Mind & Matter


Japan Notebook: Architecture and the Whims of Retail

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Kiddy Land (formerly HHstyle/Casa), designed by SANAA. Photo by the author.

One favorite architect’s walking tour in Tokyo focuses on the retail mecca of Shibuya and nearby Omotesando Avenue, the Rodeo Drive of the East. Like the older Ginza district, this neighborhood bears some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and contains a veritable charm bracelet of notable buildings designed by famous architects for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Prada.

Between Shibuya station and Omotesando Avenue, along a narrow pedestrian-scale lane known as "Cat Street," are two low-rise gems—one designed by SANAA and another by Tadao Ando. Originally providing space for modern luxury furniture stores, these buildings are no longer occupied by their original retail brands. Rather than exhibiting Eames chairs or Armani bedding, the structures now house Kiddy Land and Body Wild Underwear Wave—retailers whose merchandise is more viable amid a stagnating economy.

It is no doubt intriguing—and somewhat appalling—to see both SANAA's exquisite, minimalist glass facade and Ando's equally severe steel plate exterior now clad in gaudy signage. In the former case, Kiddy Land has intentionally imposed horizontal stickers to conceal the subtly ramping floor plates beyond graduated, fritted glass. In the latter case, Body Wild has taken full advantage of Ando's marvelously long uninterrupted window to display colorful men's briefs.

This jarring transformation of two architectural jewel boxes into tawdry billboards demonstrates the capriciousness of the commercial market. It is also a sobering reminder that architecture that serves retail is architecture that is subject to the whims of retail. However, what other option is there? Isn't it better to design enduring works that allow future adaptations than inflexible structures that inhibit change? No doubt, Kiddy Land and Body Wild simply represent another phase in these buildings’ varied lives, and these retailers will eventually replaced by other, entirely different future programs.



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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.