Tokyo's stunning palace for the printed word

Tokyo's stunning palace for the printed word

The slick new Daikanyama T-Site complex celebrates all things analog
Daikanyama T-Site
With books and magazines at every turn, Daikanyama T-Site looks every inch a bastion of the old school.

The duo that designed Tokyo’s latest architectural wonder is turning an age-old phrase by that quintessential Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, on its head. “Art is never finished,” said the Italian painter, sculptor, architect and you-name-it-he-did-it. “Only abandoned.”

Sure, if you visit Daikanyama T-Site [Japanese], an upscale retail complex that opened last December 5 in the city’s trendy Daikanyama neighborhood, you might notice that Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein’s creation is not quite done.

On a sunny January morning inside Anjin [Japanese], a chic and comfy café-lounge that sits atop one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, the founders of Klein Dytham architecture (KDa) are told -- with polite words and bows -- they’ll have to sip their cappuccinos at a different table.

The lighting guy’s arrived. Apparently one of the fixtures is hanging too low.

But while Dytham and Klein might be playing musical chairs (or in this case, musical designer couches), they aren’t planning on abandoning their chef d'oeuvre. They like it too much. Plus, it’s just down the street from their office.

“We sort of designed it for ourselves almost,” chuckles Dytham, a Briton who’s been in Tokyo since the late 1980s. “I have breakfast here most mornings.”

“For me it’s like an extended living room,” says Klein, a German who moved to Japan in 1988 after living in Italy, France, and Britain.

A living room and more

Daikanyama T-SiteAnjin -- it's not often you'll find a trendy Tokyo hangout this quiet.

T-Site is actually many things: A swank outlet for the venerable Japanese movies-and-more chain, Tsutaya [Japanese]; a Starbucks; a café-lounge; a place to buy electric bikes; a hotel, hospital, and store for pets; a restaurant; a camera shop; a gallery; and soon, an anti-aging clinic (placenta shots anyone?).

But above all, digital age be damned, this place is a palace for the printed word, the brainchild of Tsutaya owner, Muneaki Masuda (who, because of scheduling conflicts, declined CNNGo’s interview request).

“We thought he was kind of nuts building a bookstore of this scale,” says Dytham. “But as we began to work on the project you realize that this notion of ‘back to the books’ is actually really important.”

KDa beat out more than 70 of the best firms in Japan to win the rights to this project by coming up with what sounds like a remarkably simple concept.

“We knew this idea of the big Ts, the Tsutaya T, was going to be this thing that would stick in [Masuda’s] head, and we decided to go for it,” recounts Dytham.

And they went for it with gusto. Smaller, glass-reinforced concrete Ts combine to create the big Ts that dominate the facades of the three main pavilions and their 4,300 square meters of floor space.

On the inside, these structures are connected by (you guessed it) another T, which is called “Magazine Street.” The walkway links the buildings and is lined with glossies from all over the world.

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Grab a book, book a trip

Daikanyama T-SiteDaikanyama's newest shopping mall, as brought to you by the letters T, T and T. It's everywhere ...

Wander around and you’ll find film and television DVDs, tens of thousands of them, along with CDs and vinyl. And, of course, there are the books.

Many, many books. All lovingly laid out to catch the eye of anyone interested in subjects ranging from philosophy to food.

Visit the travel section and you might bump into the travel concierge, someone who’s paid to help you research and arrange vacations.

“It looks almost impossible to make money on this kind of space, ratio to the sales, but as a place for the customers it’s really right,” says Salvador Nissi Vilcovsky, a designer who arrived mid-morning to have a coffee and type away on his laptop.

“I think it’s rare to find this kind of space in Tokyo,” says the 43-year-old Argentine. “It’s more of an open feeling. The location is good. And the design,” he says, swinging his head around. “I think they did a great job.”

It’s a sentiment shared by others, whether they’re regulars like Nissi Vilcovsky or first-timers.

“I like it here. The white and the wood,” says Seigo Ikeda, a 21-year-old from the northeastern Japanese city of Sendai. “I feel cozy here.”

Carefully curated space

Daikanyama T-SiteMark Dytham and Astrid Klein take us on a tour of their Tokyo masterpiece.

That feeling of coziness pervades every corner. Low-energy and solar-power generating windows splash light everywhere.

Upstairs in Anjin, people walk on distressed wood floorboards and lounge on low-slung, leather couches surrounded by shelves filled with bound magazine back issues: “Esquire,” “Brutus,” “Domus,” and “Screen.”

Stacks of books form the base of the bar and the side tables.

The menus, though, are all digital. The wait staff hand-deliver iPads to new arrivals, who can choose their order (café au laits go for ¥900) and then scan the catalog of the art and rare items on display or for sale (the asking price on a 1958 edition of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” is ¥147,000).

Taking in the carefully curated space T-Site has become, it’s hard to imagine construction crews broke ground in January 2011 and worked through the aftermath of one of this country’s worst crises.

The feat is not lost on the architects, who were presenting design updates at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011.

“We couldn’t get any glass in Japan. All the glass factories shut down,” says Dytham of the post-disaster difficulties.

“No elevators. No escalators. No plywood,” chimes in Klein.

“So the glass in the end came from China,” continues Dytham. “There was no steel, again, for the buildings out back. It was like Apollo 13. ‘This is what the steelyard’s got ...”

“Make it from this,” finishes Klein.

“We just took a deep breath and got on with it,” says Dytham.

Made-in-Japan success story

It’s success story brought to you by a country some have called lost and stagnant. A shot in the arm for the retail industry, which a few observers have said is dead or dying. And a tribute to a medium many worry is living out its twilight years.

“It’s not just the architecture. It’s not just the interior. It’s the content that’s really the thing that drives this and makes you want to come inside,” says Dytham. “I think this really shows people what can be done ... with books.”

Daikanyama T-Site is a five-minute walk from Tokyo’s Daikanyama Station. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.

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C. James Dale is a Canadian journalist based in Tokyo.

Read more about C. James Dale