the external wooden louvres of the central shopping arcade leading to Sensō-ji.
Set against the building’s urban presence and monumentality, the interior is a surprisingly intimate sequence of spatial experiences. Built on a site of only 326 square metres, Kuma’s tower adopts the ‘pencil building’ typology of many neighbouring slender towers. The built structure maintains the small-scale character of the historic Asakusa district as a series of one- or two-storey stacked volumes for small-to-medium conferences, seminars, group tour support, lectures, events and exhibitions, with a top level viewing deck and café.
The tower as realised is distinctly more solid than the initial transparent schematic model in its spatial fluidity of an open passage from the basement to the fourth levels depicted in the competition scheme. Yet in the end the haptic qualities of wood, stone, paper and steel appeal far more to visitors. Indeed the tower has many faces and expressions. From the exterior it could be read as the transposition of the horizontal urbanscape to a vertical stacked landscape.
By night it can be seen as an oversized andon lantern facing the famous red lantern across the street. In contrast to overt Japanese readings, the tower’s side section expresses the freedom of Loos’s raumplan - most explicitly in the stepped auditorium space stacked on top of the 5th floor large conference room. Gaps between the stacked volumes house the HVAC equipment to enhance the effect of the tower’s section.
Building on its almost cartoon-like character, the building’s graphics highlight this spatial clarity - especially useful in finding your way in using the enclosed stair and elevator. In fact from early on in his career, Kuma’s designs have had a strong monumentality, evident in works such as the M2 Building (1991), a homage to Adolph Loos’s Chicago Tribune competition entry with its oversize column massing.
The tower’s monumental yet playful character revives and recreates the areas’ fantasies of the fantastic, and how this relates to the religious character of Sensō-ji. The temple’s five-story pagoda was once juxtaposed with a timber-frame replica of Mount Fuji constructed in 1887 as an entertainment attraction (rather like Disneyland’s 1959 Matterhorn ride). Although this faux Fuji was torn down in 1889, the twelve-story brick Ryōunkaku tower featuring one of Tokyo’s first elevators provided new views of the area until it was destroyed in the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake.
Scaffolding constructed around the pagoda also offered similarly dynamic views of the area for tourists in the pre-World War Two era. In effect, the Asakusa Tower recreates these vertical promenades to offer views of adjacent towers and landmarks including the Asahi Beer Company’s headquarter office tower rendered as a large beer mug with a faceted foam-like top and Philippe Starck’s adjacent beer hall with its golden flame hovering above.
Embedded in this context, the Asakusa Tower embodies multiple aspects of the area’s rich history, both sacred and profane, while providing new urban views and perspectives. Unlike the Tokyo Skytree with high admission fees, long lines, and remote panoramas from above the clouds, the viewing deck of the Asakusa Tower is free and offers vivid aerial vistas. Functioning brilliantly as a tourist information centre and urban signifier, it connects body and mind with Asakusa’s past, present and future.
Asakusa Tourist Information Tower
Architect: Kengo Kuma
Lighting: Endo Lighting
Photographs: Edmund Sumner and Takeshi Yamagishi
Tokyo Storeys: Tourist Information Tower by Kengo Kuma, Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo Storeys: Tourist Information Tower by Kengo Kuma, Tokyo, Japan