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28 Sept 2017 / by Kengo Kuma

Architect Kengo Kuma Remembers Tokyo’s Soon-to-be-Demolished Sony Building

The Sony building at night has its windows lit up in alternating colours of red, blue and yellow. The Sony logo is lit up in neon at the top.

The Sony Building at night. © Sony Corporation

M+ curators recently had to spring into action to acquire fragments of Tokyo’s iconic Sony Building, completed in 1966 by Japanese architect Ashihara Yoshinobu (1918—2003), before its demolition as part of the Ginza Sony Park Project in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Thanks to a quick response and a generous donation from Sony, M+ was able to acquire several components of the building: a section of the aluminium louvres from the facade, some of the original hexagonal ceiling tiles, and a piece of the marble core-column from the center of the building.

The Sony Building, located in the heart of Ginza, has been a symbol of Japan’s post-World War II recovery and economic boom for over fifty years. To reflect on the building’s legacy, we invited celebrated Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who was a student of Ashihara, to share his personal memories of the building here on M+ Stories.

A construction worker is holding onto a portion of aluminium louvres that is being lifted off the side of a building by a crane.

A section of the building’s aluminium louvres is taken down. © Ginza Sony Park Project

Kengo Kuma: Japanese post-war architecture is arguably epitomised by architect Tange Kenzo (1913—2005). Tange designed the Yoyogi National Stadium for the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964, which became a symbol of Japan’s post-war industrialisation and high economic growth. It was overwhelmingly striking to a ten-year-old boy’s mind, and inspired me to study architecture.

However, in reality, I was a far more frequent visitor to the Sony Building in Ginza, which was completed in 1966 by architect Ashihara Yoshinobu, two years after the Yoyogi National Stadium. It was simply more fun, and I believe I subconsciously learned a lot from it.

The relationship between the floor and the ground, for example. The building’s spiralling floor levels rose as an extension from the ground. While modernist architects in America, such as Marcel Breuer, also used closely-spaced split-level floors to create a spiral circulation, Ashihara added a humanistic ambience, reminiscent of Japanese streets, to realise the Sony building.

Looking up at the side of a building with vertical aluminium louvres going all the way up. The sky is grey and overcast.

The aluminium louvres on the Sony Building’s facade. © Ginza Sony Park Project

The use of elegant aluminium louvres cladding the façade also characterises Ashihara’s remarkable style, contrasting with Tange’s powerful concrete forms. Again, Ashihara combined Le Corbusier’s solid concrete brise-soleil with the lightness of a Japanese wooden lattice. His airy louvres had a profile that determined, through meticulous calculation, how to let light through in the most efficient way. I learned this from Ashihara himself when I attended university.

Looking back on it today, Ashihara was the architect who bridged the gap between the ‘tough Japan of an industrialised society’ exemplified by Tange Kenzo, and the ‘soft and genial Japan of a post-industrialised society’ that we are currently living in. It is not an exaggeration to say that it was thanks to Ashihara that contemporary Japanese architecture was able to enter this new state.

Perhaps I was drawn by this scent of a new era when I kept going to Ginza as an elementary-school boy, to play with the ‘Do Re Mi’ musical scale steps[1] of the Sony building.

The large Ginza crossing, seen from above, is surrounded by tall buildings on all sides.

The Sony Building in the Ginza district. © Ginza Sony Park Project

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Kengo Kuma is an architect and a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Tokyo. His architectural projects include the Suntory Museum of Art and Nezu Museum, both in Tokyo, the Great (Bamboo) Wall house outside Beijing, and, as part of a joint venture, the forthcoming National Stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

  1. 1.

    The Sony building had a staircase, popular amongst children, that played musical notes on a ‘Do Re Mi’ scale as one ascended and descended its steps.

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