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Classic and contemporary – worth preserving

One of Japan’s most loved modernist hotel buildings is under threat of demolition. Will the campaign to preserve it prevail? Our local K reporter investigates.

The lobby of the Hotel Okura’s main building is a study in harmony, an exquisite melding of Japanese and Western design that has resulted in an atmosphere of understated opulence. As you walk through the front doors, the tuxedoed concierge greets you and kimono-clad lobby attendants pass demurely by.

Above the massive ikebana floral arrangement, which sits in a hexagonal pool at the centre of the entranceway, pendant lanterns drip from the ceiling like cut gems.

l’Hôtel Okura, Japon

Light streams through the leaf pattern latticework and giant shoji paper screens, illuminating the space in the daytime and casting alluring shadows at dusk.

Built in 1962 at the height of Japanese modernism, the Hotel Okura was designed by a group of architects including Yoshiro Taniguchi and Hideo Kosaka. The interior of the main building, which incorporates the work of craftsmen such as potter Kenkichi Tomimoto , has remained largely intact for the last 53 years.

l’Hôtel Okura, Japon

However, the days are numbered for the landmark structure: the hotel is slated for demolition in August 2015, with plans in place to erect a 42-storey tower by 2019. The news has sparked an outcry of protest from arts and design enthusiasts – among them Tomas Maier, creative director of luxury lifestyle brand Bottega Veneta, who recently launched a social media initiative to persuade the Japanese to preserve their modernist architecture.

“As a long-time admirer of Japanese modernism, I am deeply saddened that these great buildings may soon disappear. We hope that Bottega Veneta can help promote awareness of this issue, as we believe that great design is timeless.

It would be a great loss for the next generation to be unable to embrace the beauty of these icons for themselves,”

Maier, whose father was an architect, remarked at the start of the campaign.

Harmony and hospitality

The value of Taniguchi’s masterful construction transcends aesthetics. The building symbolises Japan’s return to international society and encapsulates the idealistic optimism that prevailed after World War II. The 1960s ushered in an era of prosperity and openness, which was marked by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Progressive modes of thought and new movements in art and architecture flourished.

“In the 60s, Japan had hope for the future after its chequered past. The country was looking for a new identity, and the Olympics were a great departure point for building a new type of architecture,” explained New York-based Japanese architect Toshiko Mori, who’s also Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture at Harvard. She spoke about the significance of Japanese modernism at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa last November.

“The Okura is a testament of incredible complexity that represents international and Japanese connection, history and mutual influences.”

Like Maier, with whom she has a close relationship, Mori sees architecture as a bridge between the past and the future, living repositories of history and culture. The hotel’s original owner, Kishichiro Okura, had envisioned the building as a showcase for omotenashi – that uniquely Japanese brand of altruistic hospitality – as well as a novel style of design that included traditional materials and motifs. The concept of wa (harmony) and the spirit of omotenashi are seamlessly integrated into the architecture.

Sense of place

All of the decorative elements – from the chairs laid out to resemble plum blossoms, to the geometric patterns on the chopstick covers – are loosely coordinated to reinforce the overall design, while the discreet manners of the staff reflect the hotel’s ambiance of tranquillity.

l’Hôtel Okura, Japon

“The service at the Okura expresses the spirit of that time. The behaviour of the employees reflects the understated spatial configuration and tranquil acoustic effect .”, Mori said, adding a note of warning: “Once you lose that space and the atmosphere, you will lose that experience.”

Sadly, the scrap-and-build mentality that accompanied the period of rapid growth and economic development in post-war Japan is still driving business decisions decades later. Some modernist gems, such as Kenzo Tange’s Kagawa Prefectural Gym, have been closed because of the high costs required to bring the building up to contemporary earthquake standards. The Okura has been struggling to compete with the wave of design-savvy international luxury chains that have popped up around the city in recent years.

The design of the new glass tower, which will increase the number of guest rooms from 408 to 550 and possibly add some office space, will be overseen by Yoshiro Taniguchi’s son, Yoshio, who led the 2004 redesign of New York’s MOMA. Although Hotel Okura president Masaki Ikeda says that the new building will be “even more aesthetically pleasing,” Mori worries that the singular identity of the hotel will disappear.

“People come for the total package – the experience you can’t find anywhere else.

That’s the hotel’s selling point”, she observed. In our age of global monoculture, uniqueness and sense of place are among the greatest assets of luxury brands.

Revamp instead?

Ikeda cites the hotel’s age as the reason for the renovation. “The facilities are getting old,” he told the Washington Post in early February. While the Okura’s rooms, which are small by today’s standards, could benefit from updating, modernisation doesn’t have to mean severing the hotel’s ties with history. What is needed, as Mori points out, is a discursive process that requires more reflection.

Mori suggests that a revamp of the hotel’s south wing, which was completed in 1973, could be a better opportunity for the Okura to attract a younger, trendier clientele. The key is to consider the wider perspective and think smarter about how to make the hotel economically viable.

Bottega Veneta has been encouraging people around the world to share their experiences by taking a photo at the hotel and posting it on Instagram with the hashtag

#MyMomentAtOkura.

l’Hôtel Okura, Japon

So far, the project has generated tremendous support. The redevelopment is still scheduled to proceed as planned, but Mori believes that there’s still a chance to save the hotel, as hospitality groups are particularly sensitive to public opinion.

Awareness-building campaigns have been successful in the past: the popular initiative led by violinist Isaac Stern that saved Carnegie Hall is one salient example. “There’s always hope, and we have to try because this issue is about how society faces the legacy of its historical artefacts,” Mori said.

 

Read more:  
My Moment at Okura  #MyMomentAtOkura
 
 
Photo credits :
Tetsuya Ito for Bottega Veneta