From the American Institute of Architects

25-Year Award to Rafael Viñoly's Tokyo International Forum

John Hill
10. June 2024
Photo: Kawasumi-Kobayashi Kenji Photograph Office

In July 1993, a year and a half into his tenure as architecture critic of the New York Times, Herbert Muschamp described Rafael Viñoly's design of the Tokyo International Forum — a building combining a performing arts with an exhibition hall — as “a monument to the idea of openness” capable of “[reviving] faith in architecture as an instrument of intellectual clarity.” He wrote these lofty statements four years after Viñoly won an international competition for the project but a full three years ahead of the building's completion; the occasion was a small “Preview” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) devoted to the building. Exhibition and article hint at the importance of Viñoly's design at the time, coming in the midst of a decade that was wanting for exceptional architecture.

Fast forward to January 1997 and Muschamp, having just visited the completed Forum, called it “a perfectly realized building” that “joins the ranks of the world's great spaces.” The space he was referring to was the Forum's Glass Hall (pictured here at top and at bottom), a long atrium topped by a ship-shaped roof engineered by Kunio Watanabe — it is 750 feet (228 m) long but supported by just two columns. Greater sustained attention may have been given to Viñoly's Forum, but one year later Richard Meier's Getty Center and Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao vied for the public's attention. The latter received the AIA's 25-Year Award a year ago and now it is joined by the 28-year-old Tokyo International Forum.

Photo: Kawasumi-Kobayashi Kenji Photograph Office

The Twenty-five Year Award was created in 1969 to recognize “a building that has stood the test of time for 25-35 years and continues to set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance.” Given that the award is based on how a building is used rather than how well it photographs, and considers how well it has held up over a sustained period of time, it is arguably the AIA's most important award, even though it is routinely eclipsed by the AIA Gold Medal, Firm of the Year Award, and the numerous Honor Awards. (Some of the award's importance can be found in the seminar at the 2018 AIA Conference addressing the omission — a first — of a 25-Year Award that year.)

The citation for this year's 25-Year Award contends that the “Forum became a beloved landmark shortly after construction was completed in 1996,” even quoting Muschamp's post-visit article, but it also highlights its flexibility to unintended uses: “The Forum has also supported Japan through unexpected traumas, including providing shelter for residents who were stranded after the 2011 earthquake.” Prior to Covid-19, the building's seven performing arts and multipurpose halls, exhibition hall, and 34 meeting rooms welcomed more than 23 million visitors and hosted more than 3,400 events, per the citation.

Photo: Tokyo International Forum
The six most recent AIA Twenty-five Year Award recipients (no award was given in 2018):
Photo: Kenichi Suzuki

The Tokyo International Forum is located on the site of the former City Hall that was designed by Kenzo Tange and built partly to his design in 1957. Three decades later, the city government relocated to the considerably larger Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, also designed by Kenzo Tange, so an international design competition was held in 1989 — notably Japan's first international design competition — for what would become a $1.5 billion project to “provide cultural programming, civic dialogue, and urban connectivity to reinforce the nation’s cultural and international exchange role,” per the AIA statement. 

Viñoly's winning design split the building into two halves: a faceted rectilinear volume with the large halls on the west and the Great Hall following the curve of the adjacent railroad tracks on the east. The two halves are linked internally underground and via bridges, while the outdoor space between them is open to the public, accessible from the streets on the north, south, and west, the latter by a gap in the building's sizable volume. The effectiveness of this practical, highly site-specific plan is echoed by the nomination letter from Tetsuya Yaguchi, the 2023 president of AIA Japan: “The brilliance of Viñoly’s design lies in how four halls of varying sizes seem to float in the air, aligns conference rooms along the adjacent Japan Railroad’s train tracks, buries a large exhibition space underground, and situates a vast public plaza and glass hall at the center of the site for citizens to freely engage in.” 

Photo: Kenichi Suzuki
*The 2024 Twenty-five Year Award Jury:

  • Norio Tsuchiya, AIA, Chair, Devenney Group, Ltd., Architects, Phoenix
  • Teonna Cooksey, Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, New York
  • Nolman Davis, Assoc. AIA, Eppstein Uhen Architects, Milwaukee
  • Collete English Dixon, Roosevelt University, Chicago
  • Mollica Manandhar, AIA, Payette, Boston
  • Jerryn McCray, AIA, Jerryn J. McCray, Archirect, Baltimore
  • Annya Ramirez-Jimenez, AIA, Marvel Architects, New York
  • Yimeng Teng, AIA, Ro | Rockett Design, Los Angeles

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