Have you ever heard somebody confuse the words “modern” and “western”? It’s a very unsettling experience. Perhaps because it seems to come not from any maliciousness or intentionality per se, but from a deeply subconscious assumption that anything cutting edge must be western in origin.
Deconstructing the Discourse of Westernization
Superficially, the steel and glass structure of Mori Tower contrasts with the wooden construction techniques of traditional Japan, and I have heard it’s overall appearance cited as evidence of Japan becoming Westernized (never mind that the trademark of traditional Western architecture is masonry, not steel+glass.)
However, for those willing to look past the superficial, examining the function instead of the form, it is clear that the spiritual predecessor of Roppongi Hills is the “mixed-use, compact city” at Ark Hills completed in 1986. The key functional element is a combination of ground floor attractions and upper floor condos. It would be 20-30 years before this model reached America, with representative cases being Barclays Center, Hudson Yards, and The Americana at Brand.
“ARK Hills, which celebrated its 20th birthday in 2006, was Japan’s first large-scale private redevelopment project incorporating office and residential functions with a host of other facilities including a hotel and a concert hall. The concept of a mixed-use, compact city finally came to fruition in 1986, after 17 years of labor, and was the forerunner of all subsequent Hills projects, which are based on the principles of bringing work and residences in closer proximity”
“Mixed-use” was never an explicit theme of the Japanese or any other architectural tradition. Rather, it was the default of all traditions prior to the era of car-centrism. However, at this current point in time, it has become a distinctly Japanese phenomenon, due to the divergent trajectory (ガラパゴス現象) of Japanese urbanism over the last 100 years (maintaining walking, biking, and rail as the primary modes of transportation, in contrast to wholesale capitulation to the automobile most everywhere else).
Roman Cybriwsky describes the subtle ways in which Roppongi Hills reproduces traditional Japanese architecture:
“I leave readers with Yamaguchi’s paintings of Roppongi Hills […] the iconic joka machi (castle town) had been turned into Mori’s town. Instead of the iconic donjon and its soaring gabled roofs, there was Mori Tower rising from within its own fortified honmaru (central bailey), exerting confident authority over the crowded and sprawling town below. And instead of the slate-roofed wooden houses and narrow lanes of historic urban Japan, Yamaguchi has painted the vernacular of today’s city: multistoried apartment and condominium buildings, shops, highways and traffic, underpasses, overpasses, rooftop gardens and rooftop air conditioning units, construction cranes, power lines and utility poles […]”
~Roppongi Crossing, 2011
Those final lines are echoed in the Guardian’s analysis of Roppongi Hills:
“Whether intended or not, this complex mimics the maze-like quality of many old Tokyo neighbourhoods.”