June 1, 2011

The Colors of Money: A Rainbow-Bright Bank In A Tokyo Suburb

If you’ve never been to Shimura—and, really, few foreigners have—all you need to know is that it’s a perfectly unremarkable neighborhood on the outskirts of vast sprawling Tokyo. Shimura’s most distinguishing feature until now has been a six-lane highway providing quick access to points north. Blink while you’re driving through, and you might miss the place entirely. This makes it all the more thrilling to encounter, in an otherwise mundane stretch of buildings, the dazzlingly colorful facade of a branch of the Sugamo Shinkin Bank.

The small credit union is headquartered in the more central Tokyo neighborhood of Sugamo, hip among the over-70 crowd, and Shimura is the third location by Emmanuelle Moureaux Architecture + Design. A French transplant, Emmanuelle Moureaux has been working in Tokyo for 10 years and living there for five more—she fell in love with the city when visiting during research for her university thesis on local architecture. It was her mini kitchen-classrooms for the ABC Cooking Studio that so impressed Sugamo Shinkin Bank president Kazuhisa Tamura that he called her to discuss a branch then under construction. 

Shimura’s 7,500-square-foot, three-story building combines a welcoming and relaxing atmosphere with an interest in color and nature—while overcoming the challenges posed by the site, a corner lot offering little of the hush characteristic of banking. “With so many cars going by on that big road, plus tall buildings crowding the area, I thought, The only place to look for calm is the sky. So my concept grew out of the goal to draw people’s eyes upward,” she explains. An exterior that she calls a “rainbow mille-feuille” accomplishes this by stacking 12 planes resin-coated in grad­uated sorbet colors, creating a joie de vivre that’s especially strong as customers approach the bank and walk under the projecting layers. The lemon-yellow entry canopy is topped by orange, bubble-gum pink, lilac, spearmint green, and eventually sky blue, all colors selected from a palette she’d previously developed as part of the bank’s visual identity. Since the colors are applied over large surfaces here, she chose the paler tones to keep the facade from appearing heavy. At night, LEDs can be individually controlled to highlight different colors in different seasons. (The facade is not lit currently, due to power reductions caused by the March earthquake and tsunami.)

Moureaux makes it possible for visitors to see the sky from inside the bank as well. That’s thanks to a trio of light wells, elliptical glass tubes descending from skylights at a slight angle. “It was challenging to find a manufacturer to produce the glass,” she says. “However, I felt that the shape was important, because the softness of the ellipse balances the right angles of the building, while the tapering creates a dynamism that draws you in.” The journey begins with the ATMs, teller windows, waiting area, vault, and meeting rooms on the ground level, then continues with an office area, a multipurpose space, a staff kitchen, and storage on two and locker rooms with roof-terrace access on three. Although most surfaces are bright white, and the vinyl floor resembles blond wood, Moureaux revisits her bright color palette with an abstracted dandelion-puff graphic. It appears almost exclusively on the ceiling rather than the walls, again to focus attention upward. Chair upholstery, too, is cheery red, pink, orange, and green. 

Sugamo Shinkin Bank’s overt friendliness connects to the corporate goal of offering superlative customer service, a mission that Moureaux wholeheartedly supports. She laments that bank branches are often so poorly designed—or so wedded to projecting a sense of weightiness—that people have no desire to spend time there. To illustrate how Sugamo Shinkin Bank sincerely reaches out, she tells a story of a visit to headquarters during a local festival: “The bank anchors one corner of Sugamo’s main shopping street, and management puts out tables and chairs and hands out tea and rice crackers. Old ladies come to relax there, even though they have no business to conduct.” Sugamo’s septuagenarians surely appreciate such gestures, remembering a time when a bank was a recognizable face in the community.

Arata Shimbashi; Erina Tsuda;Natsumi Kaneko: Emmanuelle Moureaux Architecture + Design. Orimoto Structural Engineers: Structural Engineer. Yamazaki Equipment Design: MEP. Kikukawa Kogyo Co.; Shinko Glass Industry Co.: Glasswork. Komatsubara Komuten: General Contractor. 

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