Faced with a dwindling birth rate and a rising elderly population, Japan has been closing schools right and left.  But thanks to a group of concerned citizens, architects, and academics, the Hizuchi Elementary School—an exquisite example of Japan’s homegrown brand of Modernism located in a small town on the island of Shikoku—was restored beautifully instead. On November 13, the efforts of the Architectural Consortium that spearheaded the historic building’s salvation will be honored when they are presented with the 2012 World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Completed in the late 1950s, the building was designed by Masatsune Matsumura who trained with one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s disciples, Kameki Tsuchiura. Though Modern in character, the two-story school was made of wood, Japan’s traditional building material of choice. Unlike most of the country’s timber buildings, it incorporated plenty of glass, flooding the interior with daylight rare for a Japanese public school.

Running alongside the Kiki River, the narrow building consists of a sequence of spaces interspersed with light wells and united by a long, glass-enclosed corridor. While window walls admit natural light into the six classrooms, an outdoor balcony jutting out from the library overlooks the river. But as codes evolved, the building was deemed seismically unsound and no longer met child safety standards. When a typhoon ravaged the town in 2004, the aged school was seriously damaged, triggering a heated debate over whether to demolish or save the building.

In 2005, prompted by the potential loss of such a significant structure, concerned local citizens teamed up with a group of architectural experts: Professor Hiroyuki Suzuki of Aoyama Gakuin University, Professor Kiyotada Magata of Ehime University, Professor Yoshiaki Hanada of Kobe Design University, Professor Mikio Koshihara of Tokyo University, Kouichi Wada, president of Wada Architectural Design Atelier, and Kazutomi Takechi, CEO of Atelier A & A Ltd. This consortium successfully persuaded authorities to preserve the historic structure. Over the next three years the building was stripped down to its wood frame and then meticulously brought back to life in accordance with the current seismic code—Japan’s first post-war, wooden school building to receive this upgrade.  After years of deterioration and benign neglect, the Hizuchi school now looks much as Matsumura envisioned it over 50 years ago.

The reconstruction entailed saving some parts of the structure and discarding others. Existing glass panels had to be replaced with safety glass, and worn out elements were reproduced, such as the ceramic tiles, which were recast in the original molds. Almost all of the columns and architectural fittings, however, were reused. Back in service for the past three years, the community is delighted to see the building being used to educate children once again—though many of the restored classrooms have been configured for modification should student enrollment wane in the future as anticipated.

While no one likes to see the number of school aged kids decline, the school’s refurbishment and its international recognition may at least predict a rosier future for 20th century buildings in Japan, a country with a poor track record for preserving its more recent architectural treasures.  “Even though [the school] is small and local, it still communicates the value of saving,” asserts Consortium member and architectural historian Hiroyuki Suzuki. “It can be a model for saving [other] old buildings.”

Naomi R. Pollock is the Toyko-based special international correspondent for Record.