Last Call at Tokyo's Hotel Okura
When the Hotel Okura in Tokyo shuts its doors at the end of August, legions of former guests and architecture aficionados worldwide will mourn—myself included. It was here that I stayed on my very first visit to Japan in 1982. The uniformed bellmen with their pillbox hats were my first encounter with Japanese hospitality. Breakfast in the Orchid Room was my first taste of Japanese produce—white peaches painstakingly peeled to perfection. And the building itself was my first experience of the country's magnificent architecture. A masterpiece of Midcentury Modernism with traditional Japanese overtones, the Hotel Okura is in a class of its own.
Completed in 1962, the hotel implicitly heralded the end of Japan's post'World War II reconstruction and the start of its growing role in global affairs. Designed under the aegis of the architect Yoshiro Taniguchi—the father of Yoshio Taniguchi, who renovated the lobby a few years ago—it was intended for the growing number of international visitors.
The building's Y-shaped plan guaranteed views from each of its 550 guest rooms and an exquisite palette of exterior materials, such as decorative namako wall tiling, with its puffy plaster grout patterned in traditional motifs, quoted directly from Japan's architectural heritage. Continuing that theme inside, the lobby evoked the spirit of old Japan but in a fresh way—with lighting fixtures reminiscent of paper lanterns, windows partially clad with shoji screens, and a generous use of wood.
Amazingly, that space has stood the test of time and remains one of the very best lobbies in town. But, over the years, much of the hotel's interior, including its guest rooms, has been renovated with little more than a polite nod to the past. Ditto many of its restaurants. And although well detailed, the cavernous, subterranean function halls never were all that enticing. In light of these circumstances, how much of the building truly warrants saving? Is it a truly significant work of architecture?
Perhaps the sadness over the hotel's imminent demise is being compounded by nostalgia. On the surface, the hotel is a charming throwback to an earlier time. Undoubtedly the loss of that sense of history is difficult to bear. But let's consider that in context: where 20th-century buildings are concerned, nostalgia, or even the yearning for a connection to the past, is very un-Japanese. Mitsuyo Katayama's iconic 1964 Olympic Stadium, a more populist symbol of Japan's postwar rebirth, is a case in point. Last summer, prior to the start of its dismantling, a 'sayonara ceremony' was held, after which the country was expected to pick up and move on. Zaha Hadid had been selected to design the replacement stadium, but the Japanese government announced on July 17 that it would find a new architect for that project.
Though it is very hard to see beloved buildings go, Tokyo's organic brand of urban renewal is one explanation for the city's vitality. Tokyo thrives on an endless cycle of replacing the old with the new, bit by bit. Here demolition is practically inevitable, and rebuilding is a way of life. In part, this is due to Japan's appetite for the new and, in part, because of the city's limited buildable area. In concrete terms, there is simply no room for nostalgia.
Fortunately, the son of the hotel's original designer is spearheading the building's redevelopment. While images of the new hotel have yet to be revealed, it seems probable that Taniguchi the younger will respect the legacy of his father's masterpiece. Furthermore, he is the author of some of the most elegant architecture in Japan today. Many of these works blend contemporary design with Japanese aesthetics even more effectively than those of his father. Crossing my fingers, I would like to think that the new Okura is in good hands.
Don't get me wrong: I am deeply saddened by the loss of Tokyo's iconic hotel. But, for better or for worse, hanging on to it just isn't the Japanese way.