The developers of this new Japanese high-rise took a chance by adding green building elements to their design. With nearly full tenancy on opening last month, these pioneers have blazed a sustainable trail for others to follow.
A recent visitor to Tokyo would find it hard to believe that 19th Century Westerners marveled at the city's wooded landscapes crisscrossed by tree-lined rivers and canals. Unlike the filth and pollution that plagued contemporary cities like New York and Liverpool, Tokyo residents shared an intimacy with nature in the very heart of the city. Images of this lush urban landscape on the Sumida River were captured by the famous woodblock artists of the era and brought home as envious proof of what Western cities had lost.
Well, that was then. Today, Tokyo is a vast sea of concrete and glass. It has more than caught up with the Western style of urbanization. Except for the few parks that were carved out of nobleman estates, there is very little nature left. Tokyo Bay, on which the city is perched, is entirely surrounded by port activity and offers virtually no public enjoyment. Even the vast system of canals that could have made Tokyo the Venice of the East, have been covered by elevated highways. There are so many people, so many cars and so many buildings, that the climate has been permanently altered. Despite major efforts to reduce auto emissions, Tokyoites live in a toxic microclimate made worse by elevated temperatures.
Against this background, my Tokyo partner and myself were presented with an opportunity. The World Trade Center licensing group in Japan together with the Meidensha real estate division had been planning a major new office tower on one of the last easily accessible and large properties in an area of Tokyo called Osaki. The chosen site, a former manufacturing area, is on the main Yamanote rail line ringing central Tokyo and was considered an ideal location for urban infill by city planners. There was only one problem: 9/11.
Just as final plans were underway, the twin towers in New York were destroyed and with it any realistic plan to link the identity of the New York World Trade Center with a World Trade Center in Tokyo. For any number of reasons — ghosts, karma, bad memories — the owners wanted a new direction and a new name. As our luck would have it, their newly hired project manager had been a former client of our brand consulting services. We had established a reputation for thinking outside the box, and that's what he wanted — or that's what he 'thought' he wanted.
My partner, Sy Chen, had been a longtime fan of the Urban Land Institute and their writings on environmentally sensible building. I have been a dedicated environmentalist waiting for an opportunity to preach the benefits green urbanism. This was an ideal opportunity for both of us. So, despite the fact that we knew the client was simply looking for a quick fix to a name problem, we pitched and eventually sold them a total brand repositioning.
We argued that Japan was changing. It had been an industrial powerhouse, but was now outsourcing most of its manufacturing. The site of the project was a perfect example. It had been the location of one of the largest and most polluting factories in central Tokyo, but now it was to be home to new high-tech and medical science firms. 'Thinking' had overtaken 'making' as a primary source of Japan's GNP. And because Tokyo and its suburbs are home to 20% of the country's population, the environment, especially the local urban environment, had become a hot-button issue of concern. To offset the enormous cost of land and construction that have made it virtually impossible to provide privately owned open space, the City was now offering tax breaks to developers who would bring a little Edo-style nature back to a sprawling megalopolis.
We argued that the Osaki project gave the owners an opportunity to identify with two emerging trends. They could simultaneously celebrate Japan's embrace of the Information Age as well as the sensible development practices associated with Green Urbanism. To illustrate this, I created the name, ThinkPark, and the project catchphrase, Where Ideas Grow. It was not an easy sell. It took nearly eight months for the owners to warm up to the idea, and it didn't help that ThinkPark is pronounced 'sinku-parku' in Japlish. But initial feedback from City officials and prospective tenants was positive. Eventually, the owners agreed. Then came the hard part of convincing them to put the words into actions.
At 30 stories and 461 feet, the ThinkPark Tower had been nearly completely designed by the time we joined the project. Nikken Sekkei, the Japanese project architects, proposed a high-rise that would echo the style of Minoru Yamasaki's familiar but now vanished Trade Center towers in New York. Already designed into the project were some advanced but invisible energy saving systems, including thermal-glass that regulates solar heat absorption, occupant sensors that automatically turn off lights when rooms are empty, and ultra-high efficiency HVAC systems. And, of course, the site is at the crossroads of several major public transportation routes, so the need for wasteful car parking space was radically reduced. Nevertheless, the only area where we could bring the Green Urbanism concept to life where it would be noticed was in the ground level public spaces. To help with the task, we hired Neil Denari, a Los Angeles-based architect known for his futurist designs. We asked Neil to design a 'forest' that would act as a buffer between the Osaki business district and the tower. It would be a place that would feel like a park but provide the control and security needed for a large commercial office complex. I christened the area, The Thought Forest.
It generated a lot more than thought. Nikken Sekkei's authority had been challenged, so they came back with their own version of a park. After the bruised egos were resolved, a plan emerged that would provide a park-like apron at the base of the tower complete with a shopping area and a public commons. Although this may not seem like much, dedicating 20% of the lot to green space in a city like Tokyo was largely unheard of before ThinkPark.
So, it's the trees, an unusual amount of publicly accessible green space, preferential bicycle parking, proximity to public transportation and enhanced energy efficiency that have combined to help ThinkPark live up to its name. There's even a kid-sized soccer field designed to serve local families and a public WiFi Digital Lounge to encourage the free-flow of ideas. But I don't think these are the most important things. ThinkPark has served as a harbinger for more sustainable, earth-friendly building in Japan. And while there are certainly other examples of green building design in Japan, ThinkPark is one of the first examples of a large, commercial structure taking the environment and tenant health into consideration in the overall plan.
The facility, which was over ninety percent leased prior to completion, was opened to the public last month.
A version of this article first appeared at SustainableBusiness.com.
Originally written on December 21, 2007
Rick Seireeni is a graduate of the University of Washington Department of Architecture. He has been Associate Art Director of Rolling Stone Magazine, Senior Art Director of Warner Bros. Records and Creative Director at Carabiner International and Enterprise IG. He is currently a Brand Strategist for SeireeniChinn and President of The Brand Architect Group.