Imperial Hotel

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A pictorial history of Frank Lloyd Wright\'s late, great Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

A pictorial history of Frank Lloyd Wright\'s late, great Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

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  • 1. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel A masterpiece of oriental aesthetics and seismic engineering that should have endured the test of time as well as tremors
  • 2. Imperial intelligence
    • As an avid collector of Japanese prints, Frank Lloyd Wright admired the linear simplicity, the spatial fluidity and the natural reverence of Japan’s architecture, from the intimate human scale of its houses to the imperial grandeur of its temples and palaces. Thus he eagerly accepted his 1916 commission from the Imperial Household of Japan to design a new hotel in downtown Tokyo — a city whose newest construction greatly displeased Wright. He said...
  • 3. “ The time of awakening must come sooner or later. And then the country will be face to face with the costly necessity of getting rid of all these modern architectural monstrosities and evolving a style more in consonance with Japanese traditions and really characteristic of the people.”
  • 4. Imperial initiation
    • Surely the first Imperial Hotel was among Wright’s peeves. Built in 1890 from a French Second Empire design by a Japanese student of the Rokumeikan's architect, Englishman Josiah Condor, it was as un-Japanese as a hotel could be, despite being locally known as Teikoku Hoteru (Imperial Hotel). On April 16, 1922, it was destroyed by fire.
  • 5. Imperial inspiration The Ho-o-oden Temple World Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893
  • 6. Imperial integration The new Imperial Hotel was also to represent Japan’s emergence from an isolated island of primitive folkways into the modern nation it had become since U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry had opened it up to American trade in 1854. To these ends, Wright conceived the hotel as a hybrid of eastern and western design.
  • 7. Imperial innovation Remembering the 1894 earthquake’s damage of Tokyo’s first Imperial Hotel, Wright placed the new one on a floating concrete foundation he devised to withstand tremors.
  • 8. Imperial impression The hotel adapted the overhanging clay-tiled roofs of Japanese temples and teahouses, the earth-hugging horizontality of Wright’s American Prairie Style homes such as the Robie House in Chicago from 1910, and the stepped, setback ziggurat form of the ancient Mexican Mayan shrines that inspired his California home designs. Poured concrete and concrete block were the principal building materials.
  • 9. “ But in its scale, and in its play with surprise elements, the Imperial Hotel is completely Japanese…There were little terraces and little courts, infinitely narrow passages suddenly opening into large two- or three-storey spaces…And there were many different levels, both inside the rooms and outside the buildings, including connecting bridges between the two long, parallel wings of guest-rooms.” — Peter Blake, Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture and Space Imperial inhabitation
  • 10. On the very day of its dedication, Sept. 1, 1923, the great Kanto earthquake struck Tokyo and Yokohama, destroying more than 570,000 homes and claiming more than 100,000 lives, but leaving the Imperial Hotel intact with minimal damage. The floating foundation assured its salvation. Thus the hotel opened its doors to foreign embassy staff, foreign correspondents, and thousands of earthquake refugees, who were fed there until relief supplies arrived from the United States. Imperial imperviousness
  • 11. Nor did the earthquake impede the Imperial from becoming Tokyo’s social center for travelers, tycoons, movie stars and heads of state from all over the world. Distinguished guests included Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, and General Douglas MacArthur. Imperial international
  • 12. Arriving guests were cooled by the reflecting pool out front and received under the porte-cochere, which reminded some of them of the old Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. A soft Japanese lava stone called Oya enabled Wright to proliferate the hotel with Mayan-style carving, including geometric abstractions of scarabs, turtles and peacocks . Imperial incredulity
  • 13. Imperial impenetrability The copper rain gutters atop the perimeter of the building drained through elaborately patterned grills, which in turn shaped the falling rain water into 50 to 70-foot-high patterns of its own as it fell to the ground below.
  • 14. Imperial introduction Guests were awestruck by the three-story lobby’s palatial extravaganza of Mayan and Japanese embellishment, executed in green volcanic rock, pierced terra cotta grillwork and golden brick.
  • 15. Imperial interiors The lobby’s beige and turquoise Native American carpets, woven in Peking, led guests through a labyrinth of quirky staircases and narrow passages (including “Peacock Alley,” pictured above) into a double-height dining room, theater, lounge and ballroom, all full of whimsical geometric designs.
  • 16. Imperial intake
  • 17. Imperial impresario
  • 18. To some, these designs recalled ancient Egyptian, Mayan, Native American or Asian cultures, depending on where you were coming from. Imperial intercultural
  • 19. To others, the designs were ‘Wright’ in step with the Art Deco jazz age that was sweeping America in the ’20s and ’30s. Imperial in style
  • 20. Imperial intimacy
    • But they could also enjoy ample respite from the jazz-ma-tazz. Lined up along either side of the reflecting pool, the guest-room wings let guests escape Tokyo’s congestion in the peace of a Japanese garden-like oasis of lily pads, koi carp and bonsai trees, aided by sound insulation from the thick brick and stone walls and soft light filtered through the thin windows and perforated overhangs.
  • 21. Imperial invasion
    • The U.S. Army used and altered the Imperial Hotel as a barracks during the American Occupation of Japan after World War II, during which General Douglas MacArthur paid a visit to the troops at the hotel. It is said that Wright was requested to redesign it for this purpose, but he refused.
  • 22. Imperial inevitability
    • Rising operating costs and increasing tourism necessitated expansion of the Imperial Hotel. On December 1, 1952, the first annex was opened (top left, behind Imperial Hotel). Construction on the second annex (top right, behind Imperial Hotel) began on January 21, 1957, and was completed on July 31, 1958. Both epitomized those ‘modern architectural monstrosities’ Wright abhorred — which foreshadowed the fate of his creation.
  • 23. Imperial immolation By 1968, floods, earthquakes, pollution and wartime bombing had critically damaged the hotel’s structural foundations, which a team of seismic specialists declared unsafe to endure future tremors. Besides, the hotel’s low scale and vast outdoor space didn’t stand a chance against Tokyo’s rising land values. Despite a plea from Wright’s widow Olgivanna to save and restore the building, the hotel management decided it was more cost-effective to tear it down. And so they did, along with its annexes.
  • 24. Imperial imperiousness
    • Wright’s creation was replaced in 1970 with a monolithic 17-story hotel comprising a pair of vertical cross-slabs with more than double the old hotel’s number of rooms — which certainly reflected Tokyo’s rising land values, both architecturally and numerically. Yet it was precisely one of those ‘modern architectural monstrosities’ that Wright had felt was ruining the city by defying Japanese folk traditions...
  • 25. Imperial intoxication
    • … though the old hotel’s memory has been sparsely preserved in the new digs by primping up various common areas — such as the bar — with Wrightian designs and motifs.
  • 26.
    • But the Imperial Hotel’s memory is more faithfully preserved at Meiji Mura, an open-air museum of architecture from the reign of Emperor Meiji Tenno, near Nagoya, where the original entrance pavilion, lobby and reflecting pool were reassembled. Here today, visitors can experience a portion of the imperial power of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Asian-American masterpiece.
    Imperial ImmORTALITY
  • 27. Imperial invitation
    • For a seven-minute filmed tour of the Imperial Hotel’s reconstructed grounds, entrance and lobby at Meiji Mura, visit:
    • www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QUz_zIJqB8
    • For a 10-minute presentation by architect Edgar Tafel of slides he had taken of the hotel’s demolition 42 years ago, visit:
    • www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNAbFyp78Ho&feature=related