When Jun Aoki's new building, SIA Aoyama, opened in Tokyo earlier this year, it wasn't immediately obvious who the tenants were. Standing 60 meters tall, the smooth all-white tower looked as if it might be apartments or offices or a hotel. And there was something slightly off-kilter about its design: Instead of conventional wraparound windows, Aoki had created large, square punch-out windows of varying sizes that didn't seem to line up. From outside, it's difficult to tell where each level begins and ends. "It looks like an 18-story building, but because each floor has 6-meter-high ceilings, it's only 9," says the 52-year-old Aoki. "I like the gap between appearance and reality."
On Nov. 6 the building earned Jun Aoki & Associates one of this year's 15 Good Design Gold prizes, Japan's top design award. The prize committee, appointed by the government-funded Japan Industrial Design Promotion Organization, praised Aoki for a plan that "breaks away from the typical notion of what an office building should look like."
The SIA Aoyama doesn't jump out at you the way the buildings of Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid do. You wouldn't notice it, for instance, if you were a half block away on the main thoroughfare that connects Tokyo's hip Omotesando and Shibuya districts. And on a recent weekday afternoon, hardly anyone walking by it stopped to look.Blending In
That's fine with Aoki. He didn't want the monolith to seem too out of place in a neighborhood of homes and low-slung offices. So he gave the building rounded corners and chose a white paint that had a splash of purple and gray mixed in and didn't cast a glare in sunlight. "We thought its proportions should fall somewhere between that of an apartment and office," he says.
The tower is a shift for Aoki, whose six Louis Vuitton shops in Japan, New York, and Hong Kong have won him admiration abroad. His first shop for the luggage maker, in the central Japanese city of Nagoya, set the tone for the others: They have a box-within-a-box appearance that Aoki created by layering glass windows with other materials. But the similarities end there. Another, built in 2002 in Tokyo's Omotesando district, has a metal mesh curtain covering its glass facade and resembles several pieces of luggage stacked on top of each other. In the swank Roppongi Hills shopping area, he designed a shop where the Louis Vuitton sign is a clever combination of polished steel, glass tubes, and glass windows and resembles a hologram. "Aoki is the most intellectual architect in Japan," says Taro Igarashi, an architect and a professor at Tohoku University's graduate school of engineering. "His designs are playful…and there are many hidden tricks to his work."
Aoki seems unfazed by all the attention he's gotten lately. A diminutive man with a mustache and John Lennon glasses, he is disarmingly courteous. And unlike Japan's older generation of "starchitects" whose uniform was collarless button-down shirts, Aoki prefers to rough it. He showed up for an interview in worn jeans, a black long-sleeved shirt and a leather newsboy cap.
Aoki went into business for himself in the early '90s after spending 17 years working under architect Arata Isozaki. His timing couldn't have been worse. Japan's economic bubble had just imploded, and businesses and land developers were more interested in slashing costs than trying to add to Tokyo's skyline. The resulting recession had a profound influence on his work, which ranges from homes and offices to a museum, a bridge, and an aquarium. "During the bubble years, a lot of money was spent on buildings that were merely different," says Aoki.