Tribute May 2012

Minoru Mori

Businessman, benefactor and believer in the arts

With the sad departure of Minoru Mori KBE, who died in March at the age of 77, we have lost one of the most mordant observers of the contemporary scene in Tokyo and Shanghai, as well as a “do-er” of the first rank. I knew Minoru more than slightly as an independent force in these two cities. It is rare, indeed, in Japanese business to find someone who does things on their own. Well, he made up his mind without consulting anyone—all the time and to marked effect.

Look at his splendid Mori Tower, the centre piece of Roppongi Hills. I remember when he showed me a scale model of the project back in 1996 or so. We were in his office, then in ARK Hills, and he started to point out salient details of the scheme.

Up on top of the main tower there was going to be an art museum, he said, pointing at his all-white ghostly model. Would he repeat that, I asked? He and I were alone at one end of his big office, while his assistant sat at a respectful distance. I know how I felt at the time, I wanted to throw my notebook up in the air and shout for joy. Here was one guy in dear old big-biz Tokyo who wanted to have a ball.

Put an art museum on the top of his main tower in the next big Mori project in Tokyo? I must call London, I decided, and alert friends in the UK to this Tokyo move. This project—and we can all see the outcome at Roppongi Hills today—was sure to appeal, I thought, to friends involved with the Tate. I must bring them together.

And so it came to pass. Not long after—this would have been 1997—Minoru and his wife, Yoshiko, were being shown around the future Tate Modern by Dennis Stevenson (now Lord Stevenson), then-chairman of the Trustees of the Tate, and by Nicholas Serota (now Sir Nicholas), the director of the Tate, on a Saturday morning as arranged by the late Gilbert de Botton, a Tate trustee and of Global Asset Management fame, whom I had contacted.

At some point thereafter, Minoru dug deep in his pocket and made a generous bequest, sufficient for Serota to approve the naming of a room at Tate Modern after Minoru.

And in 2009, Minoru was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) for his significant contribution to collaboration between the UK and Japan in the arts—such as his support for the Royal Academy of Arts, Tate Britain and Tate Modern—which has greatly contributed to their success.

Many UK artists have been privileged to be able to present their work at the Mori Museum, including Mark Wallinger and Jim Lambie, while Sir Nicholas Serota serves on the International Advisory Committee of the Mori Art Museum.

All of which was very pretty. Yet, if you ask me, it is for his efforts in Shanghai that he will be best remembered by Asians. Again, I travelled with Minoru and Yoshiko to Shanghai and I watched as he pressed the starting switch, and got things going in the Pudong section of the city. What we now have is the Shanghai World Financial Center and it is 101 storeys high, that thing, the tallest tower in China.

Just amazing, and it would never have happened without Minoru to keep gingering at a project that threatened to putter out, and had to be frozen for six years in the middle, before final completion in 2008!

In all these years of hard work, though, it has been his powers of self-expression that made him so conspicuous a figure in Tokyo. If you want proof of that, see his Penguin book, just out under the title of Mori Building: The Making of Vertical Garden Cities.

There is a passage in which Minoru is expressing his frustration at the way things move here; so slowly, he wrote, as regards building permits, so slowly as regards approval processes, so slowly as regards everything.

Consider Shanghai by comparison, he said. He saw the centre of gravity of Asia coming up in China, rather than in Roppongi. Sure, there is lots going on here, but for a hot centre of action with a world touch about it, well listen to me, says Minoru from the far side, Shanghai has it.

Tokyo—and here he repeated himself (which he often did)—is a bit slow. I miss his voice, but if you want to get the timbre of it, try the Penguin for size.

Minoru, my respects!