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The Fight for Japan’s Modernist Architecture

Tokyo's 1964 Olympic Stadium (Image via Dom Pates/Flickr)
Tokyo’s 1964 Olympic Stadium (Image via Dom Pates/Flickr)

Tokyo’s skyline has been increasingly crowded by construction cranes since Japan’s winning bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games. For some, they represent progress and economic promise; for others, they’re a knell marking the impending destruction of a beloved postwar period in Japanese architecture.

The casualties include two modernist buildings that were constructed, ironically enough, the last time Japan hosted the games in 1964: the Hotel Okura and the National Stadium. Architect Hiroshi Matsukuma has called the hotel a “masterpiece” possessing a “cultural and historical value that can never be reproduced again.” Architect Tadao Ando once described the stadium as having announced “the birth of a modern Japanese architecture.”

Both are now slated for demolition, but they’re not going down without a fight.

Interior of the Hotel Okura (Image courtesy of Save the Okura)
Interior of the Hotel Okura (Image courtesy of Save the Okura)

A group arguing for the hotel’s preservation has launched an online petition to save it, while Tomas Maier, the creative director of the fashion brand Bottega Veneta, has also started an awareness initiative. Immortalized in the Cary Grant movie Walk Don’t Run, the hotel was built in 1962 by modernist architects Yoshiro Taniguchi and Hideo Kosaka; it included a mural by the woodblock printmaker Shiko Munakata and pottery by Kenkichi Tomimoto. Today, it’s still in decent-enough shape to host foreign heads of state, and President Obama stayed there in April.

Architects around the world have also launched two petitions protesting the demolition of the National Stadium, designed by Mitsuo Katayama. It will be replaced with a new $1.7 billion stadium designed by Zaha Hadid. Architects Toyo Ito and Fumihiko Maki led the first petition, arguing that Hadid’s new “mega-stadium” would mar the surrounding “ginkgo tree-lined and blue sky landscape.” So far, it’s garnered more than 33,000 signatures on Change.org. The second petition was organized in solidarity by Tokyo-based architect Edward Suzuki. He claims that while he doesn’t have a problem per se with Hadid’s massive stadium, it was too wasteful and would overwhelm the surrounding landscape. His petition is about halfway to reaching its needed 5,000 signatures.

These efforts have yet to sway Japanese authorities, who undoubtedly want to impress the world as a driver of innovation when it hosts the games. Hopefully, though, they won’t let this desire lead them to destroy important landmarks that are living documentations of the country’s historical ingenuity. These buildings reveal how a generation of post-war architects reinterpreted their country’s age-old attention to order and design for modern audiences. It would be a shame to lose them.

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