Imperial Hotel, Tokyo

20 Jun

Below is a post from the wonderful architectural blog Paradise Leased.  It interested me because though I love FLW, I knew very little about this famous building of his.  The one thing I did know was that it survived the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 when very little else in Tokyo did.

A telegram from Baron Kihachiro Okura reported the following:

Hotel stands undamaged as a monument of your genius hundreds of homeless provided by perfectly maintained service congratulations[.] Congratulations[.]

Wright passed the telegram to journalists, helping to perpetuate a legend that the hotel was unaffected by the earthquake. In reality, the building had damage; the central section slumped, several floors bulged, and four pieces of stonework fell to the ground. The building’s main failing was its foundation. Wright had intended the hotel to float on the site’s alluvial mud “as a battleship floats on water”. This was accomplished by making it shallow, with broad footings. This was supposed to allow the building to float during an earthquake. However, the foundation was an inadequate support and did nothing to prevent the building from sinking into the mud to such an extent that it had to be demolished decades later. Furthermore, alluvial mud, such as that at the hotel’s site, amplifies seismic waves.

However, the hotel had several design features that minimized potential earthquake damage:

  • The reflecting pool provided a source of water for fire-fighting, saving the building from the post-earthquake firestorm;
  • Cantilevered floors and balconies provided extra support for the floors;
  • A copper roof eliminated the risk of falling debris created by traditional tile roofs;
  • Seismic separation joints, located about every 20 m along the building;
  • Tapered walls, thicker on lower floors, increasing their strength;
  • Suspended piping and wiring, instead of being encased in concrete, as well as smooth curves, making them more resistant to fracture.

Garden, Pool, North Bridge and Elevator Housings.

Although Paradise Leased is essentially a blog dedicated to Southern California’s historic architecture on occasion we like to veer from the text if we feel it merits doing so. I recently rediscovered a set of photos and plans from one of the great lost buildings of the world – Frank Lloyd Wright‘s stunning Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan and wanted to share. These photos appeared in the April 1923 issue of The Architectural Record and accompanied an article by the great Louis H. Sullivan himself. I thought you would enjoy seeing the pictures and floor plans as well as some excerpts from Sullivan’s florid text and mourn with me the loss of this visionary masterwork.

Roof of Pergola, Looking into Garden Courts

This great work is the masterpiece of Frank Lloyd Wright, a great free spirit, whose fame as a master of ideas is an accomplished world-wide fact.

Entrance to Social Group

In this structure is not to be found a single form distinctly Japanese; nor that of any other country; yet in its own individual form, its mass, and subsidiaries, its evolution of plan and development of thesis; in its sedulous care for niceties of administration, and for the human sense of joy it has expressed, in inspiring form as an epic poem, addressed to the Japanese people, their innermost thought.

End Pavilion

In a sense it is a huge association of structures; a gathering of the clans, so to speak.; it is a seeming aggregate of buildings shielding beauteous gardens, sequestered among them. Yet there hovers over all, and as an atmosphere everywhere, a sense of primal power in singleness of purpose; a convincing quiet that bespeaks a master hand, guiding and governing.

North Wing and Jinrikisha Approach.

Upon further analysis…it is disclosed that the structure is not a group, but a single mass; spontaneously subdividing into subsidiary forms in groups or single, as the main function itself flows into varied phases, each seeking expression in appropriate correlated forms, each and all bearing evidence of one controlling mind, of one hand moulding materials like a master craftsman.

Detail of Pergola, showing relation of lava and brick.

The dispositions throughout the entire building are so so dexterously interwoven that the structure as a whole becomes a humanized fabric, in any part of which one feels the all-pervading sense of continuity, and of intimate relationships near and far.

Sunken Garden, North Bridge and Social Group.

In this especial sense the structure, carrying the thought, is unique among hotel buildings throughout the world. Japan is to be felicitated that its superior judgment in the selection of an architect of masterly qualifications, of such nature as to welcome new problems of time and place, has been justified.

Looking across Entrance Pool to Side Wing.

The longer the contemplation of this work is continued, the more intense becomes the conviction that this Master of Ideas has not only performed a service of distinction, but, far and above this, has presented to the people of Japan, as a freewill offering, a great gift which shall endure for all generations to come as a world exemplar, most beautiful and inspiring, of which Japan may well be proud among the nations as treasuring it in sole possession.

Main Promenade.

The Imperial Hotel stands unique as the high water mark thus far attained by any modern architect. Superbly beautiful it stands – a noble prophecy.

(Via Architalk)

The Imperial Hotel went down in 1968. Here is its replacement.

(Via Architalk)

Progress is inevitable and it is certainly not always bad, but there are times when progress, no matter the immediate profit it may generate, must be halted in the face of sheer genius. Is the world better off today because this run down old building was replaced by a much bigger, more efficient high rise?

For a great blog post on the Imperial Hotel’s history (with more photos) check out Todd Larson’s excellent Architalk post here.


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