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If Tetsuya Matsufuji looks weary as he sits in his office, it is because this week is the climax of four years as project manager of Tokyo Midtown, the newest and tallest shopping, office and residential development in Tokyo. Covering 10 hectares, costing over €2.3bn, and built by a consortium led by Japan’s biggest property developer Mitsui Fudosan (Mitsui real estate), it contains hundreds of apartments, thousands of square metres of office space, Tokyo’s tallest tower, a Ritz-Carlton hotel and a museum of art.

As head of the commercial zone, Matsufuji’s job was to find an original selection of shops and restaurants in a city with the best shopping and dining in the world. In the last five years, large-scale developments like Midtown have opened around Tokyo, all offering high-end retail – one of the best known, Roppongi Hills opened in 2003, just half a mile away.

Matsufuji has assembled what he hopes will be an irresistible mix of quality and novelty, whether it’s the first store in the world for the fashion label hLam or a cake shop from Toshi Yoroizuka, Japan’s first-ever three-Michelin-starred pâtissier.

Monocle:The shops and restaurants in Tokyo Midtown are a select group. Tell me about the original idea behind the Tokyo Midtown Shopping Centre.

Tetsuya Matsufuji: There are department stores in Tokyo that provide for high-end urban living, but only when it comes to fashion. There’s nowhere else that gives the same treatment to beauty, interiors, design, restaurants, food and the rest. We focused on this. It’s not about people with money, it’s about people in Tokyo who have a sense of discernment. They work hard and also enjoy their leisure – they are busy, active people. These are the people we want to cater for.

M:How did you choose the restaurants?

TM: We didn’t want the usual franchise restaurants. I chose chefs who own their own restaurants. The keyword is authenticity. We have everything from Japanese to Western. Take Tanetsu, for example – a Japanese restaurant where you sit at a long lacquer counter and they cook a big fish in front of you. Foreign visitors will love it.

M:You have a whole floor of design and interiors stores – that’s something new for a Tokyo shopping centre isn’t it?

TM: Interior goods have become very important for fashion-minded people who live in Japanese city centres. Until now, fashionable Japanese were very keen on brand names like Louis Vuitton and Hermès – but only for clothing and bags. That was how it was from the 1970s right up until the turn of the century. What you find now, is people in Japan who want to be fashionable in all aspects of their life, including interiors. We’re providing shopping for that breed of people.

M:You’ve devoted another floor to menswear, everything from Richard James to Cruciani cashmere. Is that unusual in Japan?

TM: Very unusual! The term “metrosexual” never made it to Japan, but fashion has become a part of Japanese men’s lives. Working men, particularly in this area [of central Tokyo], are more aware of fashion and lifestyle. It made sense to offer them a full selection of menswear.

M:There’s a lot more of a Japanese atmosphere to Midtown than to other Tokyo developments, say, Shiodome and Roppongi Hills. Was this a conscious decision?

TM: Yes, but it is not “Ye Olde Japan” – we didn’t want it to end up being a theme park. What we’re doing is incorporating traditional Japanese elements and adapting them to contemporary design. For example, we’ve got terracotta tiles inspired by shoji [traditional sliding paper screens] and the gate to the shopping area is based on a Japanese torii [Shinto shrine gate], 18m tall and 6m wide. The design of shopping centres tends to be lavish, but we’ve gone for something more dignified. The shops are the most important thing; the rest is just a frame.

M:Who designed the retail area?

TM: An American company called Communication Arts in Boulder, Colorado. The designer, Taku Shimizu, is Japanese. He’s interested in Japanese architecture. and studied in the States. He then went to learn about traditional Japanese architecture under a miyadaiku, a special carpenter who builds shrines and temples. We wanted a designer like him who knows what’s happening in world architecture, but also understands the essence of Japanese architecture. He was one of the reasons we went with Communication Arts. I hope he’ll forgive me for saying this, but he’s not a well-known designer. This is a town with a lot of superstars.

M:Yes, the other architects involved in Midtown are all heavy-hitters – Chicago-based Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) and a line-up of top Japanese architects.

TM: Yes, they are very famous, like SOM who designed the Freedom Tower after September 11, and Tadao Ando. We decided that SOM would design the main building and control the overall design and then we asked other architects to contribute. Communication Arts specialises in designing commercial spaces, which was very important – retail design can’t just look good, it has to be functional. Tadao Ando was an obvious choice, because we wanted to build a single-storey structure. We loved his Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, and although we wanted a design centre and not a museum, our building had similar features – greenery, partly set underground. It had to be him.

M:Did the architects work together?

TM: Sometimes it was difficult. Everybody has their own way of doing things and they had to work within SOM’s design plan, without losing their identity. They got along well – most of the time [laughing]. There were problems. We had different zones – office, commercial, business and residential – so coordinating all of those was the most difficult trick.

M:What have you done to make Midtown appealing to visitors?

TM: First, we tried to make the buildings as varied and interesting as possible. Then we put art works at different spots, 19 big public art pieces for people to enjoy. We installed high quality speakers and amplifiers, not ones usually used in a commercial zone, so that the music sounds better. We’ve done other things like writing original songs – there’ll be two new ones every month. Of course, the stars are the shops. If the shops are a pleasure, the whole thing is enjoyable.

M:Has it turned out as you wanted?

TM: Pretty much. This project was built by a large company and from a company point of view, I am satisfied. Of course, as an individual, I had to compromise. Some things I did as I wanted and some things I had to let go. So, from a personal point of view, it’s close to what I wanted.

M:Large-scale Japanese projects always seem to finish on time and within budget – how do you do it?

TM: Mitsui Fudosan has a reputation for finishing its projects on time, but it’s not only us. All Japanese construction and design companies stick to their schedules. Maybe it’s cultural.

M:The former Defence Agency site was an unusual opportunity – 10 hectares of land in the middle of Tokyo. Did other developers want to get their hands on it?

TM: Yes. There was a bidding process. The price was very high at the time – and remember this was after the bubble period when the market had dropped – but compared to now, it seems relatively cheap. It was expensive, but the executives at Mitsui Fudosan thought the land was valuable.

M:Were you nervous about the price of the land?

TM: People around us kept asking: why did you pay so much? The Mitsui Fudosan executives and people who were involved in the Midtown project were very confident, but at the time even people within the company were concerned.

M:Can Tokyo sustain any more of these giant developments?

TM: Our work is to keep renovating; we leave the good parts as they are and change things that we need to. We’re making the city more attractive. Good developments last, bad ones don’t.

M:How did you attract tenants?

TM: The office spaces are 95 per cent occupied and I think rental values will go up. Konami is our biggest tenant. Others such as SoftBank are expanding and they’ll have offices here as well as in Roppongi Hills. It wasn’t my job to fill the office space [which runs to 184,000 sq m] but I could talk to tenants about the plus points of being in Midtown – access to the restaurants in the commercial zone and catering and delivery services, for example.

M:Is Tokyo Midtown environmentally friendly?

TM: We thought long and hard about that issue. In the main building blinds sense the direction of the sunlight and move accordingly, so we use less energy for lighting inside. Also, the angles of eaves depend on the direction of the sun.

M:What’s next for you?

TM: Personally, I’d like to build an onsen [hot spring] in the States. A Japanese inn in the US. I’d love to do that.

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