Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan
Commemorating the birth of the great American architect 150 years ago in the only country outside North America where his work is found
Over the course of a singular career, Frank Lloyd Wright created a thousand designs, in the process transforming America’s architectural identity.
Historic homes and museums across the country have just begun commemorating the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth on June 8 with a range of events and exhibitions.
For readers in Asia, it’s a perfect time to explore Wright’s legacy in Japan, the only nation outside North America in which his work can be found.
BIRTH OF THE LEGACY
When Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was born in a small town in America’s rural Midwest, the Tokugawa Shogunate was in the final year of its feudal reign.
Over two centuries of isolation would end the following year with the Meiji Restoration, ushering in Japan’s headlong rush toward modernization.
A few decades later, Wright would make his first trip to the tiny island in the Far East, in search of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He would find it to be “the most romantic, most beautiful” place on earth, and take cues from its aesthetic refinements for the rest of his 70-year career.
Without Japan, that career would have taken an entirely different direction.
When scandals began rocking Wright’s personal and professional life in the early 20th century, he looked east for refuge.
In 1916, after an aggressive pursuit of the project, he won the commission to build the new Imperial Hotel. It was to be his largest and most complex design.
For the next six years, Japan would become both Wright’s muse and his savior.
During extended stays in Tokyo, he designed over a dozen more buildings (six were built). But he left another, equally significant, legacy: his transformative effect on the men who helped him build the Imperial Hotel.
Many of them went on to create their own masterpieces, to revolutionize Japan’s cityscapes and to mentor a new generation of architects.
Among those working closely with Wright in the drafting office at the Imperial Hotel was his right-hand man, Arata Endo (1889-1951), who became the only architect to share credit with the master.
Another was Antonin Raymond (1888-1976), the Czech-born American who went on to lead Japan’s modernist movement during his 43 years in the country. Kameki Tsuchiura (1897-1996) later introduced pre-fab housing methods inspired by Wright’s pursuit of affordable homes and Yoshiya Tanoue (1899-1991) spread Wrightian modernism in Hokkaido.
While architects across Japan began emulating Wrightian syntax in their own work, Wright’s impact on his Tokyo “apprentices” cannot be underestimated.
Together, they pioneered the first true convergence of Japan’s traditional craftsmanship and innovative Western techniques.
That architectural continuum remains strong today, with Wright’s organic principles suffusing the work of such heralded figures as Tadao Ando and Kengo Kuma; Kumiko Inui, Takaharu and Yui Tezuka; and Hiroshi Nakamura.
Japan has an unquenchable thirst for the new, and the “scrap-and-rebuild” mentality has driven construction developments since the Meiji era.
Despite the disappearance of much of its architectural heritage — including the tragic loss of Wright’s fabled Imperial Hotel, which was demolished in 1968 to make way for a much larger building — dozens of Wright-related sites still exist today in Japan.
Many of them are in private hands, which hasn’t prevented determined travelers from locating them.
The following are brief overviews of a handful of sites that are either open to the public or to visitors who are careful to follow posted rules (such as churches and university buildings).
The Imperial Hotel (Wright, 1913-1923; razed 1968)
(See Near Nagoya below for details on the reconstructed Imperial lobby at Meiji Mura.)
Wright proclaimed Japanese craftsmen to be “the finest in the world” and couldn’t resist testing their limits for his remarkable hotel.
Some 2,000 drawings were produced during the four-year building process, and a workforce of nearly 1,000 was employed. Then, just before the grand opening ceremony on September 1, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake leveled Tokyo and Yokohama.
The Imperial Hotel became the quake’s most famous survivor, resurrecting Frank Lloyd Wright’s flagging career and making its location in Hibiya, Tokyo, the No. 1 tourist destination in Asia.
When guests stepped into the entry foyer, they were transported to another world.
Wright had calibrated the hotel’s spectacular spatial compositions to surprise and delight at every turn, carefully orchestrating the sun’s rays to produce a daily symphony of light and shadow on the intricately carved oya (lava tuff), and surrounding the enormous structure with gardens and pools.
Today’s Imperial contains only faint echoes of the great architect’s masterpiece; but his 150th birthday is being marked with several elaborate enhancements as part of festivities dubbed Imperial Times: Once and Future Legacies.
On June 8, a new lounge area off the hotel’s main lobby opens, incorporating signature elements from the elaborate 1923 Imperial and displays of historic artifacts.
For those immune to sticker shock, the Imperial Hotel’s luxurious Frank Lloyd Wright Suite now includes a carved-oya mantelpiece, stained glass windows, carpet patterns and light fixtures newly styled after 1923 designs.
The Old Imperial Bar highlights several original pieces of the 1923 hotel, including an exquisite wall mural framed in carved oya-stone, a large terracotta grill behind the bar, and an original floor lamp. Although other features are replicas and “inspired-by” pieces, the bar is still the only place in town that evokes the Imperial’s dazzling past.
The Imperial Hotel has also announced that renovations to incorporate more of Wright’s 1923 designs would be continuing indefinitely. With the 100th anniversary of the original building fast approaching, surely we can expect these “renovations” to comprise far more than just legacy motifs, beautiful as they are.
Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan and Auditorium (Wright and Arata Endo, 1921-1927)
While working on the Imperial, Wright accepted other commissions, including one for a new girls’ school to be called Jiyu Gakuen, or School of the Free Spirit.
The founders, Motoko and Yoshikazu Hani, were journalist friends of Arata Endo’s. Wright and Endo built it economically and to child scale, in a style evoking Wright’s Prairie houses.
Jiyu Gakuen was an instant success, and Endo designed an auditorium in 1927 before classes moved to an expansive campus on the edge of town.
The original building, renamed Myonichikan (Hall of Tomorrow), was saved from the wrecking ball during Japan’s real estate bubble, and is now one of the most popular party and wedding venues in town.
Mejirogaoka Baptist Church (Arata Endo, 1951)
After spending the war years in China, where he nearly died while awaiting repatriation, Endo returned to Tokyo and completed a number of schools.
This church, his first unadorned concrete building, was to be his final design.
Its austere modernism, with triangular arches dominating the steeple and apse, and a sharply sloping roof, is humanized by Endo’s trademark use of wood and his exuberant Wrightian lamps. He died in 1951, before it could be completed.
St. Anselm’s Meguro Catholic Church (Antonin Raymond, 1952-1956)
Demonstrating his facility with exposed concrete, Raymond designed this surprisingly warm and nourishing place for worship, consisting of hollow, folded-plate columns.
Light enters through dozens of clear windows between the columns, and the church features poetic stations of the cross by Raymond’s wife and collaborator, Noémi. The architect also created the distinctive baldachin above the altar.
Hoshi University Main Hall (Antonin Raymond, 1921-24)
One of Raymond’s first commissions after leaving the Imperial Hotel project, the building originally included a library, classrooms, offices, a gym and an enormous lecture hall serving the school’s pharmacy students.
Its domed auditorium borrowed some of the more striking Wrightian elements from the Imperial Hotel’s Peacock Hall, and it continues to impress.
Tokyo Woman’s Christian University (Antonin Raymond, 1921-1958)
The greatest collection of extant structures by Raymond in Japan, the Tokyo Woman’s (sic) Christian University features seven registered tangible cultural properties, including the main building (the former library).
The architect devised a master plan for the 24-acre campus, anchored by a formal quadrangle and dotted with buildings notable for their still-recognizable Wrightian motifs. The 1934 chapel, however, has more in common with August Perret’s work.
Kyobunkwan Bible Building (Antonin Raymond, 1926-1933)
Raymond was hired to design conjoined buildings for the Christian Literature Society (Kyobunkwan) and American Bible Society (Seishokan) by Methodist Episcopal missionaries.
The first floor, facing Ginza’s main street, featured a Brazilian coffee promotion center in the early years, with wall murals by famed Paris-based Japanese artist Leonard Foujita.
Raymond’s own offices were housed in the Kyobunkwan building until 1938.
Kondo House (Arata Endo, 1925)
Endo designed a weekend villa for wealthy businessman Kenji Kondo, with both Japanese tatami rooms and Western-style rooms, and a large oya-stone hearth similar to the many designs he and Wright had created for the Imperial Hotel, Jiyu Gakuen School and Yamamura House.
Like Wright, he also designed all the furnishings and lighting fixtures to assure perfect integration. The villa was miraculously spared the wrecking ball, moved and opened to the public in 1923.
ALSO DON’T MISS
Takehiko Okami’s 1933 Takanawaka Church features spirited homages to both Taliesin, Wright’s home in Wisconsin, and the Jiyu Gakuen school.
Okami worked with Arata Endo in Japan and spent a year with Wright in the US before returning to design this.
Eizo Sugawara’s 1934 Ginza Lion Beer Hall is part of the nationwide Sapporo Beer chain.
Modeled on Bavarian bierstubes, it incorporates many motifs from Wright’s Imperial Hotel, in which Sugawara found endless inspiration.
Featuring an all-original first-floor interior, the building also has Wrightian motifs in the 2nd-floor restaurant, the top-floor banquet room and on the exterior.
The 1925 Museum of Zen Culture and History at Komazawa University is also by Eizo Sugawara. The Kounkan building has a dazzling stepped ceiling that presages Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York.
ON THE MARKET
Kameki Tsuchiura’s own 1935 home is currently on the market for just $3 million.
A “white box” with vertically interlocking interior spaces, it put Kameki and his wife Nobuko firmly at the center of Japan’s modernist movement. Pritzker Prizewinner Fumihiko Maki decided to become an architect when he visited the home as a boy. Later, he recognized that its mastery of spatial composition was deeply Wrightian.
Italian Embassy Villa (Antonin Raymond, 1928)
While most visitors head to Nikko for the ornately embellished Toshogu Shrine (a UNESCO World Heritage site), there are other architectural attractions in the area, including the historic Nikko Kanaya Hotel, where Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1905 signature in the register is proudly displayed.
In nearby Oku-Nikko, Raymond’s design for the Italian ambassador and embassy visitors was an early experiment in neo-Japanesque design.
It features a nearly obsessive use of the local Nikko sugi (cedar) tree on both the exterior and interiors, and several rustic stone hearths.
Most unforgettable of all are the splendid views of Lake Chuzenji and the mountains framed by a front veranda that runs the length of the villa.
Imperial Hotel lobby at Museum Meiji Mura (Wright, 1913-1923; lobby reconstructed 1985)
Just before the wrecking ball struck the Imperial in 1967, Museum Meiji Mura agreed to “preserve” the entrance lobby at its spacious open-air architecture park.
Parts of the hotel were earmarked and shipped to Inuyama, near Nagoya, in 1968.
The reconstructed lobby and its vaunted reflecting pool, with two carved-oya samurai guards on either side, finally opened to the public in late 1985.
Even this truncated portion of Wright’s masterpiece is magnificent to behold. Not surprisingly, it is the park’s most popular draw.
Koshien Hotel (now the Koshien Hall of Mukogawa Women’s University, Arata Endo, 1930)
Endo’s masterpiece, the former Koshien Hotel pays tribute to Wright’s lost Midway Gardens in Chicago, with its multitiered rooftops and light towers rising to the sky like beacons.
Built in collaboration with Aisaku Hayashi, the Imperial Hotel manager who brought Wright to Japan and would be the Koshien’s first manager, it featured a blending of Eastern and Western conveniences.
After languishing for many years after the war, the building was saved by Mukogawa Women’s University, and in 2006, became the centerpiece of its architecture program.
DON’T MISS IN 2019
Tazaemon Yamamura House (now the Yodoko Guest House, Wright and Arata Endo, 1918-24)
Currently closed for renovations until the end of 2018, this stunning summer villa for a wealthy sake brewer was completed by Endo two years after Wright left Japan.
They shared design credit for the second time (the first was for their 1921 Jiyu Gakuen School).
Set into a hilltop in Ashiya, the villa demonstrates Wright’s genius for spatial composition and takes advantage of the site’s wrap-around views, as well as its cross breezes.
The decorative exterior blocks evoke Wright’s Los Angeles textile-block houses.
Endo designed tatami-mat rooms and other local features, achieving a stunning synthesis of Japanese and Western architecture.
The Yodogawa Steel Works acquired the home and in 1974, it became the first Taisho-era building to be designated an Important Cultural Property.
Oguma House (now Lloyd’s Coffee, Yoshiya Tanoue, 1927)
After establishing his practice in Hokkaido in 1924, Yoshiya Tanoue designed in the Wright vernacular, with geometric ornamentation and beautiful “light screen” windows.
The richly appointed Oguma House featured a double-height central room and other Wrightian attributes.
But it also marked the beginnings of Tanoue’s attempts to adapt to local conditions, particularly the long, snowy winters. The home was saved through a grassroots movement and today houses the popular Lloyd’s Coffee shop.
St. Michael’s Episcopal Church Sapporo (Antonin Raymond, 1960)
The only Raymond design in Hokkaido is this tiny gem of a worship hall, in wood and brick with economical washi-paper designs in the windows.
Its dramatic roofline is built to repel heavy snow, but its friendly, handcrafted nature suggests influences from Raymond’s youth in the central Czech Republic.