Architecture: Tokyo's New Downtown

In Tokyo's new Suntory Museum Of Art, centuries-old paper screens, ceramics, glassware and Noh costumes are on elegant display under subtle, high-tech lighting in tranquil rooms designed by the renowned architect Kengo Kuma. But as astounding as the building itself, or the dazzling array of ancient Japanese artifacts contained within, is its location: right smack in the middle of Tokyo's bustling Roppongi district, more frequently associated with nightlife and shopping than with high culture.

That is about to change, thanks to the opening of Tokyo Midtown, a new $3 billion 10-hectare complex developed by Mitsui Fudosan on the site of former Japan's Defense Agency head office in the center of the city. The mega-development, modeled after midtown Manhattan, marks a deliberate attempt to add a vibrantly creative component to Japan's thriving economic center. In addition to the Suntory museum, the complex includes the Tokyo Midtown Design Hub and Fujifilm Photo museum and gallery as well as office buildings, many of which have been developed by the world's leading architects. "Through design, we are hoping to show another face of Japan—an economic power—to the world," says architect Tadao Ando, who joined designer Issey Miyake in creating 21_21 Design Sight, a new venue meant to nurture on-site creative collaborations.

Japan has been slow to promote its own art scene. Even during the bubble years of the '80s and '90s, the loose cash went to buy French impressionist masterpieces and build scores of new museums, but not to develop Japanese arts. Now, there is growing awareness that culture is as critical to national identity as economic power. "I think our cities are beginning to mature in a positive sense," says Hiroyuki Suzuki, professor of architecture at Tokyo University. People are starting to recognize that without compelling cultural offerings, opportunities for economic growth will be limited, he says.

No Tokyo district has shown more rapid cultural development than Roppongi. The district's evolution began in 2003 with the Roppongi Hills complex, which includes a huge office building and the contemporary Mori Art Museum. In February, the National Art Center opened nearby, and now the arrival of Tokyo Midtown creates the third leg of what developers are calling the "Art Triangle Roppongi," which is expected to draw growing crowds. There, art lovers can enjoy—on foot—a whole gamut of different scenes from authentic Japanese arts and Western impressionist works to contemporary pieces at the museums and numerous galleries.

The latest enterprise changes the look and raises the esthetic standards of the entire city. When Roppongi Hills opened, it aimed to project a sleek, international image. Tokyo Midtown, by contrast, has taken as its theme "Japanese values," meaning the commercial space is full of native wooden materials, traditional washi papers and plenty of bamboo. The color schemes are tightly controlled; even the colors of corporate logos on storefronts are adjusted to conform to the entire ambience. Compared with Roppongi Hills' vast but complex structure, Tokyo Midtown is marked by simplicity and consistency. Tokyo Midtown project manager Tetsuya Matsufuji says that the development intentionally avoided lining up "mega-brand names" as tenants because they have already saturated Tokyo. Instead it sought originality, says Matsufuji, and compiled an intriguing collection of stylish, quirky shops and restaurants. Among them: THE COVER NIPPON, a lifestyle store that sells food, furniture and household goods made in various parts of Japan.

Midtown has already stolen some of the cachet away from Roppongi Hills. Soon after its opening, the Hills earned a reputation as the home for "the winners" like Goldman Sachs and hot young companies. That power image was severely tarnished, however, by the arrests early last year of a maverick "new economy" CEO and a high-profile activist fund operator, on separate charges. Presumably as a result, some tenants at Midtown say, the screening process for admittance was tightened. Yahoo Japan Co., a key tenant, moved part of its office from the Hills to Midtown, prompting speculation that the company was trying to disassociate from the scandals in the Hills. (Yahoo Japan Co. denies such speculation, saying only that it needed more office space. In any case, Shoji Tanaka, a Tokyo real-estate appraiser, says there is no shortage of tenants at Roppongi Hills).

The emergence of Tokyo Midtown underscores Japan's economic revival. When a consortium led by Mitsui Fudosan bought the vast property hoping to reignite Tokyo, Japan was still mired in deflation and skepticism abounded. In just five years, however, a posh new Ritz-Carlton hotel rose on the land and the area's property prices increased sixfold. Some property markets are now back to levels that are worrying even some bears. Japan's Land Agency announced that in March property prices nationwide—not just in urban areas—rose for the first time in 16 years. Some urban development experts now expect that Midtown will restore growth without blowing a new price bubble. And they are hoping that a new Manhattan of Tokyo will spur changes in the face of the Tokyo landscape to make it as diverse as the real Manhattan is.