Can Tomas Maier and Bottega Veneta Save Japan’s Modernist Architectural Gems?

Now is the time for preservationists to rally.

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The Hotel Okura. Photo: the Hotel Okura, Tokyo.
Hotel Okura.
Photo: Hotel Okura, Tokyo.
The Hotel Okura. Photo: Tetsuya Ito.
Hotel Okura.
Photo: Tetsuya Ito.
The Hotel Okura. Photo: Tetsuya Ito.
Tomas Maier at the Hotel Okura.
Photo: Tetsuya Ito.
The Hotel Okura. Photo: Tetsuya Ito.
Tomas Maier at the Hotel Okura.
Photo: Tetsuya Ito.
The Hotel Okura. Photo: the Hotel Okura, Tokyo.
Hotel Okura.
Photo: Hotel Okura, Tokyo.
The Hotel Okura. Photo: Tetsuya Ito.
Tomas Maier at the Hotel Okura.
Photo: Tetsuya Ito.
Tomas Maier's contribution to the Hotel Okura #MyMomentAtOkura social media campaign.
Tomas Maier's contribution to the Hotel Okura #MyMomentAtOkura social media campaign.
The Hotel Okura. Photo: the Hotel Okura, Tokyo.
Hotel Okura.
Photo: Hotel Okura, Tokyo.

Fifty years from now, could Tokyo be mourning the loss of its version of New York’s Pennsylvania Station? That’s a future that Italian luxury fashion house Bottega Veneta, a somewhat unlikely champion of Japan’s modernist and postwar architecture, is hoping to prevent. As the city gears up for the the 2020 Olympic Games, however many such under-appreciated buildings could potentially be candidates for demolition to make way for new construction.

“As a longtime admirer of Japanese modernism, I am deeply saddened that these great buildings might soon disappear,” said the company’s creative director, Tomas Maier, in a statement. “We hope that Bottega Veneta can help promote awareness of this issue, as we believe that great design is timeless. Japan’s modernist architecture bridges the gap between the country’s traditional buildings and contemporary architecture, giving Tokyo its unique aesthetic character,” he added.

“I’m a little bit afraid,” said Maier in a video (see below) highlighting the beauty of a number of Japan’s modernist buildings. “The structures of that period are not really protected or landmarked, unlike historical structures like temples and so on.”

Some of Japan’s Modernist Gems

He recently visited Japan, documenting some of its modernist gems, such as the Nissay Theatre (1963) in Tokyo, designed by Togo Murano. Maier also spotlighted Pritzker Prize–winning architect Kenzō Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium, built in Tokyo for the 1964 Olympics, and Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium in Takamatsu (1962–64), which closed in September due to structural concerns, and will reportedly be torn down.

Particularly dear to Maier’s heart, however, is Yoshiro Taniguchi’s Hotel Okura, from 1962. (Taniguchi’s son, Yoshio Taniguchi, followed in his father’s footsteps and was the architect for the 2004 redesign of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.)

The hotel’s owners have plans to construct a new building at the expense of the old one.

The hotel opened a new south wing in 1973, but it is the original portion of the building that is under threat. If the Okura has its way, the main wing will cease operations at the end of August, and will be torn down and replaced with a new $980-million tower. When it reopens in 2019, it will feature 550 hotel rooms and 18 floors of office space.

Remembering Okura

Putting a positive spin on the impending demolition, the hotel has planned a timed-release celebration titled “This is Okura” for the 300 days leading up to the demolition, with themes like “Remembering When: Okura Memories, the Times of Our Lives,” and “Exceeding the Best: From the Final Chapter to a New Beginning.” The structure, which offers a modernist twist on traditional Japanese castle architecture, will be illuminated by 3,200 LED lights throughout the year “to provide our guests with another opportunity to appreciate” Taniguchi’s “appealing design,” which features a namako-kabe tile motif reminiscent of a sea cucumber.

Masaki Ikeda, the hotel’s president, wrote in a statement that he hopes that visitors will “enjoy Hotel Okura Tokyo today, as well as 10 or 50 years from now in its unchanged style.” The hotel has even appeared in such novels as Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, which saw James Bond check in as a guest. Cary Grant’s final film, 1966’s Walk, Don’t Run, set during the ’64 games, opens in the Okura, with Grant’s character unable to book a room.

Bottega Veneta and Japanese architecture and design magazine Casa Brutus have teamed up under Maier’s leadership to launch a social media campaign on Twitter using hashtag #MyMomentAtOkura (this should not be confused with the hotel-sponsored “This is Okura” essay contest soliciting guests’ favorite memories of the old building). Twitterers are also using #HotelOkura to talk back.

“It would be a great loss for the next generation to be unable to embrace the beauty of these icons for themselves,” Maier warned.

See Tomas Maier’s “Save Japan’s Modern Architecture” video below:


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