Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Imperial Hotel

They say you should stick to blogging about things you know something about. I don't know much about architecture, but I know what I like, and I like Frank Lloyd Wright. So this post is about the Imperial Hotel.

The Imperial Hotel today

The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo is a dour, unimaginative, uninspiring piece of architecture. Looking at it today, it's hard to imagine that half a century ago there stood on the same site one of the most imaginative and inspiring building's ever created.

I can't remember when I fell in love with Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel, but it was probably around 1991 when, while a student at Nagoya University, I visited Meiji Mura, an open-air museum of architecture in Inuyama. It was here that the hotel's main entrance hall and lobby were relocated in 1968 when the building was demolished to make way for the present Imperial Hotel. I remember walking around inside and being impressed both with the ornateness of the interior (which features intricately carved lava rock) and with how cool it was despite the heat outside and the lack of air-conditioning.

What's left of Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel at Meiji Mura

When Wright was commissioned to build the Imperial Hotel in 1915 he was asked to come up with a design that would withstand Tokyo's frequent earthquakes and fires. He achieved this partly by using floating foundations - an idea that was widely criticised at the time. Who would have imagined that so soon after its completion in 1923 - on the very eve of its official opening, in fact - Wright's design would be put to the ultimate test in the Great Kanto Earthquake. And while legend has it that the Imperial Hotel was one of the few buildings in the city centre to survive the earthquake and subsequent fires unscathed, there was some damage, including slumping and bulging of the floors. This slumping along with wartime damage and the demand for a more modern hotel with larger rooms were among the reasons cited for the demolition of Wright's Imperial Hotel in 1968.

The Imperial Hotel in the 1960s

While in Tokyo last month I stayed just across the road from the new Imperial Hotel and the day before I left I went over to have a look. I was pleasantly surprised to find a small exhibition in the lobby celebrating the 120th anniversary of the hotel, which included quite a few photos of, and small items (chairs, plates, etc) from, Wright's hotel. I learned quite a few things, including that Wright designed not only the building but almost every aspect of the interior design, even down to the dinnerware. In fact the project consumed him, and he spent much of the time between 1915 when he took on the job and 1923 when it was completed living in Japan. But his interest in that country dates back even earlier. He began collecting Japanese woodblock prints in the 1880s, and when he went overseas for the first time in 1905 it was not to Europe but to Japan, which he called "the most romantic, most beautiful" country in the world.

Imperial Hotel coffee service, produced according to Wright's design

Another thing I learned was the derivation of the Japanese word baikingu, meaning a smorgasboard or buffet-style meal. I knew that it came from the English word "Viking", but the exact derivation was a mystery to me. Well, it appears that in 1958 after a trip to Europe, the Imperial's manager decided to open Japan's first smorgasbord restaurant at the hotel. However, the word "smorgasbord" was considered too long and difficult for Japanese to pronounce, so they decided to name the restaurant the Viking. The name became synonymous with this style of dining, and so it was that the word baikingu entered the Japanese lexicon.

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