A Japanese developer who reaches for the sky
TOKYO: Minoru Mori, Japan's most prolific developer, will finish the world's tallest building in May. Many of his colleagues might consider the 101-story Shanghai World Financial Center the crowning achievement of a long career. But Mori has lots of plans for a 73-year-old.
As president of the Mori Building Company of Tokyo, he has remade the city's skyline with half a dozen high-rises, including a $4 billion megacomplex over 27 acres, Roppongi Hills.
Now, he is fielding offers to build skyscrapers like the Shanghai center in Bangkok and Singapore. And he is planning to build or help build 10 more huge complexes like Roppongi Hills in downtown Tokyo, including one that could be Japan's tallest, over the next 10 to 15 years.
He is also talking to Chinese and Middle East sovereign wealth funds about raising tens of billions of dollars to finance the projects.
At a time when urban planners in the West frown on hulking high-rises as forbidding, Mori presents a new Asian urban sensibility, where architecture reflects soaring economic ambition, leading to mighty projects that dwarf the individual.
"Asia is different from the United States and Europe," Mori said in an interview in his Roppongi Hills office. "We dream of more vertical cities. In fact, the only choice here is to go up and use the sky."
Even in a region where some builders churn out skyscrapers in a way that products might come off an assembly line, Mori's have stood out. His projects have won attention and their share of controversy for their great impact and scale, helping make him one of the few real estate investors in Asia known by name, like the Hong Kong billionaires Stanley Ho and Li Ka-shing.
By focusing on a few long-term projects, and shunning speculative buying and selling, his company escaped the real estate bubble of the 1980s and its collapse soon thereafter.
Mori's unlikely career began when he set aside an existentialist novel he was working on in 1959 to join his father's fledgling real estate business.
Over the next half-century, the family-owned Mori Building grew from a single rice shop into a $12 billion empire of 121 structures, most around the southern Toranomon-Roppongi international business district of Tokyo.
"I shifted from writing literature to making buildings," said Mori, who played a leading role in the company even before formally taking over from his retiring father, Taikichiro, in 1993. "Both are creative efforts, and attempts to enrich people somehow."
These days, Mori, soft-spoken and earnest with wire-rimmed glasses and snow-white hair, exudes the air of a university professor rather than a real estate mogul. But the Mori clan, which has included his two brothers, elbowed its way to the top of an insider-dominated business, competing with industrial groups and politically connected construction companies.
Real estate specialists say the Moris succeeded by reading the future better than their rivals, and putting up buildings that fit the needs of a fast-developing Japanese economy.
The family business attracted global tenants by constructing some of the city's first modern office buildings; the first 45 had numbers instead of names. In the 1980s, Mori steered the family toward building high-rise complexes, helping earthquake-prone Tokyo overcome its fear of skyscrapers.
Projects can move slowly in Japan, and Roppongi Hills and Mori's first big high-rise complex, Ark Hills, which opened in 1986, each took 17 years to complete. Much of that time was spent cutting through red tape and persuading hundreds of reluctant residents to move.
Even in the 1990s, when land prices were tumbling, he persuaded banks and investors to lend him billions of dollars for his projects. But his heavy borrowing loaded the company with debt around $8 billion, almost six times annual revenue.
Mori's willingness to use debt led to a parting of ways with his younger brother, Akira, who started his own real estate company, Mori Trust. The oldest brother, Kei, died in 1990.
Within his company, Mori is known for both long-term vision and a preoccupation with small details. At a recent meeting to plan a 46-story building ? one of his 10 new complexes ? he spent most of an hour discussing what type of landscaping would best attract fireflies and keep away crows. And he is about to begin construction of a skyscraper in Tokyo that, when completed in 2012, will have taken more than 28 years to finish.
His patience has paid off overseas. The Shanghai tower required 14 years, with long interruptions from the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8 and the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001.
The building in Tokyo, when completed late in May, will briefly hold the title of the world's tallest before a higher one is finished later in the year in Dubai.
With Mori's successes have come detractors. Japanese nationalists accuse him of cozying up to foreigners because he has so many international tenants. Preservationists assail his skyscrapers for destroying Tokyo's traditional low-rise feeling. Academics call him outdated for wanting to erect monolithic high-rises at a time when smaller-scale, pedestrian-friendly developments are in vogue among urban planners.
" Mori has been remarkable in his ability to bring a strong vision to a city that has otherwise lacked an overall vision," said Junichiro Okata, a professor of urban planning at the University of Tokyo. "Whether Mori has brought the correct vision or not is an entirely different matter."
Controversy has also surrounded the best-known development, Roppongi Hills, with its 54-story barrel-like office tower. When it was completed in 2003, the opulent complex ? which includes fashion boutiques, condominiums and a television studio ? was heralded as a symbol of the end of Japan's "lost decade." But it soon turned into a symbol of the excesses of Japanese revival, when its most famous tenant, a Ferrari-driving Internet entrepreneur, Takafumi Horie, was arrested for insider trading.
Still, Mori seeks to reach higher. Of his 10 new complexes, he said one might include a skyscraper nearly 1,100 feet high. Some of the complexes are already in the planning stages, while others may be built by different developers with Mori Building's help, he said.
The complexes would be centered on a new tree-lined boulevard the city is to build through the Toranomon district by 2011. The road is known informally here as the MacArthur Highway because it was first proposed during the occupation of Japan after World War II that was presided over by General Douglas A. MacArthur.
Mori says his aim is to replace Tokyo's chaotic, low-rise industrial-era neighborhoods with a more modern and convenient urban environment suited to knowledge-based enterprises like finance and software.
He still shows a flash of the frustrated philosopher, calling his recent buildings "vertical garden cities," a term referring to multiple-use high-rises surrounded by green space that he borrowed from his favorite architect, Le Corbusier. Mori keeps a collection of 300 paintings and sketches by Le Corbusier, who died in 1965, in a private museum atop Roppongi Hills.
He is also fond of adding artistic flourishes to his buildings. The Shanghai tower has a rectangular hole on top so that it resembles a huge bottle opener. His Omotesando Hills shopping center in Tokyo has an artificial brook, while the Moto-Azabu Hills tower broadens at the top to look like an upside-down bottle.
Not everyone approves. " Mori knows these kind of projects better than anyone," said Yuichi Fukukawa, a professor of urban planning at Chiba University. "It's scary, but if he wants to fill Tokyo with more Roppongi Hills, he can do it."