Magnificent Obsession

Many people know that Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (completed 1923), but few are aware of how much time he spent in Japan, how pivotal that hotel was in his career, the other buildings he designed here, or the lasting influence he had on the many Japanese architects who studied under him and worked with him. Unlike the bleak modernist buildings of concrete slabs (Japanese public schools leap to mind) and the monolithic towers of cities today, Wright's organic designs emphasize the unity between man and nature. His buildings are scaled to be comfortable places for people and are built of local materials, looking as if they grew out of their surroundings.

Yodoko Guest House near Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture - originally designed for Tazaemon Yamamura, a sake brewer.>

The Imperial Hotel was demolished in 1968, as the land under it had become too valuable for the three story structure. A part of it - the entrance and lobby building were spared however and reassembled at the Museum Meiji-mura, an open air architectural museum near Nagoya, in 1985. I visited there in 1987 and experienced the Imperial Hotel lobby first hand. I want to go back and see it again now that the surrounding vegetation has matured.

Wright first came to Japan in 1905. One of the places he stayed was the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone, where K and I stayed last August [as I recounted in the post, "Road Trip (Railroad that is)". ] I can recommend a book about his journey - Frank Lloyd Wright's Fifty Views of Japan, the 1905 Photo Album - which features his own photographs of his two month tour of Japan.

I recently found an excellent documentary on DVD - the first of its kind as it focuses solely on his work in Japan. "Magnificent Obsession - Frank Lloyd Wright's Buildings and Legacy in Japan".

It was written, produced, directed and edited by Karen Severns and Koichi Mori. The two decided to do this project after being involved in saving Wright's last surviving public building in Tokyo - Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan - or "House of Tomorrow" (a private school that was listed as an Important Cultural Property of Japan 1997, then rebuilt, and is still in use). Through that project, they learned a lot about Wright's Japanese work and the sorry state of the documentation of it. They also realized that many of the people involved were in their twilight years, and indeed some had already passed, so there was an urgency to interview the remaining people and get their input first hand.

They spent the next several years collecting pictures, documents, and plans, and interviewing nearly a hundred architects and historians to produce this lasting tribute and important documentary of Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan and the friendships he developed which lasted for several decades and transcended a world war.

The DVD is available in either English or Japanese.

For more information visit the website: Magnificent Obsession

Profiles: Karen Severns received an MFA in Film from Columbia University, and also has an MS in Journalism. She has worked in both New York and Tokyo as a filmmaker, film critic, journalist and author. She has produced two dozen short films, including 2001 Academy Award nominee One Day Crossing.

Koichi Mori studied engineering before working throughout Asia on building management and environmental conservation projects for a leading multinational. He holds an MBA in International Management from the Garvin School of International Management (Thunderbird).


K & S said...

what a great post! a close friend had her home built in Takarazuka by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Pandabonium said...

Kat - thanks. I have long been an admirer of Wright's work. Architecture really impacts our lives and hope people will pay more attention to it.

By the way, a Hawaii architect who used similar principles and has had a lasting impact was Vladimir Ossipoff.
He designed many homes, the HNL terminal, Hilo terminal, and UofH Admin. building to name a few.

K & S said...

I think he also designed the IBM building near Ala Moana Shopping Center. I heard they were going to tear it down. So sad!

Pandabonium said...

K & S - that's too bad. That building, with its sort of honeycomb grill, is a good example of Wright's principle that "form becomes function". The grill is not mere adornment, but provides shade to the building and at the same time reflects the mathematical structure of IBM's computer world.

Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

Justin said...

great blog! love others with an appreciation for the pacific! check my pacific blog if you'd like! take care.

K & S said...

yes, yes, that was what the people who wanted to preserve the building had said! I had forgotten about that. I still hope they can preserve it.

Pandabonium said...

Justin - thank you so much. I like your blog as well and will link to it. The Pohnpei post is very interesting. Beautiful pictures. Thanks for visiting.

K & S - I should have said "form and function become one". I too hope they can save that building.

Olivia said...

No wonder I admire his style so. And I see he visited in 1905. Perfect timing - considering his Prairie and Arts & Crafts styles.

I am extremely glad the Imperial Hotel was saved by a museum. *sigh of relief*

Pandabonium said...

Olivia - he was quite a collector of Japanese art, which greatly influenced him. Asian arts were all the rage in the western countries back then.

After than first visit he stayed in Japan for long periods, especially during construction of the Imperial. They couldn't save the whole building, but at least the lobby and entrance are still in existence for people to enjoy and study.

FH2o said...

Magnificent Obsession indeed and thanks for this post on one of my all time favourite architects.

Don Snabulus said...

Oregon has only one Frank Lloyd designed place: The Gordon House.

I was not aware of Wright's Japan connection. I will need to look into it more.

Olivia said...

I believe the Met in NYC has part of a FrankLW house in its interior design wing. When I was there last September it was closed for cleaning but hopefully I will see it this time around.

ladybug said...

Thanks for the Japanese Connection w/Mr. Wright...I've always liked his architechture, and now I know of his early Japanese influence, alot of his Arts & Crafts houses make more sense to me. His buildings are more restful yet modern, almost spare in a sense. I think I'll finally have to visit the Oregon Garden to check out our own piece of Wright(gracias to Snabby's info-still haven't gotten around to it!)

Pandabonium said...

FH2O - my kayaking architect friend - you're welcome.

Snabbie - thanks for that link.

Olivia - cool. I think they have a living room on display there. I hope you get to see it.

Ladybug - I knew he had been to Japan, but before this video did not know how much time he had spent here or how important his connection to Japan was both to architects here and to his own work.

Swinebread said...

Weren’t Frank's buildings well known for their durability during earthquakes?

Martin J Frid said...

I watched the video, thanks a lot. Wright was very bright!
Still, not sure I want to live in a house made of concrete. Natural materials such as wood make a lot more sense to me.
But I love the way he gave his buildings beautiful shapes, using light in better ways, and how the structures look like they are almost floating.

nzm said...

I admire 2 Franks - Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry. The latter offered to design Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand, but to my immense shame they went with an ugliness instead of one of his landmark designs.

Zaha Hadid is another recent favourite of mine.

Thanks for the info on FLW's time in Japan, Pandabonium. It makes sense because I can see a lot of Japanese influence in some of his work through its simplicity, flow and minimalism.