High Drama, Part 2: History lives again at Marunouchi Park Building

Completed in 2009, the 34-story Marunouchi Park Building looks right at home in Tokyo’s 21st-century skyline. It houses the headquarters of Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metals Corp., as well as part of the headquarters of the Mitsubishi Corp.

But it’s not just another shiny glass high-rise. When you approach it on foot, your first impression is likely to be of old-fashioned red bricks, hearkening back to the Meiji era (1868-1912). In her book “Meiji Revisited: The Sites of Victorian Japan,” the late architectural historian Dallas Finn wrote that the Meiji government invited a number of Western architects to Japan in the 1870s to share their techniques with Japanese builders – with “the clear understanding that they were to train their pupils as quickly as possible and leave.”

One who managed to stick around was Josiah Conder of Britain, who arrived in 1877 and “proved too valuable and well-liked to hustle away,” remaining in Japan until his death in 1920. Conder’s projects included private houses for the Iwasaki family, who founded Mitsubishi, and he became the favorite architect of Mitsubishi President Yanosuke Iwasaki, who hired him to design the company’s Tokyo headquarters.

The result was the Mitsubishi Ichigokan, a red brick building of three rather tall stories meant to evoke Victorian London. Completed in 1894, it became the nucleus of the Marunouchi business district, which covers a vast tract of land that Iwasaki had purchased from the government in 1890.

In her 1995 book, Finn lamented that the Mitsubishi Ichigokan no longer existed, having been torn down in the 1960s.

But there it is!

When the Marunouchi Park Building went up in 2009, the Mitsubishi Ichigokan was resurrected. It now functions primarily as an art museum. According to the museum’s website, it was re-created according to Conder’s original plans, and even includes a few bits and pieces of the old building, such as staircase handrails.

The historic structure has an L-shaped footprint occupying the southeast corner of one city block, with the modern office tower taking up most of the remaining ground. Between them is a garden filled with fountains, greenery and outdoor sculpture. It is arranged in such a way that you can neither walk straight through it nor see one end from the other when you enter, which makes it feel much more spacious than it really is. Underground, there is a restaurant arcade laid out in a similar winding pattern. In its public areas, this place feels more like a resort than an office complex.

The office tower gets larger as it goes up, so three massive support columns come down near — or right into — the garden. They are camouflaged by being covered in greenery. One of them also pierces the walkway underground, where it is decorated with rings of lights.

In the 1890s, the Mitsubishi Ichigokan was the very model of a modern major office building – and so is the Marunouchi Park Building. With features such as 60 kilowatts worth of solar panels on the roof and a rainwater recycling system in the garden, it became the first building to qualify for the Development Bank of Japan’s Green Building certification.

— Tom Baker

Japan News Staff Writer