Public space is becoming more and more permeable—and confusing. The distinction between places that are part of our infrastructure, shopping areas, circulation, and whatever we leave open just so that people can hang out in public is increasingly difficult to parse. We need to rethink our public space.

This thought struck me in Tokyo, where the interpenetration of such spaces has been occurring for a long time, but it is evident in places as disparate as Lincoln Center or Grand Central Station in New York, Farmers Market and its adjacent shopping mall in Los Angeles, or in the parks surrounding the various buildings of Dallas’ arts district. Those widely different circumstances come to mind as I write this from a Hyatt hotel in Mori Corporation’s Roppongi Hills development in Tokyo.

When I first visited the Roppongi area 25 years ago, it was Tokyo’s nightlife center, with bars, restaurants, clubs, and small stores animating streets that ranged from major avenues to small alleys. This site was empty. Now the Roppongi Hills development, opened in 2003, is a new anchor, drawing the chaos around it into a sort of equilibrium.

Roppongi Hills development, planned by the Jerde Partnership.

Roppongi Hills development, planned by the Jerde Partnership.


What is especially remarkable about this place is the intricacy with which pathways, structures, and functions curve through and around each other. The base of the Roppongi Hills development was designed by the Jerde Partnership, which accounts for the curved shopping streets that are the firm’ signature. But a combination of what appears to have been a robust budget (which allows for all that expressive structure) and the necessity of the vertical layering of services, access, and various other functions, have made for a much more successful place than the Postmodern pastiche of most of the firm’s shopping malls.

While I was here, I attended a lecture by the architect Fumihiko Maki, Hon. FAIA. Two things he used to conclude his speech about his architecture and its relation to the Metabolists of the early 1960s struck me: “Space makes no distinction between inside and outside;” and “Space, not buildings, gives delight.” I am not sure that the former has always been true, but it certainly is becoming more so. As for the latter, the banality of the buildings rising out of the Roppongi Hills development would seem a perfect proof of this axiom.

Roppongi Hills is still a private development. Everybody who strolls around the area is well-dressed and well-heeled. This is not a Utopian commons. It is, however, a better model for how we can use architecture to catch, frame, and help give meaning to social relations in a consumer society where connections happen more on more in the virtual realm. Like social media, Roppongi Hills is sprawling and privately maintained—yet it is an open environment in which we can find and bind to each other.

Roppongi Hills Arena, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates with the Jerde Partnership.

Roppongi Hills Arena, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates with the Jerde Partnership.