Tokyo’s surviving & endangered Modernist architecture

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 Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan


Japan is a country that deeply respects its traditions and heritage. Architectural conservations efforts by the authority could be seen at the Edo Tokyo open air architectural museum (read my previous entry). Yet is it too little, too late? In fact, due to rapid growth and urbanisation of Tokyo in the last few decades, the city has lost numerous architectural masterpieces, historical cultural buildings (like Ginza’s Kabuki theatre), shrines and gardens. Now many of the remaining iconic Modernist buildings are under threat again because of the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I am flabbergasted by how little effort had been spent on preventing property developers and other parties from tearing down these buildings. One would ‘expect’ this to happen in China, but the truth is that Japan had been the forerunner of this culture and trend since its economic boom in the 1970s.

The renowned American Modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed 14 buildings in Japan from 1912 to 1922, yet only a few have been preserved. His iconic Imperial hotel in Tokyo survived the Great Kanto Earthquake and bombing in the Second World War, but it could not escape demolition by property developers in 1968 (somethings never seem to change). Miraculously, a portion of the hotel (including the grand entrance/lobby and the reflecting pool) had been saved and relocated to the Meiji Mura Museum, an open-air architectural park in Inuyama near Nagoya.

Today the only surviving building by Frank Lloyd Wright in Tokyo is Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan ( The house of Tomorrow) built in 1921. Surprisingly, this architectural gem is still an under-the-radar tourist destination, which suited me fine as it gave me the opportunity to explore it freely.


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Located in Ikebukuro, this former girl school is ‘well-hidden’ from the bustling part of the area. Listed as an Important Cultural Property in 1997 for its historic and artistic values, restoration work of the buildings was conducted from 1999 through 2001, and was officially opened to the public in 2001.

Built of economical 2 x 4 wood and plaster, the Myonichikan consists of four buildings: the main, the east, the west buildings and an auditorium designed by Arata Endo located across the street south of the site. The main building is considered to be a ‘Prairie house’ design, commonly seen in the late and early 20th century. The colour scheme is simple: creamy yellow walls paired with dark green door and window frames/decorative lines; while dark brown furniture and flooring is used throughout the building.


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Strongly influenced by traditional Japanese architecture and fascinated by Japanese woodblock prints, Wright‘s design embodies the simple and subdued quality that can often be found in traditional Japanese architecture. I love his use of natural light, geometrical patterns and lines. Wright also paid a lot of attention on the details such as the furniture and lighting; his hanging lights are the prominent feature in the dining room, and the Japanese-inspired wooden stenciled screen reveals his fondness for craftsmanship.


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The most spectacular room though is the lounge area, where visitors can enjoy a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit (for an extra 200 yen at the entrance) while admiring the stunning window design, Biblical wall mural and cute wooden chairs and tables specifically made for children.

Last but not least, there is also a shop that sells lifestyle goods made by local designers and communities, as well as books and souvenir related to Frank Lloyd Wright, including a paper model of the building.


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The National museum of Western art in Ueno park


A more well-visited Tokyo Modernist architecture is The National museum of Western art located inside Ueno park. Designed by the renowned Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier (or Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris), the building was completed in 1959 as a symbol of the resumption of diplomatic ties between Japan and France after World War II. As the only building designed by Le Corbusier in the Far East, this building was designated as an Important Cultural Property / Buildings in 2007.

The museum was born to house the remarkable Impressionist art collection amassed by Japanese industrialist Kojiro Matsukata in Paris from 1916 to 1923. This vast collection was briefly confiscated by the French Government at the end of the Second World War, and a majority of it was eventually returned to Japan (while some valuable ones were retained in France) on the condition that the works should be housed in a museum designed by a French architect.


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Designed in the later period of his life, this exterior of this building differs in style from his famous earlier works like Villa Savoye and Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut ( except for the columns). As a supporter of utopian ideals and Brutalist architecture (which flourished from 1950s to 70s), this building is a fine example of this architectural style.

From the exterior, this austere and inconspicuous grey concrete structure appears to be almost windowless, with only one window on each side of the rectangular building. Yet once inside, one can see that the natural lighting reaches the exhibition rooms from the ceiling/roof or through the floor to ceiling windows that overlook the courtyard. The high ceiling, skyline windows (now partly artificially lit) and columns create a dramatic effect and strong impact as one steps into the exhibition room.


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It is highly significant that great works of art can be viewed in a non-intrusive environment where the public can linger and be absorbed in the artworks. This is partly why this building is a timeless masterpiece, unlike many contemporary museums designed by celebrity architects who are more concerned with showing off their signature styles than its contents and viewers’ experiences.



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 Tokyo Bunka Kaikan


Opposite the National Museum of Western Art is another Brutalist architecture: Tokyo Bunka Kaikan designed by renowned Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa (whose beautiful house can be visited at the Edo Tokyo open-air architectural museum mentioned in my previous entry).

The prodigious concrete building was built in 1961 as part of the project to celebrate 500 years since the birth of Tokyo. Renovated from 1989-99, it is one of the oldest concert halls for classical music in Japan.


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Left & middle: The brutalist facade of Tobu Department Store in Ikebukuro; Right: The Nakagin capsule Tower in Ginza


Tokyo’s endangered Modernist architecture:

There are currently a few Modernist buildings that are facing the possibility of being demolished and one of them is the iconic Nakagin capsule Tower in Ginza. Built in 1972 by Kisho Kurokawa, one of the founders of the Metabolism (who later designed the National Art Center in Roppongi), this peculiar and intriguing building is a rare example of this home-grown architectural style.

The Metabolism is an avant-garde Japanese architectural movement inspired by utopian ideals, organic biological growth, recyclability and sustainability. The residential and office-mix building consists of 140 individual capsules stacked on top of or next to each other, and they were designed to be replaced every 25 years (although this never actually happened).

Due to neglect and disrepair, 80% of the building’s remaining residents voted to have the building demolished to make way for a more modern apartment block in 2007. Since then, many have been trying to preserve this unique building. A ‘Save Nakagin Capsule Tower‘ community was formed and a Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise funds for the group to buy the capsule one by one. The fate of this building is yet to be decided, but visitors to Tokyo can stay in one of the capsules via Airbnb for around £50 per night.

I sincerely hope that this innovative and futuristic (in the 70s sense) building will be saved, and I shall try to book at least one night there when I next visit Tokyo.


The trailer of the 2010 documentary ‘Japanese Metabolist Landmark on the Edge of Destruction’ produced by Michael Blackwood


The demolition announcement by the owner of the iconic Modernist building Hotel Okura has been causing outcry recently. Opened in 1962 ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the main wing of the much-loved hotel will be demolished and be replaced by a bigger 18-storey glass tower in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Since the announcement, Monocle magazine has created an online petition to ‘Save the Okura; while Tomas Maier, the creative director of Italian luxury goods company Bottega Veneta, has partnered with Japanese architecture magazine Casa Brutus to launch a social media campaign asking social media users to post photographs to Twitter under the hashtag #MyMomentAtOkura. You can also watch the designer’s plead in the video below:



The interior of Okura Hotel (downloaded from the internet)


Save Japan’s Modern Architecture – Tomas Maier in Japan BOTTEGA VENETA 


I highly doubt that these petitions will change the minds of the hotel’s management. It is a real shame that I have never visited Hotel Okura during my many visits to Tokyo, but I was fortunate enough to have stayed at the massive 40-storey Akasaka Prince hotel before it was torn down in 2013. Designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Kenzo Tange in 1982, the rooms at this Blade-runner style hotel were spacious (unlike most other cabin-sized hotel rooms in Tokyo) and the view was spectacular.



 © Tange Associates


Elsewhere, Kengo Tange‘s Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium in Takamatsu City (featured in Maier‘s video) is also facing possible demolition after it was closed to public due to safety reasons last year. The brutalist building was built in the same year as Tange‘s Yoyogi National Gymnasium before the 1964 Olympics.

An Association of Conservation of Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium was formed to preserve the building, and it is backed by many local architects. Will this effort falls on deaf ears again? Regardless of the outcome, I think it is about time that the Japanese authority reviews their conservation effort and policies especially in regards to modern architecture.

These cases are emblematic of a larger problem in the Far East/Asian countries. The constant thirst for newer and glossier buildings and objects is a prevalent mindset throughout Asia. Aside from Japan, culturally and architecturally significant buildings are also being torn down in other parts of Asia despite public outcry. As Maier mentioned in his video, we need to act before it is too late, but perhaps it is already too late.


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