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Interview with New York-based architect Shohei Shigematsu: “What kind of city is Fukuoka?

Fukuoka is currently in the midst of a major urban renewal with redevelopment activity centered on the Tenjin Big Bang project.
For this report, we spoke with Shohei Shigematsu, the architectural designer of the Tenjin Business Center Building, which was the first project to be greenlighted after laws were relaxed for the Tenjin Big Bang.

We asked him, a New York-based architect who has been involved in many cutting-edge projects around the world, how he views the city of Fukuoka.

Shohei Shigematsu, 重松象平

Shohei Shigematsu
Shohei Shigematsu is a partner of the international architectural design group OMA and head of its New York office. His major works include the new National Gallery of Fine Arts of Quebec and the new Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. He is currently working on several projects around the world, including a new building for the New Museum in New York and Toranomon Hills Station Tower in Tokyo. He is also a professor at the Graduate School of Human-Environment Studies and the Director of the BeCAT Center at Kyushu University.

Tenjin Business Center Building
The Tenjin Business Center Building is an office building with glass curtain walls that was completed on September 30, 2021 in the Tenjin district of Fukuoka. It was the first building built after laws were relaxed for Fukuoka City’s Tenjin Big Bang redevelopment project. Shohei Shigematsu supervised the architectural design, and the interior design was undertaken by Gwenael Nicolas, who also designed the interior of Ginza Six in Tokyo. The first floor is a commercial zone, the second to 19th floors house offices and the second basement floor is a restaurant zone called Tenjin Inachika.

Tenjin Business Center exterior, 天神ビジネスセンタービル外観

Tenjin Big Bang
Tenjin Big Bang is a Fukuoka City-led project to create new spaces and employment in the Tenjin area by leveraging deregulation and other measures to promote the reconstruction of private-sector buildings. By combining various measures with the approval of special exceptions to the Civil Aeronautics Act height restrictions under the National Strategic Special Zone initiative, the city is promoting the replacement of existing buildings with cutting-edge structures that are not only earthquake resistant, but designed to enable coexistence with COVID-19 while keeping an eye on the post-COVID era and aim to make Fukuoka a more globally competitive, safe, environmentally-friendly and attractive city. Since the start of Tenjin Big Bang, a total of 43 buildings, including the Tenjin Business Center, have been completed in the project zone.

Tenjin viewing from Tenjin Business Center Building, 天神ビジネスセンタービルからの天神

The glass-walled building in the back center is Fukuoka Daimyo Garden City, scheduled for completion in December 2022. The Ritz-Carlton Fukuoka is scheduled to open on the upper floors in the spring of 2023.

FN: Fukuoka has thrown its hat in the ring as a candidate site for the national government’s International Financial City plan. Unlike Tokyo and Osaka, where international financial functions are already concentrated, the strategy in Fukuoka is to attract investment in startups and create innovation. Many people consider Fukuoka to be a small city, so what does this large-scale redevelopment mean for the city?

Shigematsu: Fukuoka is considered to be a city that values well-being and livability, but did this just happen or was it intentional?
I think it is very difficult to fully plan and create a livable city.

For example, development plans proceed with the involvement of a wide array of specialists. As such, various ideals and compromises get mixed in, making it difficult to visualize urban development in its purest form. It would be difficult to create the Fukuoka streetscape that we see here today, even if we wanted to.

Cities develop organically over a long period of time. So, one weak point of doing redevelopment in a single go is that cities mistakenly believe that what they have cultivated over time can be achieved if they just spend money.

Don’t you feel that big development projects all seem similar, whether they are in Tokyo, Osaka or Fukuoka? People often lose sight of the fact that you need to understand the historical context and unique local culture to make any kind of essential contribution to a city, and in fact, they even tend to destroy the unique atmosphere that a city has cultivated over the generations. However, rather than choosing to change nothing, it is important that developers, architects, local industries and the citizens who love the community are all engaged. If such steady yet fundamental efforts are not sustained, a city cannot be reimagined.

FN: Excitement is a must
Shigematsu: Fukuoka is not as adept as Tokyo and Osaka in terms of talent retention. There are many universities, but the city suffers from brain drain. Livability is not enough. I think young people need all kinds of excitement. To accomplish this, a variety of content is needed, from the historical to the spontaneous to the planned.

When something like the Tenjin Business Center Building is built and global companies relocate to the city, I think international talent that has never worked here before will come and create a kind of “chemical reaction” with the local culture. This, in turn, will generate a ripple effect that gives rise to a new path forward. From this perspective, high-end projects like this one are also important.

Architects are forced to design new developments knowing full well how difficult it is to create a long-lasting culture from scratch. Therefore, to do our best, we need to work with everyone to figure out not only the design, but also what kind of functions and unique content to include in a building. I believe that architects will need to have more expertise like this in the future.

Tenjin Business Center exterior, 天神ビジネスセンタービル外観

FN: An era in which the public benefit is always in demand
Shigematsu: This new building is so much taller than those around it that the upper floors afford excellent views of the city center, as well as the nearby ocean and mountains, to an extent that has never been seen before in Fukuoka. Unfortunately, the public does not have access to these views. Although this doesn’t happen in a building where the upper floors are hotel rooms, it is something that cannot be provided for in an office building. Despite the fact that laws were relaxed to build such a large building in the heart of the city, some may say that essentially it provides no public benefit.

The guidelines issued by Fukuoka City for the Tenjin Big Bang specify that a small plaza should be built on the ground floor, but there are no rules about adding public functions to the upper floors. Personally, I wish I could have made a building with a few more public functions, like a rooftop garden or a café with a view.

Tenjin Business Center interior, 天神ビジネスセンタービル内観

Also, if the rules about spaces are relaxed, then a developer can derive more benefit from a building. That is why I wanted my design to include a gesture of giving something back, not only for my own benefit but to benefit the public to some extent. The story I had in mind was that the public space on the small corner lot would link to the overall design of the building, and that the activities occurring in the city would seamlessly intertwine with the activities in the building. Not to mention, this building was the first project to be completed under the Tenjin Big Bang plan.

Tenjin viewing from Tenjin Business Center Building, 天神ビジネスセンタービルからの天神

I was conscious that it would become a model, which is why I sought to make it a little more original and ensure the continuity of the public space, so as to contribute to making the city more diverse. In this day and age, when you undertake a large development project in the heart of a city, you have to make sure it also provides some kind of benefit that captures the imagination of the citizens.

FN: Has the pandemic had an impact on architecture? What outlook do you have for the post-pandemic world?
Shigematsu: I believe that the typology of office buildings is fundamentally changing because companies are being forced to rethink the very idea of people coming to work. Now that you can work remotely, what is the reason for or purpose of going into the office? Rather than functioning as a space where only productivity is pursued, as has been the practice in the past, the office or the workspace will need to become a destination—a place where people feel there is something there, where ideas can be generated, and where they can attempt new things.

Tenjin viewing from Tenjin Business Center Building, 天神ビジネスセンタービルからの天神

To do this will require changes in both “soft” and “hard” aspects. There is a growing demand for events that are fun to attend, for operational innovations that respond to the constantly changing environment, and for spaces that accommodate diverse lifestyles and work styles.

Recently, in the U.S., we are seeing buildings with various kinds of programming and mechanisms to generate a variety of activities by utilizing previously deserted lobby spaces. In this respect, I think there is still room to improve upon the 2nd floor lobby of the Tenjin Business Center.

Tenjin Business Center interior, 天神ビジネスセンタービル内観

FN: Accidental livability
Shigematsu: Going back to my first point, I think Fukuoka has become a livable city without realizing it was doing so. It was not a planned process. Recently, we often see the words “livable” and “livable city,” but what exactly the national government and the city are doing to achieve these concepts is not well communicated.

FN: The situation in tourism is similar. It is sheer geographic luck that cruise ships now make ports of call at Hakata. The city was not actively trying to attract them, but Fukuoka happened to be on a convenient route. It’s just a lucky place.
Shigematsu: Fukuoka is the gateway to Kyushu, which means everyone has to pass through it.

And what’s more, there are few definitive tourist spots that put Fukuoka on the map. There is surprisingly little historical and cultural content in Fukuoka. There are no excellent art museums or concert halls. The city should believe more in and invest in its ability to create culture, and a discussion also needs to be held on how to evaluate this soft power. Currently, I think the city is relying too much on the abstract idea of livability, which entails things like nice people and low prices.

There is a ranking of cities in the U.S. that uses the number of patents generated in a city as an indicator of its cultural level as well as whether the city has the talent and educational infrastructure to generate content and ideas. First of all, I would like to see the city think about the evaluation process itself, so that Fukuoka can create more of its own unique culture.

FN: What cities pique your interest? What are your favorite cities?
Shigematsu: London has an incredibly large number of parks and museums, and even if you are not interested in such things, you can be inspired on a daily basis just by strolling around the city. There are also many theaters, and a lot of unique content like plays and music concerts. What’s more, the city does not only promote historical buildings; you can see how it is also pursuing innovation in the design of new architecture and public spaces. I don’t think Fukuoka needs to aim to be like London or Paris. On the contrary, I think it needs to pursue a new ideal image that aligns with its current values. In that sense, I think Fukuoka has great potential.

London UK, イギリス・ロンドンの風景Photo by Simon Vollformat on Unsplash

I also think it is important to create government incentives. Looking at the U.S., Florida has seen an increase in the number of young people moving from places like New York and Boston, not only because of its great climate but also because there is no state income tax, not to mention the fact that the pandemic has made it possible to maintain multiple locations. The same is true of Hong Kong and Singapore. I believe that the creativity of the government is one of the incentives that drives people to choose where to live. Miami is becoming a hub for art and food due to the large number of immigrants from a wide range of Latin American countries and Art Basel, an international art event. How the city has changed over the past decade has been spectacular.

Shohei Shigematsu, 重松象平

FN: What recommendations do you have for adopting new criteria for evaluating cities?
Shigematsu: One possibility is food. For example, looking at how self-sufficient a city is, whether it is producing food locally for local consumption, and whether it maintains a global focus in cultivating food as content. Another indicator could be the number of long-standing businesses. It is an indicator worth considering as it could provide insight into the originality of the culture of a company that has been around for 300 years and is still thriving. Yet another one could be the number of young business owners and executives. I don’t think places that do not believe in the power of young people can develop. More importantly, a city should also look at the number of female business owners.

FN: What is your thinking with regard to internationalization?
Shigematsu: I think internationalization will always be important. One of the reasons why Fukuoka has developed so well throughout its history is because of its proximity to China and Korea. While not everything about this is positive, in general, I believe that cultures develop by clashing with, emulating, and merging with other cultures, and in fact, Fukuoka has many unique aspects that you do not see in other Japanese cities, which were most likely influenced by the continent. If you wanted to attempt to do this now, I think you would need to properly discuss and research what it means to be an international city of the future instead of promoting the top-down globalization from the late 1990s to the 2000s. By further evolving its own culture and uniqueness, a city might be able to develop international competitiveness.

Perhaps the concern in Fukuoka is that everyone is satisfied with the status quo to some degree. I think it is good that there are not many critical voices, but on the other hand, there is no potential for development. Are there any media, symposiums, or other venues for free-wheeling discussion in Fukuoka?

I am also from Fukuoka, so I know it is a wonderful city. The people are nice, the food is good and it is a nice place to live…but enough of that! What’s next?

Looftop at Tenjin Business Center Building, 天神ビジネスセンタービル屋上

FN: Are there any challenges you would like to take on in Fukuoka?
Shigematsu: I believe that Fukuoka’s reputation will be further enhanced if it creates globally recognized public architecture, such as parks and museums that anyone and everyone can enjoy. In addition to that, the city needs art, business, music and other contemporary events. I think it would be a worthy challenge to organize or bring to Fukuoka a regular event that attracts people from around the world.

Recently, it seems to me that dynamic events have become a more established method of urban revitalization than static things like buildings. Traditional festivals for the community are important, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about fun events that can attract a diverse array of people, where culture can be created and where discussions can take place. With this in mind, possible themes include art, technology, fashion and design. If the city can organize events like these, then when you flip the equation, the need will be raised for proper museums and other cultural facilities.

Tenjin Business Center interior, 天神ビジネスセンタービル内観

FN: Beware the pitfalls of a livable town. Moving toward a society that embraces progressive people.
Shigematsu: Saying that people move to the more livable Fukuoka because it’s difficult to raise children in Tokyo or because Tokyo is too big does not prove that Fukuoka is fundamentally better than Tokyo. Of course, the fact that so many people decide to move here means there is something here that attracts people.

Rather, I want Fukuoka to be a city that progressive people actively choose to relocate to, not as an alternative to some other city, but because there is something here that they can achieve precisely because they are in Fukuoka.

Fukuoka City
Published: Jul 19, 2022 / Last Updated: Jul 19, 2022

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