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The Tokyo skyline of 2017 looks quite different from that of 2001—the year in which the twin towers of Atago Green Hills joined ARK Hills in the portfolio of Mori Building Co., Ltd. and kicked off a string of high-rise projects that have transformed Minato Ward. It was the vision of the late Minoru Mori to change the way we live and work through his concept of the Vertical Garden City. A year before his passing in 2012, Mori handed the torch to then-Vice President Shingo Tsuji. In this exclusive interview, his first with an English-language publication, Tsuji explains the importance of “Mori Buildingism” and outlines the developer’s plans for the next decade.

Tsuji sat down with The ACCJ Journal at Mori Building Co., Ltd. headquarters in Roppongi Hills Mori Tower.

In 2011, you took over as President and CEO from Minoru Mori. What has changed since then and how are you carrying his thoughts and philosophy forward?

Mr. Mori had a very strong vision and philosophy—one in which I believe strongly. Since his death, we have continued to carry his philosophy with us in everything we do. I believe we must make sure that his vision is always with us.

I think it is important to express our philosophy and vision—which I call “Mori Buildingism”—to our employees and to others using simple words so that concept is easily understood.

It is our style, our philosophy, our attitude, and so I have coined this term. I think for something to be called an “-ism,” there needs to be a distinctive difference, and thus my message to my employees is to strive to be different—instinctively different.

Each year on March 8, the date of Mr. Mori’s death, we hold a ceremony called “A Day to Consider the Future of Cities.” We gather all employees and bring in a lecturer who is an expert on cities to think about the future of cities. Keio University Professor Heizo Takenaka and architect Tadao Ando have come to speak, and I speak as well.

Greenery is a key part of Mori Buildingism.

Also, I have a personal column on our intranet website, and I publish articles there to communicate Mori Buildingism to our employees once or twice a month. I also organize a gathering with the younger employees a few times a year and directly exchange ideas face-to-face.

Being a developer, I think it is very important to keep a very bold, long-term perspective, with an eye always toward what is needed, 20 or 50 years from now, for Tokyo to remain competitive among global cities. And this is what Mori Buildingism is all about, which makes us totally different from others.

With that as our base, we then need to think about fluctuations in the financial and office markets, as well as in construction costs. Things change very quickly, so I need to consider how we can adapt to those changes, given the vision.

 

What are the biggest challenges Tokyo must overcome? What is important to survival in the competition among international cities?

We have a think tank called The Mori Memorial Foundation, and every year since 2008 they have conducted research and compiled the Global Power City Index (GPCI), a comprehensive ranking of the world’s major cities. In the 2017 ranking—the latest to be released—London placed first followed by New York, Tokyo, Paris, and Singapore. There are 44 cities in the report. The uniqueness of this ranking is its comprehensive nature, with total points being based on many factors—such as economy, accessibility, or livability. The attractiveness of cities is not about each of the elements but the comprehensive power, and the ranking is based on this total score. What makes the ranking and scores very useful is that we know in which areas we rank low and in which we rank high, and that enables us to build on our strengths and overcome our weaknesses so that we can improve the city’s overall attractiveness.

Tokyo ranks highly for size of the economy. The GDP of Tokyo is very large, and the amount of office space is also very large. In these areas, Tokyo has a sizeable lead on the global competition. Good food and safety are also strong elements for the city.

We do face weak points, though. For example, London has direct flights to about 300 international cities. Tokyo has about 90. And while access from Haneda International Airport takes relatively little time, Narita International Airport is a bit far from the city. This is reflected in the weak score for accessibility. The level of corporate taxes and some of the difficulties international companies face when they’re doing business here are also somewhat weak points for Tokyo.

As you know, Japan is an aging country with a declining population, so to overcome these weaknesses we must welcome people and resources from overseas. This is our challenge.

To attract non-Japanese to Tokyo, there must be spaces that can accommodate how they work and live—and that is something we are creating. You may notice that, in a Mori Building development, there is usually an international-style residential component. And our strategic domain of Minato Ward, unlike other business areas in Tokyo, is home to one quarter of the global companies in Japan, some 20,000 non-Japanese residents, more than half of the embassies, more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris and New York, and so much greenery. All these elements are especially important for attracting non-Japanese people, and we believe that welcoming new companies and residents is key to making Tokyo competitive globally.

The annual Bon Odori at Roppongi Hills brings the community together.

What role does cultural exchange play in the projects Mori Building develops?

We have the Mori Art Museum at the top of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, and there is a concert hall—Suntory Hall—in our ARK Hills development. Our projects are typically large-scale, and in each we try to incorporate cultural and art elements. I believe that cultural exchange is very important for making Tokyo more attractive. The biggest gap between London and Tokyo in the GPCI ranking is the cultural interaction score. If we were able to overcome that weakness, I think we might even rank first overall.

 

Tell us about the progress you’re making with other urban renewal projects.

They are going well. With large-scale redevelopment projects such as those we undertake, there are so many factors involved that the schedule is typically delayed. So, to be able to say that we are on schedule is good news.

We have a very aggressive plan for the next 10 years, and we have some 10 projects in a very concentrated area of Minato Ward, for a total investment of more than ¥1 trillion [$8.8 billion]. There is a plan and schedule that we have put forward to strengthen Tokyo’s magnetism, and I’m happy to say that we are on schedule.

Mori Building projects are unique and create a compact city, where people can live, work, and enjoy themselves with everything they need within walking distance. With the Vertical Garden City concept, we build a super high-rise that opens to lots of greenery at the ground level. It also integrates all city functions and facilities—offices, residences, hotels, cultural facilities, shops, and restaurants—into that complex. So, all aspects of living and working in a city are realized. Our upcoming Toranomon–Azabudai Project will add a world-class hotel to the area, new residential units, and global-level offices. There are also elements of art, international schools, and an international supermarket, along with many retail shops, wellness centers, and other functions that will make this project one of a kind.

 

Toranomon Hills will be expanded greatly in the next five years.

With the Toranomon–Azabudai Project, the shape of the land is unusual. Will it feel as cohesive as Roppongi Hills?

There are particularities of the Toranomon–Azabudai Project that make redevelopment challenging, and you are quite right that the shape of the site itself is unusual. But with eight hectares to work with, I feel we have the ability to propose something unique and very good, given the scale of this site. The plan that we are developing makes use of the uncommon shape and the height differences of the rolling hills. Ideally, you have a square site on which you construct buildings, and what is left you turn into plazas or parks—a building-led project. But the Toranomon–Azabudai Project, because of its shape and the rolling hills, puts the greenery and gardens front and center. The buildings then rise from the green landscape. I think this is probably the best approach through which we will be able to incorporate rolling hills, and the plan must take into account the difficulty of the site itself. But, when it is completed, I think it will create a new vision and a new awareness of the environment. It will very much be the realization of Mori Buildingism.

 

Town Management plays a big role in Mori Building developments. What is it and how did it come about?

Town Management is something we structured for Roppongi Hills. Because it is a very large-scale development, we often say it is a city within a city—integrating many different functions. This makes it challenging to maintain a cohesive feeling for the overall community. But, if you’re able to operate it as a whole under one management, then you can leverage the complexity to create a town.

For example, the Christmas illumination at Roppongi Hills is produced by our Town Management Division. In a typical town, retail associations decide how the illumination should look, because Christmas is such a busy shopping time and that is their period of peak traffic for shops. But, at Roppongi Hills, the Town Management Division is able to maximize opportunity—because they are in charge of looking through all areas of Roppongi Hills, the plaza, the roadsides, and the parks—and make sure all illumination activity is well coordinated to achieve maximum effect for the whole complex.

So, there is a framework of rules that functions very well. The Town Management Division works with all parties at Roppongi Hills, such as the Office Business Department, Residential Department, and TV Asahi, to put together a summer festival that makes use of all parts of Roppongi Hills—and Town Management produces the whole event.

Before Roppongi Hills, I think there may have been a concept of Town Management—in terms of the word—but there was not a team or a structure that operated a town in a real world. But now, I think it has become an industry standard—you hear the terms “town management” and “area management” a lot throughout Japan.

So, if a person wants to do something at Roppongi Hills, the first point of contact is the Town Management Division. It’s good for all the companies and all the people in that—because there are so many different functions in the town, and all these functions have different interests—having someone who looks at the total picture, and makes sure it is consistent and integrated as one single town, makes things easier.

 

The Shanghai World Financial Center is Mori‘s largest overseas project.

Let’s talk global—you’ve had some success recently in China and now expanding to Southeast Asia. What do you think most deeply about and give priority to when expanding internationally?

When you look at the percentage of international assets, I think we are probably relatively high for a Japanese developer in terms of net percentage. Because we have large volume in China—we have three properties there, including the Shanghai World Financial Center, a 101-story high-rise—the ratio is high. So, the strategy we want is portfolio management in terms of managing the ratio between our projects here in Tokyo and other global developments.

In terms of how we go overseas, I think there are two possibilities. One is mergers and acquisitions, together with acquisition and disposition properties. The second is what we have done in Shanghai: developing something by ourselves. We really only have interest in the second—going to global cities and developing on our own. So, looking at a lot of the inquiries—in terms of investment overseas—we only choose the ones that we feel offer an opportunity to make a difference by applying Mori Buildingism.

We think Asian cities have a lot of growth potential, and it seems to me that they come to us with many inquiries, asking us to help them as they try to realize their economic growth. We have a project in Jakarta, Indonesia—a 59-story, 266m-high building in the center of the business district—and we are looking for other opportunities in major cities around the region in which we can expand our presence in Southeast Asia.

For our projects in Jakarta and Shanghai, we are the major shareholder, but we also consider doing business globally on a consulting basis.

 

When dealing with so many foreign countries, communication is very important. How are your English lessons coming along?

I skip some classes, but am continuing. We have quite a lot of bilingual staff, especially the younger staff. We have our International Business Department, and subsidiaries in China and Singapore. Also, our engineers and technical people understand English in their particular field. For example, an engineer understands engineering terms in English. It’s something that I feel is very important to go global.

What do you think about the future of cities, new technology, and the development of the next generation of technology?

We are undertaking collaborative research with the MIT Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a large part of that research is to determine how a city should look 20 years from now. And we are also partnering with other cutting-edge corporations and institutions for demonstrative testing here at Roppongi Hills.

It took 20 years for the internet to change the way people behave, and I am told that artificial intelligence (AI) and biotechnology will change society again in the next five to 10 years. The speed of change is becoming more rapid, so I think it is important that watch very closely how technology changes.

For example, when it comes to AI, automobile makers think about self-driving cars, and security experts think about how it will affect security. For people like us, who manage how people live in the city, we need to cooperate and combine all those elements.

If we’re not aware of how technology is developing and how it is impacting each one of the businesses, we are not able to coordinate. So, it is very important to be on top of it, watch it closely, and try to be very creative and use our imagination.

I think our property was the first in Japan to have Starbucks in the lobby of an office building; but now most have Starbucks or other stylish coffee shops on the first floor. The conventional way of thinking about an office building was that it is not appropriate for the lobby to smell like coffee.

Another first was displaying world news and weather reports on the screens in elevators. Before, you used to see Mount Fuji or a goldfish on the screen. So, we have turned those monitors into quite useful sources of news in the workplace.

We were also a pioneer in security. Gates have become the standard in any office building in Japan, but the first installed in an office building for lease was in our ARK Mori Building at ARK Hills. After the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, we had—and still have—a lot of non-Japanese tenants who are quite concerned about security. Mori Building worked with a local manufacturer to invent and install gates.

So, we have a track record of being the first to deploy and test a lot of new technologies, and being able to imagine how the future of cities should look. This is Mori Buildingism, and we strive to remain a leader in urban renewal.

Simon Farrell is publisher at Custom Media.
I believe we must make sure that [Mr. Mori's] vision is always with us.