“Japanese culture tends to resist standing out, but we Europeans like to place more stress on individuality”

Gems among the concrete

European designers build beauty in Japan


Text by Justin McCurry

As you look out across the Tokyo megalopolis from the viewing platform of any skyscraper, open-mouthed wonder at the city’s sheer scale all too often gives way to sadness when you realise that the buildings within this cityscape, laid bare below, are unlikely to win awards for aesthetic beauty.

But as all Tokyo residents know, there are plenty of architectural gems tucked away among the concrete behemoths. These antidotes to uniformity exist thanks to the relatively lax rules on exterior design that helped to fuel the city’s postwar transformation.

For the handful of European architects based in Japan, the speed at which buildings are torn down and replaced brings frustration and opportunity in roughly equal measure.

While public works and large-scale commercial projects are mainly the domain of established Japanese architectural firms, European companies are benefitting from long overdue changes in what Japanese commercial clients expect from their premises, both inside and out.

“Japanese architects are among the best in the world, but in terms of corporate office design there is still a lag — not so much in design, but in the way it is integrated with a company’s approach to business,” says Martin Van Der Linden, the Dutch founder of Van Der Architects.

He now offers potential clients a vision based on his WorkVitamins methodology. This, he says, allows the corporate office to show “the true face” of the company that owns it, giving both employees and clients a clear idea of what a company is trying to say.

Air France KLM offices by Van Der Architects


“We translate a mission slogan into something tangible, something real and honest,” adds Van Der Linden, whose projects include three WeWork offices and a 3,500m2 learning centre for McKinsey in Kobe. “I think that our corporate office design approach has been the key to our success in Japan.”

Dominique Berthier, chief executive of Berthier Associates, describes the Tokyo market for office interior build-outs — the process of finishing a building that initially comprises only walls and an entrance — as perhaps the most dynamic in the world, given the high concentration of businesses, and the high turnover.

“This market is huge and, of course, attracts a wide range of service providers, so you could describe it as crowded,” says Berthier, whose firm’s Japan portfolio includes turnkey office projects — meaning they are fitted out ready for use — for Peugeot Citroën, the business development consultancy Intralink, the Bahamas Maritime Authority and the US solar power company Pacifico Energy.

Securing contracts in Japan requires an appreciation of design preferences that may not apply in other cities — and plenty of patience.

“A number of non-Japanese firms have managed to enter the market,” Berthier explains. “This requires first an understanding of how things work here. Then to really break into the market is a matter of luck, talent and plenty of hard work.”

Berthier and other foreign designers are united in their dim view of Japan’s outmoded attitude towards workspaces and the prominent involvement of salespeople, rather than designers, when new projects are being discussed with clients.

“It’s sad to see salespeople leading in a process that ultimately spoils spontaneous creativity,” he says.

According to Berthier, many Japanese companies still show little interest in their work environment. For any designer or architect who is committed to fundamental architectural values, it’s impossible to see them as potential customers.

Intralink offices by Berthier Associates Co., Ltd.


“But progressive Japanese corporations or affiliates of multinational companies in Japan that are looking for decent office build-outs are delighted to sign with non-Japanese-owned build-out firms, to the extent they are able to compete technically and commercially with their local counterparts,” he adds.

Astrid Klein, director of Klein Dytham architecture, an internationally renowned architectural firm, bemoans the dominance of big Japanese architectural offices, but believes there is room for more imaginative designs of the kind offered by European firms.

She points to Klein Dytham architecture’s striking overhaul of the Tomamu Towers. The twin buildings — erected during the bubble era — were originally covered in brown tiles, some of which fell off each winter, creating an eyesore amid the natural beauty of central Hokkaido. Now, thanks to Klein, their exteriors bear camouflage designs that complement the seasons.

Too much modern Japanese architecture leans towards the strictly functional, according to Klein, who established Klein Dytham architecture with Mark Dytham — a fellow graduate of the Royal College of Art in London — in Tokyo in 1991.

“The buildings are beautiful and of the highest quality, but in terms of aesthetics there isn’t much that really pulls on the heart strings,” she says.

Responsibility for that failing often lies with the clients, who tend to play it safe with the visions they share with architects.

“But that also works in our favour,” Klein explains. “We have a reputation for thinking outside the box and having a different perspective, doing things in a different way to Japanese architects. Japanese culture tends to resist standing out, but we Europeans like to place more stress on individuality.”

That approach has earned Klein Dytham architecture commissions that have resulted in widely praised buildings, including Tsutaya Books in Daikanyama, TBWA-Hakuhodo’s office in Tokyo’s Shiba district, and Google Japan’s premises in Roppongi.

The haphazard, weakly regulated postwar development of Tokyo and other Japanese cities has resulted in a landscape that some, if they were being very kind, would describe as “eclectic”. But the lack of uniformity can work to the advantage of firms such as Klein Dytham architecture.

“The way Tokyo looks gives you great freedom as a designer,” says Klein. “Of course, there are regulations covering things like earthquakes and fire hazards, but you don’t have the contextual demands of other cities. As an architect, you’re pretty free to express yourself.”

In a city where architectural idiosyncrasy is often hard to spot, Van Der Linden has a refreshing take on his professional mission: “As one of my favourite clients once told me, ‘we want an office that we’re either going to love or hate’.” 

“indirectly, the Olympics have made an enormous difference. They have nudged the Japanese into doing things … that they should have done years ago”