Advertisement as unconscious architectural element in Tokyo
Research Project
October 2007 – February 2008
東京工業大学 Tokyo Institute of Technology

東京工業大学 Tokyo Institute of Technology
Professor: Yasuda Koichi, Yasuda Laboratory
Master Research Student: Adrian Schweizer, Switzerland

1.1 Preface
As a media in one of the most populated cities in the world, it is difficult to get attention. Every commodity tries to get as much attention as possible. An apparent byproduct of this free-for-all struggle for attention is that the commercial areas appear to overflow with all forms of advertisement.
If we further inspect this initial observation, what is the consequence which results out of it? What influence does advertisement have
to present architecture? Where and what kind is the intersection between architecture and advertisement?

1.2 Foreword
This work will concentrate with the relationship between architecture and advertisement.
When I am talking about architecture I mean it as an experience of all retail buildings together. It is the ambiance as a total effect.
Advertisement is handled as a to a building added media for instance a sign for a store, neon, billboards, graphic design identity, clarity of information or commercials.

Rather than trying to attempt a complete illustration of all the advertising types in Tokyo, I have chosen to focus on the most intense pulsating hubs, such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ginza. Here, because of extreme variations and particular handling of advertising material.

Through the comparison of street views in the mentioned spots in Tokyo I would try to find out cognition. My cognition will show up as an essay with examples and comparison.


2.1 Progression of advertisement signage.
To introduce the issue, I would like to give a short discourse about the progression of signage for the purpose of public advertising.
In Robert Venturi‘s book “Learning from Las Vegas” is a chronological comparative analysis of how signage has change. Here, I have redrawn the abstract diagram (Fig.1) and expand the series with the Tokyo related idea




3.1 Influence of Advertisement
To get an idea how much influence advertisement to a street scene can have, the most reasonable way to illustrate it is just put them away. In the following visualizations is a comparison of some most active and very pulsating hubs in Tokyo. These areas where passed by millions of people every week and generating a pool with a super
dense exchange of information.

Area introduction
Shibuya (渋谷区 Shibuya-ku) is one of the 23 special wards of Tokyo, Japan. As of 2005, it had an estimated population of 195,877 and a density of 12,960 persons per km². The total area is 15.11 km².

Shibuya is special for teenage shopping, proximity to Harajuku, Yoyogi park and Aoyama. It has a vital terminus to private-company commuter lines like keio inokashira and tokyu toyoko. The JR-line connects to Shinjuku in a few minutes.

Area 2
Shinjuku (新宿区, Shinjuku-ku) is one of the 23 special wards of Tokyo, Japan. It is a major commercial and administrative centre, housing the busiest train station in the world (Shinjuku Station), and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the administration center for the Tokyo Metropolis. As of 2005, the ward has an estimated population of 305,352 and a density of 16,710 persons per km².

Shinjuku is special for a large concentration of department stores, electronic and camera shops, cinemas, restaurants and bars in the vicinity.

Area 3
Ginza (銀座) is a district of Chūō Ward, Tokyo, located south of Yaesu and Kyōbashi, west of Tsukiji, east of Yūrakuchō and Uchisaiwaicho, and north of Shinbashi.

Ginza is relative age, compared to Shibuya and Shinjuku. The “idea” of Ginza, in terms of shopping in Tokyo and Japan, is historically much stronger than other neighbourhoods, although now it has the “upscale feeling”.

3.2 Shibuya
A very first impression of Hachiko area in Shibuya (Fig.2) is the amazing overflow of information and especially its unique visual experience. Every possible spot seems to be utilized for advertising purposes. Initially Shibuya looks like extremely chaotic, without guiding principles. But in fact, it is precisely its chaos that makes it cohesive. Shibuya uses signage, symbols and advertisement in an overwhelming system. The pedestrian seeks desperately for a system or orientation. But there is no more clear partition between a signage, symbol, advertisement and architecture. So he has to accept the circumstance navigate through it.

In fact, in this situation a person needs to be able to differentiate between street signs, building captions and advertisements. All these elements appear mixed up without order, unexpectedly and simultaneously.

When facing this situation, there are two basic paradigms. The first one is a person without an exact destination. So he steps in to the scene and first absorbs all impressions. After getting a sense of his surroundings, he moves intuitively in the direction of the most hypnotizing and aggressive advertisement.
The second one is a person with an exact, predetermined destination. He must filter specific information out from the remainder of the information overload. To orient oneself in the previously described situation, in which all type of information appears to be unorganized and confusing, this proves to be a cumbersome task. Surprisingly
however, as a whole, this system of organisation seems to work fluently.

What happens?
Signage in Shibuya come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and the visual landscape that this creates is nothing short of confusing. Beginning with the street sign they are really small and practically disappear under the weight of an overpowering urban background. Large signs, whose task is to indicate a certain activity in a building, are confused with advertisement. If they are small they are attached closely to the building; to see them you have to go closer to the building.
Except for the street signs, which follow standardized design regulation, building signs can be easily confused with advertisement.

Signs are usually related to an immediate object while advertisements are more open in its definition. As mentioned in the foreword, advertisement is handled as to a building added media. The advertisement in a first impression is perhaps the major visual element you will remember upon visiting Shibuya. In an overlapping system the ads compete with each other to get as much attention as possible. They are flashy and bold, often with animation and as well loud. There are detached as well as attached constructions on the building only for the advertisement.

First conclusion
The Shibuya commercial buildings itself is getting to a foundation for advertisement, without any clear relationship to the inside function. The interior space of the building is visually, acoustically and climatically
separated from the street. Obviously there is absolutely no perceptible connection desirable. Why would they do that? If there were windows, you feel like you are being watched by others from the adjacent buildings, since the distance between them is so small. While the inside of the building has its own compartmentalized functions,
the building‘s exterior can be reserved entirely for its commercials.
The inside world of an apartment is under better control without uncoordinated environmental factors. As with in Venturi‘s example of Las Vegas, the visitor loses his feeling for time and his connection to the external environment, and as a result he can be absolutely focused on shopping.

Shibuya without advertisement
By imagining the Hachiko square without any advertising (Fig.3), the whole visual landscape appears much calmer than before. Nothing in particular is competing to catch your attention, and you have the chance to see the shapes of the buildings behind the advertisement, which were hidden by the large amount of signage.
Taken away from the facade are the covering print advertisements as well as all the boards attached to the facades. As well, elements supporting advertisement only, which are not part of the buildings‘ structures, are also removed. Doing this, entire framework from many rooftop advertisements disappear.

What now appears is a solid looking cityscape with quite a vastly different character. It is a sort of grey-on-grey composition, where differences between buildings are expressed solely through form and shape. It could also be understood as a landscape of modern architecture from anonymous architects.

It is difficult to attribute this new cityscape to any particular city. It has certainly lost the particular vibrant character which we instantly recognize as Shibuya. It turns it into a neutral, generic cityscape. Stacked one upon the other, the buildings are like geometric volumes, which remind me of wooden building blocks.

Second Conclusion
Clearly, advertisement must have a noticeable and important effect on architecture. When they appear as a facade-covering poster or as an additional construction to a building, it definitely changes the expression in architecture. From the point of view of an Architect the advertisement it is slightly dubious.

3.3 Shinjuku
Behind the east exit of Shinjuku Station is a district known as Kabukichō. (Fig.4) The whole front along the main street up to the edge of the buildings is covered with thousands of small advertisements. The on the facade attached boards share more or less the same size which generate a kind of surface. Dominating vertical advertisements gives the facade a certain drive.

First of all, most of this advertisement will be very quickly recognized as signage. Vertically-oriented signboards added to the facade seem to be identifying certain activities being offered in that building. Because of these boards‘ large coverage, the actual building facade is almost impossible to see.
Furthermore, huge posters and advertising boards – similar to those constructed on rooftops similar to Shibuya – can be found. Realizing this simple characteristic of signage, to navigate in this part of Shinjuku is simple.

What happen?
A relatively clear difference in dimension between the signs and advertisements supports that they are not that confusing. The dense signs along the facade create a kind of new pattern which extends to the vanishing point of the street.

The strongest presence of advertisements is obviously on the top of the building, in the form of small rooftop constructions. In some cases, large posters cover building facades, but not at that same impressive frequency as in Shibuya.

First conclusion
Shinjuku‘s advertisement in the Kabukichō area looks more standardized due more orthogonal streets. As well, the distance between blocks is bigger compared to usual cityscape of Tokyo, which suggests a little more space and a more comprehensive view. Comparing to Shibuya, Shinjuku looks more cubic due dominating orthogonal
advertisings. Shibuya instead looks more modern because of huge neon panel and animated screens.

Shinjuku without advertisement
By removing the advertisement from the Kabukichō area (Fig.5), the uneasy feeling the scene usually produces is taken away. Instead, the building ensemble looks more solid and well-defined. Taken away from the facade are the covering print advertisement and the facade-attached boards. As well, elements supporting advertisement only, which are not part of the buildings‘ structures, are also removed. Doing this, entire framework from many rooftop advertisements disappear.

The different cityscape differentiates each building from one another. It looks pretty international and could be positioned in every larger western city. Since the signs are away, the buildings have no noticeable function, and have actually lost all importance, because no one knows what is inside them now. The new generated cityscape
is reminiscent to the “Amsterdam harbour development” in a different circumstance.

Second Conclusion
Advertisement makes this part of Tokyo look somewhat fidgety. However it is so dense that it creates its own additional surface on the facade. This visually chaotic surface is getting in to a system which covers the whole facade. In this case the advertisement is kind of a texture which is applied to the buildings. But even by subtracting all signage and advertising, the expression of the buildings‘ shapes – except for the roofs perhaps – Shinjuku‘s appearance does not changing nearly as dramatically as Shibuya‘s does.

3.4 Ginza
Ginza appears clear, confident and the whole scene looks quite calm. The building facades are not covered with tonnes of signs and advertisement, so the feeling of getting overwhelmed by fidgety advertising disappeared as well. It feels like there is space to breathe.

Of course Ginza is not free from advertisement but it is not nearly as dense as Shibuya or Shinjuku. On and off, you recognize some prominent examples of bold signage. Because of bigger spaces between buildings they are less irrelevant, so only big poster or separate identity facades are noticeable.

What happens?
In my eyes Ginza is kind of a developed prototype for how to effectively combine advertisement with architecture while maintaining the identity of a certain commercial function.

Sign, Advertisement and Symbol come together.
Enjoyable are these huge buildings which appear as one whole thing. They often contain a distinct identity, representing a brand or giving a clear idea of what is inside of the building. The building strip strings
various ideas together, as though it were a scaled-up gallery of “architecture fashion”.


4.1 Japanese relation to scale
From a western point of view, buildings with one proper design, one would say, “that looks cool”. But is it simply a “cool” effect? I think there is a deeper background in Japanese culture to explain why this particular kind of expression is appreciated.

Let me disclose some of my theories:

By traveling through Japan with a bit of attention you are able to see an interesting relationship between some elements. It is about the scale of objects. When western cultures change scale, they try to find a new expression, for example, in construction.
But in Japan, it seems the expression of scale is not of primary importance. They simply want to have a certain object in another scale. Whether it is bigger or smaller at any particular moment is not important. It is maybe more about the love to have something in a bigger or smaller format.

Some examples within I think I can point out some clue you can find in the paper.
1. Kanji 漢字
2. Torii, 鳥居
3. Chōchin, 提灯
4. Tourou 灯籠
5. Sumō, 相撲
6. Fictional Characters

It seems that the Japanese have their own different way of thinking about proportion. But exactly these objects are known and sometimes popular in the western culture. So I may be permitted to see a relationship between the introduced elements and Japanese modern architecture.
Large oversized elements, noticeable consistent facades, and very small housings can all be found together in Tokyo. With proper respect there can be coexistence without disturbing any other individual things.


5.1 Advertisements at Night
Till now advertising is seen only in daylight. But what will happen after dusk?

Fancy, flashy and loud advertisements can overwhelm your impression of parts of Tokyo during the daytime. It is even more imposing and impressive than once the sun goes down. Signs, symbols and advertisements are struggling to be silhouetted against each other. It is an amazing spectacle in which it seems that there are no rules for this competition. You can feel power and energy.

If you concentrate you can see some street lights standing alone. But under the weight of the advertisement lights, these street lights are unseen and in some cases have actually become unnecessary. Drivers have to concentrate a lot to focus on their traffic signal lights, and not getting confused with all the other lights.

5.2 Shibuya at night
The just described cityscape is seen at the best in Shibuya. But all this impression is no coming from one Advertise or Sign it needs more. Not till then a swarm creates this kind of atmosphere. Over dimensional generate animation spots with deafening underplayed music complete the assortment of commercial. Not that seldom a ten meter high walking dinosaur gets projected on the facade.

5.3 Shibuya at night without advertisement
Imagine if all the crazy advertisements of Hachiko square did not exist. Shibuya would turn in to a peaceful sleeping giant. The night would calm down over Tokyo and soft sparkling stars could be seen. You can see the silhouettes from people in the back light from the showcase in the pedestrian area.

With no advertising, what now appears refers to something quite like a European city: pedestrian areas in the light of the showcase, hushed facades and a dark night sky. The upper facade is apparent but disappears in the shadows of the volumes.

5.4 Conclusion
This visualization gives the chance to see Shibuya in an idealistic way. Now it can be seen how drastic an influence advertisements can have. Advertising has definitively a dramatic consequence to architectural propositions and effects.

6.1 Turn around
In the last few pages I disclosed that advertisement has an influence on appearance, perception, shape, expression and even use in architecture. So if I filter out the advertisement as an architectural element it could be used or adapted to other buildings at a variety of places.

6.2 Initial Position
In the next experiment, I take a photograph of the business district of Shinjuku. What you see are high-rise buildings with simple architectural shapes and repetitive levels. It could be a high-rise district in any other larger, capitalistic city.

6.3 Architectural changes with advertisement
Let’s add hundreds of signs and advertisements to the existing facade and see what happens.
Where are we now? Back in Shibuya, Shinjuku or even Ginza?

What now can be seen is that with choosing advertising as architectural element any favored image can be created. Isn’t it amazing how easy such a solid business district can be changed?

Keep in mind that the advertisement is not such a simple element but much more powerful depending on its application.


7.1 Final conclusion
Three locations and three different ways’s how advertising is used in Tokyo’s most pulsating areas. Every place has its own ambiance and quality generated by their system of advertisement.
Shibuya transports a futuristic image while Shinjuku’s Kabukichō appears more dated. Ginza becomes most integrated with advertisement in the view of how it combines it with the building.

I think I am allowed to say that advertising has a direct influence to architecture. This work shows how advertisement is applied in daily Tokyo life. Advertisement can be taken as astonishing or annoying – this is left to each reader’s point of view.

As well the power of advertising if it is good or bad is definitively demonstrated.
In Shibuya and Shinjuku advertisement is not a architectural element because it doesn’t support or care about the building. It is kind of a parasite which only uses the building as fundament for its own advertisement. But at same time it is a architectural element because the cityscape obviously changes so drastic that the whole area lost its identity.

Talking about Ginza’s building development where advertisement conjunction with architecture while maintaining the identity of a certain commercial function. It would say advertisement could be seen as a element of architecture. The point of view of an architect is quit optimistic when he sees the buildings in Ginza. Here it looks as architecture and advertisement is understood as ability and element to generate a certain image and cityscape.

Advertisement, a powerful tool in urban planning, should be used with awareness. If it is possible it is an architect’s responsibility to be able to correctly manage advertisement in an adequate way and keep in mind that it is able to create an image for a whole district or even more.

Topics of conversation and a rich basis for continuing research can be seen as a result of this research. Work could proceed with the following problems:

How much advertising can be handled and how much is too much?
-> not to see the forest for the trees

What about sustainability?
-> The Shibuya comparison with and without advertising at night gives an unequivocal imagination how much electrical energy must be used every single day.

Is it possible to find another solution for advertisement?
-> Maybe the Ginza trend has a potential for further development.


Want to see and find all figures and photos?

>>> Read the research as paper