Not Your Father’s Club

by Catherine Shaw
Tokyo American ClubTokyo American Club reinvented as a modern home-from-home

With a ¥19 billion upgrade to a new 20,420m2 bespoke designed building housing state-of-the-art dining and recreational facilities, the Tokyo American Club (TAC) — which opened its sleek new doors in mid-January — has transformed itself from good to one of the greats in terms of private members’ clubs.

The reinvention has been keenly awaited, not only by the more than 3,300 members looking forward to their chic new facilities, but also by other private clubs in the region. The artful repositioning of TAC as “the best in Asia” has been closely watched by an industry struggling to respond to a fastchanging clientele and a challenging economic environment.

Tokyo American ClubTAC has a history of redevelopment and upgrading: after opening in 1928 in Yurakucho it moved to Marunouchi in 1935, where it became a Ministry of Foreign Affairs-sanctioned nonprofit organization with the stated mission of promoting cultural exchange. In 1954, TAC bought the Azabudai site that was regularly upgraded until redevelopment in 1972. The current redevelopment planning began in 1997 in response to growing demand for more athletic, casual, family oriented services that TAC’s aging buildings and outmoded facilities were unable to provide. Rather than cosmetic upgrading, new stringent earthquakesafe building standards provided another compelling impetus for complete redevelopment.

Happily, world-renowned master architect Cesar Pelli shared TAC’s core philosophy of creating a new “home” for members. “I remember at the very earliest presentations when we were selecting the master architect for the project from some of the world’s best designers, [Pelli] spoke with real feeling about creating a large house that would accommodate different members of a family,” recalls TAC Redevelopment Director Alistair Gough.

Tokyo American Club“We knew from the outset that we would get a design that was exactly what members were looking for; not just a beautifully designed structure, the end result goes beyond convenience and functionality to a space that people want to use.”

Demolition of the old club building took eight months, while construction of the new structure and adjacent luxury condominium (owned by redevelopment partner Mitsubishi Estate Company) took just over two years. The result is an elegant eight-storey stone, glass and timber clubhouse with a distinctive glass dome roof over the upper floor’s pool deck. The club building and condominium, in a prominent setting with views towards Tokyo Tower, covers 60% of the 13,228m2 sloping site, allowing the clubhouse to “step down” the hill through a series of landscaped terraces creating multiple perspective points.

There are now separate entrances for family and business activities; family dining takes place at the Rainbow Café, Café Med and Splash!, a rooftop outdoor restaurant, while more intimate dining is at the main dining room Decanter, which also has two unique dining bridges, a teppanyaki table and Chef’s Table. The Winter Garden, a distinctive and dramatic 300m2 central space, is undoubtedly the heart of the home with its almost 8-meter floor-to-ceiling windows and distinctive display wall featuring paper craft artist Eriko Horiki’s handmade 10-meter high “Light Wall” created from natural white washi interwoven with rainbow-colored threads.

Tokyo American Club“The composition is based on the motif inspired by tatewaku,” explains the Kyoto-based artist. “This traditional auspicious omen represents steam rising up and curling in the air, a symbol of happiness and prosperity. The two sets of curved lines crossing each other create a motif, expressing the exchange between Japan and America.”

Throughout the rest of the building, a seamless blend of materials, pattern and texture reflect Pelli’s trademark attention to detail: the master architect’s exclusive carpet pattern designs woven by Tai Ping and innovative textile hangings by Tokyo-based contemporary textile artist Reiko Sudo, for example, add a strong sense of character and individuality. Elsewhere, TAC’s long association with acclaimed Japanese artist Toko Shinoda is evident: one of her largest paintings, Soumon, has graced the walls of the club since 2004 and now occupies visual pride of place in the formal lobby, while two abstract mosaic “art walls” designed by Pelli and manufactured by Kolorines in Mexico add an eyecatching perspective to the B1 entrance vestibule and on the third floor at Decanter.

Furnishings are a mix of modern and classic design pieces, such as colorful Yin-Yang-inspired puzzle “Confluences” sofas designed by Philippe Nigro, iconic Eero Saarinen-designed chairs, and a quirky Bubble Lamp by George Nelson above the Chef’s Table designed by Saarinen for Knoll. For families there is a spacious library; a whimsical, brightly colored playroom; a purpose-built climbing frame and Fun Zone with pool table, along with ping pong, Wii and PlayStation. A six-lane bowling center delivers a state-of-the-art experience. Other facilities include a luxurious spa, 25-meter pool, squash courts, gymnasium and fitness center. Seven individually designed guest rooms are another new feature, while the 400-seat ballroom with its vaulted ceiling and contemporary chandeliers has already generated considerable interest.

US Ambassador John Roos, Tokyo American Club President Lance E. Lee, Mitsubishi Jisho Residence CEO Takao Yagihashi and Fred Clarke of architects Pelli Clarke Pelli at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on January 18 2011.

US Ambassador John Roos, Tokyo American Club President Lance E. Lee, Mitsubishi Jisho Residence CEO Takao Yagihashi and Fred Clarke of architects Pelli Clarke Pelli at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on January 18 2011.

Even the outdoor terraces have received careful attention, with hand-woven DEDON outdoor furniture and an eco-friendly mix of American and Japanese flora created by Soma Landscaping.

“The club has gone through quite a transition from its initial roots as a gentleman’s club back in 1928 to a family-oriented club today,” says President Lance E. Lee. “The new design may include features only found in the best hotels and resorts in the world, but our focus will always be on the people who make up our membership, management and staff. The architectural firm we chose, Pelli Clarke Pelli, understood this so they designed a building for us that would emphasize movement and the beauty that goes along with it, better known as a community.”

“I can see myself working at the business center or meeting friends there in the morning, bringing the kids to play or join activities like swimming after the school day ends and then staying on to eat at one of the restaurants in the evenings,” says former Women’s Group President Betsy Wiedenmayer Rogers, a long-time club member. “With the new guest rooms I could even stay overnight. I think the clubhouse may just become my new home.” Mission accomplished then.

Cesar Pelli, 84, is responsible for designing some of the tallest and most striking modern buildings in the world. Born in Argentina, he moved to the US aged 26. In 1991 he was recognized by the American Institute of Architects as “one of the 10 most influential living American Architects”. Pelli lives in New Haven, Connecticut.