After a day of heavy rain in Takayama and the cancellation of the Takayama Spring Festival 😦 we had a glorious day for the visit to the Meiji-Mura Architectural Museum, despite the forecast for another rainy day.
Meiji-Mura, or the Meiji Village Museum, is an open-air architectural museum in Inuyama, near Nagoya, Japan. It was opened on March 18, 1965 and it’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The museum preserves historic buildings from Japan’s Meiji (1867–1912), Taisho (1912–1926), and early Shōwa (1926–1989) periods. Over 60 historical buildings have been moved and reconstructed onto one square kilometre (250 acres) of rolling hills alongside Lake Iruka. The most noteworthy building at the museum is the reconstructed main entrance and lobby of Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark Imperial Hotel, and our main reason for visiting.
Wright’s Imperial Hotel, finished in 1923, was torn down in the 1960s, and moved from Tokyo to Meiji-Mura between 1967 and 1985. Though only the entrance and lobby remain, it is the largest structure in Meiji-Mura.
I bet you didn’t know that you can still have a drink at the old Imperial Hotel.
And even better, you can have a cherry blossom cake with ice cream!
The hotel’s exterior does not disappoint. It is Wright’s classic symmetry, embellished with original “scratch tile” (a relief tile Wright created with local tilemakers) and oya stone carved into magnificent Mayan-like forms.
The reflecting pool, however serene, still ripples with the memories of the Great Kanto Earthquake that struck Tokyo at 11:58 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1923, as guests gathered for the hotel’s grand opening. The quake destroyed most of the city, but the hotel withstood the shock, and then survived the fires that followed thanks to the water in the pool. All inside survived and the hotel became a refuge. Wright was celebrated for his magnificent earthquake-conscious design.
Japan is the only country outside US where Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked.
Wright began a vigorous pursuit of the contract to build the new Imperial Hotel in late 1911. He began designing the new Imperial Hotel in 1912, and spent another 11 years nurturing the masterpiece to completion. After years of project delays and several trans-Pacific crossings, Wright finally took up part-time residence in Tokyo in January 1917. For the next six years, he poured his prodigious creativity into the Imperial Hotel project. It would remain, as the many decades of his career passed, his largest and most complex design.
Located on a prime site in central Tokyo, just across from Hibiya Park and the Imperial Palace, the hotel had to serve a unique role: pleasing foreign visitors with the latest amenities while upholding Japan’s proud aesthetic tradition.
Although Wright’s design was fairly classical, it included controversial “floating foundations” to protect the structure from Tokyo’s frequent earthquakes. The H-shaped building featured two three-story wings running the 500-foot length of the site, with some 245 guest rooms opening onto interior courtyards. The wings led to a seven-story building at the back, containing a theater, cabaret and banquet rooms.
Gradual enlargements of the hotel greatly increased initial costs (they eventually reached $3 million). Also driving up the budget were a two-year construction delay, rampant workforce corruption and two destructive fires. When Wright left Arata Endo in charge of completing the hotel in 1922 and returned at last to America, all these problems became his fault. Some concepts are remarkably universal!
On the grand opening day, Sept. 1, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake reduced nearly 70 percent of the buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama to rubble and killed over 140,000 people. The Imperial Hotel was barely damaged, assuring its iconic status. But its fame did not prevent developers from pulling it down — after many prior attempts — in 1967.
Frank Lloyd Wright is best known as a revolutionary American architect. A hallmark of his work is sensitivity to the natural environment. Fallingwater, the house he built over a waterfall, is a prime example. But Wright had a second career as a collector of and dealer in Japanese block prints, continuing this business until his death in 1959 at the age of 91. At times, he made more money selling prints than he did from architecture.
Wright was first captivated by Japanese art in 1893, when he saw Japan’s pavilions at the world fair in Chicago.
The world fair included a wooden copy of the Byodo-in Temple in Uji on the outskirts of Kyoto, it was built by carpenters from Okura & Co., which 20 years later would finance and build Wright’s Imperial Hotel. Baron Kihachiro Okura, head of the firm, became one of the architect’s staunchest supporters, despite mounting criticism as construction costs for the hotel climbed to an extraordinary $3 million.
“I remember when I first met Japanese prints, I’ll never forget it,” Wright once said in a filmed interview. “Japanese art had a great influence on my feeling and thinking.” For Frank Lloyd Wright, Japan was a muse and possibly a savior.
His interest in Japan’s art and culture blossomed during several trips there starting in 1905. He opened an office in Japan in 1915 and lived there for a few years while building the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. “At last I had found one country on earth where simplicity, as nature, is supreme”, he wrote.
He returned from his first trip to Japan with hundreds of ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints, planning to sell them in America. Wright often sold his clients art to hang on the walls he had built, explaining that they complemented his streamlined interiors. Japanese prints, especially traditional bird and flower images, had easily understandable motifs.
An art form that dates back to the mid-1600s, ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world” include images of fashionable courtesans, Kabuki stars, landscapes and everyday life with architectural exteriors and interiors of the day. Wright’s collection ultimately became the key to his financial survival, he used the prints as a struggling heir might use the family jewels, to settle his debts in difficult times; he always bought more when he was flush. After his death in 1959, they helped provide the $750,000 his Taliesin Foundation owed the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. But while he called them his “king’s ransom,” the prints were more important for the inspiration their beauty, and geometry, provided.
The prints were a commercial hit but Wright was also personally enthralled by them. “A Japanese artist grasps form always by reaching underneath for its geometry, never losing sight of its spiritual efficacy,” he wrote in “The Japanese Print”, a slim, 35-page book published in 1912. “These simple coloured engravings are indeed a language whose purpose is absolute beauty.”
Wright favoured prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, a Japanese artist who emphasised environment over human structures. Prints such as Hiroshige’s “Goyu: Women Stopping Travellers” show buildings from a wide perspective. The flattened space and naturalistic detail of prints influenced architectural drawings in Wright’s studio.
For instance, a vertical scroll-like drawing called “Perspective of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House, Racine, Wisconsin” leaves most of the brown page blank except the top right corner where a house perches precariously. A flowering branch, like those in bird and flower prints, pokes into the blank space. The draft was made by Marion Mahony Griffin, who worked for Wright. An architect in her own right, Griffin later incorporated elements of Japonism in her own work. Another drawing, “Perspective View of Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin’s Rock Crest/Rock Glen, Mason City, Iowa”, shows clouds and buildings nestled among lush foliage. It is rendered in gouache on a horizontal slice of pale green satin with two side panels that echo Japanese hand scrolls.
Wright was also influential in cultivating American interest in Japanese prints. In 1906 he exhibited his collection of Hiroshige prints at the Chicago Art institute. Two years later he loaned several pieces to the institute for the largest display of Japanese prints in America at the time. Wright designed the installation for that exhibition, including sleek furniture and special frames reminiscent of screens.
The Japanese influence sheds light on Wright’s signature works. The long horizontal lines of the Robie House in Chicago’s Hyde Park reflect the flat landscape of America’s Midwest, yet they also evoke Japan’s minimalist sensibility. Closeness to the earth is the stuff of expansive American prairies but also of traditional Japan. As Wright wrote in his autobiography: “Why are we so busy elaborately trying to get earth to heaven instead of seeing this simple Shinto wisdom of sensibly getting heaven decently to earth?”
Wright’s 1890s Prairie Style homes sparked the first revolution in architecture since the Renaissance, and marked the architect’s first golden age. He would go on to design several iconic American buildings, from the 1936 Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania to the spiraling Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1959. But at the time he arrived in Japan in 1917, the then-50-year-old was a former wunderkind, dragged down by a scandalous affair and tragedy.
The architect’s love of ukiyo-e woodblock prints is well-known. But his 1917-22 residence in Japan, where commissions such as the Imperial Hotel helped revive his flagging career, is not so widely documented. Nor is his huge influence upon generations of Japanese architects.
Wright favored natural, local materials, warm earth tones, human scale and integration of interior and exterior, all of which fit with Japanese tradition. He “borrowed landscape”, using windows or doorways like picture frames, a concept the Japanese call shakkei. Even his fascination with geometric shapes is in keeping with the rectangular straw tatami mat, the base of Japan’s traditional architecture. But his open plans, where space flows from room to room, are completely outside Japanese tradition. Wright fused East and West and did it with a mastery of space.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed some 14 buildings for Japan: an embassy, a school, two hotels and a temporary hotel annex, a commercial-residential complex, a theater, an official residence for the prime minister and six private residences. Of these, six were built: the Imperial Hotel and Annex, the Jiyu Gakuen School, the Aisaku Hayashi House, the Arinobu Fukuhara House and the Tazaemon Yamamura House.
Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, 1912 – 1922
U.S. Embassy (Project), Tokyo, 1914
Aisaku Hayashi House, Tokyo, 1917
Odawara Hotel (Project), Odawara, 1917
Ginza Motion Picture Theater (Project), Tokyo, 1918
Mihara House (Project), Tokyo, 1918
Arinobu Fukuhara House, Hakone, 1918
Tadashiro Inoue House (Project), Tokyo, 1918
Tazaemon Yamamura House, Ashiya, 1918
Imperial Hotel Annex, Tokyo, 1920
Shimpei Goto House (Project), Tokyo, 1921
Jiyu Gakuen School, Tokyo, 1921
Prime Minister’s Residence (Project), Tokyo, 1922
Hibiya Triangle Building (Project), Tokyo, 1922
Of these, Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan, in Tokyo, and the Tazaemon Yamamura House near Kobe remain standing.
Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan (“myonichikan” meaning “house of tomorrow” and Jiyu Gakuen meaning “School of Free Spirit”) is a progressive school for girls founded by Motoko and Yoshikazu Hani. The Hanis met Wright through Arata Endo, chief draftsman for the Imperial Hotel, who shared credit on the school design with Wright, a first for the American. Endo became his devoted collaborator and, after Wright left in 1922, his lifeline to Japan.
Designed on a strict budget, Jiyu Gakuen features Wright’s trademark low-rise symmetry, clean, minimalist lines and simple, elegant adornment. Built of economical 2 x 4 wood and plaster, Jiyu Gakuen featured a central section with double-height volume and soaring windows facing south onto an open courtyard, with symmetrical wings on the east and west. It was built to child scale, with an architectural richness belying its budget.
A walk through the main entrance leads down a low-ceilinged corridor dimly lit with natural light and a brief flight of stairs leads to the split-level dining room, a breathtaking expanse of open space. Windows flooding the rooms with light are decorated with geometric shapes. Wright and Endo’s chair and table designs, sized for children, sit in the room, and their sculptural pendant lights hang from the remarkable “ship’s-hull ceiling”.
A lengthy battle to save the aging structure was fought in the 1990s, with the Japanese government rewriting its regulations so that the building could be used after being designated an Important Cultural Property in 1997. Myonichikan is only open to the public on rare days when not in use for weddings and other events.
Yamamura House (now the Yodoko Guest House) was designed as a summer villa for a well-to-do sake brewer, Tazaemon Yamamura, and was not completed until six years after the initial designs. Yamamura’s son-in-law was Niro Hoshijima, a former college classmate of Arata Endo’s. Arata assumed responsibility for the project on Wright’s departure from Japan in 1922, the second time he shared design credit with his master.
Set into a hilltop in Ashiya, overlooking Kobe Port in western Japan, the villa demonstrates Wright’s genius for spatial composition: although it has four levels, none is taller than two stories. By stepping the house into the hill, Wright took advantage of the extraordinary views the site afforded. The exterior evokes Wright’s Los Angeles houses, but its decorative blocks are of oya tuff, not concrete.
With breathtaking views, and representing the best of Wright’s distinctive charm and sustainable “organic architecture”, it was saved as an Important Cultural Property in 1974.
Meiji-Mura was started by Yoshirō Taniguchi (1904–79), an architect, and Motoo Tsuchikawa (1903–74), then vice president and later president of Nagoya Railroad (Meitetsu). While riding the Yamanote line in Tokyo, Taniguchi lamented the sight of the demolition of the Rokumeikan, a symbol of Meiji era architecture. He appealed to his college classmate Tsuchikawa to join him in working to preserve western style Meiji era buildings of cultural or historical importance. On July 16, 1962 they formed a foundation for this purpose, with Nagoya Railroad providing the funding. Meiji-Mura was opened on March 18, 1965 on the banks of the Lake Iruka reservoir, operated under Nagoya Railroad with Taniguchi as museum director, with 15 buildings.
There are now 67 buildings on site not only from Japan, but also from the US and Brazil. If you didn’t know, Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Though some buildings are somewhat empty, others have displays showing the history of the building and period, period furniture, and other displays. Ten of the buildings have been designated as important cultural assets, and nearly all the rest are registered as tangible cultural assets.
The gardens are lovely and we found more cherry blossoms 🙂
And being famous bears, or at least cute ones 🙂 they got to crash a photo shoot…