Architecture of Affluence

I picked up the great “Architects of Affluence: The Tsutumi Family and the Seibu Enterprises in 20th-Century Japan” the other day. It’s a fascinating monograph written about 20 years ago by Thomas Havens. It helped me connect the dots between railroad, (sub-)urbanisation and the onset of mass consumerism in post-war Japan. Can an architectural dimension be woven into this? Let’s visit Shibuya!


It took several decades for the famous Shibuya crossing (above) to develop into what it is today: one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world, gateway to the trendy shopping and entertainment areas near the station and one of the most unique Tokyo experiences on offer.

Tokyu with its subsidiaries 109 and Tokyu Hands, Seibu with its brands Parco and Muji – they are all present here, along with a plethora of other shops and boutiques. The area is pulsating 24/7, is home to Tokyo’s cool world of startups and trendy bars and almost seamlessly transitions into the adjacent areas of Daikanyama, Harajuku, Omotesando, to name but a few.


Juxtapose today’s imagery with a picture taken in 1952. We look towards the west and see the crossing before the onset of any serious construction activity. Shibuya is still a suburban, largely residential area. While connected to the Yamanote Line since its inception, it is lightyears away from what it is to become from the late 1960s onwards.


View from Hikarie Building on Tokyu department store, Shibuya Station and Ginza Line metro

Since early on in twentieth century, railroad corporations had bought up swathes of land around their suburban commuter stations. To capitalise on this they often built shopping centres next to or literally on top of the stations and benefited from the foot traffic.

Shibuya had become a Tokyu fiefdom from the late 1920s onwards and remained so for the next 40 years. Tokyu built its current headquarter store right next to the JR station in 1967.

Through a gentlemen’s agreement, Seibu entered the area in 1973 and quickly challenged Tokyu’s monopoly. The site chosen for their expansion was the somewhat sleepy Park Avenue, the brand the relatively new Parco (whose first store had opened in Ikebukuro, Seibu’s “fiefdom”, in 1969).

Parco was extremely innovative for its days. It did not sell any goods itself, instead it focused on renting space to stores and took a percentage of their sales rather than a fixed rent. In turn, stores would get access to Parco’s marketing power and enjoy other synergies. Initially there were only women’s clothing boutiques and no restaurants.

Clever advertisements and cultural offerings (such as the Parco Theatre and later Parco Museum) rounded off the shopping experience, itself a revolutionary concept for this time.

Also because of the increasing affluence of the suburban Tokyo that used Shibuya as its transportation hub, the Parco concept proved very successful and led to the opening of Parco Part 2 in 1977 and Part 3 a few years later. This map from 2003 shows the extent of the company’s footprint in Shibuya.

Alarmed and/or encouraged by the success of Parco, Tokyu opened its “cool” department store Tokyu Hands in 1978 and its fashion store 109 one year later. The latter was also an architectural statement. It was built by Minoru Takeyama, who is known for his Ichibankan/Nibankan in Shinjuku (among others). The building’s recent 30-year anniversary caused some interesting press coverage.

The “Shibuya Siege”, as Havens puts it, led to even more construction activity. Seibu responded to Tokyu’s expansion by opening its “LoFt”. Marui’s 0101 store as well as a “proper” Seibu department store completed the shopping paradise and within the space of just ten years gave the whole Shibuya area a complete makeover.


View from Tokyu Hands

Havens’s account is interesting as it provides unprecedented insights into the Tsutsumi family saga. It is now out of date, and the 1990s and 2000s have seen the fortunes of the Tsutsumi family turn. The real estate bubble burst, and the head of Seibu Railway, Tsutsumi Yoshiaki was convicted on fraud charges in 2005.

His brother Seiji, who was responsible for the retail operations of Seibu, retired from his executive position in 1991 and has since focussed on his other careers, i.e. those of a writer and economist. The Seibu empire today belongs to Seven & I Holdings, known for their convenience stores.

However, the connections between the retail, railroad and real estate franchises are very important historically – specifically in Seibu’s context because they provided the balance sheet for high degrees of leverage to bankroll a lot of the construction.

More generally, they help to better understand Tokyo’s urban/suburban form post-WWII, especially until the end of the 1960s when Tokyo’s growth was largely happening alongside railroad corridors.

With their real estate transactions and residential projects in hitherto rather remote suburbs, the railroad corporations were some of the main actors of urbanisation. After all there is not only Seibu but also Tokyu, Tobu, Keio and many others. Their forays into retail were part and parcel of their spatial and horizontal integration strategy.


Tobu Ikebukuro


Seibu Ikebukuro – aerial view ca. 1960  (source)

Their construction projects shaped the face of the city. Parco’s “Shibuya Siege” is only one example. Ikebukuro is another, and as seen above, is dominated by the large Seibu and Tobu stores (check out this recent photo from towards the west overlooking all the various stores).

Most stores were built in modern utilitarian fashion that allowed for future extensions and regular makeovers. Hence what we can find today are hardly the original structures from the 1960s and 1970s.

Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture of the Parco shopping paradise myself while in Tokyo, but there are plenty around on the web, e.g. here. There is more on the contemporary history of Shibuya here and here.

Lastly, thanks to @remmid for alerting me to Havens’s book!

One thought on “Architecture of Affluence

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *