by Henry Scott Stokes

I have just attended the largest scale press conference I have ever seen in Japan. It was put on by Mori Building, as a pre-opening event for their Roppongi Hills develop­ment—the biggest urban project in the history of this country.

How does that grab you? The nation is in the doldrums, the stock market is in the pits, real estate prices are in the basement—and here comes a Rocky Center-style opening.

I have been covering the Roppongi Hills project since what feels like the beginning of time. I was in at the creation, as far as I am concerned, in that Mr. Minoru Mori, the progenitor of this scheme, showed me and a friend visiting from London a scale model of the development back in the fall of 1996.

But listening to the presenta­tions at the press conference held inside the Mori Tower, the main building at Roppongi Hills, on Thursday, Dec. 5, made me realize afresh that actually the ground was prepared for this giant effort long ago, much further back, starting in the mid-1980s. Mori Building start­ed to buy properties in the Roppongi 6-chome section in earnest in the mid-1980s, and that was also the time when they went to confer with the Tokyo govern­ment in extenso, on how the proj­ect would shape up, where the roads would go, how tall the build­ings would be, and so on.

“We had to go and talk to those officials about the plan so many, many times,” recalled Mr. Kazuhiko Yamamoto, managing director of Mori Building, speaking to the press conference.

I mentioned a moment ago that it was the largest press gather­ing I have ever seen in Japan. Yes, my experience goes back to 1964— to the time of the Tokyo Olympics, and I can honestly say that it was the biggest such event I have partic­ipated in, outranking the turnout at the time of the opening of the Olympics.

There were, roughly, 400 peo­ple, and they were mostly writers and magazine people. The gather­ing was not inflated by also-rans and the P.R. people and the rest. No, these were bona fide press types. I saw numerous fellow hacks there. So the question is: What drew them there? To that there turned out to be a simple answer, much simpler than I, in my wis­dom, had guessed.

It was to see the building and to see the project from the roof of the Mori Tower.

“I want to get up on the roof,” said Motooki Kobayashi, a senior editor on a Tokyo magazine, once the press conference was over—it lasted for a full 75 minutes. The roof! Well, that’s a swell idea, I thought, let’s go.

It is only when you are up there, that the vastness of the whole comes to you. From 55 floors— even on a peculiarly overcast day— you see how everything spreads out and around on the ground. You can see a bit of that from ground level, but you have to get up on top, out in the fresh air, to see what’s going on.

Essentially, they’ve scooped into what turns out to be the heart of Tokyo, they’ve sunk the deep foundation piles, and they’ve cut the new roads—all as approved by the Tokyo government—and they are ending up with a focused core that promises to be the live hub of all Tokyo for years, if not genera­tions to come.

There’s the TV Asahi complex at the heart of it—a lovely building by Fumihiko Maki, lean and curv­ing. There’s the new Grand Hyatt Tokyo Hotel, and there’s the Mori Art Museum to go right at the top of the main tower, just under that roof that we all paraded out onto, wearing our white hard hats.

You can’t find a combination like this—with the cultural ele­ments acting as a yeast on the whole, adding on to the office space and to the new blocks of flats— anywhere else in Japan.

Right at the end of the press conference Mr. Mori, 67, went a lot further than that. He said that his project has no matching counterpart in London, Paris or New York.

It is a world first, he claimed. I wonder, I would put Roppongi Hills on a par with Rockefeller Center, as a focus of national ener­gies that serves as a beacon in hard times—as a reminder in a recession that life will go on.

Essentially, that is what Mr. Mori has in mind in pioneering Roppongi Hills. He is a public spir­ited chap, who hopes that he can chip in a contribution to society. That was the spirit in which the Rockefellers projected their Rocky Center in the early 1930s, the pit of the depression in America. Something was required to cheer people up. It worked.

Roppongi Hills will work, I am sure. Mr. Mori and his people have hit solid gold. The key to it all, I would say, is the Mori Art Museum, up on the 52nd and 53rd floors of the main tower.

The opening exhibition to be held there is titled “Happiness,” and it is being curated by Pier Luigitazzi from Italy and under him Sunhee Kim from Korea. The former, a friend of friends, was brought in to do this first exhibi­tion by David Elliott, the British director of the museum. The flavor is international from the word GO.

Have you ever heard of such a thing in Japan? A prestige project that is put in the hands of non-Japanese from the word go? Well, that is how it is going to be when the time comes round for that first exhibition, to open in the autumn of 2003.

“Happiness,” did someone say? I asked Mr. Luigitazzi about that title.

Well, he responded, as we stood in an elevator bringing us down from the roof to the 40th floor, is there anything wrong with “happiness?” The world has changed, he said. We no longer inhabit an earth where Europe and America call the cultural shots. “It’s more of an archipelago today,” he said, meaning that different parts of the world jibe together, in concert, rather than any particular region serving to dominate the rest. Japan is not in the shadow of the West any more.

Everything is free form, in other words.

I look forward to “Happiness.” I see no reason to be gloomy about Tokyo, nor the world at large.

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