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Shibuya 109: Tokyo’s tower of girl power at 30

Minoru Takeyama
Minoru Takeyama in front of Shibuya 109

TOKYO (TR) – In any panoramic photograph of Shibuya’s always busy crossing, a structure likely positioned prominently in the background will be the part-wedge-shaped, part-cylindrical Shibuya 109 building. The teen district of Shibuya is continually in flux, with trends and stores coming and going by the week, but the outer silver sheen and bright-red “Shibuya 109” script that characterizes this landmark has endured, with this year marking its 30th anniversary.

“The crowd pours from Shibuya Station and moves outward in many directions,” says architect Minoru Takeyama during an interview at a coffee shop across the street from his creation. “The 109 building is at a corner of a major intersection. The idea is for the flow from the station to move around the curve of the cylinder.”

But each day thousands of young female pedestrians, in fact, step inside to peruse its 10 floors of clothing boutiques and restaurants, a phenomena so pronounced that this structure has become a launching pad for teen fashion.

This flow, however, might divert somewhat later this year with the opening just up the street of an outlet of Swedish retailer Hennes & Mauritz. H&M last year established its first two Tokyo stores in Ginza and Harajuku, where the clothing giant is attempting to attract a 20s and 30s clientele with its reasonably priced fashions. Three decades ago, Tokyu, the owner of 109, had similar ambitions.

“At the time, Tokyu had its Tokyu Hands hardware store there,” says the Sapporo native, who opened his Tokyo office in 1964 and chose his career path after watching “The Fountainhead,” a 1949 film in which Gary Cooper plays an architect struggling to maintain integrity. “I was asked to create a building for a younger generation. Demographic groups are very segmented, and we were targeting the early-30s female, not the teenager, since older women will consume more.”

From the opening in April 1979, Tokyu wanted to create a “Fashion Community,” as the red writing atop the tube initially read, to counter the actions of conglomerate Seibu, which had made substantial commercial inroads in the area. The commission came to Takeyama after the project had already started as Tokyu was displeased with the original design’s overall appearance. “They gave me a free hand to do anything I liked,” the 74-year-old architect remembers.

The exterior of 109, whose name is taken from the Japanese characters to (meaning 10) and kyu (9), reflects Takeyama’s postmodern and avant- garde origins, which he developed while studying and working in the United States and Europe more than four decades ago. Similar to his Transformer-like Ichibankan tower in Shinjuku’s entertainment district of Kabukicho, 109 has its cylindrical twin elevator shaft on the outside. Parallel to the sidewalks on either side, the plain, aluminum sheet-covered walls of the main building streak away from the station, certainly a contrast to the nearby environment of brash video screens and lit signs.

As is typical of a large department store, the pedestrian circulation pattern on each floor was intended to proceed in a loop from the elevator to the various shops. Initial designs called for a theater to be placed on the roof, Takeyama explains, but the fire department would not grant approval due to emergency- evacuation routes not meeting appropriate standards.

Part of the elevator hall was devised to function as an exhibit space for paintings and sculpture — in order to appeal to the female sensibility — a concept that was quashed not long after the building opened. Interior color patterns, too, were intended to attract women but those have since been replaced. “The owners were very confident about planning the stores themselves,” says Takeyama. “They didn’t really listen to me.”

Evolving clientele

Over the years, the clientele of 109 has evolved. Observers will note that the building was the mecca for the famous gyaru subculture — typified by girls with dark fake tans, bleached hair and a colorful fashion sense — for more than a decade, but today it attracts a wider group of young females who buy inexpensive yet trendy domestic brands.

“Young women flock to 109 because it speaks to them directly,” explains W. David Marx, chief editor of MEKAS., a Web site covering the Japanese fashion market. “The clothes are affordable, perfectly follow Japanese trends, are made for the Japanese body, and the staff members are like helpful big sisters.”

To walk through the complex today is to see consumerism collide with the nightclub. Thumping dance music greets shoppers in nearly every store, packed with shiny platform shoes, fake-fur coats or leopard-print dresses. The Cecil McBee outlet has black padded walls and reflective silver trim to go with its micro miniskirts and plaid jackets, and the rose-accentuated bags and tops at Pinky Girls makes every day feel like Feb. 14.

Roland Kelts, author of “Japanamerica,” a study of Japanese pop culture’s impact on the United States, believes 109 serves a crucial function in this sprawling metropolis of few genuine landmarks: “With its nearly windowless steel facade and sleek lipstick-phallic thrust…the building’s iconographic presence instantly serves the fantasies of those who may never visit the physical Tokyo.”

109 has truly become an international symbol for Tokyo youth. The structure has appeared in Toho Studios’ monster film “Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris” and as the subject of a song by J-Pop group AKB48. Its first-floor plaza is a prime meeting spot that hosts makeup exhibitions and dance shows.

The floor plan could have been even larger. During 109’s initial stages, a problem arose when a triangular pocket of land next to the site could not be purchased by Tokyu. Takeyama says that it was hoped that the owner’s son (who went on to inherit the property) would be more agreeable during negotiations.

Takeyama’s design took into account this potential future acquisition by making it easy for beams to span the gap on each floor so that the existing walls could be demolished and the structure expanded to become symmetrical with its opposite side. “But he was stubborn,” the architect says of the son. “The father’s wishes were inherited as well.”

For years, a small structure and a tree stood next to 109 until the site was finally developed into a separate commercial building. Its first-floor unit today specializes in women’s leggings.

What shape H&M’s Shibuya outlet will take, and the effect it will have on 109, is hardly clear; the foreign retailer’s start in Tokyo has been a success thus far, with lengthy lines greeting each store opening. But, like most of Tokyo, this area incessantly shifts with the times. The Shibuya Piccadilly film theater, which opened in 1985 and is located in the adjacent The Prime building, will close later this month. Yamada Denki last September opened an eight-floor LABI electronics store between 109 and the proposed H&M site. Takeyama believes such evolution is part of the urban dynamic of Tokyo: “This part of downtown is always changing.”

Note: This report originally appeared in the Japan Times on January 22, 2009.