News

Japanese Modernist Landmark Preserved in Manhattan

by Kyle Chayka on March 25, 2011

Japan Society's NYC headquarters (image via Japan Society)

At only 40 years old, Japan Society‘s low-slung modernist headquarters at 333 East 47th Street has just been named New York’s youngest landmark building by the state’s Landmark Preservation Commission. The structure, designed by Junzo Yoshimura and George G. Shimamoto and first completed in 1971, translates traditional Japanese architectural forms into a modernist idiom, bowing to neither but combining the two languages in an innovative and complex way.

I spoke with Japan Society vice president Joe Earle about the landmark designation, and his experience of the building itself. An experienced curator and specialist in Japanese art, Earle took the post of vice president in 2007.

“We were a little bit surprised” about the designation, he says, “because it’s not a very old building. But we’re very proud of our building. It’s a remarkable place to walk into every day.”

As a manifestation of the relationship between the United States and Japan, Earle points out, the design and construction of the Japan Society building came at a very interesting time. In 1971, “New York was just becoming aware of Japanese architecture. [The building] represents the rebuilding of the relationship between the two countries after World War II.” As a combination of Brutalist severity and Zen simplicity, the structure crosses artistic cultures.

“Looking out of my window now,” Earle describes during a phone conversation, “the long horizontal bars that filter the light give the whole front [facade] this kind of horizontality that was associated with Japanese domestic architecture … It’s a suggestion of Japanese architecture without actually being a copy of it, that’s what strongly appeals to me.”

Tokyo's International House of Japan, also by Junzo Yoshimura (image via wikipedia.com)

The structure is also a unique example of the internationalization of Japanese art and its aesthetic vocabulary. Writes Matthew A. Postal in the Landmark Commission’s essay that accompanies the announcement, “In addition to being Yoshimura’s only work in New York City, this building is likely to have been the city’s earliest permanent structure designed by a Japanese citizen.”

Yoshimura was chosen to design the current Japan Society headquarters after the organization outgrew its earliest home, the Asia House, in the mid 1960s. Yoshimura was already known as a prominent Japanese architect and had not yet built a structure in New York City. “Japan deserves such a monument in New York, and the Japan Society can be the means of providing it,” consultant Philip Van Slyck wrote in a planning study.

Transfer of the property, located in the Turtle Bay neighborhood, was finalized in 1968. See the Commission’s building history for more information.

According to the rules of landmark designation, Japan Society’s facade must now be preserved as it is, outside of construction permission granted through a permit. The building’s interior can still be renovated and updated at will. According to a report from WNYC:

Elisabeth de Bourbon [of the Landmark Commission] said the landmark designation protects the buildings from demolition, and requires a permit for any major changes to the buildings’ exterior.

Along with Japan Society, four other New York buildings were designated as landmarks, including “the Renaissance Revival-style Engineer’s Club Building on West 40th Street, the neo-Georgian-style Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand Street and the picturesque rural cottage style Greyston Gatehouse on Independence Avenue in the Bronx,” WNYC writes. This September 14 will also mark the 40th anniversary of the Japan Society building.

The Japan Society is located at 333 East 47th Street, Turtle Bay, Manhattan.

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